Summer nights in the Beer Garden.
For myself, the only other places I’d rather be at that moment would be Coors Field, in front of a campfire, mixing sweat and stench with the crowd at Coachella or some other, similar music festival.
And yet, there are some nights when, if given the opportunity to be magically transported to a concert or a campground or a doubleheader, I’d order another IPA and let the stars above and the conversation at hand continue to illuminate my little slice of Pagosa heaven.
It was one of those nights last week when a friend poked me in the chest, mug in hand, and asked me, “Where did you get that?”
She was referring to my T-shirt, a scrawled clenched fist (a popular icon of ’60s dissent) accompanied by the quote, “The tyranny of ‘the rat race’ is not yet final.”
The full quote, ““Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality. Weird heroes and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of ‘the rat race’ is not yet final,” was taken from Hunter S. Thompson’s last great work, “The Great Shark Hunt” from 1979.
There are many other quotes by Thompson that I would put on a T-shirt and, in fact, there are few authors I can cite as readily as him.
Of the thousands of books I’ve read in my life, perhaps a third have captured my attention enough to seek out other works by the same author.
Among those authors, just a few write with a power that invites me to memorize a passage. For instance, ““At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point,” from the opening pages of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, will remain with me to my whispered last words, inscribed in my fossilized dendrites as resolute as any “Hail Mary” or dirty limerick.
Thompson has conferred dozens of such passages to me (few, if any, we can publish here), all filled with the brutal irony and grisly truth for which he was a modern master.
That rarified list of mine, whittled down from the authors who warrant further discovery to those who write so memorably that their words are indelibly burned in my mind, a handful stand out as mentors, writers who called me to the craft and invited me to make my own voice heard. Again, it is Thompson who makes the cut.
In late adolescence, my tastes in literature had evolved from a dubious diet of sci-fi and fantasy, mysteries, thrillers and spy novels (Graham Greene and Arthur Conan Doyle being the exceptions to the list left in the dustbin of a teenager’s dirty bedroom), to books that I had decided were “adult” and, in their own way, subversive.
Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth, William S. Burroughs, Aldous Huxley, Anthony Burgess (especially “A Clockwork Orange”), all of them tore away significant patches from the technicolor scrim of inauthenticity on which the propaganda of middle-America had been projected.
Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” provided me an escape in a substantial way that Tolkien could not. The odyssey, led by Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, on rails and down back alleys, into dive bars and flophouse bedrooms, eventually ended when my children came along although the memory of the journey still nags at me with the persistence of the road not travelled.
However, it was Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” that chopped off the vestigial tail of my childhood innocence, ripping the Beatles 45 off the turntable and slapping on the Sex Pistols.
Unfortunately, most people only know “Fear and Loathing” from the frankly pointless movie version (directed by ex-Monty Python player Terry Gilliam). With all the dim-witted stoner appeal of a midnight laser show, the movie takes a sensationalistic and gratuitous approach in adapting the book to the screen.
Yes, the book begins with, “We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine and a whole multicolored collection of uppers, downers, laughers, screamers ... Also, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can. The only thing that really worried me was the ether. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge and I knew we’d get into that rotten stuff pretty soon ...,” but drugs and drug use merely underscore the larger themes in the book: the rejection of bombastic and bloated consumerism suffocating the American soul; the seditionary call to offend the power structures that enrich themselves from that suffocation.
In its satirical and comedic way, “Fear and Loathing” is a modern existentialist masterpiece and the drug-induced hallucinogenic passages standing along side the imagery in Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Nausea” — compare Sartre’s “What if something suddenly started throbbing? Then they would notice it was there and they’d think their hearts were going to burst. Then what good would their dykes, bulwarks, power houses, furnaces and pile drivers be to them? It can happen any time, perhaps right now: the omens are present. For example, the father of a family might go out for a walk, and, across the street, he’ll see something like a red rag, blown towards him by the wind. And when the rag has gotten close to him he’ll see that it is a side of rotten meat, grimy with dust, dragging itself along by crawling, skipping, a piece of writhing flesh rolling in the gutter, spasmodically shooting out spurts of blood,” with Thompson’s, “But after a while you learn to cope with things like seeing your dead grandmother crawling up your leg with a knife in her teeth. Most acid fanciers can handle this sort of thing. But nobody can handle that other trip — the possibility that any freak with $1.98 can walk into Circus-Circus and suddenly appear in the sky over downtown Las Vegas twelve times the size of God, howling anything that comes into his head. No, this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted,” and the point is the same.
The movie, on the other hand, puts drugs and drug use front-and-center, making it a character (the intoxicated alter-egos of Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo) whereas, in the book, it is a means to an end.
Unfortunately, with “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” as Thompson’s best-known work, the theme of drug use has clouded Thompson’s rightful place as one of the most articulate and social critics of our generation. Even towards the end, writing columns for ESPN’s website as he edged towards dotage, Thompson still managed to scream against injustice, murder in the service of capitalism and the swine who served not government of the people, by the people and for the people but their corporate masters.
“We have become a Nazi monster in the eyes of the whole world,” he wrote towards the end of his life, regarding the illegal war in Iraq and the charlatan who took us there, “ — a nation of bullies and bastards who would rather kill than live peacefully. We are not just Whores for power and oil, but killer whores with hate and fear in our hearts. We are human scum, and that is how history will judge us ... No redeeming social value. Just whores. Get out of our way, or we’ll kill you.”
Although Thompson scattered references to music throughout his writing, he was never really a music critic. Although his work encouraged me to explore the depths of my own rage and exploit those emotions in my writing, his musical tastes were a bit Old Skool for me.
It was in the essays and articles of Lester Bangs (1949-1982) where I found the determination to write about music. As much (if not more) a music geek in my early adolescence, I followed Bangs’ work in the pages of Rolling Stone, Creem, New Musical Express (among others) with a passion.
What raised Bangs above other rock critics of that time was that he had elevated the form to literature. While other critics confined themselves to the journalistic conventions of their roots, Bangs blew the doors out, writing with the fury and free-association of Charles Bukowski, Kerouac and Bob Dylan.
Of course it didn’t hurt that Bangs’ musical tastes closely mirrored my own — his essays were instrumental in bringing the proto-punk bands of the mid-’70s to the attention of a wider audience and heralded U.K. punk as the savior of rock and roll — but it was his intellect and the sheer power of his prose that encouraged me to take a leap, try my own hand at this thing, and see if I could knock down walls by myself.
You see that mentorship in action in the movie “Almost Famous” when Bangs (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) encourages the young William to pursue his dream.
Bangs was democratic like that, much in the way that Thompson was, not just nurturing new voices but insisting that it was only in those new voices that art, literature and rock and roll would survive, dethrone the dead and dusty, and provide a hint of beauty in a world growing uglier and more artless.
“The first mistake of art is to assume that it’s serious,” Bangs said, half-joking, mostly serious.
The best of Bangs exists in a posthumous collection, “Psychotic Reactions & Carburetor Dung” which, while not quite a “Best Of” compilation of essays, contains some of his most his memorable work. Although more Bangs essays exist online, discovered with the savvy manipulation of the vicissitudes of The Google, most remains lost in the musty archives of publications either floundering in our electronic age or already lost in a world that has downsized and diminished the printed word.
Coming full circle, explaining why I write and how I got here, I close not just by saying that I hope I am carrying on a torch snagged from cold, dead hands of my mentors but in the way Bangs closed his most famous essay, a paean to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks:
“On the other hand, it might also be pointed out that desolation, hurt, and anguish are hardly the only things in life, or in Astral Weeks. They’re just the things, perhaps, that we can most easily grasp and explicate, which I suppose shows about what level our souls have evolved to. I said I wouldn’t reduce the other songs on this album by trying to explain them, and I won’t. But that doesn’t mean that, all thing considered, a juxtaposition of poets might not be in order.”
If I ventured in the slipstream/Between the viaducts of your dreams/Where the mobile steel rims crack/And the ditch and the backroads stop/ Could you find me/ Would you kiss my eyes/And lay me down/In silence easy/ To be born again
— Van Morrison
My heart of silk
is filled with lights,
with lost bells,
with lilies and bees.
I will go very far,
farther than those hills,
farther than the seas,
close to the stars,
to beg Christ the Lord
to give back the soul I had
of old, when I was a child,
ripened with legends,
with a feathered cap
and a wooden sword.
— Federico Garcia Lorca