After a long and perilous journey, we have now arrived where I wanted to get to in the first place, which is Las Vegas.
I was 16 years old when I first read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and it changed my life — not entirely for the better, but that’s water under the bridge now. Like a great early experience with sex, drugs, or rock’n’roll, it was the kind of rush you find yourself chasing after for a long time, and never quite recapturing.
In my relatively sober middle age I find myself asking questions like, why is Fear and Loathing so great — or, to put it another way, what’s so great about it? Why is it so much fun, when its subject matter is not just fear and loathing, but also paranoia and disillusionment? And what is it, exactly, when you get right down to it?
To answer those questions — or at least come up with a reasonable-sounding response — you need to look at how it came to be.
According to Dr. Thompson’s 1971 jacket copy — which didn’t make it into the actual book but is anthologized in The Great Shark Hunt — Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas started off as “a 250-word caption for Sports Illustrated.” The year was 1970, and the assignment was to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race in Las Vegas, an assignment which Thompson accepted only because he needed a break from the high-pressure situation he was immersed in:
I was down in LA, working on a very tense and depressing investigation of the allegedly accidental killing of a journalist named Ruben Salazar by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept. — and after a week or so on the story I was a ball of nerves & sleepless paranoia (figuring that I might be next)…and I needed some excuse to get away from the angry vortex of that story & try to make sense of it without people shaking butcher knives in my face all the time.
The people shaking the butcher knives were associates of Thompson’s friend Oscar Zeta Acosta, a Chicano attorney who was a key figure in the ongoing struggle between LA’s Mexican-American community and city authorities. Thompson had met Acosta in Colorado in 1967, and he describes that first meeting this way:
When he came booming into a bar called the Daisy Duck in Aspen and announced that he was the trouble we’d all been waiting for, he was definitely into the politics of confrontation — and on all fronts: in the bars or the courts or even the streets, if necessary.
Oscar was not into serious street-fighting, but he was hell on wheels in a bar brawl. Any combination of a 250-pound Mexican and LSD-25 is a potentially terminal menace for anything it can reach — but when the alleged Mexican is in fact a profoundly angry Chicano lawyer with no fear at all of anything that walks on less than three legs and a de facto suicidal conviction that he will die at the age of thirty-three — just like Jesus Christ — you have a serious piece of work on your hands. Specially if the bastard is already thirty-three and a half years old with a head full of Sandoz acid, a loaded .357 Magnum in his belt, a hatchet-wielding Chicano bodyguard on his elbow at all times, and a disconcerting habit of projectile-vomiting geysers of pure red blood off the front porch every thirty or forty minutes, or whenever his malignant ulcer can’t handle any more raw tequila.
Thompson seems to have immediately recognized a kindred spirit in Acosta, but their friendship was severely tested by the circumstances they found themselves in three years later. Acosta was an important guy in his community by then, having run for sheriff of LA county on a Brown Power platform1 the year before, and was constantly surrounded by angry Chicano militants. It was this set of conditions that led directly to the events that became Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
I found it impossible to talk to Oscar alone. We were always in the midst of a crowd of heavy street-fighters who didn't mind letting me know that they wouldn't need much of an excuse to chop me into hamburger.
This is no way to work on a very volatile & very complex story. So one afternoon I got Oscar in my rented car and drove him over to the Beverly Hills Hotel — away from his bodyguards etc. — and told him I was getting a bit wiggy from the pressure; it was like being on stage all the time, or maybe in the midst of a prison riot. He agreed, but the nature of his position as "leader of the militants" made it impossible for him to be openly friendly with a gabacho.
I understood this...and just about then, I remembered that another old friend, now working for Sports Illustrated, had asked me if I felt like going out to Vegas for the weekend, at their expense, and writing a few words about a motorcycle race. This seemed like a good excuse to get out of LA for a few days, and if I took Oscar along it would also give us time to talk and sort out the evil realities of the Salazar/Murder story.
So I called Sports Illustrated — from the patio of the Polo Lounge — and said I was ready to do the "Vegas thing." They agreed...and from here on in there is no point in running down the details, because they're all in the book.
The book, in case you haven’t read it (in which case I envy you, because the first time is the best), opens in a wild careening rush. Thompson and Acosta — for literary purposes thinly disguised as “Raoul Duke” and his 300-pound Samoan attorney “Dr. Gonzo” — are on their way from LA to Vegas, free of all responsibilties and entanglements, having just gobbled an assortment of psychedelic drugs.
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like "I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive..." And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: "Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?"
Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. "What the hell are you yelling about?" he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. "Never mind," I said. "It's your turn to drive." I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.
It was almost noon, and we still had more than a hundred miles to go. They would be tough miles. Very soon, I knew, we would both be completely twisted. But there was no going back, and no time to rest. We would have to ride it out. Press registration for the fabulous Mint 400 was already underway, and we had to get there by four to claim our sound-proof suite. A fashionable sporting magazine in New York had taken care of the reservations, along with this huge red Chevy convertible we'd just rented off a lot on the Sunset Strip...and I was, after all, a professional journalist; so I had an obligation to cover the story, for good or ill.
The sporting editors had also given me $300 in cash, most of which was already spent on extremely dangerous drugs. The trunk of the car looked like a mobile narcotics lab. We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers...and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.
After a strange encounter with a hitchhiker — during which Dr. Gonzo utters the historic words “We’re your friends…we’re not like the others” — our heroes arrive in Vegas, out of their heads on LSD and seeing lizards everywhere, and must deal with the difficult ordeal of checking into their hotel.
There is no way to explain the terror I felt when I finally lunged up to the clerk and began babbling. All my well-rehearsed lines fell apart under that woman's stoney glare. "Hi there," I said. "My name is...ah, Raoul Duke..yes, on the list, that's for sure. Free lunch, final wisdom, total coverage...why not? I have my attorney with me and I realize of course that his name is not on the list, but we must have that suite, yes, this man is actually my driver. We brought this Red Shark all the way from the Strip and now it's time for the desert, right? Yes. Just check the list and you'll see. Don't worry. What's the score here? What's next?"
The woman never blinked. "Your room's not ready yet," she said. "But there's somebody looking for you."
"No!" I shouted. "Why? We haven't done anything yet!" My legs felt rubbery. I gripped the desk and sagged toward her as she held out the envelope, but I refused to accept it. The woman's face was changing: swelling, pulsing...horrible green jowls and fangs jutting out, the face of a Moray Eel! Deadly poison! I lunged backwards into my attorney, who gripped my arm as he reached out to take the note. "I'll handle this," he said to the Moray woman. "This man has a bad heart, but I have plenty of medicine. My name is Dr. Gonzo. Prepare our suite at once. We'll be in the bar."
The woman shrugged as he led me away. In a town full of bedrock crazies, no one even notices an acid freak.
When they finally get into their suite, things calm down a bit, and the next day an attempt is made to actually cover the motorcycle race. They quickly learn, however, that there’s not much to cover; immediately upon leaving the starting line, the racers generate a huge could of dust that makes it impossible to see much of anything. Every so often a lone motorcylist appears out of the dust, refuels, and quickly disappears again; that’s about it.
As a result, Duke/Thompson soon loses interest in the Mint 400, which is probably why Sports Illustrated rejected with extreme prejudice the 2500 words that he eventually submitted. I doubt the Doctor cared much because by then, the Vegas story had become something far larger in his mind. In the jacket copy he talks about what he was trying to do, and how well he thinks he did it:
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a failed experiment in Gonzo Journalism. My idea was to buy a fat notebook and record the whole thing, as it happened, then send in the notebook for publication — without editing. That way, I felt, the eye & mind of the journalist would be functioning as a camera. The writing would be selective & necessarily interpretive — but once the image was written, the words would be final; in the same way that a Cartier-Bresson photograph is always (he says) the full-frame negative. No alterations in the darkroom, no cutting or cropping, no spotting...no editing.
But this is a hard thing to do, and in the end I found myself imposing an essentially fictional framework on what began as a piece of straight/crazy journalism.
And now we’re getting (finally) to the point…if Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas isn’t really Gonzo journalism, what is it exactly? You could call it a meditation on the end of the sixties; a bold indictment of the lies and avarice at the heart of the American dream; or the self-indulgent, rambling diary of a drug fiend. And it is all of that, sure.
But to me, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas above all else is a testament to the power of freedom — the sheer joy that comes from letting go of all constraints and seeing what happens. Duke and Gonzo the characters do whatever they please and get away with it; Thompson the writer writes whatever he pleases and gets away with it. As readers, we get to go along for the ride.
Fear and Loathing‘s epigraph comes from Samuel Johnson: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” Remember, the Vegas trip started as a way to escape from the pressure of the Salazar situation; and Dr. Thompson wrote the book to get away from the pressure of writing the Salazar story:
I began writing it during a week of hard typewriter nights in a room at the Ramada Inn — in a place called Arcadia, California — up the road from Pasadena & right across the street from the Santa Anita racetrack. I was there during the first week of Spring Racing — and the rooms all around me were jammed with people I couldn't quite believe.
Heavy track buffs, horse trainers, ranch owners, jockeys & their women...I was lost in that swarm, sleeping most of each day and writing all night on the Salazar article. But each night, around dawn, I would knock off the Salazar work and spend an hour or so, cooling out, by letting my head unwind and my fingers run wild on the big black Selectric...jotting down notes about the weird trip to Vegas. It had worked out nicely, in terms of the Salazar piece — plenty of hard straight talk about who was lying and who wasn't, and Oscar had finally relaxed enough to talk to me straight. Flashing across the desert at 100 in a big red convertible with the top down, there is not much danger of being bugged or overheard.
But we stayed in Vegas a bit longer than we'd planned to. Or at least I did. Oscar had to get back for a nine o'clock court appearance on Monday. So he took the plane and I was left alone out there — just me and a massive hotel bill that I knew I couldn't pay, and the treacherous reality of that scene caused me to spend about 36 straight hours in my room at the Mint Hotel...writing feverishly in a notebook about a nasty situation that I thought I might not get away from.
These notes were the genesis of Fear and Loathing. After my escape from Nevada and all through the tense work week that followed (spending all my afternoons on the grim streets of East LA and my nights on the typewriter in that Ramada Inn hideout)...my only loose & human moments would come when I could relax and fuck around with this slow-building, stone-crazy Vegas story.
By the time I got back to the Rolling Stone Hq. in San Francisco, the Salazar story was winding out at around 19,000 words, and the strange Vegas "fantasy" was running on its own spaced energy and pushing 5000 words — with no end in sight and no real reason to continue working on it, except the pure pleasure of unwinding on paper. It was sort of an exercise — like Bolero — and it might have stayed that way if Jann Wenner, the editor of Rolling Stone, hadn't liked the first 20 or so jangled pages enough to take it seriously on its own terms and tentatively schedule it for publication — which gave me the push I needed to keep working on it....
The only other important thing to be said about Fear and Loathing at this time is that it was fun to write, and that's rare — for me, at least, because I've always considered writing the most hateful kind of work. I suspect it's a bit like fucking, which is only fun for amateurs. Old whores don't do much giggling.
Nothing is fun when you have to do it — over & over, again & again — or else you'll be evicted, and that gets old. It's a rare goddamn trip for a locked-in, rent-paying writer to get into a gig that, even in retrospect, was a kinghell, highlife fuckaround from start to finish — and then to actually get paid for writing this kind of maniac gibberish seems genuinely weird; like getting paid for kicking Agnew2 in the balls.
And there’s the hook, the thing that made people take to Fear and Loathing and keeps them coming back to it thirty-odd years later: It’s fun to read because it was fun to write. It’s the work of a genius-level prose stylist working with no concern for commercial considerations, absolutely unfettered by decorum, conscience, or fear of consequences. It’s a trip, it’s a ride, and it shouldn’t be taken too seriously — and certainly not emulated.
Well, that seems like as good a place as any to leave off for now, before things can mushroom any further out of bounds. I will have a few more thoughts in the next couple days, but take heart — the end is near.
1. Running for sheriff of their respective communities on outsider platforms was another thing the two had in common.
2. For those of you born in the last part of the 20th century, Spiro Agnew served as vice president under Thompson’s arch-nemesis Richard Nixon until he was booted for being too visibly corrupt and replaced by Gerald Ford. The modern-day equivalent would be getting to empty a can of pepper spray on Dick Cheney…or better yet, G.W. Bush himself.