When the going gets weird

A. Craig Copetas

  • Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson
    Picador, 316 pp, £15.95, October 1991, ISBN 0 330 31994 9

The winter of 1978 is full of strange and apocalyptic memories now. Doc and I were weird-betting a college basketball game in the gentrified servants’ quarters of a large Georgetown estate house that December. Magic Johnson was playing for Michigan that Saturday night and I’d gambled that three successive baskets would be made by players with odd-numbered jerseys. I was ahead a few bucks when the Ohio State centre put a savage elbow into Magic’s young chin and Doc’s screams of ‘foul’ were interrupted by the sight of a White House adviser about to break open a vial of cocaine. Doc slapped me on the shoulder and muttered ‘Jeeesus’ – a sure sign of impending doom.

Doc always sees things before anyone else. As Magic picked himself up off the court, Doc first glanced quickly at the other fifteen or so people in the spacious loft, and then bored in on the looming White House official. Doc poured two long shots of whisky and offered his prognosis. He said there was venom in the air, a generation of swine were nearing maturity, and life was going to be a whole lot different and a hell of a lot more ominous for anyone who believed in the guarantees of the Constitution of the United States. I remembered that crazy night in Washington a few days ago, right after I heard that Magic had to leave the Lakers because he tested positive for the HIV virus. The tragedy of the Magicman kicked in the memory of that December 1978, the night that I think Doc first started working on the lyrics of what are now his Songs of the Doomed.

The American Dream ended bitterly on that cold evening for the nearly seven hundred people who milled around the lower three floors of the townhouse, thrilled that saloonkeeper Fred Moore and CBS heir Bill Paley Jr had convinced Derek and the Dominos to perform live and loud. The food from the Gandy Dancer restaurant was splendid, the wines were vintage and the drugs grown and manufactured by designers with PhDs in botany and chemistry. The acronyms HIV and AIDS were unknown and the only initials to cause anxiety were DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration). The growing voices of America’s neo-conservative movement would later argue that their interpretation of the American Dream, long deferred because of people like Hunter S. Thompson and the satanic rhythms of rock’n’roll bands like Derek and the Dominos, began that night. The problem was that none of the guests who were downstairs enjoying the largesse of a liberal translation of American Constitutional guarantees knew that a fundamental change in the moral and political tone of their world was taking place upstairs.

It was an eclectic and extremely stoned crowd that had assembled for the annual National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) party in the American capital. Although Ronald Reagan was poised to become the arbiter of the collective conscience of America, Jimmy Carter was still President and social liberalism was in full swing – or so those gathered to celebrate a year’s worth of victories for civil liberty in America’s courts and legislatures wanted to believe. The house was richly appointed and hotly packed with congressmen, lawyers physicians, lobbyists, artists, journalists, dope dealers, sports figures and activists of every dogmatic bent, race and biochemical preference. I must be extremely careful in describing what happened next. My attorney Gerry Goldstein of Texas (whose piquant wisdom and expertise in Constitutional law Doc describes in Songs) tells me that it’s best not to be too detailed about events that might lead to arguing the fine points of a statute of limitation in front of the current US Supreme Court. It’s like Doc warns in his new book:

          BEWARE

Today: the Doctor Tomorrow: You.

Nonetheless, this very senior official in the Carter White House allowed a woman the wires later described as ‘the lady from Peru’ to stick a halt-dozen spoonfuls of Bolivian cocaine up his Oval Office nostrils. It was the snort heard round America and the sound ignited a series of horrible nationwide news reports and twisted political events that led to the total humiliation of Jimmy Carter and his presidency and a national witch hunt for combat liberals. (As the American philosopher Yogi Berra once said to those who want confirmation of the obvious, ‘you can look it up.’) But what Doc said to me as we watched that scene play out 13 years ago still rings as the most prophetic warning I’ve heard about the closing decades of the 20th century: ‘Jesus, Craig, we’re all going to die or be indicted now!’

By the time Ronald Reagan entered his second term, I’d been out of America for nearly four years, writing about events taking place in Europe and points East from the relative safety of the foreign desk. Doc sent a note saying that there was a lot of wreckage piling up in the fast lane. Many of our friends were dead or jailed or in the process of withering away because they couldn’t find either an antidote to their own excesses or a remedy for Reagan’s toxification of America. There was no melancholy in Doc’s words – there never has been any sadness – just the durability and vigour of a sailor trying to repair the torn canvas and shattered spars of his ship during the turmoil of a storm. Doc’s a good sailor – and he’s always been the champion of the underdog and God bless him for it. It’s nothing less than an adventure being on the road with Doc, or even sitting in the Woody Creek Tavern, Doc in his baby wolf hat, sipping whisky and talking about how it’s best for writers and journalists to steer a course headlong into the political maelstrom. ‘Happy with whatever ripples I caused in the great swamp of history,’ he explains. One of the tempests Doc writes about in Songs is the Florida criminal trial of dishevelled Palm Beach heiress and cocaine slut Roxanne Pulitzer, and his words on that abominable scene richly echo the gnarled politics that have both paralysed America as a whole and effectively crippled the one thing that Doc holds so dear – the craft of journalism.

Not even the rich feel safe from the wreckage, Doc writes in Songs,

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