Monday, October 15, 2007
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
I recently saw a documentary on the life of Hunter S. Thompson called Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride, and it occurred to me that Thompson's death two years ago had somehow gotten by me. Not that I had been completely unaware -- the story of Thompson's suicide was big news and I certainly remember hearing about it. But considering what a huge influence Thompson once was, I was surprised that I hadn't been more affected by his death. As it turns out, when Thompson blew his brains out, I was in the midst of a major crisis at work as well as trying to arrange to visit my Mom, who had just undergone open heart surgery. I guess my thoughts and priorities were elsewhere at the time.
Watching the documentary, though, reminded me of how much of an impact Thompson had on me as a young writer. It also highlighted how far I have strayed from following in his footsteps. And I'm not so sure that's a bad thing.
My first exposure to Hunter S. Thompson happened in the cafeteria in a place called West College when I was a freshman at Wesleyan University. The Head Resident of West College (whose name escapes me, but who was often referred to as the Resident Head) also worked in the cafeteria serving lunch. He liked to stage impromptu readings of various works of counter-culture literature that were both enlightening and entertaining. One of the first such readings was from Thompson's book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. I still remember him reading the opening words: "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold."
I immediately got hold of a copy of Fear and Loathing and devoured every word. Thompson's style was visceral, sharp and hilarious. But the best part was his portrayal of himself as the main character Raoul Duke: a drug-crazed gonzo journalist whose relentless pursuit of some vaguely defined and ultimately inconsequential story leaves in its wake a debris field littered with the twisted corpses of Nixonian Middle America. He was one of the most interesting characters ever created. Except that he was real.
I soon learned that, like me, Thompson grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. In fact he lived on a street just off Grinstead Drive between Cave Hill Cemetery and Cherokee Park, one of my favorite parts of town. He was notorious even then. My pal Dave Todd's mother once told us Thompson used to sneak into her all-girl prep school and blow up the toilets with cherry bombs. Years later, when Thompson appeared as a speaker at the University of Illinois, my friend Ray Sharp stood up in the audience and confronted him with this tale of early pranksterism. The normally unflappable Thompson stopped dead in his tracks. He removed his trademark Aviator sunglasses, blinked a few times into the lights and then shouted "Security! Have this freak removed!" Fortunately for Ray, there were no security guards present at the time.
I began to adopt some of Thompson's affectations as my own, including the Aviator glasses, the headgear, the Wild Turkey, the grapefruits. West College even held a celebration in his honor known as Uncle Duke Night -- named for the Uncle Duke character in Doonesbury based on Thompson. The night became a kind of rite of passage for some of us, involving loud rock music, a tank of nitrous oxide, strobe lights and certain little round purple pills. I began to think of myself as a gonzo-journalist-in-training. Instead of reporting the story, I would become the story. My life would be my art. I would immerse myself in whatever experiences I could, and live to tell the tales. And Thompson would be my guide.
At one point, I decided to leave school and drive to California with my friend Ray. We were on a mission of greatest importance -- surely no less important than disemboweling the American Dream. We were off to track down one of our own who had gone missing somewhere along the way. I kept a journal of our experiences which later became my first unpublished novel. The specter of Thompson lurks throughout its pages. I became the story, and the story became me.
I was so caught up in the legend of Hunter S. Thompson that I even came up with a way to write myself into it. I decided that I should travel to Woody Creek, Colorado, find Thompson, spend several days with him drinking Wild Turkey and discussing politics, writing, music, Louisville women, etc. And then, together, we would fake his death and I would take his place. He would finally be free from trying to live up to the mythology that he had created and which was now choking the life out of him. And I would be able to fulfill my dream of becoming the great writer I had always been destined to be.
That delusional fantasy eventually worked its way into my second unpublished novel. It's about a famous writer from the sixties who meets a young woman whom he believes to be the daughter of a Jim Morrison-like rock star who faked his death and escaped to Africa. Meanwhile, a young man who idolizes the writer comes to his home in Texas to meet him and ends up falling in love with the rock star's daughter. Thompson, of course was the basis for the famous writer. In the end of the book the writer kills himself. I wrote that over twenty years ago.
When I lived in New York, Thompson's aura continued to affect me, though indirectly, through the lives of a couple of women I knew. The first was a free-lance reporter who had landed an interview with Thompson which she had pitched to the Wall Street Journal. But when Thompson discovered that she didn't actually work for the Journal, he declined to go through with the interview. She was crushed. She turned off her tape recorder and stashed it in her purse. Somehow, the tape recorder kept running. She later played the tape back for me and I got my first glimpse of the "real" Hunter Thompson. Not that the real Thompson was all that different from the legend.
Most of the tape consisted of a continuous, largely incoherent, monologue, peppered with phrases like, "I am after all, a professional..." and "triple, triple, triple off the record..." The gist of the monologue was, of course, that Thompson was trying to get the attractive young reporter to have sex with him. The entire conversation was underscored by a constant 'rat-a-tat-tat' sound, such as would be made by a credit card tapping on the surface of a glass table as line after line after line of cocaine was being chopped up and apportioned. This sound was only interrupted by loud and prodigious snorting noises as Thompson inhaled enough coke to choke a rhino.
And no, she didn't sleep with him.
This virtual encounter with my longtime hero did color my admiration for him somewhat. Not that I blamed him for wanting to have sex with my reporter friend. Nor did I mind the staggering consumption of cocaine. Rather it was the overall picture of Thompson as a lonely old creep on the make trying to lure some chick into bed with worn-out tales of derring-do and heaps of blow. He sounded a bit like the monster he had once set out to destroy.
In yet another encounter with yet another young attractive blonde, Thompson revealed further depths of old-guy creepiness. This time it was a pert lass with a PhD from Princeton who had snagged a gig as Thompson's assistant through a literary agent (i.e., pimp) she'd met while writing for the soaps. Thompson flew her out to Colorado in the middle of winter. He met her at the airport at midnight in his jeep with a bowl of cherries and a bottle of champagne. He proceeded to drive her up long dangerously winding roads to a mountaintop retreat that featured a domed swimming pool and spa. Once inside the dome, Thompson got buck naked, slipped into the spa and beckoned her to join him. Not wanting to piss off the boss on her first day, she stripped down to bra and panties and dangled her legs in the water.
She spent the next week or so being chased around Thompson's house trying to keep from being molested. Eventually she sought the relative safety of the housekeeper's cabin across the compound. As soon as she arrived, however, the housekeeper began filling pots of water and bringing in firewood. When the PhD from Princeton asked the housekeeper why she was doing this, the housekeeper replied, "whenever this happens, he usually turns off the electricity and the water..."
When my friend the PhD came back from Colorado and regaled me with these tales of lechery and felonious misconduct, I was horrified. Naturally I understood Thompson's lust for this woman. I myself had lusted after her for years. But for him to resort to such crude and barbaric measures just to get laid seemed unforgivable. He started leaving long rambling incoherent messages on her answering machine, begging her to return. The messages made him seem sad, pathetic and lost. No doubt, my desire for her made his behavior seem all the more heinous. Yet, inexplicably, she eventually succumbed to his entreaties and returned to work for him. I'll never be sure what transpired between them that second time around. But I would never see Thompson the same way again. Her I gave up on altogether.
I suppose the death knell in my spiritual apprenticeship with Thompson came when I went with Dave Todd to see the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Johnny Depp's uncanny portrayal of the man I had long admired drowning in a whirlpool of excess and insanity left me feeling sick and weary. I no longer wanted to be like him. I couldn't imagine how he continued to be like him.
I guess ultimately, neither could he.
But looking back, there was a crazy, drug-fueled genius at work underneath the Las Vegas sun visor and the Aviator shades. There was a trajectory. There was a purpose. It was exciting to try and be like Thompson. And I did learn more about myself and about writing in my feeble attempt to toddle in his wake. He was an American original and we shall not see his like again.
So maybe one of these days I'll get up to the Woody Creek Tavern and throw back a shot of Wild Turkey in honor of Thompson. Perhaps it's best not to learn too much about your heroes. Better to let them live on as legends in Valhalla.
"When I Die" Preview of Hunter S. Thompson Film