“One owes respect to the living: To the Dead one owes only the truth.”
—Voltaire (via HST)
One last thing.
I went on at great length about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the other day, but I didn’t quite finish the thought. In additon to being all the things I said it was, Fear and Loathing is one thing that is often — maybe always — overlooked: a story of friendship. Specifically, the friendship between Hunter Thompson and his attorney, drug buddy, and partner in crime, Oscar Zeta Acosta.
Much of Thompson’s work is shot through with a peculiar kind of loneliness; however much people might have found it exciting to be around him, no one could take it for very long. Artist Ralph Steadman often served as the Doctor’s sidekick and straight man, but after a few days he would usually be on the edge of a nervous breakdown and have to return to England for lengthy recuperation.
In Acosta, the Doctor finally found someone who was truly on his wavelength, someone who could keep up with his relentless pace, superhuman drug intake, and general love of chaos. In fact, in Fear and Loathing, it’s Thompson who’s the sane one, the voice of reason, and Acosta who’s constantly flirting with going over the edge. I’ve always loved this passage from midway through the book (if possible, it should be read with an endless loop of the Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow playing in the background):
My attorney was in the bathtub when I returned. Submerged in green water — the oily product of some Japanese bath salts he'd picked up in the hotel gift shop, along with a new AM/FM radio plugged into the electric razor socket. Top volume. Some gibberish by a thing called "Three Dog Night," about a frog named Jeremiah who wanted "Joy to the World."
First Lennon, now this, I thought. Next we'll have Glen Campbell screaming "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
Where indeed? No flowers in this town. Only carnivorous plants. I turned the volume down and noticed a hunk of chewed-up white paper beside the radio. My attorney seemed not to notice the sound-change. He was lost in a fog of green steam; only half his head was visible above the water line.
"You ate this?" I asked, holding up the white pad.
He ignored me. But I knew. He would be very difficult to reach for the next six hours. The whole blotter was chewed up.
"You evil son of a bitch," I said. "You better hope there's some Thorazine in that bag, because if there's not you're in bad trouble tomorrow."
"Music!" he snarled. "Turn it up. Put that tape on."
"The new one. It's right there."
I picked up the radio and noticed that it was also a tape recorder — one of those things with a cassette-unit built in. And the tape, Surrealistic Pillow, needed only to be flipped over.
He had already gone through side one — at a volume that must have been audible in every room within a radius of one hundred yards, walls and all.
" 'White Rabbit,' " he said. "I want a rising sound."
"You're doomed," I said. "I'm leaving here in two hours — and then they're going to come up here and beat the mortal shit out of you with big saps. Right there in the tub."
"I dig my own graves," he said. "Green water and the White Rabbit...put it on; don't make me use this." His arm lashed out of the water, the hunting knife gripped in his fist.
"Jesus," I muttered. At that point I figured he was beyond help — lying there in the tub with a head full of acid and the sharpest knife I've ever seen, totally incapable of reason, demanding the White Rabbit. This is it, I thought. I've gone as far as I can with this waterhead. This time it's a suicide trip. This time he wants it. He's ready....
"OK," I said, turning the tape over and pushing the "play" button. "But do me one last favor, will you? Can you give me two hours? That's all I ask — just two hours to sleep before tomorrow. I suspect it's going to be a very difficult day."
"Of course," he said. "I'm your attorney. I'll give you all the time you need, at my normal rates: $45 an hour — but you'll be wanting a cushion, so why don't you just lay one of those $100 bills down there beside the radio, and fuck off?"
"How about a check?" I said. "On the Sawtooth National Bank. You won't need any ID to cash it there. They know me."
"Whatever's right," he said, beginning to jerk with the music. The bathroom was like the inside of a huge defective woofer. Heinous vibrations, overwhelming sound. The floor was full of water. I moved the radio as far from the tub as it would go, then I left and closed the door behind me.
Within seconds he was shouting at me. "Help! You bastard! I need help!"
I rushed back inside, thinking he'd sliced off an ear by accident.
But no...he was reaching across the bathroom toward the white formica shelf where the radio sat. "I want that fuckin radio," he snarled.
I grabbed it away from his hand. "You fool!" I said. "Get back in that tub! Get away from that goddamn radio!" I shoved it back from his hand. The volume was so far up that it was hard to know what was playing unless you knew Surrealistic Pillow almost note for note...which I did, at the time, so I knew that "White Rabbit" had finished; the peak had come and gone.
But my attorney, it seemed, had not made it. He wanted more. "Back the tape up!" he yelled. "I need it again!" His eyes were full of craziness now, unable to focus. He seemed on the verge of some awful psychic orgasm....
"Let it roll!" he screamed. "Just as high as the fucker can go! And when it comes to that fantastic note where the rabbit bites its own head off, I want you to throw that fuckin radio into the tub with me."
I stared at him, keeping a firm grip on the radio. "Not me," I said finally. "I'd be happy to ram a goddamn 440-volt cattle prod into that tub with you right now, but not this radio. It would blast you right through the wall — stone-dead in ten seconds." I laughed. "Shit, they'd make me explain it — drag me down to some rotten coroner's inquest and grill me about...yes...the exact details. I don't need that."
"Bullshit!" he screamed. "Just tell them I wanted to get Higher!"
I thought for a moment. "Okay," I said finally. "You're right. This is probably the only solution." I picked up the tape/radio — which was still plugged in — and held it over the tub. "Just let me make sure I have it all lined up," I said. "You want me to throw this thing into the tub when 'White Rabbit' peaks — is that it?"
He fell back in the water and smiled gratefully. "Fuck yes," he said. "I was beginning to think I was going to have to go out and get one of the goddamn maids to do it."
"Don't worry," I said. "Are you ready?" I hit the "play" button and "White Rabbit" started building again. Almost immediately he began to howl and moan...another fast run up that mountain, and thinking, this time, that he would finally get over the top. His eyes were gripped shut and only his head and both kneecaps poked up through the oily green water.
I let the song build while I sorted through the pile of fat ripe grapefruit next to the basin. The biggest one of the lot weighed almost two pounds. I got a good Vida Blue fastball grip on the fucker — and just as "White Rabbit" peaked I lashed it into the tub like a cannonball.
My attorney screamed crazily, thrashing around in the tub like a shark after meat, churning water all over the floor as he struggled to get hold of something.
I jerked the AC cord out of the tape/radio and moved out of the bathroom very quickly...the machine kept on playing, but now it was back on its own harmless battery power. I could hear the beat cooling down as I moved across the room to my kitbag and fetched up the Mace can....
Unfortunately, as it turned out, Acosta really was doomed, really was on a messianic suicide trip of some kind. He disappeared in 1974 and was never heard from again, for reasons that have never been made entirely clear, although there have been various theories over the years. In Breakfast with Hunter, Thompson says that he was murdered at sea and dumped overboard.
The Doctor’s eyes light up when he talks about Acosta in the movie, and it seems he never entirely got over the loss. In 1977 he wrote an angry, heartfelt requiem entitled “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat.”
Oscar Zeta Acosta — despite any claims to the contrary — was a dangerous thug who lived every day of his life as a stalking momument to the notion that a man with a greed for the truth should expect no mercy and give none...
...and that was the difference between Oscar and a lot of the merciless geeks he liked to tell strangers he admired; class acts like Fatty Arbuckle and Benito Mussolini.
When the great scorer comes to write against Oscar's name, one of the first few lines in the Ledger will note that he usually lacked the courage of his consistently monstrous convictions. There was more mercy, madness, dignity and generosity in that overweight, overworked and always overindulged brown cannonball of a body than most of us will meet in any human package even three times Oscar's size for the rest of our lives — which are all running noticeably leaner on the high side, since that rotten fat spic disappeared.
Thompson goes on to detail how Acosta, whose contribution to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is inestimable, nearly torpedoed the book at the last moment, for an utterly perverse reason:
He was, as I'd said, not concerned at all by the libels. Of course they were all true, he said when I finally reached him by phone at the Hotel Synaloa.
The only thing that bothered him — bothered him very badly — was the fact that I'd repeatedly described him as a 300-pound Samoan.
"What kind of Journalist are you?" he screamed at me. "Don't you have any respect for the truth? I can sink that whole publishing house for defaming me, trying to pass me off as one of those waterhead South Sea mongrels."
The libel lawyers were stunned into paranoid silence. "Was it either some kind of arcane legal trick," they wondered, "or was this dope-addled freak really crazy enough to insist on having himself formally identified for all time, with one of the most depraved and degenerate figures in American literature?"
Should his angry threats and demands conceivably be taken seriously? Was it possible that a well-known practicing attorney might not only freely admit to all these heinous crimes, but insist that every foul detail be documented as the absolute truth?
"Why not?" Oscar answered. And the only way he'd sign the release, he added, was in exchange for a firm guarantee from the lawyers that both his name and a suitable photograph of himself be prominently displayed on the book's dust cover.
That very photograph, a shot of Thompson and Acosta at Caesar’s Palace, can be found at the top of this page. These two guys were clearly cut from the same cloth, and it is a moving testament to something or other that the hillbilly from Kentucky and the Chicano from Riverbank, California could be so much like brothers. They were so much alike, in fact, that Dr. Thompson’s last words on Oscar Acosta could just as well serve as his own elegy. Which is what I’m going to let them do here, as I bring this ride to a close with the Good Doctor himself getting the last word, which is one thing he certainly deserves.
What began as a quick and stylish epitaph...has long since gone out of control. Not even [he] would have wanted an obituary with no end....
[He] was one of God's own prototypes — a high-powered mutant of some kind who was never even considered for mass production. He was too weird to live and too rare to die — and as far as I'm concerned, that's just about all that needs to be said about him right now....
We are better off without him. Sooner or later he would have had to be put to sleep anyway.... So the world is a better place, now that he's at least out of sight, if not certifiably dead.
He will not be missed — except perhaps in Fat City, where every light in town went dim when we heard he'd finally cashed his check.