[5 February 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
“So much for objective journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here—not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a gross contradiction in terms.”
—The Campaign Trail: The Million-Pound Shithammer, 3 February 1972
By the time Hunter S. Thompson began writing for Rolling Stone magazine, he had already developed his distinct voice and highly recognizable style, which involved inserting himself and everything going on around him into his stories. But at Rolling Stone, he refined it. He perfected it.
In Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone: The Essential Writing of Hunter S. Thompson, editor Jann Wenner and Paul Scanlon (managing editor at Rolling Stone during several of the years covered, ehre) have collected and compiled Thompson’s articles for Rolling Stone, beginning with stories covering Thompson’s own run for the office of sheriff of Aspen, Colorado in 1970, and continuing right up through his final piece on the George W. Bush and John Kerry presidential campaigns in 2004. Wenner, who was not only Thompson’s editor for more than three decades, but his friend, also includes personal letters the two exchanged, as well as notes and inter-office memos from Thompson (or his alter-ego at the Sports Desk, Raoul Duke) to other writers and staff at Rolling Stone.
While those letters and memos provide bits of biographical insight and additional examples of Thompson’s brilliant ability to communicate concisely, never wasting a word, it’s the articles that truly amaze. It’s top-notch journalism, of course, but beyond that there is a depth, a truth, that runs through Thompson’s writing. It’s as if his investigative instincts apply not just to the story, but to his telling of it. Thompson didn’t stop just because he had the basic facts, he kept exploring, turning the facts—and more than a few fictions—over in his mind, uncovering hidden facets and exposing every angle so that the readers could see the story at its very core.
Sometimes a story is darker at its heart than even Thompson could have imagined. Strange Rumblings in Aztlan: The Murder of Reuben Salazar (originally published 29 April 1971) is disturbing enough considering all the violence, racism, and police corruption and brutality that occurred when Salazar, a prominent Mexican-American journalist in L.A., was killed on 29 August 1970. In the article, Thompson states, “When the cops declare open season on journalists, when they feel free to declare any scene of ‘unlawful protest’ a free fire zone, that will be a very ugly day—and not just for journalists.” To re-read that more than 40 years later, in light of events surrounding the Occupy movement and the protests at UC Davis and elsewhere, is quite simply terrifying.
“...and the only thing worse than going out on the campaign trail and getting handed around in a booze-frenzy from one speech to another is having to come back to Washington and write about it.”
—The Campaign Trail: Fear and Loathing in New Hampshire, 2 March 1972
Although it includes other articles, such as an early excerpt from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the bulk of Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone is comprised of Thompson’s coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign and events surrounding it. These pieces are interesting for several reasons. They give readers a chance to peek into important moments in American history, many of which have been conveniently glossed over in the intervening years.
Thompson was scathing and brutally honest in his assessments of Richard Nixon, as well as other key players in the political machinations of the day. The campaign articles also let readers look behind the curtain into the pony show of American politics in a way that would never be allowed to happen today. It’s not that things are any different, it’s all still just a matter of money and keeping up public appearances for the string pullers, but back then, it seems, more people knew that.
Of course, the most interesting thing about the 1972 campaign articles, indeed about the whole book, is the inside look of Thompson himself that it gives readers. Our current culture makes it all too easy to remember him as just the character in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as some sort of patron saint of over-indulgence, the humorous meme chuckling at Charlie Sheen’s boasts about drug tolerance. Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone: The Essential Writing of Hunter S. Thompson helps us to remember him as a great writer and an unparalleled mind.
“But I have more important things to do.
Human Problems are secondary.
—Memo to RS staff from HST,1972