A flat-out high speed burn through Baker and Barstow and Berdoo, into frantic oblivion

One favorite quote from Hunter S. Thompson, who died exactly five years ago (give or take a few days) ago, is this one, the opening lines from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like: I feel a bit lightheaded. Maybe you should drive. Suddenly, there was a terrible roar all around us, and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, and a voice was screaming: Holy Jesus. What are these goddamn animals?

Duke_and_gonzo_Small.jpgThompson and his lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta visited Las Vegas in 1971 to cover the Mint 400 race for Sports Illustrated. But the article they wrote was about far more than that.

Las Vegas Review reporter Corey Levitan writes an article in which he tries to figure out what was real and what wasn't, which as might be imagined when dealing with Thompson seems like a tough thing to figure.


  1. Meh. A derivative article trying to latch on to one of the brightest pieces of writing to come out of that generation. I refuse to read it– derivative works are one of the things that I am pretty sure Dr. Thompson despised.

    FWIW, I used to work in vegas, and I’ve done a small portion of my share of hallucinogens. I can only aspire to understand what he was trying to bang into my head with that book, and I like to leave it at that.

    (yes– I realize the irony of me commenting about how I hate a derivative work becomes it’s own derivative-of-a-derivative.)

  2. OMG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I have never seen a picture of his “lawyer”. He looks just like I imagined him, except clothed and not naked flailing around in a bathtub as Hunter throws oranges at him on the pretense that they are “the radio”. Wasn’t he supposed to be Samoan? Is he Samoan? I always wondered if he was, in part, a figment of Hunter’s imagination.

    1. Oscar Acosta was a Chicano attorney who was very active in East LA during the late 1960s. HST wrote a not entirely flattering profile and requiem for him, “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat,” which is included in _The Great Shark Hunt_. Acosta “disappeared under mean and mysterious circumstances in the late months of 1974, or perhaps the early months of 1975.”

      “He Crawled with Lepers and Lawyers, but He Was Tall on His Own Hind Legs When He Walked at Night with the King….”

  3. I don’t understand the point of this sort of analysis. Has anyone ever doubted that parts of the book were heavily fictionalized? We would all like to believe that it happened word for word, but don’t most of us know better?
    Some people have a really hard time with the existence of myth and legend in the world. They have a slaving devotion to fact-checking and historical documentation. Most creative types aren’t really concerned with such things.
    I guess it takes all kinds…

    1. I think the point is that, for some, it’s interesting to understand where his journalism phased between reality and fiction, and whether it was the result of editorializing, artistic indulgence, and/or drug induced haze.

      It’s not about whether Hunter would’ve endorsed this type of analysis, or whether it’s important to unravel the mystery, but that people want to understand him via the analysis of his writing.

      1. I don’t have a cite, unfortunately, but I recall reading a comment from HST himself that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a total failure of gonzo journalism exactly because it was so obviously impossible that he could have done all of this stuff without immediately ending up in jail (or worse).

        That there’s even a doubt about this, is inspiring on multiple levels.

  4. He’s gone, and there will never be another like him. Our country has turned to poop, everyone is so risk averse, security desiring, and we’ve signed all our civil rights away

    I’m positive if I got in a car headed for vegas with a headfull of bad mescaline, I would not make it past the San Jose city limits before the Mothers Against Everything Dangerous would have me locked away at some secret US Government Detention Center where young HItler’s Youth wannabees would repeatedly whack me with cattle prods and force me to resign all my bank accounts for the greater good.

    We have lost it. GWB drove the last nail into the coffin, the American Century is over. All fun must now be regulated, approved, and quiet.

    I know why he stepped off this planet. Really I do.

    1. I don’t know about that. I’ve seen some pretty amazing tomfoolery surrounding Phish tour. I think what shocked me most about the Thompsonesque experiences I’ve had is how ignored they were by the sober people surrounding them. I’ve developed a theory. Wait, no, I’ve stolen a theory that Douglas Adams referred to as the SEP Field. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somebody_Else%27s_Problem#In_fiction

      I’ve taken that idea a step further into actions. The more garish, out of control or wildly offensive a group of people are acting the less likely other people are going to want to deal with them or even act like they notice them at all. And if it is their job to deal with them they are in fact more likely to give them either a wide berth or escort them into a contained area away from public interaction. This my be a ballroom, VIP area, or box seats.

      1. No offense, but you did go through a security check to get into the concert? did a man with a “security” badge frisk your old lady to make sure she had no guns or knives? did anyone leave on high speed motorcycles?

        it is watered down tomfoolerey.

        However! I am glad someone is at least trying.

        Push the edges, that’s where the fun is

  5. Pf course it all happened or at least the WHOLE of the adventure is how he remembered and that is both history and legend. After a certain amount of time you can’t tell the two apart and really have no need to.

  6. It’s probably been a decade since I read the book, but I recently re-watched the film, which is on Hulu right now for free if you want to watch it, and I was actually wondering about some of these things.

    I was always under the impression that it was all based on fact, just really exaggerated. One of the things I’ve always wondered about, and one of the mysteries this article didn’t clear up for me, was that drug they take out of corpses. It sounds entirely fantastic, but I always wondered if it was based on some shard of truth.

  7. He claimed at different times that it was true, that it was largely fiction, and that if it was true, of course he would never admit it.

    The King is dead. Long live the King.

  8. Contained within “Fear and Loathing in America” (a series of Hunters many many letters) his publisher states (paraphrasing here, the books long can’t be bothered finding the exact page) “I know you weren’t on that many drugs when you wrote that” and his response is along the lines of “of course I wasn’t, I couldn’t write that well under those circumstances, but never tell anybody else that”.

    That’s not to say he wasn’t taking drugs, which he almost certainly was. Just not the absurd amount mentioned in the book.

  9. The assertion Leviton and Mint 400 founder Norm Johnson make at the end of the piece, that H.S.T. wrote the truth as his drug addled mind understood it, is incredible horse shit. And the bit about fans on H.S.T. message boards wanting Thompson’s drug use on the Vegas trip verified . . . Honestly?

    Look, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas could only have come from a twisted mind’s eye. And we can almost be certain that some of its details are pure psychedelic manufacture Thompson saw as truth (during and/or after the event occurred) but, to imply that Thompson believed even /half/ of the grossly incredulous things he wrote in that book is simply insulting. Anyone who reads Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with sound mind understands that there’s an absurdest level of extrapolation going on and it’s not hard to recognize it when it shows up.

    Furthermore, insinuating that Thompson wrote the book in these overblown states of psychedelic disarray is to buy whole-heartedly into the myth of Raoul Duke without even a thought of researching Thompson’s real writing habits or, for that matter, a nod to common sense.

    Thompson stated (many times, I’m sure) that the only substances he indulged in while writing were tobacco and alcohol. He also spoke often and at great length about the public’s transposing of his real persona with Raoul Duke’s. There’s a video interview of Thompson from the mid to late 70s on the 2nd disc of the Criterion Collection’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas DVD in which he says that when he meets people he doesn’t know whether they expect him or the fictional Duke. A maniacal creature like Duke couldn’t walk down to the corner store for a soda without accidentally setting fire to a baptist church let alone write a cohesive piece of literature widely regarded as a masterpiece.

    That being said, I think it’s pretty cool that Leviton took the time to track down potential eyewitnesses and the people who most likely would’ve interacted with Thompson and Zeta Acosta while they were there (even Debbie Reynolds!). As an obvious fan, I think there’s nothing wrong with trying to make the line between truth and fictionalization less obscured in those places where the purple haze first begins to roll in. But 400 bars of soap, astronomical room service claims and countless unpunished acts of violence and general depravity? Come on.

    1. There’s a video interview of Thompson from the mid to late 70s on the 2nd disc of the Criterion Collection’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas DVD in which he says that when he meets people he doesn’t know whether they expect him or the fictional Duke.

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but in the very same video to which you refer, isn’t HST continuously smoking joints? Furthermore, in the version I saw there is a quick cut where the camera operator sneakily rolls as HST is doing lines (presumabluy coke) behind the clapboard.

      I can’t find the complete interview but it was done by the BBC – and there is a small cap on YT http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v4xE5ppS570
      At around 1:09 you can see that he is holding a rolled up note in his right hand but that is as incriminating as YT gets. Track down the original interview… its gold!

  10. Good comments above. Thompson was in many ways much more Mark Twain than the Hemingwayesque(?) persona popular culture paints him as.

    For what it’s worth, I saw him “lecturing” here in Melbourne, 1976. It was a great night, he was on top of his game. Six audience mikes in the aisles of the Town Hall — he started the lecture with “Any questions?”

    Someone asked how much of FLLV was really true. He said that it all pretty much happened, but not all at the same time. He also said that the hitch-hiker was an invention. Someone else asked for advice about ether, “hospital grade or what?” “I prefer raw, industrial ether.”

    One of the highlights was “Given the amount of chemical consumption you indulge in, the last time you had sex, did you climax?” “Multiple orgasms.”

    Scholars should refer to the Gonzo Tapes which were released with the Gonzo movie — a 5 CD collection of the raw audio tapes HST recorded in the field while writing the Hell’s Angels, Las Vegas, Zaire and Saigon pieces. I haven’t heard them all yet, but what I’ve heard is bang-on accurate to what was written.

    Of course, there are the bits that were written that aren’t on the tapes, and that’s where Doc was sharing a bit o’fun with us all.

    Remember ’72 candidate Muskie and and his alleged use of the weird South American drug Ibogaine as reported by Thompson? As he said later on a talk show, in essence — “I only said there was a rumour he was using Ibogaine. I am an accurate reporter. I started that rumour.”

  11. Also, this is the guy who startled staff at (I think) Rolling Stone magazine by showing up for his job interview with a bag from which he pulled a bottle of vodka and a hypodermic syringe. Loaded the syringe with vodka, then plunged it directly into his stomach, through his shirt, explaining “Saves time”.

    He had a tennis ball taped to his stomach under his shirt.

    HST was the champion of fun. I love the drawing Ralph Steadman made of Thompson engulfed in flames yelling “I missed! It’s hell down here!”

  12. “two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers … and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.”

    While I have always aspired to own such a suitcase, it hasn’t yet happened. I can, however, suggest that the suitcase is probably just a prop to spur on the imagination. Yes… he was probably high as a kite, but rest assured that if anyone was to take “five sheets of high-powered blotter acid” they would quickly and promptly be losing said suitcase. Thats not 5 “tabs” people (standard dose for 1 person), its five sheets.

  13. He is indeed smoke joints and doing lines of coke in that interview, yes. He was no stranger to irony, that’s for sure. He had to live up to the myth at least a little bit. There’s a particularly funny bit where he’s doing a line off his forearm doing his best to hide it behind the film mark.

  14. This is literature folks, and when it comes to literature, it’s fine to bend the facts to get at deeper truth. In fact, it’s practically required.

    I didn’t properly appreciate *Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas* the first time I read it. I’d been blown away by *Hell’s Angels*, but I was taken in by Thompson’s self-created legend and decided that the excesses of *Fear and Loathing* were the product of drug-enabled self-indulgence (as well as editors too intimidated to mess with the work of a star writer).

    Years later, I went back for a second look, and it changed my mind dramatically. Thompson goes over the line plenty of times in that book, but every time he has good reason for doing it. In my mind, the whole phantasmagorical masterpiece (think about it: the very idea of getting at the true insanity of early Seventies Vegas by using drugs to make *oneself* temporarily insane) is best captured in two (ironically quite lucid) moments.

    First, the famous “wave speech”: “San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of….There was madness in any direction, at any hour….You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning….

    “And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…

    “So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

    The second is where he begins asking locals where he can find the American Dream, and they mistakenly believe he’s asking the location of a nightclub – formerly the “Old Psychiatrist’s Club”:

    “Tape cassettes for the next sequence were impossible to transcribe due to some viscous liquid encrusted behind the heads. There is a certain consistency in the garbled sounds however, indicating that almost two hours later Dr. Duke and his attorney finally located what was left of the ‘Old Psychiatrist’s Club’ — a huge slab of cracked, scorched concrete in a vacant lot full of tall weeds. The owner of a gas station across the road said the place had ‘burned down about three years ago.’ ”

    There’s your truth.

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