Sober... Jesus, this was unheard of. None of us had had so much as a baby aspirin all day and the terrible stress of uninebriation suddenly crashed over us like some hideous, puritanical tsunami. Nobody screamed, there was no hair tearing or wailing, just a sudden blankness -- the void. We'd lost the will to fight, to even try and get screwed up, somehow it just didn't seem worth the trouble.
What the hell was wrong with this country? Where was the ragtop Chevy with a trunk full of mescaline and ether? What monstrous chain of events could have led to us mewling pathetically at the door of a gloomy German restaurant in the deserted heart of Louisville, Kentucky like refugees from Oliver Twist? Where, I ask you, was the Gonzo?
The answer was that he was up in his room, asleep.
Never meet your idols. There is no better cure for admiration than contact. And especially don't meet your idol on a bleak winter evening in Louisville, Kentucky where he is being lauded, celebrated, eulogized and made an honorary Kentucky Colonel on the 25th anniversary of the publication of his magnum opus, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
We had come up, my Accountant, the Kingpin and myself, to try and squeeze a television interview out of the notoriously incomprehensible Thompson -- an interview done under some very shaky pretenses, and with no real idea of what to do with it once we got it.
On the surface, of course, the trip seemed like a fantastic lark -- drive up to Louisville, do some interviews and get crocked with the good Doctor. What could be better?
I've admired Thompson's writing since I found a tattered copy of The Great Sharkhunt, a collection of his articles from the 60's and 70's, sitting on the floor next to my brother's bed. It was a revelatory experience -- his writing was so explosive, so lucid and so fucking hilarious that I read it without mercy, in a single sitting, laughing throughout.
No single volume sums up that pivotal era in this country -- when the psychedelic glow of the 1960's faded into sickly, paranoid, debased pallor of the 1970's, with the brutal effectiveness of the work in The Great Sharkhunt. Norman Mailer is a blustery, establishment hack compared to Thompson in high gear; and even Tom Wolfe seems tepid, eastern and cloistered in the thrashing light of Thompson's best work.
But what had Thompson done lately? What was this evening really about? I didn't have time to stop and think about minor details like that, and neither did the men who'd brought me along on this little joyride -- my Accountant, a former John Birch Society economist fallen on hard times, and The Kingpin, a man of such awesome power in his own country that he decided to seek the kind of wretched anonymity that can only be found producing cable television programming in the United States. They were heavy-hitters, both of them, and not exactly comfortable with the half-assed preparations made for their audience with the Doctor of Gonzo, or the good Doctor's audience with them.
The concept behind the trip was that we were to be given 90 exclusive minutes with Mr. Duke to discuss the who, what, why, where, how and when of his life for possible use as a biographical television show, or, failing that, as evidence in an FBI sting operation. But that 90 minute figure was already facing pretty long odds by the time we had unloaded the gear. And half an hour later we had yet to find anyone in the hotel with the faintest clue as to what was going on.
Finally, after a strange meeting in the Brown coffee shop with the diminutive Johnny Depp (Depp is slated to play Hunter S. in an upcoming film version of Fear and Loathing -- Depp as Thompson! Who's idea was this? It's like...like, Christ its hard to think of a simile to match the unintuitiveness of that decision), we discovered that Thompson was at the auditorium where the ceremony would be taking place.
And there he was. In the center of the stage Warren Zevon was playing a little number on the piano and Thompson stood behind him, a big...surprisingly big, bald guy in sunglasses, smoking a cigarrette in a long white cigarrette holder and clutching a fire extinguisher, with which he blasted Warren Zevon (and you were probably wondering, "Whatever happened to Zevon?").
No dice on the interview though, at least not yet. "Hunter's nervous about people he doesn't know shoving cameras in his face," said his handlers, "But don't worry, the interview's still on...we just need to take care of a few more things here. Hunter'll be along shortly."
From the looks of things, Thompson lurching across the empty stage, blasting people with the fire extinguisher and swigging alternately from a beer and a juice glass of bourbon, it was a good thing we planned to have him sit down for the interview.
Two hours later Thompson came bellowing into the room holding a glass of whisky and a leather riding crop. The current Sheriff of Aspen was at his side (for both Hunter's, and the world's, safety), his son and assistant were close behind and a couple of college girls and a reporter brought up the rear.
The interview was an abbreviated half-hour affair under too hot lights in a sweltering hotel room. Though a diabolical mumbler, and more than a few sheets to the wind, Thompson was hardly a lunatic. If anything he seemed like a vaguely Parkinsonian uncle. A cantakerous, but friendly uncle with a predilection for strong drink and leather goods.
Not surprisingly, the interview was useless. After sending the tape to the National Security Administration for transcription and decoding all I got back was this:
KP: Does it seem strange to be coming back to Louisville to be lauded like this? A place where they locked you up? (Thompson was arrested several times as a youth for various crimes, mostly theft).
HST: Mrrrmphrrrm hrrrmrumppph urrmrrrhummprrrphg!...coming home for vengeance on the bastards who fucked with me.
After hours of computerized augmentation the names of Truman Capote, James Agee, W.H. Auden and Tom Wolf were also extracted from the tape, though in what context Thompson mentioned them is still a mystery. One of the only other coherent bits on the tape is the following:
HST: I'm a walking, glowing monument to the American dream in action. (HST laughs as though he's being sarcastic, but then he stops) No, really.
And then it was time. With the aid of his friends, family and lackeys, Thompson was hustled out of the room and whisked away to his canonization.
We weren't far behind, I brought the black, armored Land Cruiser out of the garage, my Accountant and the Kingpin leapt in, and we roared down to the auditorium for the MAIN EVENT.
Only the 90's could have spawned as perverse a line-up as the one which graced Fear and Loathing's 25th anniversary celebration. The audience was made up, almost completely, of neo-hippie college kids in Dave Mathews and Phish shirts, and whose only knowledge of R.M. Nixon comes from Oliver Stone movies -- and probably Hunter S. Thompson. They were the kind of political and psychedelic dilettantes that Thompson railed against time and again. But the apparent contradiction between audience and host was nothing compared to king oxymoron which started the ball rolling.
After a brief welcome and introduction, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, the Duke of Gonzo was made an honorary Kentucky Colonel. As the award was presented images of Thompson's article, "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" kept flashing through my mind. Was Thompson going to mace the Lt. Governor, right here in front of this audience? Were there storm troopers in jack boots, clutching the choke collars of snarling pitbulls just outside the door?
No, the ugly truth is that Thompson appeared not only happy, but almost proud, to be receiving this atavistic award from a rich old redneck who twenty-five years ago would have had him beaten with a sack of oranges and thrown into a drainage canal. Thompson didn't even blast the guy with the fire extinguisher.
And that was just the beginning. The program for the event revealed the freakish, and deeply fractured character of our era. There were hysterical, quasi-beat poets and shrill college kid rants, there were songs by Warren Zevon, recollections by friends, relatives and associates, a dramatic reading from Johnny Depp, and Harry Dean Stanton was billed to do something (I never found out what, exactly). All of it punctuated by the occasional blast of a fire extinguisher or thwap of a riding crop.
After about the fifth or sixth rant-poem (when did poetry become the histrionic reading of lists?) we couldn't take it anymore -- we'd eaten nothing for hours except Cheese Nips, and the desiccated ache of no booze was beginning to leave nerve endings feeling raw and exposed. As quickly and quietly as we could, the equipment was gathered up, armored vehicles brought around and an escape was made into the yawning gulf of downtown Louisville.
What did it all mean -- a convicted felon, a dangerous drug abuser and firearm addict given one of the State of Kentucky's highest honors? It seemed either an eloquent statement about growth and tolerance on the part of both parties -- or an embarrassing testament to the shameless desire of people to be extolled, even by groups they claim to abhor.
In his day, Thompson truly was the voice of a generation -- a man almost painfully attuned to the twisted reality of his age. But since the passing of Nixon and the 70's his relevance has waned dramatically. Nixon was Thompson's Darth Vader, a representation of everything gross and brutal in the national character. And so, when battling Nixon, Thompson was the young lion, raging in drug induced furor against a venal and corrupt America; without him, he was the doddering old man, clownish in baggy pants and cigarette holder, raging against ghosts.
The times have passed Thompson by -- and though he still has a powerful sense for the punch and rhythm of our language he's lost the tune, he's all baseline now, mumbled out of lips that have had perhaps a bit too much of everything. And, after an being made a Kentucky Colonel, the only real question that remains is what, exactly, will be the good Doctor's legacy?
On the one hand, he invigorated journalism and revealed, with a frenzied humor, the dark side of our country, our greed, thuggishness and contradictions. At the same time, the attitude of Gonzo Journalism may have done more damage to popular non-fiction than anything since wide-spread literacy.
Gonzo convinced a generation of writers that self-indulgence, drugs and ranting are a viable literary style. Putting the writer at the center of the story is a high-risk game. "It's all about what you can get away with," said Thompson. And when it's done right it can reveal a deeper and more potent truth than a simple recounting of the facts -- or at least tell a more interesting lie. But, far more often it's an insipid, self-serving exercise designed to conceal egotism, a lack of research or sheer laziness -- or, as was the case with this story, the lack of any real story at all.
That was the final irony, the irony the sent me scurrying off to bed in the Brown Hotel. Nothing had been revealed by the frenzied trip to Louisville, nothing learned in the half-hour interview, and without resorting to drug induced mayhem or pure fiction, nothing was going to wrap up what was, essentially, a random series of events into anything resembling a coherent story.
But, the machine clamors to be fed, and as the good Doctor, and almost ambassador to Samoa once said, "We are, after all, professionals."
ZAK WEISFELD is now one of the New South‚s landed gentry.