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:


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,

and people are looking for reasons. The smart say they can’t understand it, and the dumb snort cocaine in rich discos and stomp to a feverish beat. Which is heard all over the country, or at least felt ... Journalism is a Ticket to Ride, to get personally involved in the same news other people watch on TV – which is nice, but it won’t pay the rent, and people who can’t pay their rent in the Eighties are going to be in trouble. We are into a very nasty decade, a brutal Darwinian crunch that will not be a happy time.

Doc’s always said that when the going gets weird the weird turn pro. The difference between Doc and the rest of us is that he always sees the strange coming down as reality before anyone else – he first proposed to write a book on the death of the American Dream in 1967, a time when the only place you’d see ‘Darwinian crunch’ printed was on the cocktail menu at Trader Vic’s. Doc’s journalism operates on a level that makes the Establishment uneasy and gives its political pronouncements all the congruity of powdered chalk. Every major media outlet claims to report the truth; they must. The whole business of American journalism is based on the certainty of Truth. What Doc realises is that Truth has become a commodity to be bought, sold or spun into whatever cloth the highest bidder decides. The academics call this process intellectual mendacity, the Papists call it Obedience of the Spirit, the politicians call it Conventional Wisdom, and we in journalism call it Objectivity.

American journalism has one rule: a reporter can go as far as he likes so long as he keeps Objectivity and editorial tradition in sight. But Objective political reporting on the American condition over the past twenty years has not had a history of being overwhelmingly accurate. Every reporter lies awake at night knowing that the editorial system that punts his words will not – with rare exceptions – let him write from the gut; that same writer is also trying to figure how best to balance, without getting fired, the Truth he’s hearing with the reality he’s experiencing. Anyone who has worked on an American newspaper or magazine will tell you, usually no later than the second drink, that reporting and editing events for American consumption during the Reagan-Bush years has turned into a spin-doctoring war between Them & Us, Truth versus Reality.

Now great care must be taken in illuminating this very real political, economic and artistic rift taking place all across America, as well as the problems that go along with reporting on the rupture. It’s at this illustrative juncture in the story that the sophists start preaching dogmatics, the out-of-work bricklayers open up with full-auto AK-47s on thirty people in a McDonald’s lunch line, and the argument over how to define and apply Constitutional freedoms begins to turn ugly.

Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr, the great liberal Southern jurist on the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals, who former Alabama Governor George Wallace called an ‘integrating, carpet-bagging, scalawagging, bald-faced liar’, explained the flammable Constitutional argument over Them v. Us when he wrote:

Religious differences, race differences, sex differences, age differences and political differences are not the same. It is no mark of intellectual soundness to treat them as if they were. Moreover, if the life of the law has been experience, then the law should be realistic enough to treat certain issues as special: racism is special in American history. A judiciary that cannot declare that is of little value.

The Conventional Wisdom of the American body politic dictates that any distinction between Them & Us or Truth & Reality implies the existence of a Constitutional chasm that creates a crack in the Great American Melting-Pot. To write about this abyss with any reality, goes the Conventional Wisdom, smacks of either psychological instability, complex and absurd conspiracy theories, or personal and unpopular political agendas on the part of the individual. Just recall the number of affronted and indignant senators during the Clarence Thomas hearings who refused to believe the reality that women sexually harassed by their bosses don’t quit their jobs because they need the money.

The social spark for Constitutional provocation is much simpler than any concocted intrigue: They have their world and We have ours – the two overlap nicely, but they don’t completely coincide in some very significant and eruptive areas. ‘Gonzo’ – which uses phrases such as ‘water wit’ and ‘brain dead’ to describe what the New York Times national desk referred to as ‘the senior senator from Utah’ during the Judge Thomas hearings – is the often fatal condition that strikes a reporter when he discovers that reality’s hard lump overwhelms the Truths that make up the Conventional Wisdom. ‘Gonzo ... the phrase worked,’ Doc explained. ‘All of a sudden I had my own standing head.’

As Songs of the Doomed so spectacularly illustrates, Doc’s the first American writer since John Dos Passos to tap the eroding and elemental fury within the American Dream and make the compost picture of American society in the last quarter of the 20th century work so elegantly on paper. I discovered two curious things about Doc’s writing when I was his editor at Esquire magazine. His songs require very little (if any) editing, and his words and images are so powerful that they scare the bejesus out of the Conventional Wisdom because his pen seems to have been dipped in the same inkwell used by the hellscribes who wrote the Old Testament. Doc never forgot that the only weapon truly feared by the Philistines is the jawbone of an ass. His philosophy is to never apologise, never explain. Ralph Steadman, who continues to hold the world record for stepping into the fray as Docs’ Joshua, sums up the feeling best when he says here: ‘Hunter may be the reincarnation of Lono – the God returned after 1500 years of wandering like a lovesick child to save his people – and his beloved American Constitution ... He is your saviour and he is guardian of all you profess to hold dear. In his weirdness he illuminates the faults in your reason and etches the silhouettes of your antics against a pure white background like Balinese shadow puppets’

Diagnosing the American condition from his perch at the Owl farm, screaming at his pet peacocks to shut up or be shot until the dobermans ate them, all Doc had to do during the Eighties was aim his giant satellite receiver toward the heavens to pull down the network news and watch the Great American Dream turn into the Great American Scheme. By the mid-Eighties the age of Fear & Loathing hit America with such a vengeance that it even shocked Doc. Las Vegas – where Hunter had first gone in the summer of 1971 on a busman’s vacation that turned into a ‘savage journey into the heart of the American Dream’ – was now the site of the annual Southern Baptist Convention. Not only had the weird turned pro, but a few thousand holy rollers hauling wooden crosses on their backs were going door-to-door and casino-to-casino to convert their Philistines. Fear & Loathing had turned into a national charismatic anarchy, leaving those who had ‘reaped the whirlwind and rode the tiger’ of the Seventies to ‘dame with the doom’ of the Eighties.

When Doc first gained real national attention in the early Seventies for what the Establishment called his bizarre and repulsive views on Richard Nixon and the 1972 Presidential campaign he constituted a real problem for the American press – specifically, those pundits, political tastemakers, and powerbrokers who lived within the pernicious confines of the Beltway that surrounds Washington. Doc had already written two books and served hard time as a New Jersey sports columnist, Air Force non-com, and Latin American correspondent for the defunct National Observer before getting into national politics. And his books, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas and Hells Angels, tapped a nerve in the American psyche so powerful that by the time he hit the campaign trail the Establishment could only portray the realities he wrote about as an example of the level to which public discourse had sunk.

Hunter certainly rode out the Seventies with unimaginable success and, maybe because of it, the manner in which his reputation (‘Lear’s fool’ and ‘Washington’s hair shirt’ are two that come to mind) was misused by others out to make a quick buck in the Eighties smothered the dignity of his words and the exemplary precision of his thought. There’s even a guy at a university in Florida who’s been given money to write Doc’s biography – a great honour to be sure, but such an exchange of cash in these bare-boned times is a sure sign of someone pushing the idea that a literary life is over. A lot of people in the journalism business will tell you that Doc disappeared and that his writing suffered after Nixon resigned as his Baldrick and Hollywood released Where the buffalo roam, the wretched and forgettable movie loosely based on Doc’s life. Actually, Doc’s columns in the San Francisco Examiner were so good during the Eighties that his words scared a lot of people; so dead centre in aim that Songs is an astonishing collection of old newspaper reportage and new personal anecdote; at once so beautiful, horrifying and profound that those reading it will never again see the USA in quite the same way.

Nor should they. Hunter S. Thompson is America, and anyone who truly wants a grip on the dread and chaos the Philistines have used for the past 20 years to hoodwink the Land of Liberty and Justice for All needs to read Songs of the Doomed: part political atlas, part morning paper and part adventure novel, Songs is three remarkable books on the fatal condition of America. Hunter’s a journalist first and foremost, and he’s one of the last honest members of a profession blackened and lame from 11 years of Reagan/Bush spindoctoring. Reporters and social observers of Doc’s calibre were not so much forced out of the scene as politically pummelled underground during the Eighties. As usual, Doc ascertained this trend was coming long before anyone else. He first detected the drift on the day he picked Jimmy Carter to be President – the day Doc calls his Leap of Faith.

‘I had already picked Carter in ‘74,’ Doc writes in Songs:

It was a special assignment as everything was after Saigon. I was still on the [Rolling Stone] masthead. It was an honour roll of journalists, but the people on it – well, all of them were no longer with Rolling Stone. I didn’t like that they put on the cover that I endorsed Carter. I picked him as a gambler. Endorsing isn’t something a journalist should do. [Rolling Stone] was an Outlaw magazine in California. In New York it became an Establishment magazine and I have never worked well with people like that.

Not only were the ‘people like that’ beginning to assume control of American journalism: they were taking over the few publications left with the money to bankroll Doc and handle his velocity. By the beginning of 1981, Esquire magazine was the last bastion of mass-market independent thought in America with enough money to let Doc loose. The late editor Harold Hayes, who navigated Esquire’s editorial department through the Sixties and early Seventies, made the monthly periodical into a great American magazine because he refused to allow his editors and writers to perceive any issue as taboo. Every outlaw and political persuasion was welcome in offices still electric with the soul of Ernest Hemingway, the flaming passion of James Baldwin, and the force and animation of Mailer, Wolfe, Vidal, Buckley, Burroughs and Genet. The editors who followed Hayes, men like Byron Dobell and the late Don Erickson, carried on the tradition, ensuring that each new generation of editors understood that Esquire’s mandate was to remain on the cutting edge of journalism and literature. Although Hayes was long gone from Esquire by the time I became an editor at the magazine, shortly after joining the staff he sent me a congratulatory postcard and an invitation to join him for lunch at the Russian Tea Room. Hayes told me that the single most important quality an Esquire editor or contributor needed was the ability to smile through the apocalypse. And no one knew how to do that better then Hunter.

But the Generation of Swine, Doc’s collective noun for the Wall Street weasels and Beltway bums who managed, manipulated and mauled the American Dream during the money-mad Eighties, had taken over Esquire by the time Hunter came back to our pages in 1981. The magazine’s new owners were set on turning Esquire into a Cosmopolitan for men with such exceedingly low testosterone levels that management forced us to run a turgid monthly column in which an Esquire editor went on a date with some Hollywood starlet in the hope that a kernel of carnal knowledge could be picked up and transmitted to guys who were having a hard time getting laid. Doc’s high-octane prose of the Cuba-to-key West Freedom Flotilla just didn’t fit alongside the smarm stories and columns crafted for no other reason than to keep advertisers content and Reagan Washington impressed. Spiking such stories was as much a difference of style as of philosophy. One camp wanted to publish a consequential magazine, knowing that exciting writing on controversial topics and a robust exchange of ideas had historically cultivated readers and advertisers. But the new management remained intent on publishing a fuzzy/warm consumer guide for the male ego in which political contention of any sort spelled financial turmoil. Slowly but with precision, management replaced Esquire’s editors with account executives. The MBAs said this trend made financial sense. ‘Why are you spending $5000 in expenses sending Thompson to Key West when the story he’s there to write will be covered on television?’ a furious Esquire ad exec asked me at the time. ‘The big money is to be had publishing low-cost advertorials and tying out other coverage into the kinds of stories that we can use as sales tools to get advertisements.’ Controversy, courage and passion were out. Money, power and greed were in.

There was no real solution to the baffling problem of editorial integrity without the money to pay for it, and the only certainty that anyone who visited with Doc could agree on was that a lot of voices were being dropped suddenly and too many people who should have known better were grimly accepting the tragedy as the cost of getting a paycheck. Journalists had become the servants of Reagan America, some more willingly than others, but enough had been signed on or shanghaied to persuade the public that any economic ill or social problem facing the country could be fixed by throwing a patriotic parade or giving a Federally-funded abortion clinic counsellor ten years in jail for advising a woman on her legitimate rights. The Constitution had been turned inside out; and, in the process, the American Dream was smothered by a complacent system of social justice based on politically-motivated criminal investigations, by so apathetic system of economic justice which dictated that people be tinned away from hospital for lack of insurance, and by a political system so desperate for something to believe in that it needed to legislate an individual’s belief in God and a disbelief in any artiste form that suggested otherwise. Doc uses a sly passage to ride down this nasty undercurrent in Songs. He says the one problem the rich have never solved is ‘how to live in peace with the servants. Sooner or later, the maid has to come into the bedroom, and if you’re only paying her $150 a week, she is going to come in hungry, or at least curious, and the time is long past when it was legal to cut their tongues out to keep them from talking.’

They never could cut out Doc’s tongue, so They did the next best thing. I was in northern Russia, hunting bear out of Archangel when a colleague from Moscow arrived with the package Gerry Goldstein had sent me from Aspen. The news was not good. Doc had ken charged with possession of drugs and dynamite, and sexual assault. ‘Hunter S. Thompson, in an episode reminiscent of some of his books, has been charged with sexually assaulting a woman writer who came to his house ostensibly to interview him last week.’ read the lead of the news report in the Aspen Times Daily dated 28 February 1990. A woman in the business of selling sexual aids and bad lingerie claimed that Doc threatened and beat her after she rebuffed his sexual advances. The ensuing search by police allegedly turned up a variety of drugs and explosives. The whole incident dripped of bad fish wrapped in cheap paper. In ironic spite of a reputation to the contrary and concocted by people who don’t know him, Hunter S. Thompson has always been a gentleman. We tacked the news clipping to a tree, blew holes in it, and sent the remains back to Pitkin County Chief Deputy Attorney Chip McCrory.

Gerry Goldstein, Hal Haddon and a top team of attorneys and friends from the National Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers had Doc’s hanging ‘dismissed without prejudice’ by the time I made back to the Owl Farm that Christmas. The Pitkin County DA was also under investigation by a special prosecutor for the felony crime of conspiracy to commit perjury. The bust was a set-up (Doc recounts the events surrounding his ‘selective and malicious prosecution’ in Songs), but Doc had been dragged through the streets and it was too late to stop the fantasy of Gail Palmer-Slater from becoming a part of the Legend of Lono, thereby obfuscating the real story that Doc’s victory (and willingness to fight for his rights) was a victory for America, too. Such struggles are always there, but they are rarely acted on.

‘There’s hysteria running rampant in our nation’s capital and our local statehouses,’ Gerry Goldstein explains in Songs.

It’s accompanied by serious talk of reducing citizen rights in an effort to combat the dreaded plague of drugs. To demagogue about drugs is certainly simpler, and much more popular, than the difficult task of balancing budgets. But escalating the punishment for drug offenders, bankrupting our state and national coffers warehousing these poor souls, will hardly solve our nation’s social ills. It’s only going to create more poverty. And poverty is a greater root cause of crime than drugs could ever hope to be.

No matter the mess, Doc was in vigorous spirit over the holiday season and Owl Farm was still spearheading the rebellion of the hanged. The old gang was together, the NFL playoffs were in full swing, and there was talk of heading off to the Superbowl, followed by a spring field trip to Moscow and the bear forests north. All that changed after I cabled Doc from Moscow about what I’d discovered about Lenin’s brain and how the pre-coup KGB was asking questions about my writing and movements. ‘This is a very weird story,’ he wrote back, offering Owl Farm as a hideout for me to complete my Russia book, which was already being assailed by American and Soviet officials. ‘I will fight to the death for yr Right to publish it. We are a free people, Craig, and if anybody tries to muzzle or croak you, or stifle yr song in any way at all, I will stab them in the nuts.’

Steadman’s right. Hunter might well be the reincarnation of Lono – at least for those who believe that the social/political order should be prevented from locking men and women into values or rigid forms of consciousness that remain unquestioned. And that ain’t preaching. We should feel damned lucky that the Good Doctor is hard at work up in the Woody Creek redoubt. Freedom’s fate could not be in more passionate hands. Res ipsa Loquitur, Doc.