Wednesday, February 23, 2005


Boy, talk about having enough!

No, I didn't know him. I may have been introduced to him once; those days are a blur for a number of reasons. But a couple of people have asked for my take on him now, and I'll give it.

The arrival of Hunter Thompson at Rolling Stone came right about at my departure. Six months after the hiring spree which had included me, I think editor/publisher Jann Wenner was doing a number of things, most notably changing the magazine around and cutting back on stuff. One thing he cut back was Earth Times, an "ecology magazine" he'd started soon after we'd moved from above the print-shop at 746 Brannan and into our new office building at 635 3rd St. Jon Carroll had been overseeing it, and he was now back on the Rolling Stone side of things, but people were still getting fired. Rumors spread through the office, always a hotbed of gossip, and Jann saw fit to call a meeting in the reception area (the conference room wasn't finished yet). "I just want you to know that rumors here have gotten out of hand. Yes, we've had to make some changes here, but no, there will be no more people let off."

Twenty-four hours later, Carroll was fired.

Jon Landau came in from Boston and hunkered in Wenner's palatial office with him for a couple of days. The rumor mill said he was after my job, which would explain why he told me he was going to have it. John Burks, our mainstay managing editor, was fired, a terrible blow to morale. I was 21 years old, and had no idea what was happening, or what I'd do. To put it mildly, I was scared, but the magazine still had to come out. Wenner was on a tear, impossible to talk to, secretive and barricaded in his office.

One day I remember he'd gone into the (finally finished) conference room to interview someone. Who was it? Some weird guy with a Beatle wig, they said. Scary guy. He'd left strict orders that he wasn't to be disturbed, but at some point I had something he absolutely had to have, so I asked his secretary, Gretchen Horton, what to do. "Take it in there," she advised. "It'll be okay." So I knocked on the door, opened it when I heard Wenner bark "What?" and handed him the copy. Sure enough, there was a guy smoking cigarettes through an FDR-like cigarette holder, hair looking weird (the wig had come askew), wearing blue-tinted glasses. I handed Jann the stuff, he thanked me, and I left.

This isn't the time or place to tell the now-famous story of my firing, but it happened very shortly afterwards, and I had a pretty hard nervous breakdown, which I tended at some friends' farm in Elmira, Oregon. A strange artist known as Mr. Peanut showed up at one point, a guy who was living with a friend of mine in L.A., and I caught a ride back down to San Francisco with him. At loose ends, I got pretty paranoid, and developed a strong hatred for Rolling Stone and everything associated with it.

That's why, when they began serializing Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, I pretty much ignored it. Not that I was unaware of Thompson's work: I'd read him in Ramparts and its successor/competitor Scanlan's, and I'd also read Hell's Angels when I was still in college. The straight journalism pieces he did I rather admired, because it was of the same first-person, edgy style and voice that I, along with dozens of others of my colleagues, was trying to evolve. (Someone mailed me an early piece of mine from Creem last year, and I cringed when I read it; I wasn't imitating Thompson, but I was imitating myself). I thought Fear and Loathing was awful, self-indulgent twaddle (and boy, having committed enough of it myself, I thought I knew from twaddle), and I was pissed off that Jann's pursuit of celebrities had resulted in his giving Thompson the licence to waste space with it in the magazine.

I still have no desire to read it, and I loathed the film they made of it, but once Thompson started covering the Presidential election in 1972, I enjoyed reading his dispatches. But there was no doubt about it: he was getting weirder. Particularly after the articles were collated into a book and he retreated to Aspen and ran for sheriff, I began to get tired of him.

So, I suspect, did he. Certainly he did over the next decade. He became a cartoon character in Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury. Interestingly, the Doonesbury home page today has this HST quote: "A lot of people want to grow up to be firemen and President. But nobody wants to grow up to be a cartoon character." Trudeau has often said that Uncle Duke wasn't literally Thompson, and I'm sure Thompson knew it, but as Thompson's writing came harder, he hit the lecture trail and, well, acted like a cartoon character. He'd take the podium with a bottle of Wild Turkey in his hand and rant and rave about whatever came to mind, collect his fee, and split. He'd be swarmed by admirers, usually young men with nascent substance-abuse problems and literary/journalistic aspirations, and hang out with them -- or not -- and eventually go on to the next gig. I felt embarrassed for him, because I thought he could probably still do good work if he could bat the demons, and the preppie leeches, back.

I also had cause to think about this because I'd been good friends with Lester Bangs, whose legend is similar to, but somewhat different than Thompson's. I recently read John Morthland's fine collection of Lester's work, Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste and was amazed at how much passion was in Lester's writing, and how much thought he put into what masqueraded as spontaneous composition. Had Lester lived another ten or twenty years, he might well have found himself a celebrity, and although writer's block had never been a problem of his (or mine, for that matter), he could be pretty easily seduced into partying. Would he have wound up a caricature of himself?

Would Thompson ever find the thread again? I wondered from time to time. Because what he suffered from was an addiction, the same one performers suffer from, the desire for adulation and exposure in a field where that mostly comes quietly and passively. It's easy enough to say he should have turned his back on it, but let's face it, most of us have never been in that position, and who's to judge just how easy that might have been?

I certainly know what it's like being depressed when you look at the ruins of your career, and wondering if it's possible to put it back together, and, if so, if it's worth it. Fortunately, I've never had a fascination with guns, or with living in solitude, or with chemically enhancing myself past the boundaries of good sense, although I understand its attraction. So perhaps I have an insight into what happened there the other day.

Or not. Frankly, in the end it's not as important as the work he left, and it's none of my -- or your -- business. I hope he's found peace and that he's happy, and if his sad end serves as a sober-up call for some of the idiots who thought the liquor and the pills were what made the writing, then it's not entirely tragic.

What is tragic, though, is that if a similarly distinctive and unusual voice appeared on the scene today, the world of print would have no place for it. Long articles are long gone, replaced by bite-sized chunks for the ADD generation. Magazines don't take risks because they don't want to offend and lose advertisers, and anyway, they're making little enough money, so they depend on staff writers to do the whole book. Freelancers don't have a chance, even established ones. Nope, a Hunter Thompson today would be tempted to put the gun to his head before his name ever appeared in print. And that's a tragedy which needs attending to, I'd say.

No comments: