I can remember the exact day and moment that I first read one of Hunter Thompson's books. I can remember what the weather was like and how the lighting in the room sent shadows cascading off the walls in that spare, and cramped two-bedroom apartment in the East Village -- just a few doors up from the New York chapter of the Hell's Angels headquarters. Even though it was a sunny and crisp day in early March, the front room revealed only shards of light because the shades were drawn. Nonetheless, one of those beams of sunlight glowed upon a hardcover copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas lying there next to the television. I remember that the book belonged to a girl whose name escapes me, but I remember thinking that it was odd that this particular girl would have such a book because it wasn't about cats or gourmet cooking.
Anyway, I remember that at that point in my life I was very arrogant and anti anything that was remotely associated with the mainstream culture or had even the slightest ties to corporate America. To me, though I had only a cursory knowledge of his work, I knew something about his lifestyle from reading magazines and books that revealed such things. But to that point, Thompson was much too benign for my tastes. He was, I reasoned, another literary phony like Norman Mailer, who was all talk and flash but no depth. With Thompson, I knew the stories about the decadence and excess and thought it was an exaggeration or, worse, untruthful. It wasn't like he was John O'Brien, whose Leaving Las Vegas was stunningly autobiographical. But what I didn't know then was that truth and good reporting were mutually exclusive. Just because something might not have happened didn't mean it wasn't true.
That, I think, is part of the essence of Hunter Thompson... well, that and the fact that his life sounded like it was the greatest party anyone has ever been to.
Anyway, for some reason the book was daring me to pick it up that March afternoon. Maybe it was because of my fascination with Las Vegas, or the crazy Ralph Steadman illustrated cover that drew me in. Either way, I picked the book up, sat on the couch in that empty apartment, and didn't get up until I had read every page. As soon as I read that first sentence, I was trapped and my way of looking at literature and journalism had changed forever.
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.
The book was as close to perfect as anything I had read at that point in my life. Even though I was 21 and had spent most of my collegiate days in New York and Philadelphia, a light bulb went off above my head. I immediately remember thinking, "So this is how it's done."
It was dramatic, revealing, intelligent like reading Allen Ginsberg's Howl, and, above all, screamingly funny. I remember cackling out loud at the scene where Thompson's alter ego, Raoul Duke, was playing blackjack in Circus Circus while a family of acrobats was performing their act on the trapeze hanging from the big top above the tables.
When I was 7 and went to Las Vegas to visit my grandparents with my family, Circus Circus was the greatest place on earth. My little mind was blown knowing that such a place -- with its buffets, video games, midway, candy, funhouse mirrors, and prizes -- existed. It was like a parallel universe far away from my cozy world of family, school and wholesomeness. Reading Hunter Thompson's view of Circus Circus, even at age 21, rocked my world.
Anyway, as most literate people have heard in the news by now, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson died on Sunday of a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head. Anyone who has read anything he has written should not have been too surprised that his demise came the way it did. Better yet, most devotees to the good doctor are probably surprised that he lasted as long as he did without pulling a Jackson Pollack or Lenny Bruce.
Then again, Thompson was such a big fan of Ernest Hemmingway that he would retype Hemmingway's novels in order to better understand the rhythm and structure. Who would have guessed that Thompson's Ketchum was a "heavily fortified" compound on the outskirts of tony Aspen. In that regard, perhaps Thompson's demise was quite apropos.
Because I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas I was motivated to read everything else Thompson wrote. The Great Shark Hunt came next, followed by Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. Even though I thought some of his work lacked the urgency and pitch-perfect timing of Las Vegas, I was intrigued by Thompson's obsession with Richard Nixon and was absolutely riveted when reading about his interview with his nemesis aboard Air Force One, where Thompson was advised that he could only talk to the president about football. For as vile as Thompson said Nixon was, I'm pretty sure no other president would ever grant anything close to the access that old Tricky Dick gave the professor of gonzo journalism. I doubt Thompson could even get credentials these days.
I had such a fondness for Thompson that I even used his work as source material for my senior thesis on President Carter's role in the Camp David Peace Accords. I footnoted a passage from Shark Hunt regarding former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy, but my professor struck the "Dr." from the formal "Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" in the bibliography.
I thought it was kind of funny.
That fondness grew to a point where I tried to get other people to read his books, too, but my friends don't really read, nor would they "get" Thompson. However, my friend John, a voracious reader in his own right, has memorized passages from Las Vegas. We both get a good laugh when talking about the scene where Duke fires a grapefruit instead of a radio into the tub filled with water and Duke's Samoan lawyer.
What a hoot.
More than anything, Thompson's work taught me a very valuable lesson about journalism that escapes just about every modern, mainstream editor and publisher. The lesson is that sometimes the journey and the carnival surrounding the event is more important or newsworthy than what is supposed to be the news. In Las Vegas, Thompson's mission was to cover the Mint 400 car race, but that event is barely a footnote to real story.
It also helped me realize that mainstream journalism is pure bullshit:
Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits, a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo cage.
Sounds like he and I have worked at some of the same places.
What makes people go for it? What makes them know that they shouldn't do anything else but write poetry or create music or paint pictures or even play a sport? How do they know? Do they have a choice? Are there people out there who went for it and didn't succeed and are barely making a living because they have to pursue their art? Are they embarrassing themselves by trying? Do they have to be told to stop and get a job at a store or something?
Take someone like e.e. cummings for example. How does he know he's a poet? Did he have that middle-class safety net that allows for failure without the financial repercussions? Who knows, all that matters is that the guy had some kind of crazy style and that's not including the lower-case letters for his name and uncompromisingly became what he wanted to be.
At least that's how I interpret his work.
Sometimes I wish I had become a poet or a painter or serious writer and artist. I wish that I had the spirit of e.e. but there weren't too many companies in need of a poet when I graduated from college. Maybe I could have done it. Maybe I could have gone after something that the rest of the culture labels "out there" and succeeded. Maybe I didn't do it because I was afraid of what my mother would have thought if I moved away to become a poet or a novelist. She would have thought that I should be in middle management or marketing somewhere drawing a pension or a 401K. She already loses her mind over the fact that I can work from home - or anywhere - from my fancy little laptop. Sometimes I don't go in to the office for days and don't talk to my bosses for weeks because I get so caught up in doing the job from my home or in the backyard with an umbrella over my head and in my glass. I should be out networking, hobnobbing and "being seen."
That's the part that gets me. It's the assimilation and mainstreaming of people and the culture. Instead of networking in an office in a suit, I should be networking from the rooftops, sounding my barbaric yalps like Whitman. I should be challenging ideas, apathy and complacency instead of becoming part of the status quo and getting the job done so I can go home and watch TV. I should strive to create quality work and let that do my talking instead of banter and witty repartee in a social setting.
Doing stuff like that shouldn't be the hard thing. It should be the norm. But it's not and because "mainstreaming" and taking the road most traveled is we all suffer.
Suffer? How do we suffer because we chose safety instead of challenges? What's with that word? "Suffer." How do we suffer? Isn't that a dramatic word that should be used dramatically, like when describing why you decided to put your dog to sleep?
"Well, she had cancer and we didn't want her to suffer..."
Suffer? Here's how: Because people opt for unchallenging lives set around work, commutes, two-week vacations, the stock market, little league games and sitcoms, we suffer because sometimes we lose talent. We lose artists and minds of would-be geniuses that somewhere along the line were scorned and quit. Other times, they just didn't see the other way and chose the lives that their parents and relatives lived. These were the people who believed that if someone took a chance or crossed the beaten path, they were weird and must be talked about, sometimes viciously and other times condescendingly, at parties or banal meetings at the store or something.
"Billy moved to New York to become a poet or a playwright or something like that. He lives in a fleabag apartment and gets unemployment and just sits around and writes all day instead of getting a job. Meanwhile, his friend Chris is in law school while his other friend, Steve, who graduated with him in high school, is a financial advisor for Vanguard."
Think about it. I mean really think about it. How people do you know who play the guitar and write songs and don't perform them anywhere or if they do, they do it at bars that have live music on the deck during the summertime. They get a couple 30-minute sets as long as they play Margaritaville or something by James Taylor in exchange for a percentage of the cover and free beer. Occasionally, they squeeze in some of their own compositions to lukewarm applause. Of course you know people like this and you know what? The songs they write are just as good as the stuff spewed out by some ubiquitous act like Matchbox 20 or some silliness like that. They are just as charismatic as any other talking head in some group, but they have to put their time as an adjuster.
Everyone knows people like this. Everyone. And there is no difference between them and the people who "made it" except for one thing: The people in Matchbox 20 had the balls to sleep in a van in strange hamlets after gigs in crappy clubs. They figured it was OK to live on the dole while getting a few hundred bucks here and there until they got the big break. Some people do it because they simply do not have any other choice and others just don't have the stomach for it.
Another late start today. Again, I needed to sleep a little later than I usually like. Maybe it's time I finally accept my chronic insomnia and the fact that the day will start at noon and the concept of 8 a.m. is just a rumor or something other people do. Maybe this will allow me to get knee-deep back in to caffeine again.
Who needs real drugs when there is caffeine to make me feel narcissistic? Drugs are, as I learned and as William Burroughs once said, an inevitable part of life.
So too is sleep. Not that I would know much about the subject. I truly believe I could sleep all day. If no one came to wake or it was socially accepted, I really believe I could log more than 12 hours at a time in my bed. You know, like a hibernating bear or Pete Sampras. Turn up the AC, black out the windows, pull up the covers and doze.
So why don't I? Society, of course. And the fact that I think there is a chance that all of the saccharine sweet dreams I have, and all of the chest-thumping and career-advancing ideas I get while in the arms of the fickle mistress that is sleep, will somehow come true. When I sleep I am happy. Nothing bad ever happens. For once, I am in charge.
That wasn't the case this afternoon, though. Since the sun was shining and I didn't have anything planned, I took a book out to my backyard to read and possibly fall asleep in a chair. And just so I wouldn't be lonely, I brought my dog to keep me company. A developmental-challenged five-year-old, Katie, a chocolate Labrador retriever, is not the best companion if one is looking for quiet time. Sure, she's a very pleasant dog and quite a delight to have around because of her always-sunny disposition; however, she is as fidgety as a wolverine on speed. The poor girl just can't seem to ever sit still. It's as if she is Sisyphus, but enjoys the constant work out of rolling a rock up a hill and chasing it to the bottom so she can roll it back up again.
She really is very annoying.
Anyway, I took the cushion of a plastic lounge chair and placed it flat on the ground so that I could fully stretch out. In this position, I could transform from reading to sleeping mode instantaneously. After all, efficiency is the goal of any reader/sleeper.
I also brought a rawhide bone for Katie so she could release all of that nervous energy into something constructive instead of crying and whining when I didn't pay attention to her. The rawhide also acted as a crime deterrent if Katie decided to walk away and get into trouble at the other end of the yard or on the neighbor's side of the fence. She has been known to squeeze through an opening in the fence and barge in next door like an expected guest. And since dogs have no conscience, Katie's tail and decorum become much more obnoxious when she enters into other environs. She's kind of like a five-year-old boy in F.A.O. Schwartz -- in order to get her back under control, a person would have to tackle her and then drag her out by the collar.
Annoying and nuts.
Regardless, Katie and the rawhide are having a wonderful time together on the sunny Saturday, and my book and I are a dynamic duo as well. In fact, the book was strong enough to knock me into a state where I was semi-coherent, like a boxer that took a bunch of punches in a row to the head. I wasn't quite awake, but I wasn't out for the count either. Occasionally, I would shake my head to clear the cobwebs so my eyes could focus on the next word as my brain continued to referee the fight between slumber and literature.
But just when sleep was about to land one last, devastating haymaker, Katie started digging in the dirt an arm's length away from my head. It seems as if she had enough of the rawhide and rather than continue to chew it, she decided to store it some place safe for later. Her problem, though, was that she couldn't find a suitable storage area. Just as soon as she would make progress with one hole, she gave up and began work on another like fickle developer who can't decide if he wants to bulldoze and old farm to build a Wal-Mart or a Target.
What's up, Yo? I'm in tha house kickin it old school to tell y'all about a few dope-assed movies I's peeped lately.
OK, OK. Sorry about that lede graf. I'm trying to appeal to a much younger and, as marketing reports and marketing professionals (i.e., marketers) tell me, a hipper demographic. The hipsters who use slurred and incomplete gibberish as indicated in the opening paragraph apparently have much more disposable income to spend (waste) on trivial things like CDs, equipment to soup up their Hondas and Toyotas with the latest gadgets that make them light up like the neon on a dive bar and stereo equipment that makes the bass rattle and bounce off the plastic spoilers of these Hondas and Toyotas like a baseball in a tin can.
Yeah, it's pretty obnoxious.
Then again, this demographic isn't reading books, let alone buying them so that opening bit just makes me look like a jackass and a panderer. You know, like Bill Clinton or any other self-respecting politician.
Oh, love me! Just like me! Give me money, too! I have a mortgage, a car payment and marketers to succumb to. Please, help a brother out.
And I digress.
Mostly, these marketers, who just have to be up on all the latest trends and intricacies of modern culture, want to use their knowledge, research and study to separate those in that hip demographic, with their young, undeveloped minds and all, from their hard earned or begged for cash. They do this by making the mundane look cool with over-hyped ads and lifestyles that most of these kids will never affordably achieve in two lifetimes. Effective marketers are so good that they can fill the naïve and less aware heads with unrealistic dreams and goals that even the most diligent kids can never achieve.
Don't kid yourself. People in marketing know what they are doing. They are up on the latest trends from reading about them in People and the industry trades and know all about market research from going to Bermuda and Las Vegas for various seminars with power-point displays telling them what they have to do. The best of them are briefed and re-briefed before lunch is ordered and know how to manipulate every line of text and every action they make.
If there is a difference between a marketer and a politician, it's hard to find. Both are trying to get everyone to like and need all that they are selling and both are always campaigning for votes in one form or another.
Still, getting people to buy their pitch isn't easy even for the best marketers. Kids, and by kids I mean those between the ages of 14 and 21, aren't as dumb as they look, act or speak. They are savvy with their cash and won't spend it on inferior products. Just look at the price tags on their clothes and cell phones and computers. No, it's not Versace or Ralph Lauren, but Tommy Hilfiger and P. Diddy have mortgages to pay too. They just can't give their stuff away.
Nonetheless, where the marketers can dupe these kids is with popular culture. They can resist second-rate designer clothes - relatively speaking, of course - but they can't resist second-rate schlock packaged as art. How else can one explain Brittany Spears or the Phantom Menace? Come on.
All right, all right. The proverbial can of worms is opened. Controversy, the one thing that all marketers try to avoid and jump on and snuff out like it's an unattended campfire, is sure to ensue after a rip on the Star Wars enterprise. In fact, I'm sure they teach the avoid-controversy-at-all-costs credo before day one. Why? Because a marketer can't smile through controversy and marketers want to smile and dot their "I's" with smiley faces. After all, marketers are grown up cheerleaders. Sorry for not mentioning that at the top but I was trying to get in good with the cheerleaders - I guess I haven't changed since high school.
Nonetheless, Star Wars, at least the latest installments, suck. They are nothing more than videos for MTV with huge budgets. Astronomical. And the guy who makes them, George Lucas, is a hack. Sure, he's a marketing genius, but a hack.
Now imagine me calling someone a hack. What right do I have? What have I ever done? Want an answer? Well, here it comes anyway: I've never gotten lucky.
There it is: George Lucas, in my not so humble opinion, is nothing more than a hack that got lucky. If you sit down and really think about and analyze his first few Star Wars movies, you'll notice that they are pretty basic - the character development is weak at best and the dialogue... come on. My man can't write a character and in the latest pictures, there is no soul. There is nothing human to touch. The edits are weak as well. It's like Lucas dumbed everything down because he thinks the viewer has no attention spa... hey, here comes my dog Katie. I'm going to pet her now.
Still, there is something to be said for eye-candy. Look at Brittany. Say what you want about her "art," but she is still fun to look at - uneven eyes and all. Therefore, Lucas is the Red Rope Licorice of the eye-candy family.
This makes me angry. I'm sorry I just can't help it. I get so angry that I have to sit down and find something dumb on one of my 367 channels to calm my rage like a cultural lobotomy that keeps me from screaming at the top of my lungs on the front yard while the neighbors pass judgment and think that I'm a psycho even though they have an abandoned ice-cream truck with flat tires on the driveway and a ratty, tattered coach with weaved fabric and two cushions missing next to the dormant, above-ground pool.
I may be a psycho but at least my yard is raked.
Anyway, it's a damn shame that hacks like Lucas, James Cameron and Joe Esterhaus live like sultans in Southern California while important writers like Hubert Selby Jr. collected welfare and lived in relative poverty in the Lower East Side.
It's a damn shame.
I think I heard (or read) that Selby didn't get a dime when his book "Last Exit to Brooklyn" was turned into a movie. I guess that's his own damn fault for being an artist.
But there are many more like Selby that I could mention but won't. I'll end up in front of the TV or on the front yard. I just think that Paul Auster should be getting fat in Bel Air with those other creeps. For that matter, James Welch and Ian Frazer should be millionaires too.
It's not just guys like Lucas either. It's the music biz along with the movie industry (that's funny... industry. Like it's a raw material that is processed into something useful and beneficial by hard-working, blue-collar types.). After seeing the dinero poured into Lucas' movies and hearing songs I used to like being sold to car companies for commercials, I've come to the conclusion that I should just sell out. It's the hip thing that is desirable to the correct demographic. Who wants to be like Selby? You have to admit that the starving artist bit gets old in a hurry, but having a little bit of value isn't too bad either. Someday we all have to sell out and compromise whatever integrity we have in some way or another, but we can always remember today's words of wisdom:
INTERGRITY IS MUCH COOLER THAN $$$$$.
Hey, I'm interested in making money as much as the next guy. Why else would I write an undecipherable opening paragraph like I did? But I realize there is a limit. If by some freak of nature I draw a salary like a professional athlete, that will be good enough for me. I'm not holding out for an extra two million a year when I won't be able to spend the three I'm already getting. No, I'm not a commie, but for some reason we are told things that just don't jibe. We are told to be moral and just and to always do the right thing while, at the same time, we are told to get it while we can. If the world is a rat race, it's OK to be a rat.
Well, I don't want to be a rat.
I would be remiss if I didn't pay at least one compliment to Mr. Lucas. After all, as a seven-year old I loved Star Wars and even dressed up like Luke Skywalker for Halloween. Not all of his dialogue is garbage. The character Chewbacca, known to his friends as Chewy (he's a "Wookie"), who is some kind of Sasquatch, but unlike Big Foot, Chewy wears a utility belt like a bike messenger's pouch across his chest and has opposable thumbs, which allows him to operate a gun, open doors and fly space craft.
Anyway, old Chewy was in a scene when his partner Han Solo, played by the hunky baby-boomer Harrison Ford, was being lowered into a chamber to be frozen a la Ted Williams and delivered to some bad guy named Jaba the Hut. As Han was being lowered into the cryogentical freezing thing, Chewy, in his utter dismay of watching his maligned pal wigs out and utters a line that is firmly entrenched in the annals of filmdom for classic writing:
Genius. Pure genius.