Fear and Loathing at 25 – Thompson reflects on the addictive properties of professional journalism (by P.J. O’Rourke, Nov 28, 1996)

Rolling Stone Magazine

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was first published here in Rolling Stone 25 years ago. We, the times, the country and the world have changed. Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s book has not. It was then and is now a perspicacious, seminal, nonpareil, virtuoso work, the kind of thing that sends you to the dictionary looking for a word that does it . . .

atavistic adj. of or pertaining to a characteristic found in a remote ancestor, e.g., the velociraptor, but not in nearer ancestors

. . . justice.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is also a sort of accident. It was a literary byproduct. In the midst of some intentional journalistic brilliance, Thompson had a happenstance of artistic genius. In 1971, Hunter was deeply and rather dangerously involved in writing about the killing of Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar. Hunter had a good source on the story, Mexican-American lawyer and political activist Oscar Acosta. But Oscar was surrounded by youthful hotheads paranoid of any connection to an Anglo, however sympathetic to the cause that the gabacho was supposed to be. So, Thompson suggested that he and Acosta take a weekend jaunt to Las Vegas. They’d have time to chat in private on the drive.

The rest is history. Sort of. Physics, anyway. Chemistry, definitely. Abnormal psych, for sure. Plus PE and lunch.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas addresses the great themes of late-20th-century literature — anomie, being and nothingness, existential terror. But two things separate Hunter Thompson from the common herd of modern-lit angst peddlers. First, Thompson is a better writer. He flips Kafka over on his back like some big insect. He makes Genet sound like a children’s-book author — Fuzzy Bunny and His Puppy Pals Blow Me. Compared with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Albert Camus’ The Stranger becomes a lame jail-house whine, and all of Sartre is just some French doofus sitting around in a cafe, saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

Second, Thompson makes us laugh. This is something we’re unlikely to do during performances of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, even if we’re as high as Raoul Duke. Hunter Thompson takes the darkest questions of ontology, the grimmest epistemological queries, and by his manner of posing them, sends us doubled over in fits of risibility, our sides aching from armpit to pelvic girdle, the tops of our legs raw from knee-slapping, beer spitting out of our noses. We laugh so hard that at any given moment, we’re almost as likely to vomit as the 300-pound Samoan attorney.

Read Beckett, Sartre, Camus, Genet and Kafka and you’ll say: “Life is absurd, the world is meaningless, and all of creation is insane.”

Read Hunter S. Thompson and you’ll say: “Life is absurd, the world is meaningless, and all of creation is insane — cool.”

The Unerring Quality of DOPE LOGIC . . . Writing in FEAR and the Worship of RULES . . . the Democracy of DRUGS

At the time you were writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, you implied that things had gone wrong with the ’60s, that it was a flawed era.

Well, the truth of the matter was, there was Kent State, there was Chicago, there was Altamont. The ’60s was about the Free Speech Movement long before it was about the flower children. I was more a part of the Movement than I was of the Acid Club. But you knew that something was happening. You have to remember that acid was legal. [Ken] Kesey was a leader of the psychedelic movement. Berkeley was a whole different thing. The music was another thing. There was the Matrix [club], Ralph Gleason, everything.

I had the best time of my life in the ’60s, and I rail and curse against it because I miss it. But when we really get to talking about it, and when I really get to remembering what actually happened, I recall that it was a horrifying period.

I might quarrel with your interpretation of the ’60s as meaning nothing, but then I’ve said since then that we really had the illusion of power — the illusion of being in charge. Which was quite liberating. We did drive one president out of the White House.

What went wrong?

Killing the leaders of it didn’t help a lot — and Chicago in 1968, Kent State, Nixon being re-elected. But I would have one or two shades of disagreement with you about the ’60s. It’s to be expected. Yeah, in your assessment of the ’60s, I think you’d call it a time of dumb sheep or when the goats sacrificed themselves.

Well, there is that lemminglike quality to the ’60s.

I happened to see the ’80s as that. And God knows what the hell the ’90s are. They are just brazen with rules. Rules are worshiped — to the point where football and basketball referees are becoming celebrities. And the compulsion, the lust, to be on TV: It may be the governing instinct of our times. We’re into a new world. We’re at the decadence. I keep saying there will be no year 2000.

You have given a pretty negative depiction of the effect of drugs in your work. Basically, nothing happy happens to people when they take drugs. Instead, it’s Edge City. There’s a lot of stuff that you’ve written that Nancy Reagan could have used — “Kids, this is what’ll happen.”

Whether it’s negative or not, the reality of it is, you start playing with drugs, the numbers aren’t on your side for coming up smelling like roses and being president of the United States. I did at some point describe the difference between me and, say, [Timothy] Leary’s concept — you know, that drugs were a holy experience and only for, you know, the drug church. I am in favor of more of a democratization of drugs. Take your chances, you know. I never felt that, aside from a few close friends, it was my business to advocate things.

Do you think there’s anything interesting about drugs for making art?

Yeah, totally interesting. But it took me about two years of work to be able to bring a drug experience back and put it on paper.

And not make it sound like a script for The Trip with Peter Fonda.

And to do it right means you must retain that stuff at the same time you experience it. You know, acid will move your head around and your eyes, and whatever else you perceive things with. But bringing it back was one of the hardest things I had ever had to do in writing.

You can kid about it. But to really put it down on paper, to be honest about it . . .

Well, that’s what Vegas is about. It’s about the altered perceptions of the characters. To me, that’s really the bedrock of the book — their responses to one another’s questions. It’s like in The Three Stooges: that story where they were out in the rowboat in a lake and it sprung a leak. And the boat was filling up with water. So they decided to bash a hole in the bottom of the boat to let the water out. Now that’s drug reasoning.

Is there any reason to distinguish Fear and Loathing from fiction?

I remember one Friday afternoon it had to be decided for the New York Times — “A work of the imagination” was what [Random House editor] Jim Silberman came up with. Of course, it didn’t stick. We went to “nonfiction,” which led to it being categorized as “sociology.”

Ouch. Anyhow, the way you write is what replaced fiction. All these guys — Camus in The Stranger, Beckett in Waiting for Godot, Ionesco with all those imaginary rhinoceroses running around — they are trying to construct a fictional world that makes points about the absurd nature of modern life. You were just writing what had happened and blew them out of the water. The reality of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas gives it a power like Henry Miller that, to me, imaginary rhinoceroses and Ionesco just don’t achieve.

Well, we did have imaginary alligators in this one.

But it was real imaginary.

As far as I was concerned, I was writing what happened to me in Las Vegas. It was just in the gonzo thinking, taking it one step further.

I wrote it deliberately as a cinematic treatment. But I was too ignorant to know that interior monologue doesn’t work well cinematically. That’s what makes it so hard to film.

Which is why Where the Buffalo Roam didn’t work in certain ways.

Just a bad writing job there. But I think more happens in the mind in Las Vegas. That’s why we had so much trouble filming it. How do you film fear? And also a certain kind of psychosis?

For that matter, how do you write about it?

Well, you know, I wrote it in the process. I wrote it by hand at first, in notebooks.

You started while you were actually there in Las Vegas.

And in fear.

Quite reasonably.

Oscar had left me there with a pound of weed and a loaded .357, and some bullets in his briefcase.

And no money.

I couldn’t pay the bill. And I was afraid. And I was waiting for the right hour to leave the hotel through the casino.

And earlier I’d slowly, you know, moved stuff down to the car, small amounts, in and out. But there was one big, metal Halliburton [suitcase] that there was no way to get out. I was trying to pick the right time to leave. I remember at 4:30 in the morning, a poker game was going on, nothing but poker games. I just walked through the casino nonchalantly carrying this big Halliburton. I was afraid. I was afraid of taking off, you know, in a red car, on the only road to L.A.

What was scarier: Oscar leaving you in this situation or Oscar being there?

I’d have preferred to have him there. Just all of a sudden being alone in a situation where you had been abusing drugs [thoughtful pause] — but not intentionally; we had gone there to do a story.

You went there to work.

I was afraid the whole time. I was in bad enough condition as it was. And, you know, I’m jumping a hotel bill out in Las Vegas and then trying to drive to L.A. in a red car.

Not entirely sober.

That’s not your best way to go — a stolen gun, a pound of weed. There was this big bulletin board on the edge of Las Vegas: attention, 20 years — for marijuana.

For me, the key moment of the paranoia was the enormous, frightening sign outside the hotel window. Oscar wants to shoot it. But you say, “No, let’s study its habits first.”

We’re feeding off each other. There’s a knock on the door, and somebody says, “Well, it must be the manager ready to shoot our heads off.” And the response from the other person is to immediately get a knife, open the door and slit the [guy’s] throat.

Yeah, try this for dope logic: On Las Vegas‘ cover, Oscar wanted: By Hunter Thompson and Oscar Acosta. He said, “I’m not some fucking Samoan,” which I had written to protect him. I said, “Oscar, you’re a fucking member of the California Bar Association. You’re engaged in extremely public hearings protecting the guys who tried to burn down the hotel when Reagan was speaking.” I put Samoan in there for a reason. God almighty [displays the back of a hardcover copy of “Las Vegas” with a caption identifying Acosta], I wrote that. Yeah, I told him, “This is crazy.” But he insisted on this photograph and being identified in the photograph.

But can you be productive on drugs? I mean, we know that drugs definitely give you different viewpoints, looking at the world through a fly’s eye and so on.

Without the drugs, we would not have gone to Las Vegas. Well, we would have had completely different experiences. And the logic of the whole thing was drug logic: Here are Oscar and I in the middle of this weird murder story [“Strange Rumblings in Aztlan,” RS 81], and there are all these bodyguards around. “I can’t stand it anymore.” “These fuckin’ spics.” You know, half of them are threatening to kill me. The feeling was, “I can’t even talk to you.” The logic of, “Let’s go to Las Vegas and dump them,” which we do, that wouldn’t have happened without drugs. It was the right thought. But drugs get to be a problem when the actual writing time comes, except just as a continuation of the mood.

On a HELL-BOUND Train . . . GATSBY vs. the GOOPS . . . Reading for POWER and Fitzgerald’s LEVERAGE

You’re fairly aggressive. Journalism is a wonderful way to exorcise aggression.

That is one of my main frustrations of not writing a column anymore.

I just don’t know of anything better in the world than the justified attack on authority figures that also uses humor. Is there anything that beats making fun of people?

Not if they’re the right people. I think the shared perception is huge in that. You know what works: If they jump, you know you got the right word. With readers, I was surprised, and still am, at the very solid and articulate mass of people out there who are extremely varied but really do like me and agree that I’m expressing their feelings. I believe that journalism and fiction have to do that. It’s not just amusement.

Fiction writers, even when they use interesting techniques, are often not audience directed. If you’re a journalist, you have to be directed toward your readers.

Newspapers give you that connection with your reader. You’ve got no choice. You are fucked if you’re not connected.

So what do you tell people who say they want to become writers?

Ye gods, that’s a tough one. I think that one of the things I stumbled on early, as really a self-defense mechanism of some kind, was typing other writers. Typing a page of Hemingway or a page of Faulkner. Three pages. I learned a tremendous amount about rhythm in that way. I see writing really as music. And I see my work as essentially music. That’s why I like to hear it read out loud by other people. I like to hear what they’re getting out of it. It tells me what you see. I like to have women read it. If it fits musically, it will go to almost any ear. It could be that that’s why children relate to it.

And also you know if you’re getting your reader to hear it the way you want it heard.

I like to hear them getting it. Boy, that’s when you know you’re on the same fucking frequency. Without the music it would be just a mess of pottage.

Did anybody read aloud to you as a kid?

Yeah, my mother did. We were big on stories in the family — fables, bedtime stories. The house was full of books.

There was no wall in the house that didn’t have bookshelves. It’s like this house [points to rows of shelves]. The library, to me, was every bit as much a refuge as a crack house might be to some gang kid today. You know, a library card was a ticket to ride. I read every one of those fucking things. My mother was a librarian for the Louisville [Ky.] Public Library.

John Updike’s mother told him that the whole Rabbit series read like an A student’s idea of what a high-school athlete’s life is like. . .

Wow. To have his mother say it: “I knew there was a reason I was always disappointed in you, my son.” Imagine the struggle that my mother had to go through.

How did she feel about your writing?

For 10 years, the fact that I was a writer had little to do with the fact that I was seen merely as a criminal on a hell-bound train. My mother had to be down there on Fourth Street, at the main desk of the library, and had to have people come in asking for my book before she was convinced that I had a job.

What was the first book, the first whole book, you read?

Good lord, man — anybody who would remember that is probably in some kind of trouble or lying.

No, they say that drug addicts always remember the very first time they had the drug, or alcoholics remember the first drink.

[Pauses] Jesus, I think you’re right.

I think I am, too.

Well, in my grandmother’s bookcase there was a book called The Goops. I was maybe 6, 7. It was a rhymed thing about people who have no manners — people who drooled. The Goops, they use the left hand; they chew all their soup. The Goops were always being punished for rudeness. My grandmother pulled it out for me to let me know that I was going against history. It was like a poem on every page, iambic pentameter definitely, and she gave me a sense of rules, and she managed to shame me for being a Goop — and being a Goop was like being a pig and lowlife. And it registered.

What about the first grown-up book that you read?

You’ve got to keep in mind that through high school, I was a member, actually an elected officer, of the Athenaeum Literary Association, which really governed my consciousness. It started out at Male High [in Louisville]. We’d gather around on Saturday nights to read. It was a profoundly elitist concept. It ended up being a kind of compensation for cutting school. You know, “What have you got? Where were you yesterday, Hunter?” “Well, I was down at Grady’s, on Bardstown Road, reading [Plato’s] “Allegory of the Cave” with Bob Butler and Norman Green, drinking beer.” I don’t know, it was fun. We were reading Nietzsche. It was tough, but when you’re cutting school, you’re reading for power, reading for advantage. I’ve always believed: You teach a kid to like reading, they’re set. That’s what we did with Juan [Thompson’s son]. You get a kid who likes to read on his own, shit, you’ve done your job.

When you started reading on your own, who did you turn to?

When I was in the Air Force, I went into a feeding frenzy. I read contemporary stuff — The Fountainhead. I had Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Kerouac, ee cummings. The thing that was important to me about Hemingway at the time was that Hemingway taught me that you could be a writer and get away with it. The example he set was more important than his writing. His economy of words I paid a lot of attention to. That thing about typing other people’s work was really an eye-opener to me. Nobody suggested it to me. I just started doing it. I had Dos Passos — that’s where I got a lot of my style stuff, the newsreels up at the beginning of his chapters. I came to Fitzgerald early. At 19 or 20, The Great Gatsby was recommended to me as my kind of book.

I’ve said before, Gatsby is possibly the Great American Novel, if you look at it as a technical achievement. It’s about 55,000 words, which was astounding to me. In Vegas, I tried to compete with that.

I didn’t realize Gatsby was that short.

It was one of the basic guiding principles for my writing. I’ve always competed with that. Not a wasted word. This has been a main point to my literary thinking all my life. Shoot, I couldn’t match 55,000 no matter how I chopped. I even chopped the ending off.

There are few things that I read and say, “Boy, I wish I could write that.” Damn few. The Book of Revelation is one. Gatsby is one.

You know Hemingway’s concept: What you don’t write is more important than what you do. I don’t think he ever wrote anything as good as The Great Gatsby. There are lines out of Gatsby — I’ll tell you why it’s so good: Fitzgerald describing Tom Buchanan. You know — athlete, Yale and all the normal stuff, and the paragraph ended describing him physically. Fitzgerald said about Tom Buchanan’s body, “It was a body capable of great leverage.” Back off! I remember that to this day, exactly. You finish Gatsby, and you feel you’ve been in somebody else’s world a long time.

You’ve said that you initially wanted to write fiction and that you saw journalism just as a way to make ends meet.

Essentially to support my habit, writing.

Do you still work with fiction?

That brings us to Polo Is My Life [RS 697].

Were you working on Polo from a sort of a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas point of view, or was it a fictional construct?

Both. I had to do it journalistically as serial coverage [for Rolling Stone], then adapt it, which is where the real mix came in. I was struggling with the fiction — the rats in the rafters over the pool were rumors that I tried to relate to the story.

Rumor is a form of truth, after all.

Remember the Muskie thing? That wasn’t a lie. I wrote that there was a rumor that he had taken Ibogaine [“Not much has been written about the Ibogaine Effect as a serious factor in the Presidential Campaign, but toward the end of the Wisconsin primary race — about a week before the vote — word leaked out that some of Muskie’s top advisers had called in a Brazilian doctor who was said to be treating the candidate with ‘some kind of strange drug’ that nobody in the press corps had ever heard of.” RS 108]. I started the rumor, but there was a rumor.

It was a real rumor.

With Polo, the journalistic aspect in covering events wasn’t at all what I had in mind. After all, Polo Is My Life is a horrible joke, you know, a mean, wicked title. I became suddenly and deeply and intensely involved with a woman who was seriously into polo and planning to leave her husband. We were going to run away. This was a horsewoman, you know. About 5 [feet] 10 [inches]. I mean, a raging beauty. She had a two-goal rating. I met her one afternoon — bright sunlight. She had her horse tied up outside, and she said, “Well, I can’t run away with you, actually. Who would take care of my ponies?” And I looked at her funny, and she said, “You don’t understand, polo is my life.” That’s where the title came from. It had nothing to do, really, with polo. It was a love story. The polo-match coverage gave a body to it that was good for Rolling Stone, for articles. But it got away from the original idea.

NEW and RARE . . . Two Weeks in LAS VEGAS . . . a LIGHTHEADED Feeling . . . Drunk, HORNY and BROKE

What is gonzo journalism?

I never intended gonzo journalism to be any more than just a differentiation of new journalism. I kind of knew it wasn’t that. Bill Cardoso — then working for the Boston Globe — wrote me a note about the Kentucky Derby thing [“The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” Scanlan’s Monthly, June 1970] saying, “Hot damn. Kick ass. It was pure gonzo.” And I heard him use it once or twice up in New Hampshire. It’s a Portuguese word [actually, it’s Italian], and it translates almost exactly to what the Hell’s Angels would have said was “off the wall.” Hey, it’s in the dictionary now.

Not many people get to add anything to the dictionary.

That’s one of my proudest achievements. It’s in Random House [and many other dictionaries]. I’m afraid to quote it.

Where did the phrase “fear and loathing” come from?

It came out of my own sense of fear and a perfect description of that situation to me. However, I have been accused of stealing it from Nietzsche or Kafka or something. It seemed like a natural thing.

I was never really sure how long you actually spent in Las Vegas.

The chronology gets weird. There was a huge break between the Mint 400 motorcycle race — which we were all very excited about — and the DA’s conference. I was there in early summer. What happened is, I came back here to Woody Creek [Colo.], then I went to San Francisco. The first half of it was clearly a story — we’d agreed on it. But I guess I got back here, and some mail had accumulated. At the time, I was a member of the International Association of Police Chiefs, since I was the chief magistrate of Woody Creek. And I would get all these magazines and propaganda and stuff, and invitations, and one of them was the National District Attorneys Conference, in Las Vegas. I guess I was thinking Vegas 2 already: “Hmm, this story’s not finished, really.”

It needed more “research.”

Yeah, this was a breakthrough. So I called Oscar, and I said, “Hey, are you ready to go? We have another date in Las Vegas.” He resisted at first, but he couldn’t resist me. And this time he flew in, and I flew in. Our cover was absolutely essential. I had registered for the conference, sent in a check — it was $125 apiece — talked to Jann [Wenner]. I had told Oscar, “Don’t tell anyone we’re going to penetrate the deepest bowels of the enemy. This is not funny.” I hadn’t told anybody around here. Unfortunately, when I got on the plane, there is the Pitkin County [Colo.] district attorney, Jim Moore, whom I knew pretty well. He said, “Hi ya, Hunter, where you going?” And I said, “Holy shit.” We took separate seats, and for a while I wrestled with it. Maybe I said, “That’s funny, I’m going to Las Vegas, too.” Maybe I got into the seat next to him; anyway, I confessed: “I am going to this convention, and I’m going as Raoul Duke. I’m undercover totally, and unfortunately you know about it. I didn’t mean for this to happen. And can I count on you to guarantee my cover?” “Uh,” he said, “Yeah, I think so, yeah.”

He ended up being very helpful; I don’t think he ever blew my cover. He suffered through it the whole time, that entire week in August. In the book, the break’s not really clear, but it went from June to August.

It feels as if it could have happened in a week or a four-day weekend.

It was two one-week blocks. The preparation before, in L.A., it was already a part of it. I knew what I was doing there, and I knew it was very dangerous. Oscar was an investigator. I was a magistrate. The story was still rolling.

How did you do the actual work on Vegas? What was the drill?

Right after Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises, he wrote a very small book, not much noticed. And I remember reading that he said, “I wrote that just to cool out after The Sun Also Rises.” I was working on Salazar, an ugly murder story. You know how you get. You get that, “Fuck, damn, where shall we go now?” You know, “Whose throat can I eat?” And when I got stuck out in that Holiday Inn near the Santa Anita racetrack, outside Pasadena [Calif.], I was there to work on this murder story. That was work, boy, that was blood. And, boy, that role got very, very tough. That’s why I went to Las Vegas. And when I came back from Las Vegas, I was still writing that story.

So you’d work on Vegas as a break from the real assignment on hand?

Yeah. I’d write from the notes I’d made all the way from before I left there. But it was really my notes as I was fleeing. I stopped as often as I could. I was just an image on the freeway, a red convertible driving fast to L.A. on the 305. So I would stop and make these copious notes in these weird honky-tonk joints. I’d start out about dawn. I’m just thinking, “Ye gods, this is a story.” The lead, I think, was the first thing I wrote. I don’t think it was ever changed. And no doubt it came from a list somewhere: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” And you asked me if books seemed to me like drugs, for fuck’s sake.

It’s extraordinary how different the two pieces of writing are.

They were written at the same time, same hotel room. It was a 24-hour-a-day gig. I’d speed, and I would just write. I remember it was the spring meeting at Santa Anita, and I was surrounded by horse people. Everywhere around me, all the other rooms were jockeys, tall blond women, owners, gamblers. I was the weird one there.

Yeah, I suppose. What was the response when you filed this new story?

The staff then was a pretty tight group. We had dinner down at some Mexican restaurant we used to go to a lot, to celebrate the bringing in of the great Salazar saga. That was the event. We sat at a booth — white Formica table — there were four of us in there: Jane [Wenner], Jann, me inside and [former Rolling Stone editor] David Felton. I might have said something to Jann that afternoon like, “I got a little something extra.”

But I remember sitting down there across from Jann — it was just the two of us at first — and I just said, “Hey, try this.” I think the first day it was nine pages — somehow it went in nines. It was just my handwritten notes, which went on and on and on. That was the thing about Rolling Stone in those days: It was logical. Here I’d had one great triumph and said, “Hey, wait a minute, come over here, I got something better.” And I knew somehow it was better. I knew it was special. It was a different voice. Jann read it. He was the one for a real judgment.

He made me an offer. Can you imagine anyone doing things that way now? But it was just entirely natural, and it’s always been that way. It was, “Hey, hot damn, this is good. What else do you have?” I’d say, “This is a large thing; I’m full of energy here,” and that energy meant finishing something. And he went right along with it.

You don’t get that too often.

I’ve always appreciated that moment.

I’ve never been able to decide what makes me most envious of you as a writer, whether it is the “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive” or when Oscar turned to the hitchhiker and said, “We’re your friends. We’re not like the others.”

We happened to pick up this kid on another road, not on the road from L.A. to Las Vegas. I was driving; it was the first time around — the red car. I saw a kid hitchhiking. A tall, gangly kid. I said, “What the hell?” and I pulled over: “Hop in.” “Hot damn,” he said, “I never rode in a convertible before.” And I said, “You’re in the right place.” I was really pleased. That was a true thing. I identified with him. I almost said, “You want to drive?”

Which would have been a good idea in the event.

But all those events, it’s the attitude that really seems to meld them together. Granted, my behavior may be low-rent, but it was investigative journalism: “I’m new and rare.”

You were, after all, looking into things. Albeit those things didn’t exist.

It was my assignment. I had two assignments: I was there to cover the Mint 400, and I was there to cover the DA’s conference. What are people bitching about?

It wasn’t like you didn’t write anything. That’s the thing that usually pisses editors off.

Sports Illustrated rejected the 2,500 words that I sent them; all they wanted was 250 for a caption. “Not acceptable for our format.”

I can see the layout problem they might have had. Was Ralph Steadman in Las Vegas during any of this?

No, we sent it to him all at once when it was finished. When I went to Las Vegas, one of my jobs was to find physical art: things that we used, cocktail napkins, maybe photos — we didn’t have a photographer. But that concept didn’t work. I rejected it. It was a cold afternoon, Friday, on a deadline in the Rolling Stone offices, when I rejected [Art Director Robert] Kingsbury’s art for the “Vegas” story. It was a real crisis: “What do we do now?” This is one of those stories that you read in bad books. I said, “What the fuck, let’s get Ralph Steadman. We should have had him there in the first place.”

We’d worked together on the Derby piece and also on the America’s Cup nightmare. It never got published. Scanlan’s had gone under. Ralph and I had become somewhat disaffected, estranged, because of his experience in New York — his one and only experience with psychedelics, with psilocybin. And he swore he’d never come back to this country and I was the worst example of American swine that had ever been born.

If I had had my way, Ralph would have gone with me to Las Vegas. It was some kind of accountant’s thing: “Save on the art,” you know. I didn’t like the cocktail-napkin thing, but it wasn’t that big a story, really. And, you know, Ralph wouldn’t do it unless he was paid $100,000 or something like that. But when the other art was rejected, I think Jann was there: “Let’s call Ralph.” The story was done. It was one of those, “How fast can we get it to him? How fast can we get it back?” And, you know, we got him on the phone. You know [British accent], “Thot bastuhd. Well, ah’ll hav a luk at it. Ah, yes, I cahn probably do it.” The manuscript was sent off. He’d never been to Las Vegas.

I don’t think it was probably necessary for someone to have been to Las Vegas to illustrate that story. I mean, the visuals were kind of “internal.”

Yeah. But there was no more communication with him for, like, three days. We were all a bit nervous. And I would say, “Don’t worry, he said he would do it.” But his heart was full of hate. In about three to four days, a long tube arrived at the office. Great excitement. I was there when some messenger brought it in: a big, round thing. And we went to the art department. It was huge. Very carefully, we pulled the stuff out and unrolled it. And, ye gods, every one of them was perfect. It was like discovering water at the bottom of a well. Not one was rejected; not one was changed. This is what he sent.

There was one year when there seemed to be a festival of biographies done on you. Have you read any of them?

Were there three biographies in one year? I think they were all betting — you know, there was a pool betting on which day of the year I would die. But I never read any of them, no. I saw pieces here or there. But I didn’t want to read them because I didn’t want to get pissed off at my friends.

You could write your own memoirs.

Well, I’ve been working on these [collected] letters. It’s an incredible thing, seeing my life unreeled in front of me. You don’t know what the next box is going to hold when you review your life page by page. I don’t know how many people would volunteer for that. Have it reviewed in public, you know, and publish it.

I’ve been humiliated, really, to see how much time I spent between haggling over small amounts of money and being broke. All that effort, it’s a wonder anyone had any time to work at all.

It’s one of the mysteries of youth, isn’t it?

Yeah, drunk, horny and broke. Somehow, there were 48 hours a day and 18 days in the week. But the suffering of going through 10 years of it. “Free-lance journalism” — that sounds romantic now, right? But the desperation — teetering from one word to another.

EPILOGUE: Road Man for the LORDS of KARMA . . . MR. NABOKOV Will See You Now. . . . SEX and GOD

Here’s a question: Are you religious? Do you believe in God?

Long ago, I shucked off the belief that the people I was dealing with in the world, the power people, really knew what they were doing at all. And that included religion. The idea of heaven and hell — to be threatened with it — was absurd. I think the church wanted it to keep people in line. I’ve kind of recently come to a different realization that I’m in charge, really. That it comes down to karma. Karma is different things to different countries, but in the Orient, karma comes in the next generation.

And ours comes in the mail.

I’ve kind of updated Buddhism. In other words, you get your rewards in this life, and I think I’ll be around again pretty quickly. Karma incorporates a measure of behavior, and in my interpretation, like everything else in this American century, it’s been sped up — you know, the news, the effect of the news, religion, the effect of it. The only kind of grace points you get there is, they let you rest for a while sometimes. I may be sent back. I see myself as a road man for the lords of karma, and I’m not worried about my assignment. Of course, a lot of people have good reason to worry.

I think I know several people who are probably walking around as bugs right now.

Three-legged dogs on a Navajo reservation. Yeah, Pat Buchanan coming back as a rat on the great feeding hill in Calcutta. In Buddhism there is an acceptance of the utter meaninglessness and rottenness of life. I think Nixon got his karma in his time.

OK, check off God. How about sex? You don’t often get graphic on us. Is writing about sex as hard as writing about drugs?

It’s difficult to do.

Are there any writers who you think do it effectively, honestly, dirtily? And honestly.

Well, I think that Nabokov could.

A beautiful writer.

Hell of a good writer. A friend of mine, Mike Solheim, was up in Sun Valley [Idaho] back in the early ’60s. He told me that Nabokov used to come to the Sun Valley Lodge with an 11-year-old girl. He said it was weirder than Lolita: “It’s very nice to meet your niece, Mr. Nabokov.” Well, that goes back to the new-journalism question, about writing from experience.

When you read it, you knew this was from real experience. This was not Thomas Mann writing Death in Venice, which seemed to be a student’s idea of what a hopeless crush would be, as if he’d observed someone go through it.

And the reason for that is, Nabokov was up at Sun Valley Lodge with an 11-year-old girl.

I’m afraid Lolita strictly fits into the gonzo framework.

But, man, that’s where the fun is. You know, why write about other people’s experiences?


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