On the Channel: David Gordon Green on A Day with the Boys By Hillary Weston
Something Wild: Last Chances By Sheila O’Malley
Dark Passages: The Devil in the Details By Imogen Sara Smith
The book began as a 250-word caption for Sports Illustrated. I was down in LA, working on a very tense and depressing investigation of the allegedly accidental killing of a journalist named Ruben Salazar by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept—and after a week or so on the story I was a ball of nerves & sleepless paranoia (figuring that I might be next)…and I needed some excuse to get away from the angry vortex of that story & try to make sense of it without people shaking butcher knives in my face all the time.
My main contact on that story was the infamous Chicano lawyer Oscar Acosta—an old friend, who was under bad pressure at the time, from his super-militant constituents, for even talking to a gringo/gabacho journalist. The pressure was so heavy, in fact, that I found it impossible to talk to Oscar alone. We were always in the midst of a crowd of heavy streetfighters who didn’t mind letting me know that they wouldn’t need much of an excuse to chop me into hamburger.
This is no way to work on a very volatile & very complex story. So one afternoon I got Oscar in my rented car and drove him over to the Beverly Hills Hotel—away from his bodyguards, etc.—and told him I was getting a bit wiggy from the pressure; it was like being on stage all the time, or maybe in the midst of a prison riot. He agreed, but the nature of his position as “leader of the militants” made it impossible for him to be openly friendly with a gabacho.
I understood this…and just about then, I remembered that another old friend, now working for Sports Illustrated, had asked me if I felt like going out to Vegas for the weekend, at their expense, and writing a few words about a motorcycle race. This seemed like a good excuse to get out of LA for a few days, and if I took Oscar along it would also give us time to talk and sort out the evil realities of the Salazar/Murder story.
So I called Sports Illustrated—from the patio of the Polo Lounge—and said I was ready to do the “Vegas thing.” They agreed…and from here on in there is no point in running down details, because they’re all in the book.
More or less…and this qualifier is the essence of what, for no particular reason, I’ve decided to call Gonzo Journalism. It is a style of “reporting” based on William Faulkner’s idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism—and the best journalists have always known this.
Which is not to say that Fiction is necessarily “more true” than Journalism—or vice versa—but that both “fiction” and “journalism” are artificial categories; and that both forms, at their best, are only two different means to the same end. This is getting pretty heavy…so I should cut back and explain, at this point, that Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas is a failed experiment in Gonzo Journalism. My idea was to buy a fat notebook and record the whole thing, as it happened, then send in the notebook for publication—without editing. That way, I felt, the eye & mind of the journalist would be functioning as a camera. The writing would be selective & necessarily interpretive—but once the image was written, the words would be final; in the same way that a Cartier-Bresson photograph is always (he says) the full-frame negative. No alterations in the darkroom, no cutting or cropping, no spotting…no editing.
But this a hard thing to do, and in the end I found myself imposing an essentially fictional framework on what began as a piece of straight/crazy journalism. True Gonzo
reporting needs the talents of a master journalist, the eye of an artist/photographer and the heavy balls of an actor. Because the writer must be a participant in the scene, while he’s writing it—or at least taping it, or even sketching it. Or all three. Probably the closest analogy to the ideal would be a film director/producer who writes his own scripts, does his own camera work and somehow manages to film himself in action, as the protagonist or at least a main character.
The American print media are not ready for this kind of thing, yet. Rolling Stone was probably the only magazine in America where I could get the Vegas book published. I sent Sports Illustrated 2500 words—instead of the 250 they asked for—and my manuscript was aggressively rejected. They refused to even pay my minimum expenses…
But to hell with all that. I seem to be drifting away from the point—that Fear & Loathing is not what I thought it would be. I began writing it during a week of hard typewriter nights in a room at the Ramada Inn—in a place called Arcadia, California—up the road from Pasadena & right across the street from the Santa Anita racetrack. I was there during the first week of the Spring Racing—and the rooms all around me were jammed with people I couldn’t quite believe.
Heavy track buffs, horse trainers, ranch owners, jockeys & their women…I was lost in that swarm, sleeping most of each day and writing all night on the Salazar article. But each night, around dawn, I would knock off the Salazar work and spend an hour or so, cooling out, by letting my head unwind and my fingers run wild on the big black Selectric…jotting down notes about the weird trip to Vegas. It had worked out nicely, in terms of the Salazar piece—plenty of hard straight talk about who was lying and who wasn’t, and Oscar had finally relaxed enough to talk me straight. Flashing across the desert at 110 in a big red convertible with the top down, there is not much danger of being bugged or overheard.
But we stayed in Vegas a bit longer than we’d planned to. Or at least I did. Oscar had to get back for a nine o’clock court appearance on Monday. So he took a plane and I was left alone out there—just me and a massive hotel bill that I knew I couldn’t pay, and the treacherous reality of that scene caused me to spend about 36 straight hours in my room at the Mint Hotel…writing feverishly in a notebook about a nasty situation that I thought I might not get away from.
These notes were the genesis of Fear & Loathing. After my escape from Nevada and all through the tense work week that followed (spending all my afternoons on the grim streets of East LA and my nights at the typewriter in that Ramada Inn hideout)…my only loose & human moments would come around dawn when I could relax and fuck around with this slow-building, stone-crazy Vegas story.
By the time I got back to the Rolling Stone Hq. in San Francisco, the Salazar story was winding out at around 19,000 words, and the strange Vegas “fantasy” was running on its own spaced energy and pushing 5000 words—with no end in sight and no real reason to continue working on it, except the pure pleasure of unwinding on paper. It was sort of an exercise—like Bolero—and it might have stayed that way if Jann Wenner, the editor of Rolling Stone, hadn’t liked the first 20 or so jangled pages enough to take it seriously on its own terms and tentatively schedule it for publication—which gave me the push I needed to keep working on it.
So now, six months later, the ugly bastard is finished. And I like it—despite the fact that I failed at what I was trying to do. As true Gonzo Journalism, this doesn’t work at all—and even if it did, I couldn’t possibly admit it. Only a goddamn lunatic would write a thing like this and then claim it was true. The week the first section of Fear & Loathing appeared in Rolling Stone I found myself applying for White House press credentials—a plastic pass that would give me the run of the White House, along with at least theoretical access to the big oval room where Nixon hangs out, pacing back & forth on those fine thick taxpayers’ carpets and pondering Sunday’s pointspread. (Nixon is a serious pro football freak. He and I are old buddies on this front: We once spent a long night together on the Thruway from Boston to Manchester, dissecting the pro & con strategy of the Oakland-Green Bay Super Bowl game. It was the only time I’ve ever seen the bugger relaxed—laughing, whacking me on the knee as he recalled Max McGee’s one-handed catch for the back-breaking touchdown. I was impressed. It was like talking to Owsley about Acid.)
The trouble with Nixon is that he’s a serious politics junkie. He’s totally hooked…and like any other junkie, he’s a bummer to have around: Especially as President.
And so much for all that…I have all of 1972 to fuck around with Nixon, so why hassle it here?
Anyway, the main point I want to make about Fear & Loathing is that although it’s not what I meant it to be, it’s still so complex in its failure that I feel I can take the risk of defending it as a first, gimped effort in a direction that what Tom Wolfe calls “The New Journalism” has been flirting with for almost a decade.
Wolfe’s problem is that he’s too crusty to participate in his stories. The people he feels comfortable with are dull as stale dogshit, and the people who seem to fascinate him as a writer are so weird that they make him nervous. The only thing new and unusual about Wolfe’s journalism is that he’s an abnormally good reporter; he has a fine sense of echo and at least a peripheral understanding of what John Keats was talking about when he said that thing about Truth & Beauty. The only reason Wolfe seems “new” is because William Randolph Hearst bent the spine of American journalism very badly when it was just getting started. All Tom Wolfe did—after he couldn’t make it on the Washington Post and couldn’t even get hired by the National Observer—was to figure out that there was really not much percentage in playing the old Colliers’ game, and that if he was ever going to make it in “journalism,” his only hope was to make it on his own terms: By being good in the classical—rather than the contemporary—sense, and by being the kind of journalist that the American print media honor mainly in the breach. Or, failing that, at the funeral. Like Stephen Crane, who couldn’t even get a copyboy’s job on today’s New York Times. The only difference between working for the Times and Time magazine is the difference between being a third-string All-American fullback at Yale instead of Ohio State.
And again, yes, we seem to be rambling—so perhaps I should close this off.
The only other important thing to be said about Fear & Loathing at this time is that it was fun to write, and that’s rare—for me, at least, because I’ve always considered writing the most hateful kind of work. I suspect it’s a bit like fucking, which is only fun for amateurs. Old whores don’t do much giggling.
Nothing is fun when you have to do it—over & over, again & again—or else you’ll be evicted, and that gets old. So it’s a rare goddamn trip for a locked-in, rent-paying writer to get into a gig that, even in retrospect, was a kinghell, highlife fuckaround from start to finish…and then to actually get paid for writing this kind of manic gibberish seems genuinely weird; like getting paid for kicking Agnew in the balls.
So maybe there’s hope. Or maybe I’m going mad. These are not easy things to be sure of, either way…and in the meantime we have this failed experiment in Gonzo Journalism, the certain truth of which will never be established. That much is definite. Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas will have to be chalked off as a frenzied experiment, a fine idea that went crazy about halfway through…a victim of its own conceptual schizophrenia, caught & finally crippled in that vain, academic limbo between “journalism” & “fiction.” And then hoist on its own petard of multiple felonies and enough flat-out crime to put anybody who’d admit to this kind of stinking behavior in the Nevada State Prison until 1984.
So now, in closing, I want to thank everybody who helped me put this happy work of fiction together. Names are not necessary here; they know who they are—and in this foul era of Nixon, that knowledge and private laughter is probably the best we can hope for. The line between martyrdom and stupidity depends on a certain kind of tension in the body politic—but that line disappeared, in America, at the trial of the “Chicago 7/8,” and there is no point in kidding ourselves, now, about Who Has the Power.
In a nation ruled by swine, all pigs are upward-mobile—and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together: Not necessarily to Win, but mainly to keep from Losing Completely. We owe that to ourselves and our crippled self-image as something better than a nation of panicked sheep…but we owe it especially to our children, who will have to live with our loss and all its long-term consequences. I don’t want my son asking me, in 1984, why his friends are calling me a “Good German.”
Which gets down to a final point about Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. I have called it, only half sarcastically, “a vile epitaph for the Drug Culture of the Sixties,” and I think it is. This whole twisted saga is a sort of Atavistic Endeavor, a dream-trip into the past—however recent—that was only half successful. I think we both understood, all along, that we were running a hell of a risk by laying a sixties trip on Las Vegas in 1971…and that neither one of us would ever pass this way again.
So we pushed it as far as we could, and we survived—which means something, I guess, but not much beyond a good story…and now, having done it, written it, and humping a reluctant salute to that decade that started so high and then went so brutally sour, I don’t see much choice but to lash down the screws and get on with what has to be done. Either that or do nothing at all—fall back on the Good German, Panicked Sheep syndrome, and I don’t think I’m ready for that. At least not right now.
Because it was nice to be loose and crazy with a good credit card in a time when it was possible to run totally wild in Las Vegas and then get paid for writing a book about it…and it occurs to me that I probably just made it, just under the wire and the deadline. Nobody will dare admit this kind of behavior in print if Nixon wins again in ’72.
The Swine are gearing down for a serious workout this time around. Four more years of Nixon means four more years of John Mitchell—and four more years of Mitchell means another decade or more of bureaucratic fascism that will be so entrenched, by 1976, that nobody will feel up to fighting it. We will feel too old by then, too beaten, and by then even the Myth of the Road will be dead—if only for lack of exercise. There will not be any wild-eyed, dope-sucking anarchists driving around the country in fireapple red convertibles if Nixon wins again in ’72.
There will not even be any convertibles, much less any dope. And all the anarchists will be locked up in rehabilitation pens. The international hotel-chain lobby will ram a bill thru congress, setting mandatory death penalties for anyone jumping a hotel bill—and death by castration & whipping if the deed is done in Vegas. The only legal high will be supervised Chinese acupuncture, in government hospitals at $200 a day—with Martha Mitchell as Secretary of Health, Education & Welfare, operating out of a luxurious penthouse on top of the Walter Reed Army Hospital.
So much, then, for The Road—and for the last possibilities of running amok in Las Vegas & living to tell the tale. But maybe we won’t really miss it. Maybe Law & Order is really the best way to go, after all.
Yeah…maybe so, and if that’s the way it happens…well, at least I’ll know I was there, neck deep in the madness, before the deal went down, and I got so high and wild that I felt like a two-ton Manta Ray jumping all the way across the Bay of Bengal.
It was a good way to go, and I recommend it highly—at least for those who can stand the trip. And for those who can’t, or won’t, there is not much else to say. Not now, and certainly not by me, or Raoul Duke either. Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas marks the end of an era…and now, on this fantastic Indian summer morning in the Rockies, I want to leave this noisy black machine and sit naked on my porch for a while, in the sun.
This history of the genesis of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is taken from 1979's The Great Shark Hunt: Gonzo Papers, Volume I.