Smiling Through the Apocalypse
Harris Meyer from the Business Review and I were sitting in the leafy part of Piccadilly Garden in the Design District the other night, swatting those big, floaty Miami mosquitos, sloshing ourselves with Bass, and telling journalism war stories. I led with "How I Brought Hunter Thompson to Rolling Stone," a tale I've embellished so often (it's appeared in four books on the history of that fabled, de-evolutionized journal) that it now overshadows any of my other exploits -- "The Time I Threatened the Editor of Penthouse'sLife"; "The Time I Almost Got an Injunction Against GQ to Keep Copy Editors from Mangling my Story," etc.
Back in the '70s, Thompson, whom I'd known from the true underground press days -- the L.A. Free Press, the Berkeley Barb, the East Village Other -- not the deracinated "alternative" press of today (implying only mild objection to the rotten status quo), had just written a magnificent obit called "The Ultimate Freelancer," about his loco predecessor Lionel Olay. But Hunter was looking for paydays, because his two bases, the radical magazines Ramparts and Scanlan's,wererapidly going out of business. So he wanted to know if we could hustle sissy Jann Wenner, RS's founder, into forking over some dough.
Thompson was coming in from Aspen on a Saturday to try to collect for his last piece from Scanlan's notorious, one-eyed publisher, Warren Hinckle, and Wenner, who hadn't read Hell's Angels or much of Hunter's oeuvre, had to be dragged away from his massages and expensive mind-expanding recreational activities to listen to a pitch. At five-feet-five, he'd crouched warily behind his big round wooden desk at RS HQ, in his tall, throne-like Huey Newton straw chair. Behind him, San Francisco's waterfront sparkled through his Third Street windows: "This better be good," he'd hissed. Thompson was already 20 minutes late.
Suddenly, the man himself stood in the doorway. He was six-one, wore a flowing "gook" shirt, a cheap woman's Dynel wig (gray) perched sideways on his bald pate, like Leatherface, the chief killer in Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; he had on flip-flops, old pants . . . He clenched an FDR cigarette-holder in his teeth, sipped manically at a can of beer, had a six-pack in a brown-paper bag clasped under one arm, and some manuscripts and racing forms wrapped in more ratty brown paper and twine under the other . . .
As always, he began in the middle of his story: Crazybastard dope lawyer, hadda get outa California, drying out in Aspen, looked at all the greedheads and fucksticks, real estate scum, resort developers, movie stars, S&M swingers, weird, misbegotten animal perverts, talent agents -- the worst! -- accountants, politicians . . . saw they were ruining the town, knew he hadda run for mayor . . . Of course I told him I'd manage his campaign! The idea? We'd get all the freaks, hippies, bohos, beatniks, ganja smokers, flower kids, righteous trustfunders, bikers, character actors, dishwashers, you know?. . . We'd get the blacks that worked in the kitchens and on the road repair crews! We'd register the Indians, the goddamned rock band musicians who hadda play shit music in the big hotel lounges and show up stoned just to be able to plug in . . . A lotta pissed-off people out there! AWOL G.I.'s, don't wanna go ta Vietnam! Young kids, don't wanna end up like their mothers and fathers -- bags for bellies, hairy tits, cancer, ringworm, male-pattern baldness, Sen-Sen breath to hide the booze smell, forty-hour deathwork week and rotten molars -- you know, Jann!Rolling Stone readers!
All of this had taken 45 minutes to unspool, and when Thompson broke to go for a whiz, Wenner, who'd been gradually sliding down in his seat under the verbal firehose, until his chin practically grazed the desk top, glanced in my direction. His eyes were like pinwheels: "I know I'm supposed to be the spokesman for American Youth Culture and all, but what the fuck was that?"
I told him it was oral rock and roll, that the man wrote just like he talked, and that if RS printed Hunter, it would sell a lot of copies.
Thompson, via Wenner, soon published "Freak Power in the Rockies," the first of a two-part series on Aquarian Age political awakening; then "Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas"; "Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail," and history scooped him up and he ascended to -- Elaine's!
Harris, who is a little younger than me, wanted to know what the chief difference was between the old-style "underground" journalism once practiced at Rolling Stone, and the "alternative" stories editors now read in places such as New Times and the Village Voice. We called for more Bass.
"I think Hunter and other writers around him, like Jules Siegel (Bugsy's youngest son and another of my 'discoveries'); Charlie Haas, who ended up writing Gremlins for Hollywood; Greg Hayes, a brilliant black kid from the Fillmore who tried to get his grandmother's ghetto apartment declared a national historic site, like Alcatraz, failed, and quit writing to become a forest ranger; and Faye Levine, the most talented of my rock-and-roll-as-literature stylists (who utterly disappeared in the '70s), were really gifted and genuinely angry, and expected their work to cause some kind of change short of revolution. I think their stuff was motivated by the urgency of rock, the velocity of the times you could say, just as beatnik writing (Kerouac, Corso) had been by the cooler alienation of jazz . . . Of course, all this was before computers, Clinton, Saturday Night Live, Howard Stern, David Letterman and that twerpy little nerd who leads his band -- Mass Hip! Mass Hip, I tell you!"
Harris, who has done the alternative press trip himself, down in Louisiana, where he had a perfectly good, money-making weekly sold out from under him by a tired publisher, gave me one of those looks that only old war dogs share: "Kids just aren't that angry anymore, are they buddy? And they aren't expecting anything higher than a Lexus ES300 in their lives . . . I mean Bush-Gore 2000 wasn't exactly Kennedy-Nixon 1960, was it? Talked to Thompson lately?"
"Three years ago," I admitted.
"How was he doing?"
"He was living off the franchise. As we all are."
Our eyes both swung up to Miami's humid cloud cover, then down toward the Piccadilly Garden's dark door:
"Hey, Wolfgang!" we yelled simultaneously. "You still serving, man?"
*For Bob McAlack.
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