Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride (Pt. 6)

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Although labeled “Dr. Gonzo,” this Ralph Steadman illustration actually depicts Raoul Duke, a.k.a. Hunter S. Thompson.

When I started this screed almost two months ago, I had no idea that it would absorb all my writing energy, if not my life, for so long…but here we are, it’s a cool day in October, the days are getting noticeably shorter, and in some ways I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. But fuck it, sooner or later this thread is going to have to be terminated to make room for whatever comes next. There are just a few loose ends I feel obligated to tie up first.

* * *

In examining what makes Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas tick, I omitted for simplicity’s sake one factor that I would be remiss in not mentioning: the contribution of Ralph Steadman, the illustrator. It just wouldn’t have been the same book without his depictions of Raoul Duke, Dr. Gonzo, and the various Vegas citizens, cops, and lizards that they enounter in the course of their adventures.
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Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride (Pt. 5)

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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.
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Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride (Pt. 4)

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“I’d like to do a book on people who play polo and give me a lot of free booze. I got tired of living in that Hell’s Angels world…and fooling around in a lot of crummy bars.”
—HST, 1968

The Gonzo era began in earnest with an article called “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” which Dr. Thompson wrote for Scanlan’s Monthly in 1970. If you’ve never read it, I encourage you to do so right now; it’s a funny and quick read, only about 14 pages. Here’s a link if you need one (you’re probably going to want to print it out; or better yet, just get a copy of The Great Shark Hunt).

In the years since his sojourn in the Haight-Ashbury, the Doctor had talked football with Richard Nixon, then almost accidentally blown up Nixon’s plane while lighting a cigarette; been beaten and thrown through a plate glass window by Chicago police at the 1968 Democratic convention; and masterminded the “Freak Power” campaign of Joe Edwards, who came within a few votes of becoming mayor of Aspen, where Thompson had settled after leaving California.
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Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride (Pt. 3)

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The success of Hell’s Angels gave Dr. Thompson credibility in the world of mainstream journalism and led to an assignment from The New York Times Magazine to write about the growing hippie scene in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.

The resulting article, called “The ‘Hashbury’ Is the Capital of the Hippies,” begins as a piece of very straight journalism. At times the Doctor sounds like one of the so-called counterculture experts he would later mock:

The word “hip” translates roughly as “wise” or “tuned-in.” A hippy is somebody who “knows” what’s really happening, and who adjusts or grooves with it.

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Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride (Pt. 2)

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Reading over Part 1, it occurs to me that what I am attempting is nothing less than a sober reappraisal of Hunter S. Thompson’s legacy. Is such a thing necessary? Is it desirable? Is it even possible? Well, never mind; I’m into it now, so there’s no sense in quitting. As the Doctor liked to say, buy the ticket, take the ride.

* * *

The whole thing hinges, I think, on the concept of Gonzo journalism. Was it a brilliant innovation or a flimsy excuse to ignore the established rules of the trade? Did it have an ethos and an objective, or was it merely a platform for fuzzy, drug-induced “insights”? Do we even know, after all this time, what it really was?
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