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Hunter S Thompson: Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone

December 31, 2011

Yessir, that was my boy. Between Mitchum and Burroughs and James Dean and Jack Kerouac, I got myself a serious running start before I was twenty years old, and there was no turning back. Buy the ticket, take the ride. So welcome to Thunder Road, bubba. It was one of those movies that got a grip on me when I was too young to resist. It convinced me that the only way to drive was at top speed with a car full of whiskey, and I have been driving that way ever since, for good or ill.

It may be the ultimate denigration of the life and work of a great writer to reduce it to bullet points, but look closely at Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone and it is about three things and three alone. It’s a tough gig to sum up one man’s writing life in the manner of a greed head CEO’s opening PowerPoint slide to a swinish sales convention in an air con-pumped convention centre on a hot Las Vegas day, but look closely, and this book does that. That it does this is no bad thing, Bubba.

Actually, it’s not about three things. Really, it’s about one thing. It’s a study in the inherent, manifest possibilities of contradiction. But, to the clued in, that much will be self-evident by the end.

This book, a summation of Thompson’s writing for, and correspondence to, Rolling Stone magazine, IS, in a more complex way, about three things.

Firstly, it is a beautiful testimony to a great writing career in which he initially created an identity based on his heroes, and celebrating the outsiders and political figures who inspired him to swim against the flow of American life.

Secondly, it is about the oxymoronic relationship between this self-created outsider persona and the deeply conventional democratic, even hippyish ideals, on which this was based. Thompson may have seen himself as Burroughs or Fitzgerald or Leary or Bob Mitchum or indeed a legion of other celebrated American outsiders, but his belief in the conventional counter culture ideals shines through right to the end of this book.

Finally, this book establishes that digressions, singularly important to Thompson’s narrative style, were intrinsic to his life. His life was a series of digression themselves, especially the 1980s which was a digression of epic proportions. His career trajectory follows an arc from firecracker pertinent idealism attuned to the 1970s, to 198s0 self-parody, to a less prolific, but more profound, late period renaissance of self-realisation. His last pieces in support of John Kerry and reflection on his life, see him return to a belief in the power of anti-war movement and those involved in the resistance of the late 60s and early 70s.

Much of the material here has been published before, obviously in Rolling Stone but also in Thompson’s key works, especially The Great Shark Hunt, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, and the utterly transcendent, but largely ignored, Better Than Sex.

What makes this book such a revelation is the correspondence between Thompson and RS founder Jann Wenner, political writer ‘Dollar’ Bill Greider and former RS managing editor Paul Scanlon. In their reminiscences and letters we see a deeply personal Thompson emerge, a man who in many ways remains rooted in the awesome possibilities of the counter culture.

Thompson’s journey is ultimately unresolved, but it remains rooted in one of the most famous passages he ever produced, in F&LINLV:

that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply PREVAIL. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Thompson’s career can be summarised as that of a man who continued to chase that wave after it rolled back.

Thompson was often painted as the ultimate American outsider, the libertarian gun totin’ drug monkey with a turn of phrase better than almost anyone else of his generation. It led to a reverence of him by two generations of (mostly) young men who wanted to turn gold out of their drug binges and misguided political opinions. In Britain, the lionisation of Thompson in the 80s and 90s, myopically helped to usher in a new generation of cocaine-fuelled ladishness and sexism which in turn helped spawn magazines like Loaded, Zoo & Nuts and which totally underestimated the deep political convictions that the man himself held.

Thompson DID have a deeply misogynistic streak, which manifested itself in his writing, particularly in the 1980s. It is a streak which F&LATRS singularly ignores, largely because he produced less for Rolling Stone in this period.

But, rather like one other great misguided icons of laddism, Bill Hicks, Thompson was capable of cognitive dissonance, of being able to hold wildly misogynistic attitudes in support of pornography while maintaining mainstream liberal credentials in almost every other way. That their misogyny was celebrated wasn’t their fault. That New Laddism ignored the deeply romantic liberal political aspects remains a deeper problem, both for the legacies of each man, and the development of progressive liberal politics, particularly among modern young men.

However, that’s a digression in itself. Back to the book.

Much of the earlier pieces in F&LARS show the sensationally idealistic Thompson, the man who covers the plight of Hispanics in LA in the early 70s and who runs for the Sheriff’s office in Aspen on the Freak Power ticket at the same time. That much we can get from The Great Shark Hunt, anyway. But we see the interesting letters unavailable before.

His legacy is always overshadowed by the success of Fear & Loathing Las Vegas, but his high watermark is the Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail pieces from the 1972 Presidential election captured in this book. He clearly pegs Nixon’s authoritarianism and use of the justice system to usher in an era of new conservatism earlier than most commentators did at the time, certainly earlier than you would expect a drug monkey to.

The resultant book Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 remains my favourite of his books, a high minded and thrillingly written exposé of a political campaign before such things were done. It was perfect because he was both a high minded hippy and a man outside of the political mainstream. He was able to use the much vaunted power of subjectivity that New Journalism allowed, to expose the truths that objective, balanced reporting of established news forms, could not utilise.

One figure proves to be his great touchstone. Richard Nixon, a man who embodies for him all that is wrong for America. A hate figure straight out of Grendel from Beowulf and whose ugly conservative Republicanism prefigures the generation of swine represented by the Bushes and Cheney.

In his obituary of Nixon that appeared in Rolling Stone in 1992, and which is included in the book, he pegged this relationship better than anyone of that generation. Neither Wolfe nor Didion, nor Kesey nor O’Rourke got it as clearly. O’Rourke, for one, bedded down with this scum, and history will attest to his prickery, but that’s just me.

Thompson caught them, and the nature of reporting on them, best:

Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism—which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

That’s it Bubba. That’s it in a nutshell. Maybe to reduce one man’s life to one piece of work is bad, but it works for me. This obituary, 13 years before Thompson’s death, is a wonderful encapsulation of the times and a reflection on them with the benefit of hindsight:

I have written worse things about Nixon, many times, and the record will show that I kicked him repeatedly long before he went down. I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got a chance, and I am proud of it. He was scum.

At a time when even the then president, Bill Clinton, lined up to lionise Nixon, Thompson, a man who held a grudge in the best, and most sensationally productive way, never veered from a hatred of those who spat on the great possibilities of the late 60s/ early 70s.

Richard Nixon was an evil man—evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it. He was utterly without ethics or morals or any bedrock sense of decency. Nobody trusted him—except maybe the Stalinist Chinese, and honest historians will remember him mainly as a rat who kept scrambling to get back on the ship.

His idealism is implicit in the final lines of the obit:

Nixon’s spirit will be with us for the rest of our lives—whether you’re me or Bill Clinton or you or Kurt Cobain or Bishop Tutu or Keith Richards or Amy Fisher or Boris Yeltsin’s daughter or your fiancée’s sixteen-year-old beer-drunk brother with his braided goatee and his whole life like a thundercloud out in front of him. This is not a generational thing. You don’t even have to know who Richard Nixon was to be a victim of his ugly, Nazi spirit. He has poisoned our water forever. Nixon will be remembered as a classic case of a smart man shitting in his own nest. But he also shit in our nests, and that was the crime that history will burn on his memory like a brand. By disgracing and degrading the Presidency of the United States, by fleeing the White House like a diseased cur, Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American Dream.

What a bit of writing – ‘your fiancée’s sixteen-year-old beer-drunk brother with his braided goatee and his whole life like a thundercloud out in front of him,’ who wouldn’t give their left arm to write a phrase like ‘his whole life like a thundercloud ahead of him,’? Holy God, I’d have a fortnight off playing computer solitaire in riot of self congratulation if I had ever produced something one thousandth as good.

This two paragraph section summarised everything I love and hate about HST – and my love of him outweighs the hate by a billion per cent. Firstly, he is a wonderful wordsmith, a man with in a sense of cadence that gives his best work in this book a wonderful lyrical quality many refuse to credit him with.

Secondly, I love and hate him most because, despite being portrayed as an arch cynic, he is the ultimate romantic.But his romantic nature is at odds with reality of the politics of the 40 years of his adult life.

His deep adherence to the American Dream and the possibilities of the hippies, rock and roll and social liberation to it, were repeatedly trampled by Nixon, Reagan and the Bush family. He banged his drug addled head against a wall in the face of overwhelming evidence that the battle had been lost to the war mongers and corporations.

But at least he believed, although sometimes contrarily. Thompson was a study in contradiction. A Southern gentleman with a love of strippers, guns and drugs, but he was always haunted by the spectre of the Vietnam war and the brutal repression of the counter culture.

He was a man who chose his side and doggedly stuck to it even in the face of the overwhelming success of conservative Republican administrations from Nixon to Reagan and Bush. He hated all of those administrations with a deep, deep passion but it was a passion which was inversely reflected in his great belief in power of the people to overthrow them. That passion as born of the high water mark of the 60s.

In one of his last missives in Rolling Stone about John Kerry, this, ultimately, misguided belief is laid bare:

We were angry and righteous in those days, and there were millions of us. We kicked two chief executives out of the White House because they were stupid warmongers. We conquered Lyndon Johnson and we stomped on Richard Nixon—which wise people said was impossible, but so what? It was fun. We were warriors then, and our tribe was strong like a river. That river is still running. All we have to do is get out and vote, while it’s still legal, and we will wash those crooked warmongers out of the White House.

Looking at the current Republican Party running list, thank God he died when he did.

All hail Freak Power.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Lucas permalink
    December 31, 2011 3:36 am

    I enjoyed reading this. Hunter S was an uncompromising individual and an individual writer.

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