The American Dream & Hunter Thompson's 'Fear & Loathing'
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July 13, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 28
The American Dream & Hunter Thompson's 'Fear & Loathing'
By Lucian K. Truscott IV
I was in the market for a used motorcycle a few weeks ago. Not a big one, but not a puny one, either: perhaps a 350 Honda, or one of those single cylinder BSA road/trail bikes with the big knobby tire, to rattle the spine and the brain. The last bike I rode was a Honda Hawk, a 305, with big sweepy road fenders and engine fairings that weighed it down to a sedate 60 or 65 top cruising speed. It rode nicely -- had a mute, slightly wheezing exhaust note, and having been around for almost 10 years, a healthy disrespect for any rider who dared push it past its regular operational limits. I did not. We got along fine...
Things are beginning to look pretty weird as we go rip-snorting into the summer of 1972. This time last year I was rooting around the streambeds of Northern New Mexico and Colorado, in search of the elusive trout. A noble pursuit, that. Rarely does one come across anything quite as direct, as right-up-front clean as the age-old drama of man vs. trout. I spent long afternoons, as I recall, scurrying in and out of the underbrush, dodging those Rocky Mountain thundershowers, constantly flipping that little Mepps spinner upstream, aiming for the eddy just this side of the boulder where the creek turns. I hooked a luncher in that pool twice, I mean he was a real geezer, came all the way out of the water once on me and threw the little spinner a good 10 feet...
I'd like to think he's still there, or at least in that stretch of stream, between the cliffs where the mesas come together, defying every effort to remove him, proud and fat, with a girth you couldn't circle with both hands. Of course he probably isn't -- trout like that one meet their match sooner or later. Still, I'd like it if he is still riding herd over the Rio Hondo, hanging out, getting fat, growing older...
Where was I? Oh, yeah, back on the Rio Hondo. I should have stayed there for a month, snug in the valley that leads out to the Taos ski area, worried only about what the Browns and the Natives and the Brookies were feeding on from day to day. Their appetites generally changed with the weather, so even that wouldn't have been too much strain. Instead I jumped in the car and took off north, up past Alamosa and Buena Vista, across Independence Pass and down into Aspen, chasing the action void, looking to fill it, looking for something to do with my days and my nights, looking for pleasure.
Hunter Thompson lived in Aspen then, and his ranch, located outside town about 10 miles, tucked away up a valley with National Forest land on every side, was the first place I stopped. It was late afternoon and Thompson was just getting up, bleary-eyed and beaten, shaded from the sun by a tennis hat, sipping a beer on the front porch.
I got to know him while I was still in the Army in the spring of 1970, when he and a few other local crazies were gearing up for what would become the Aspen Freak Power Uprising, a spectacular which featured Thompson as candidate for sheriff, with his neighbor Billy for coroner. They ran on a platform which promised, among other things, public punishment for drug dealers who burned their customers, and a campaign guaranteed to rid the valley of real estate developers and "nazi greedheads" of every persuasion. In a compromise move toward the end of the campaign, Thompson promised to "eat mescaline only during off-duty hours." The non-freak segment of the voting public was unmoved and he was eventually defeated by a narrow margin.
In the days before the Freak Power spirit, Thompson's ranch served as a war room and R&R camp for the Aspen political insurgents. Needless to say there was rarely a dull moment. When I arrived last summer, however, things had changed. Thompson was in the midst of writing a magnum opus, and it was being cranked out at an unnerving rate. I was barely across the threshold when I was informed that he worked (worked?) Monday through Friday and saved the weekends for messing around. As usual, he worked from around midnight until 7 or 8 in the morning and slept all day. There was an edge to his voice that said he meant business. This was it. This was a venture that had no beginning or end, that even Thompson himself was having difficulty controlling.
"I'm sending it off to Random House in 20,000-word bursts," he said, drawing slowly on his ever-present cigarette holder. "I don't have any idea what they think of it. Hell, I don't have any idea what it is."
"What's it about?" I asked.
"Searching for The American Dream in Las Vegas," replied Thompson coolly.
Sports Illustrated had sent him out there to cover the Mint 400, a marathon off-the-road race for ultimate dune buggies and dirt bikes, and Rolling Stone had him cover the National District Attorneys' Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs at the same time.
"Now the fuckers are refusing to pick up the tab for the white Cadillac convertible I rented while I was there," Thompson said. "They couldn't understand why I rented a Cadillac. I told them you don't go looking for the fucking American Dream in a Volkswagen. A white Cadillac convertible. Nothing less."
Thompson found it rather difficult to cope with either event as a subject to cover in conventional journalistic terms, so he delved deeply into a process he calls "Gonzo Journalism" and came up with "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: a Savage Journey to the Heart of The American Dream."
This is where the going gets tough, because now I've got to tell you what he's done with this book. He has permanently altered the landscape of The American Dream, that's what he's done. In one fell swoop, he's created a modern cross between Kerouac's "On the Road" and "The Dharma Bums." This book is the final word, a brilliant vision, a terrible magnificently funny telling of what happened to this country in the 1960s. Thompson has a firm grip on a spirit that has been crowding the backbone of America like a lazy German farmer with a cattle prod in a hurry to get the herd home from the mountain. "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is a spinal tap, a mainline jolt of drug-induced adventurism. It explains without explaining; it captures the air of the tumultuous last years of the '60s.
I remember scoffing when I read the epilogue of "Moving Through Here," Don McNeill's collection of Voice pieces, chronicling the East Village at its height and to its depths. Paul Williams wrote that "it is important to note that Don was an adventurer, he spent as much energy and courage on psychedelic exploration as any American pioneer..." I was skeptical because at the time it seemed ridiculous, this "psychedelic exploration." How could a person experience what is truly an adventure by simply taking a drug? Wasn't Paul Williams just shot full of the hippie fixation on acid as the pathway to the New Frontier, the key to "oneness," the unlocked door to the egoless self, a tomorrow without leaders and followers? Perhaps he was. That's the way the thinking ran around the time McNeill and Williams were friends. Those were the hopes and the dreams that psychedelic exploration sought to fulfill. Their fantasy was the arena of the psychedelic guru, the Acid Priest.
Thompson has taken these starry-eyed psychedelic fantasies of a New Age and sent them crashing headlong into a brutal brick wall of reality, served up in relentless racy prose that makes the best of Tom Wolfe's efforts (including "Electric Acid Koolaid Test") look pale in comparison. What Thompson has done with "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is to separate the myth from the reality. He has written the book that describes as no other has the only real knowledge which results from the taking of a drug like LSD or mescaline. You gobble drugs with him on the first page, and you're stone right through till the end.
This is the way things really are, he says. This is the separate reality. This is the way you stumble, this is the way you fall; this is the wonder, and this is the horror. This is the amazing world of hungry maniacs turned loose on Las Vegas. If there's an American Dream, we'll find it, by God. We'll wrap the fucker up in Jimson Weed and eat that, too! We'll take this thing as far as necessary. There's no stopping us now, nosier. This is it. Gimme a handful of those crumbling mescaline tabs. If we work this thing right, we'll make it. If not...soak that rag in ether. Prepare for the worst. The Mushroom is not far ahead.
It's all there in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" in total onslaught prose, that diesel truck rolling past your eyeballs on wheels of words, fueled by every imaginable alcoholic liquid and mind-altering chemical substance known to man. These are the Acid Outlaws, and if you're not careful they'll run right over you.
So if you're a middle-class parent and you want to know why your 15-year-old daughter had glazed eyeballs the last time she came home from a picnic, if you want to know why she went straight to bed and stayed there for 24 hours, read this book. Forget all the books "on drugs." "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" will give you the feeling, the visceral chill of a pill going down the tube, the quiet wait, and the viscous come-on, the exquisite rush of drug-madness.
We were sitting in the Brasserie a couple of weeks ago, eating a late breakfast. Thompson had just taken out his marine airhorn, a distress signal meant for use on the high seas, and summoned the waiter.
"Bring us a dozen bloody marys," said Thompson to the stunned waiter. The waiter hustled off. Thompson was being interviewed by a young lady from Warhol's Interview magazine. She looked like a '40s movie star. She had not read the book.
"What's it about?" she asked.
Thompson looked at her through lime-colored shades, and fixed her with a hard stare.
"You want to hear the first sentence?" he replied. She did.
"We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold," receded Thompson.
"Oh," replied the Interview girl.
I read the next one. "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 100 miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: 'Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?"
"Oh," said the Interview girl.
The interview went badly, but the book does not. Along with his "attorney," a mysterious Dr. Gonzo, and a trunkful of "...grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers...a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amylase," Thompson invades Las Vegas, stays at the best hotels, runs up a bill which works out to something like $48 her hour, makes a stab at covering the Mint 400 and the Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (under the influence of narcotics and dangerous drugs, of course), shoots up the desert with a .357 Magnum, has a run-in with "Savage Lucy" who has "teeth like baseballs, eyes like jellied fire" and endlessly paints portraits of Barbra Streisand, and observes "a 344-pound police chief from Waco, Texas, necking openly with his 290-pound wife (or whatever woman he had with him) when the lights were turned off for a Dope Film." This, he describes, "was just barely tolerable on mescaline...but with a head full of acid, the sight of two fantastically obese human beings far gone in a public grope while 1000 cops all around them watched a movie about 'the dangers of marijuana' would not be emotionally acceptable."
Finally Thompson and the attorney stop at an all-night diner, and in the course of ordering tacos and coffee, ask the waitress if she knows where The American Dream is. She turns to the short order man, Lou, and the following exchange takes place:
Waitress: Five tacos, one taco burger. Do you know where the American Dream is?
Lou: What's that? What is it?
Attorney: Well, we don't know, we were sent out here from San Francisco to look for the American Dream, by a magazine, to cover it.
Lou: Oh, you mean a place.
Attorney: A place called the American Dream.
Lou: Is that the old Psychiatrist's Club?
Waitress: I think so.
Attorney: The old Psychiatrist's Club?
Lou: Old Psychiatrist's Club, it's on Paradise...Are you guys serious?
Attorney: Oh, no honest, look at that car, I mean, do I look like I'd own a car like that?
Lou: Could that be the old Psychiatrist's Club? It was a discotheque place...
Thompson swears he has it on tape.
Indeed. The American Dream. An ex-discotheque which used to be called the Psychiatrist's Club, located on Paradise Avenue just outside Las Vegas. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in his review in the Times, holds that Thompson never found the American Dream, that he in fact knew it didn't exist to begin with, which completely misses the point. The American Dream is Hunter S. Thompson and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, loaded full of mescaline and ether, cackling and babbling like kids run amok in a candy store, flying down the main drag of Las Vegas in a white Cadillac convertible on their way to a "soundproof suit" in the Flamingo hotel, a hot-pink structure which features 24-hour gambling and lord only knows what else. Kerouac did it in old Fords, hitchhiking, riding the rails, camping out in mud huts and picking tomatoes, climbing mountains, inhaling the thin air and contemplating the cosmos. Searching for truth, talking all night in two-room flats, reading poetry, charged full of energy that was mostly wonder and genius. That was Kerouac's American Dream.
But then Kerouac could drive old Route 40, stop at one-pump gas stations, meet friends on Times Square, and worry about life. Old 40? How may reading this even remember old 40? It was the two lane blacktop that connected the two coasts, remember? Atlantic City, Wheeling, Columbus, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, San Francisco...I rode old 40 on a bicycle, the stretches of it that still existed, at any rate, a few years ago. A few years ago, hell. It's going on 10 years now. Today you can barely find that lovely old road, pushing its way through corn fields and wheat fields, through every little town that cared to raise itself above the plains on the way West.
Interstate 70. Today. A million lanes wide, and a million miles per hour...get in that left lane and stand on it...stop at a Holiday Inn, eat at Gino's, or better still, take a jet. Still, there is a lot of Old 40 in Thompson's book, between the lines. There is the same spirit of adventure, the same yearning for that which amazes, for that which glistens and shines out there on the road ahead. You can roar back and forth across America, and you can roar from hotel to hotel escaping capture by the skin off your sweaty neck, and it's all the same. Pushing things right to the limit...if it looks good try it, and by all means don't pass anything up. Get in there and churn for all it's worth. Shoot for the moon. Load up on credit cards and money, or load up on youth, or load up on drugs, and carry it to the coasts, the four winds, to the limits.
The girl from Interview magazine wanted some anecdotes from Thompson. The interview was not going like it should, and she was looking for action, excitement, suspense. Thompson wasn't providing it. It was 5.30, and he was eating breakfast.
"Tell her some anecdotes, will you?" he asked me.
"Did you know that Hunter S. Thompson used to live in Greenwich Village?" I asked.
"Oh, big deal," came the reply.
"Have you ever heard the one about the Mushroom?" I asked.
"No. What's that." Her tone was flat and bored.
"The Mushroom. It's the Bruckner Interchange, out where the Cross Bronx Expressway, the Bruckner Expressway, the Whitestone Bridge, and Route 95 come together. The largest interchange in the world. Hunter got us through the Mushroom one night, completely fucked up. It's been written up three times on the front page of the second section of the Times."
"Oh, boy. You guys are a lot of help."
"Forget it," Thompson said, taking another bite of his club sandwich.
"Wait a minute. You ever heard of a Thompson Special?"
"It's a drink. Tequila chased with Wild Turkey. Have you ever tried Tequila chased with Wild Turkey?"
"Oh, wow, I'm leaving." She left. Bored to death...
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