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Re-Visiting Gonzo

I was going into my senior year of high school in 1972. The school I attended was on a military installation in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. When classes were done for the day, I would usually go to the base library to hang out. The library was right next to the high school. The librarian was a draftee whose number was too low to avoid being drafted into the army. He was thankful to be in Germany and not Vietnam. Anyhow, we became friends over our shared love of books and rock music. So, he always set aside the latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine for me. When I was done with the issue he put it on the shelf. In 1972, the main reason for reading Rolling Stone was Hunter S Thompson’s coverage of the US presidential campaign. George McGovern was my candidate, if I had one, but Hunter S. Thompson was my man. His commentary raged, ravaged and saw beyond the bullshit put out in the press by the candidates. The writing was angry, humorous and even psychedelic at times. Campaign journalism has never been as much fun to read since that 1972 campaign.

I was reminded of this while reading a newly-published collection of interviews featuring Thompson. Titled Hunter S. Thompson: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, the book is a quick study of the political and cultural tempests of the past fifty years. Although he died in 2006, Thompson’s comments are even truer today than when he first uttered them. Like the novelist Philip K. Dick, Thompson observed the times he lived in and, wittingly or not, ended up predicting the future. Also, like Philip K. Dick’s, that future (which is our present) is brutal, crude and under the yoke of a technological authoritarianism. Perhaps the most prescient such example of this is Thompson’s response to a question from his interviewer, the great Studs Terkel, in 1967. “The people who are being left out, “says Thompson. “And put behind won’t be obvious for years. There will be a million Hells Angels. They won’t be wearing the colors but they’ll be people who are looking for vengeance because they’ve been left behind.” (p. 10) Every single person reading this review must know at least a couple folks like this. Indeed, as the editor points out in his introduction, those are the people who voted for Trump.

Thompson’s two greatest (and best known) books were published in a matter of perhaps three years. The first, which has become a text right up there with The Great Gatsby, is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This book deserves the comparison to Gatsby because it too, is an examination of the greatest of all American myths—the myth of the American dream. Where The Great Gatsby has the green light on the dock opposite Gatsby’s mansion, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has the receding wave of Sixties innocence in the face of the US death cult the American Dream had long become. The second book is titled Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972. As noted above, political campaign reporting has never been as interesting to read ever since. Both of these books are discussed quite a bit in this collection of interviews. So is Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. Other conversations about Thompson’s later work as a sportswriter opinion writer that fill out the book; so do a few comments about his media personality.

Of the latter conversations, it is the one titled “Fear and Loathing after 9/11” that seems the most important. Nominally a discussion about his 2003 book Kingdom of Fear, Thompson discusses the George W. Bush administration, the buildup to the upcoming invasion of Iraq, and the end of any real democracy in the United States. He savages Bush, calling him worse than Nixon and points out the impending fascism the Dubya administration represented. It is not a hopeful conversation. Then again, those were not hopeful times. (Of course, Obama proved how little hope matters in the twenty-first century—some folks are still digesting that.)

Earlier in the book, Thompson takes on Bill Clinton, showing him to be the shallow money-grubbing liar that he is. God only knows what he would have to say about Trump. However, given that Thompson is thirteen years dead, he’s not talking. It is up to today’s journalists to carry on. This text can provide the inspiration to do that.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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