Saturday, March 3, 2012

Hunter S. Thompson - The Man

Hunter S. Thompson - The Man

Hunter S. Thompson was a great man. In fact, I would say that if there's one person who changed the course I was going to live my life, it was he. But of the longest time in my youth, I'm ashamed to admit it, I was looking up to the wrong person.

Because when you get past his semi-fictional accounts of him being an unhinged drug addict in Fear and Loathing or for that matter, anything 'Raoul Duke', he was primarily known for being a political writer - he has a slew of articles written about Watergate, as well as presidential races in the 60's and 70's.

If anything, the drug addict persona that he had crafted for semi-fictional accounts eventually worked to his detriment, as soon after he wouldn't be sure if the people wanted Hunter S. Thompson or Raoul Duke to come out. In his own words
"I'm never sure which one people expect me to be. Very often, they conflict - most often, as a matter of fact. ...I'm leading a normal life and right along side me there is this myth, and it is growing and mushrooming and getting more and more warped. When I get invited to, say, speak at universities, I'm not sure if they are inviting Duke or Thompson. I'm not sure who to be."
-HST, Fear and Loathing in Gonzovision, BBC, 1978
So this blurring of the line between 'HST' and 'Duke' wasn't helped when Garry Trudeau created the 'Uncle Duke' character in Doonesbury, based off of him. Indeed, it may have only caused more damage than HST-as-Duke.

So you're probably wondering, if there's more to him than that, what is it? What's the big deal with his guy and why do you look up to him so much? Why should anyone even care? Watergate and the '72 primaries are long dead and buried. Most of all, something I, myself face, is that his writing tends to have a comedic style while dealing with very serious issues - which occasionally undermines the gravity of the situation.

So why should you care? Because he's a really fucking good writer and with two films based off of his books and him being a cultural icon, you can find most of his work in basically every bookstore in the country, and it's useful in education, both for someone fairly well read and potentially the white hipster that doesn't realize that they're a fuckshit - it's a dangerous gambit but it may very well be an eyeopener to you, just like it was to me.

Take for example, Gonzo Papers, Vol. 1: The Great Shark Hunt: Strange tales from a Strange Time. It's a collection of his articles from 56-79, covering everything from the Kentucky Derby to the Chicano Movement. There's a fairly significant amount of content if you think about it.

So, how about the Chicano Movement? Here's an article about the aftermath of the Silver Dollar Bar massacre where the journalist Reuben Salazar was killed - only last year was the investigation concluded, with bitter results.

This article, originally published in the Rolling Stone, made Reuben Salazar's death nationwide knowledge, eight months after the event.

Strange Rumblings in Aztlan

The.....Murder... and Resurrection of Ruben Salazar by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department... Savage Polarization & the Making of a Martyr... Bad News for the Mexican-American... Worse News for the Pig... And Now the New Chicano... Riding a Grim New Wave... The Rise of the Batos Locos... Brown Power and a Fistful of Reds... Rude Politics in the Barrio... Which Side Are You On.... Brother?... There is no more middle ground. No place to hide on Whittier Boulevard.. No refuge from the helicopters.. No hope in the coutrs. No peace with the man. No leverage anywhere.. and no light at the end of this tunnel.. Nada..

Morning comes hard to the hotel Ashmun; this is not a place where the guests spring eagerly out of bed to greet the fresh new day. But on this particular morning everybody in the place is awake at the crack of dawn: There is a terrible pounding and shrieking in the hallway, near room No. 267. Some junkie has ripped the doorknob off the communal bathroom, and now the others can't get in -- so they are trying to kick the door down. The voice of the manager wavers hysterically above the din: "Come on now, fellas -- do I have to call the sheriff?" The reply comes hard and fast: "You filthy gabacho pig! You call the fuckin sheriff and I'll cut your fuckin throat." And now the sound of wood cracking, more screaming, the sound of running feet outside my door, No. 267.

The doos is locked, thank Christ -- but how can you say for sure in a place like the Hotel Ashmun? Especially on a morning like this with a mob of wild junkies locked out of the hall bathroom and maybe knowing that No. 267 is the only room within lunging distance that has a private bath. It is the best in the house, at $5.90 a night, and the lock on the door is brand new. The old one was ripped out about 12 hours earlier, just before I checked in.

The desk clerk had gone to a lot of trouble to get me into this room. His key wouldn't fit the new lock, "Jesus Christ!" he kept muttering. "This key has to fit! This is a brand new Yale lock." He stared balefully at the bright new key in his hand.
"Yeah," I said. "But that key is for a Webster lock."
"By God you're right!" he exclaimed. And he rushed off, leaving us standing there in the hallway with big chunks of ice in our hands. "What's wrong with that guy?" I asked. "He seems out of control -- all this sweating and grappling and jabbering..."
Benn Luna laughed

"By God you're right!" he exclaimed. And he rushed off, leaving us standing there in the hallway with big chunks of ice in our hands. "What's wrong with that guy?" I asked. "He seems out of control -- all this sweating and grappling and jabbering..."

Benny Luna laughed. "Man, he's nervous! You think it's normal for him to be lettin four nasty lookin Chicanos into his best room at three in the morning? With all of us carryin' chunks of ice and funny-lookin leather bags?" He was staggering around the hall, convulsed with laughter.
"Man, this guy is freaked! He doesn't know what's goin on!"
"Three Chicanos" said Oscar. "And one hillbilly."
"You didn't tell him I was a writer, did you?" I asked. I'd noticed Oscar talking to the man, a tall sort of defeated looking Germanic type, but I hadn't paid much attention.
"No, but he recognized me," Oscar replied. "He said, 'You're the lawyer, aren't you?" So I said 'That's right, and I want your best room for this gabacho friend of mine.'" He grinned. "Yeah, he knows something's wrong with this scene, but he doesn't know what. These guys are scared of everything now. Every merchant on Whittier Boulevard is sure he's living on borrowed time, so they go all to pieces at the first sign of anything strange going on. It's been this way ever since Salazar."

The room clerk/manager/keeper/etc, suddenly rounded the hallway corner with the right key, and let us into the room. It was a winner -- a run-down echo of a place I stayed in a few years ago in the slums of Lima, Peru. I can't recall the name of that place, but I remember that all the room keys were attached to big wooden knobs about the size of grapefruits, too big to fit in a pocket. I thought about suggesting this to our man in the Hotel Ashmun, but he didn't wait around for tips or small-talk. He was gone in a flash, leaving us alone to deal with a quart of rum and God only knows what else.. We put the ice in a basin next to the bed and chopped it up with a huge rigging knife. The only music was a tape cassette of Let It Bleed.

What better music for a hot night on Whittier Boulevard in 1971? This has not been a peaceful street, of late. And in truth it was never peaceful. Whittier is to the vast Chicano barrio in East Los Angeles what the Sunset Strip is to Hollywood. This is where the street action lives: The bars, the hustlers, the drug market, the whores -- and also the riots the trashings, killings, gassings, the sporadic bloody clashes with the hated, common enemy: The cops, the Pigs, the Man, that blue-crusted army of fearsome gabacho troops from the East L.A. Sheriff's Department.

The Hotel Ashmun is a good place to stay if you want to get next to whatever's happening on Whittier Boulevard. The window of No. 267 is about 15 feet above the sidewalk and just a few blocks west of the Silver Dollar Cafe, a nondescript tavern that is not much different from any of the others nearby. There is a pool table in the rear, a pitcher of beer sells for a dollar, and the faded Chicano barmaid rolls dice with the patrons to keep the jukebox going. Low number pays, and nobody seems to care who selects the music.

We had been in there earlier, when not much was happening. It was my first visit in six months, since early September when the place was still rancid with the stench of CS gas and fresh varnish. But now, six months later, the Silver Dollar had aired out nicely. No blood on the floor, no ominous holes in the ceiling. The only reminder of my other visit was a thing hanging over the cash register that we all noticed immediately. It was a black gas mask, staring blindly out at the room-- and below the gas mask was a stark handprinted sign that said: "In memory of August 29, 1970."

Nothing else, no explanation. But no explanation was necessary -- at least not to anybody likely to be found drinking in the Silver Dollar. The customers are locals: Chicanos and barrio people -- and every one of them is acutely aware of what happened in the Silver Dollar Cafe on August 29, 1970.

That was the day that Ruben Salazar, the prominent "Mexican-America" columnist for the Los Angeles Times and News Director for bilingual KMFX-TV, walked into the place and sat down on the stool near the doorway to order a beer he would never drink. Because just about the time the barmaid was sliding his beer across the bar, a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy named Tom Wilson fired a tear gas bomb through the front door and blew half of Ruben Salazar's head off. All the other customers escaped out the back exist to the alley, but Salazar never emerged. He died on the floor in a cloud of CS gas -- and when his body was finally carried out hours later, his name was already launched into martyrdom. Within 24 hours, the very mention of the name "Ruben Salazar" was enough to provoke tears and fist-shaking tirades not only along Whittier Boulevard, but all over East L.A.

Middle-aged housewives who had never thought of themselves as anything but lame-status "Mexican-Americans" just trying to get by in a mean Gringo world they never made suddenly found themselves shouting "Viva La Raza" in public. And their husbands -- quiet Safeway clerks and lawn-care salesmen, the lowest and most expendable cadres in the Great Gabacho economic machine -- were volunteering to testify; yes, to stand up in court, or wherever, and calling themselves Chicanos. The term "Mexican-American" fell massively out of favor with all but the old and conservative -- and the rich. It suddenly came to mean "Uncle Tom." Or, in the argot of East L.A. --"Tio Taco." The difference between a Mexican-American and a Chicano was the difference between a Negro and a Black.

All this has happened very suddenly. Too suddenly for most people. One of the basic laws of politics is that Action Moves Away from the Center. The middle of the road is only popular when nothing is happening. And nothing serious has been happening politically in East L.A. for longer than most people can remember. Until six months ago the whole place was a colorful tomb, a vast slum full of noise and cheap labor, a rifle shot away from the heart of Downtown Los Angeles. The barrio, like Watts, is actually a part of the city core-- While places like Hollywood and Santa Monica are separate entities. The Silver Dollar Cafe is a ten-minute drive from City Hall. The Sunset Strip is a 30-minute sprint on the Hollywood Freeway.

Whittier Boulevard is a hell of a long way from Hollywood, by any measure. There is no psychic connection at all. After a week in the bowels of East L.A. I felt vaguely guilty about walking into the bar in the Beverly Hills Hotel and ordering a drink -- as if I didn't quite belong there, and the waiters all knew it. I had been there before, under different circumstances, and felt totally comfortable. Or almost. There is no way to.... well, to hell with that. The point is that this time I felt different. I was oriented to a completely different world -- 15 miles away.

The revolution eats its own, and the case was no different for Aztlan, in a way. After the disappearance of Oscar Zeta Acosta, Hunter's friend/lawyer/leader of the Chicano community, the movement cooled off and began to deradicalize. Not dead, by any means, but a milder, 'more presentable form of activism, distancing itself from OZA's view and even the term 'Chicano'.

If you don't think that is some fantastic writing then I don't know what's wrong with you. I love the man, but I have to admit that the movies sort of ruined it for me because every fucking college idiot missed the point and just used it as an excuse to use drugs just like they ruined Fight Club and every god damn movie. And admittedly, I was one of those people in high school, I was also a moron who jumped into reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Let me just say it. You should not read this as your first introduction to his work. The Salazar piece was taken out of Gonzo Papers, Vol 1. The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time.
While it's kinda lengthy for his stuff, it's a good whole-cloth introduction to HST. It's a collection of most of his published work from the 56-78 and 70's, including sports writing to race issues to his wacky drug stuff and everything in between, Watergate, Carter, Nixon, Reagan, McGovern, etc.

They're all great reads. So do it now. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 and The Boys on the Bus by Tim Crouse (Worked with Thompson at RS covering the '72 campaign) are still two of the best, most damming books on American politics and the press to date.

There's more to come about HST in my blogs, so just don't be surprised that I'm not talking about you.

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