Hunter S. Thompson: The Gonzo Tapes

[17 December 2008]

By Adrien Begrand

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Throughout his career, from Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail, to his numerous Gonzo Papers collections, Hunter Stockton Thompson owed a hell of a lot to his tape recorder. Granted, his writing vividly captured the rhythms of speech, as much of his work was transcribed from audio tape, often fed through his notorious “mojo wire” to the offices of Rolling Stone magazine.  It’s no surprise to anyone who has read his work, but few of us knew just how much he relied upon his portable Norelco recorder. It went with him everywhere, seemingly always with the record button down, as he would attempt to make sense out of whatever he was covering, whether on location, in his car, in his bathroom while he showered, or late at night back at his home in Woody Creek, Colorado. And like any writer bent on becoming famous, he rarely if ever used an audiotape more than once, saving the lot.

After Thompson cashed his own check on February 20, 2005, filmmaker Alex Gibney started to work on a documentary about Thompson’s life and legacy, and among the perks of having the full cooperation of Thompson’s widow, ex-wife, and son was being granted access to the man’s archives, which included countless photos, virtually everything Thompson had written in his lifetime, and most notably, box upon box of audio tapes. Musician/producer Don Fleming worked solely on researching every one of those tapes, so Gibney was able to incorporate several memorable clips into his film, and consequently, the excellent Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson was the better for it. However, knowing full well that there was too much good stuff on the tapes to go unheard, the duo compiled The Gonzo Tapes, a five-disc, seven-plus-hour CD box set that chronicles the same time period that the film covers, namely from Thompson’s rapid ascent in the late ‘60s to his equally swift decline in the mid-‘70s. The only question that remained was whether or not these recordings would be a fascinating listen for Thompson fanatics, or end up stripping away some of the allure of the Gonzo myth.

The answer: a little of both, actually. The first two discs, though, are superb, enthralling listens. The first is dedicated solely to Thompson’s time spent researching his Hell’s Angels book in 1965, in which he charmed his way into the seemingly impenetrable clique of outlaws, including Oakland chapter head Sonny Barger and the outgoing, flamboyant Terry the Tramp. We hear Thompson surreptitiously dictating notes in his car while at a late-night party at Bass Lake, with bikers howling maniacally in the background. Things get a little surreal when Terry the Tramp casually describes a rape of a woman which he had been arrested for, while a Joan Baez record plays in the room. While trying to navigate the nighttime streets of San Leandro California, Thomson realizes to himself that while the Hell’s Angels pride themselves on being outlaws, they’re actually just the same kind of attention-seeking publicity whores as your usual bureaucrat. The best piece, however, is when Thompson attends the notorious gathering between the Angels and Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, during which savage behavior wins out over hippy optimism, as he witnesses a brutal gangbang of a woman by several bikers. He sounds shaken by the whole experience, and after he was beaten by several bikers in 1966, he severed his ties with the gang completely, relocating his young family to Woody Creek.

Discs two and three cover the period that most people interested in the set will want to hear, when Thompson and his attorney buddy Oscar Acosta make a couple of trips to Las Vegas which would be forever immortalized in his most famous book. We actually join the duo at the start of the second trip in April 1971, where they ditch the red shark for the white whale and attend the national District Attorneys Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, which would end up being written as some of the book’s funniest, most brutal satire. Although Thompson vividly described their stash of drugs in the book, their supplies were actually dwindling by now, as they comically try to track down the editor of the Las Vegas Free Press hoping to use their Rolling Stone notoriety (his story on Acosta on newsstands that week) to score some more quality pharmaceuticals. The real gem of the CD, and the entire box set for that matter, is the actual “Terry’s Taco Stand” tape, which was transcribed in full in the finished edition of the book, and which hard-core fans know by heart. Acosta’s straight-faced conversation with a waitress and a fry cook about the whereabouts of the American Dream is a brilliant piece of deadpan comedy, the ladies mistaking the metaphor for an actual place, which sends Acosta and Thompson on a comedic hunt through Boulder City, Nevada.

Disc three, meanwhile, sees Thompson abandoned by Acosta, driving in the afternoon heat around Lake Mead, and taking a final survey of his hotel room, babbling into the recorder all the while. What doesn’t appear to be exaggerated are the ungodly messes the two have created, which are described in great detail, the white whale (in actuality a brand new Cadillac Coup de Ville) all but destroyed, a vile streak of vomit down one side, the floors an evil mélange of melon rinds, coconut shells, stale beer, bottles, fast food, and other garbage. The disc ends with some interesting correspondence between Thompson and Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, as they figure out how to follow up Thompson’s dispatches in the magazine, and how the forthcoming book and its publicity would ultimately end up.

Interestingly, and somewhat disappointingly, we don’t get anything from Thompson’s notorious coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign, during which Democrat George McGovern inexplicably won the nomination over senators Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie, both of whom Thompson took particular glee in discrediting. Instead, we fast forward to 1973, where despite his constant reciting of ideas, from a novel/screenplay called “Guts Ball” to the new Thompson/Acosta project “Fear and Loathing in Acapulco”, nothing ever gets finished. Thus begins Thompson’s steady decline, as he lets his reputation precede him. And while his notoriety got him speaking engagements, TV appearances, and drugs, not to mention more tail than Sinatra, his actual writing suffered greatly, and only on very rare occasions over the next 30 years would he even show a glimpse of his old form. His typically hands-on review of Sigmund Freud’s Cocaine Papers can sort of be seen as the beginning of the end, as he tries to take notes during a lengthy cocaine bender to compare with Freud’s, arrogantly claiming that his experience was nothing to get too excited about, but one which would quickly become an all-consuming habit.

Things wouldn’t get any worse than his botched coverage of the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” between his hero Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, accompanied by his longtime friend, illustrator Ralph Steadman. Sent to cover the event for Rolling Stone, Thompson instead finds himself in a creative stupor at the hotel, not caring about doing any work, breaking down and yelping, arguing with Steadman, lounging at the hotel pool, and ultimately giving away their tickets, claiming that it would just be a gigantic letdown. It would only turn out to be the greatest boxing match, nay, sporting event, in history, and while Norman Mailer and George Plimpton would famously publish their accounts, all the lazy Thompson was left with in the end were a pair of smuggled ivory tusks, a very irate editor back in America, and more tapes to add to the box.

Thompson had one more inspired idea in 1975, covering the fall of Saigon, Vietnam, when the North Vietnamese chased the American forces out of the country for good. The timing seemed perfect. Thompson was friends with Vietnam correspondents Gloria Emerson and Loren Jenkins, the former of whom was doing quite a remarkable job of convincing him to make the trip, the entire situation the kind of depraved and chaotic mess that he would flourish in. And indeed, he showed up in the disintegrating country as almost a self-caricature, riding in a jeep towards the front lines of the final battle, clad in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts and toting a cooler full of beer. Sadly, his tape recorder dies while making the drive, his passion for the story disintegrates, and he returns home with yet another unpublished idea.

Fleming does a terrific job cleaning up the audio quality of the tapes, and although Thompson’s working environment is rarely conducive to voice recording, we still hear everything he and his companions say. In addition, the set is accompanied by a very well-written 44-page book, with several essays and detailed notes describing each tape entry. It’s an exhaustive collection, and to many it will be genuinely exhausting.  The Gonzo Tapes reveals that sometimes when the going gets weird, the weird can get surprisingly mundane, but it’s nevertheless an interesting look into one of the most maniacal and mercurial minds American literature and journalism have ever come across.

Related at PopMatters: The Wave Finally Broke: A Tribute to Hunter S. Thompson.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/66641-hunter-s-thompson-the-gonzo-tapes/