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, that sentence -- the opening line of Hunter S. 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 Thompson's 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. We devoured Lester Bangs and Ralph Gleason because what they wrote about the new Neil Young album meant something, because the music, like the world, was ours.
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.
I lived in San Francisco then, and like 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 drugs and alcohol the way he did could sit up long enough to type a sentence. He didn't just write gonzo, he lived gonzo.
In the mid-1980s, it was my strange fortune to talk to Thompson on a number of occasions. I was co-writing a book in which Thompson was profiled. Our phone conversations were brief and mostly about fact-checking. A year or so later, however, 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. And I believed him. But then he dodged my calls for weeks.
Finally, his agent 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! Thomp-son told the photographer that his "office hours" were from 2 to 4 -- a.m! -- and not to come back until then.
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:
"... 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 a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. ... We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave."
You had a nice run, Duke. Rest in peace. n
Bruce VanWyngarden is editor of the Flyer.