We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold."
For many of us of a certain age, the opening line of Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas reverberates like a great gong, tapping slightly addled memories of another life, 30 years gone, another universe. The news of his suicide this week brought it all back.
It was a time when the weekly arrival of Rolling Stone meant "Do not disturb" for the next three hours. Nothing published today compares in terms of pop culture impact to RS in its prime. It was the bible of the counterculture. We devoured Lester Bangs and Ralph Gleason because what they wrote about the new Neil Young album meant something, because Bob Dylan's lyrics had mythic importance.
And when the magazine published one of Thompson's insane "reports," accompanied by the equally bizarre illustrations of Ralph Steadman, well, hipness could get no hipper. It was like we were all in on the same stony joke -- all of us, reader, writer, artist, publisher.
Interview Nixon? No problem. Pass me that joint, first.
Like so many other aspiring "gonzo" writers there and elsewhere, I fell under Thompson's spell. Thankfully, very little of what I wrote in those days remains. The truth is, no one else could write like Thompson because no one else who imbibed illegal substances the way Thompson did could sit up at a typewriter long enough to put a sentence to paper. He didn't just write gonzo, he lived gonzo.
In the mid-1980s, it was my strange fortune to encounter Thompson by phone on a number of occasions. On one, I was assigned to track Thompson down for a Saturday Review magazine cover photo. "Cover of Saturday Review? Sure, I'd kill for that," he said. But then he dodged my follow-up calls for weeks.
Finally, someone in his entourage called to say he would cooperate and that he was holed up at the Drake Hotel in New York under an assumed name. The name? The agent wasn't sure. That was our problem. The photographer, being a resourceful sort, called the front desk and asked for "Mr. Raoul Duke," Thompson's Doonesbury alter ego. Contact!
Using a fifth of Wild Turkey and the negotiating skills of a Grisham hero, the photographer finally got Thompson to pose for a startlingly close-up cover shot. Thompson hated the picture, and after the article came out he was quoted as saying he couldn't say the word "Saturday" anymore without retching. We never had occasion to speak again.
In recent years, when I saw Thompson in photos or when I read his columns, it seemed to me he'd become something of a parody of himself. Running around stoned out of your mind is edgy stuff at 30; it loses its charm at 67. It also tends to lead to acts of anguished desperation, like shooting yourself and leaving your wife and son to find your shattered body. It was inevitable, I suppose, but sad, nonetheless. The man was a brilliant writer. He even wrote his own epitaph in Fear and Loathing:
"No explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. ... 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."
R.I.P, Duke. You had a nice run.
-- Bruce VanWyngarden is editor of The Memphis Flyer.