Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The King is Dead; Raoul Duke Cashes His Check

"George W Bush does not speak for me or my son or my mother or my friends or the people I respect in this world. We didn't vote for these cheap, greedy little killers who speak for America today - and we will not vote for them again in 2002. Or 2004. Or ever. Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads?"
- Kingdom of Fear, 2003

"At the same time, I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles - a restless idealism on the one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other - that kept me going."
- Paul Kemp, The Rum Diary, 1959

"At one point during the campaign I mentioned Pat Buchanan at McGovern headquarters, for some reason, and Rick Stearns, perhaps the most hardline left-bent ideologue on McGovern's staff, sort of chuckled and said, 'Oh yeah, we're pretty good friends. Pat's the only one of those bastards over there with any principles.' When I mentioned this to another McGovern staffer, he snapped: 'Yeah, maybe so ... like Josef Goebbels had principles.'"
- The Great Shark Hunt, 1975

"We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half-full of cocaine and a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers ... Also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls ... not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked in a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can ..."
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Son-of-a-bitch! But what we want to keep in mind is that "principles" is a very relative term in and about Washington these days - with the diabolical claws of the Neo-Con agenda poised to strike down everything that was once proud and good about being a player in the American Century, at any hot and ruthless instant - so when Dr. Gonzo slipped out the backdoor in an eminently reasonable fashion from within the confines of his rustic home on the outskirts of Woody Creek, Colorado, he must have had an idea just how appropriate a day on which he decided to take his life, resulting in the abject theft of almost every headline on an otherwise non-descript President's Day.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of the Hunter is Gone story has been the way that the mainstream press has handled his passing: Thompson was the black sheep of the family who drank a little too much and drove a little too fast and hung around with a too tough crowd, so the subtext of his death was more a form of resignation than anger, depression or outrage. What had begun at the Kentucky Derby in 1970, as one of the finest essays on the decadent and depraved American experiment, was soon surpassed, by then, into what is the most thoroughly and most horrifically revolutionary pieces of American literature since Henry Miller first hung out with Anais Nin in Paris. It was his signature work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a toxic combination of straight reporting and mystical storytelling which has pushed the envelope on outlaw journalism and inspired the counter-culture for more than 30 years. Surely, critics with a long standing grudge or revisionist motives or total misunderstanding have long maintained that his later years were "wasted" and "meaningless," but such is the way for authors who have accomplished so much at a young age - which the Good Doctor did in spades - and in many ways it seemed that he lived his life until it became joyless and still, once the cinders became too many to endure and the golden fire just burned out.

"I would feel real trapped in this life if I didn't know I could commit suicide at any time," he once told Ralph Steadman, his creative collaborator, who was first paired up with Thompson for the Scanlan's Monthly article at the Kentucky Derby, and remained a lifelong friend.

Nobody but his friends believed it, of course. High-powered media types immediately took to the airwaves to consider what had really went wrong with Thompson ... but the rest of us, no longer pimped by the right-wing media machine or the fast-approaching terror of another election cycle without a fair-and-balanced system to count the votes, all too simply shrugged at the news of his departure for the sweet hereafter and moved along to our own personal form of combat against the voices of the doomed and the damned. There was nothing unusual, it then seemed, about Dr. Gonzo finally calling it a lifetime before another law enforcement official banged on his door with a pink slip demanding his surrender to a treatment facility or a court-ordered psychiatric exam. And if the truth was worse than the image that he tried to sustain ... heck ... there would indeed be nothing earth-shattering there either, because Thompson simply knew it was time to go on, perhaps his final way of taking control of things before they got out of control or too messy to contain.

"By any accepted standard, I have had more than nine lives. I counted them up once and there were 13 times I almost and maybe should have died," the Good Doctor once said, and who would have doubted him. Suicide was an act that seemed a fitting, if tragic, end to one enormously singular existence.

His next release after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 - perhaps his crowning achievement, and the one that will be read for generations to come - a vicious and down-low manifesto on the US presidential electoral process in which he wrote that "Nixon represents that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise". Thompson was right then, as he is now, about our current Child Preznut - as logical and ideological benefactor to the Nixonian style of addition-by-subtraction politics with a touch of Orwellian hyperbole and vile circumlocution - who has already transformed the concepts of security and freedom into fear and ignorance. At this intolerable rate of profound stupidity and separatist language not seen since the build up of live batteries at Fort Sumter, the AARP will be rounded up like a pack of Taliban anarchists and branded with a supporting-gay-marriage scar while the Rove dysinformation robots auto-fax talking points to the FOX News puppets about the choice Americans must make between body armor for the troops and grandma eating cat food stew while waiting in line all Soviet-like for toilet paper.

All of this rages on while the Good Doctor is sitting beyond the horizon sucking limes at the bar between shots of Sauza and dips into his sack of blotter acid, taking it all in for sheer gallow's humor, along with Hemingway and Mencken and Faulkner and Miller, remarking how network news moguls are no longer hungry for stories involving lonely nights of investigation and minimal camera time for the newsgals with bleached teeth and tummy tucks - particularly at a time when almost every American is about to get taken for the final ride to the fiasco that will be Dubya's legacy. Both the networks and the print journalists are wrapped up in the deception now, and the "first teams" often involve former party insiders once the election cycle draws to a close with an almost sociopathic precision, beating the drums on September 11 minus the Homeland Security color chart every time they get painted into a corner now that the truth has become a commodity like talking head spin, campaign finance and message control. Everything that Dubya ever stood for - if we were to venture a guess as what exactly these things are beyond his ideological vassals and corporate cronies and God-is-a-Terrorist-unless-you-share-our-values crowd - is going up in flames right before our eyes. Like Richard Milhous Nixon before him, and the disturbing parallels are really not that extreme when you line up the players, The Chimperor has been largely successful for the same reasons that he will eventually be drawn and quartered in public. He could not keep himself from dividing, pushing, dividing, pulling, dividing, proding - and, eventually, he will push, pull, prod and divide all the wrong people, causing them to come for blood and a White House Girls With Air Force One Gone Wild video romp with the twins. This is the other end of the proclivity-spectrum that overtook me once I realized that Dr. Gonzo won't be rolling over in his grave, only because he spent so much of his time telling it just this way and we have been warned.

The Good Doctor was a lot of things to many different people - making the Nixon Enemies of the State List, among other notable places - and he was also called a hero, a madman, an outlaw, the first blogger, absolutely deranged, a son-of-a-bitch, a degenerate gambler and a hopeless drug addict. He was all of these things and in the mylar atmosphere of American Journalism, Inc., it made him a hero, an icon, a reason to wake up and smell the coffee. My lasting memory of him was an appearance at the Somerville Theater during the Generation of Swine book tour in the late 1980s - and much to the audience's chagrin, he was about 90 minutes late that night, apologizing upon his arrival by offering a lame excuse that he was out looking for an ammunition-slash-liquor store. He spoke wildly about the corrupt Reagan (pronounced "Ray-gun") Revolution, Ed Meese, Daddy Bush and Pat Robertson and he topped off the evening by signing every hardcover copy ... only ... with a familiar quip on the inner sleeve, "Wise Up ... HST." Mine caught fire from a wave of his lighter and he shook it madly to put out the flame while puffing on his trademark Dunhill tucked neatly in a white cigarette holder.

He was the first and last of his kind - because he enjoyed the role of libertarian dissident and living on the edge. Part Jack Kerouac and other parts H.L. Mencken, with the Book of Revelations thrown in for good measure and dramatic effect, he will outlive the Carl Bernstein's and Bob Woodward's of the cloth because he remained true to himself and never wavered, even at the bitter end when the lights went low.

Thompson was the first journalist to clearly note that a story becomes more believable when the reporter takes the time to honestly chronicle his or her own failures, and how those idiosyncrasies become a refracting lens separating what is truth and what is schlock and spin. He changed the face of journalism - whether the right wing forces of doom want to accept it or not, or whether there exists a journalist in America these days who has the cajones to speak freely without a care about the consequences ... and I think not ... giving the next generation of political thinkers and satirists a foundation upon which the truth will be further dissected and revealed for all its utter insanity. After all, freedom is something that dies unless it's used harshly, repeatedly and shamelessly.

"To hell with Fun. I shit on the chest of Fun. Look what it did to Charles Manson. He had too much fun - no doubt about that - so they put him away for life."

Mahalo, Dr. Gonzo. Res Ipsa Loquitur


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