Fear and Loathing on a mess of C90's
By Chris Morris
Hunter S. Thompson was the first rock-star journalist, so it's
fitting that he has received his own boxed set.
The Gonzo Tapes: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (Shout!
Factory) is a five-CD companion to Gonzo, director Alex Gibney's
documentary of earlier this year. The picture was largely a
protracted tongue-kiss that basically sidestepped the last three
unproductive decades of the writer's career before his February 2005
suicide. But one of the most provocative features of Gibney's film
was its use of snippets of audio recorded by Thompson himself.
No fan of reporters' notebooks, Thompson was a chronic recordist and
archivist who relied on his cassettes for note-taking and dialogue.
Musician Don Fleming was brought in by Gibney to sort through
Thompson's carefully catalogued C90s; he digested some of the most
significant and interesting audio into The Gonzo Tapes. Those who do
not worship at the gonzo temple will find the project taxing – six
hours of jabber is a bitch to sit through – but fans of Thompson's
work will hear much that is revealing.
The first three discs focus on a couple of the inarguable high points
of Thompson's early career. CD One brings together material for his
1967 book Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. A couple of
lengthy interviews with biker Terry the Tramp delve deeply into the
sociopathy of the outlaw gang's members. There's also an unnerving
description of a gang-bang at an August 1965 party held for the
Angels by Ken Kesey's psychedelic Merry Pranksters; Tom Wolfe used
Thompson's cassette as the basis for a horrific chapter in his 1968
book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Two CDs compile the raw material for Thompson's 1971 Rolling Stone
breakthrough Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. That first gonzo
journalism classic followed the drug-addled attempts of writer "Raoul
Duke" (Thompson) and his attorney "Dr. Gonzo" (L.A. Chicano activist
Oscar Zeta Acosta) to "cover" a dirt-bike race and a law-enforcement
drug conclave in Vegas. Thompson's tapes of the pair's Sin City
rampage delineate the accuracy of the finished product. One long
recording in which Thompson and the deadpan Acosta interrogate
workers at a taco stand about the location of the American Dream
showed up in the book verbatim. And any dyed-in-the-wool Fear and
Loathing fan will experience a sweet shock of recognition when, in
the middle of one meandering episode, Brewer & Shipley's "One Toke
Over the Line" comes blasting onto the radio of Thompson's rented
The rest of The Gonzo Tapes is, sadly, about failure. After a year's
worth of provocative, rule-breaking dispatches about the '72
presidential race that became Fear and Loathing on the Campaign
Trail, Thompson was a full-blown journalistic luminary. He swiftly
grew incapable of completing anything. In 1973, he reunited with
Acosta to stalk Henry Kissinger in Acapulco for a stillborn Vegas
sequel; recordings of the trip find the principals confused about
where reality ends and fiction begins. In 1974, he went on a four-day
cocaine bender for an unfinished Rolling Stone assignment about
Sigmund Freud's coke habit, beginning a love affair with the drug;
his disquieting audio notes on the dope jag are lengthily excerpted.
The box ends with two famed blown assignments: Thompson's blow-off of
the October 1974 heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali
and George Foreman in Zaire (Thompson went on a literally screaming
bender, sold his tickets, and went swimming in the hotel pool during
the bout) and his failed trip to Saigon in the last days of the
Vietnam War in 1975 (he filed one slapdash piece and fled). Either
out of fear or as a result of drug- and drink-induced incapacitation,
Thompson wrote little thereafter that matched the brilliance of his
first three books. The last two CDs of The Gonzo Tapes is the sound
of a master going down in flames – the sound of tragedy.
Chris Morris hosts Watusi Rodeo on Indie 103.1 every Sunday at 9 a.m.