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The Gonzo Tapes: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson – Hunter S. Thompson

The Gonzo Tapes: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson – Hunter S. Thompson (Shout! Factory)

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson – various artists (Legacy)

Dr. Thompson’s Private Stash – Hunter S. Thompson (bootleg)

For those who view the life and work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson as a perpetually-held middle finger to the establishment, these insightful releases should change your mind. Yes, Thompson worked and lived to a rhythm and integrity known mainly to him and close associates. And on the outside looking in, he was personified as little more than a drug and alcohol fueled rebel who somehow found pockets of time to type out articles and books that reflected his state of mind, the state of the world and his confrontational exploits. The 10-plus hours heard on these discs — official and bootleg — present a more sobering perspective on him. Besides giving insight to his work, it offers a fuller picture of Thompson — a dogged journalist with his trusty Norelco tape recorder on hand to catch scenes as they unfold or narrate such times at the earliest possible moment. He pursues his assigned subject matter yet is unafraid to follow other directions that crop up (i.e. the pursuit of the American Dream while in Las Vegas). For him tangents are embraced like a stream of consciousness Beat writer allowing the flow of words and sentences to follow their haphazard path.

As much as I love Thompson writings, I am more interested in his journalistic entries — more hard research like Hell’s Angels than psychedelic fantasias like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where his keen observations of humanity split atoms of human nature to reveal the detritus of man’s moral failings. On the five-disc box set, The Gonzo Tapes: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, we are treated to something akin to the aural equivalent of a DVD bonus, like a “from storyboard to screen” feature. The discs are culled from hundreds of work tapes Thompson made.

With his wife, Anita, allowing the makers of the documentary, Gonzo: The Life and Work Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, into the inner sanctum of Thompson’s Owl Farm, where these tapes were discovered. On disc one, Hell’s Angels, one hears Thompson leaving “notes” to himself of the scenes surrounding the infamous biker club’s Fourth of July run to Bass Lake as well as interviews and stealth taping. Besides being an interesting look behind the curtain of a much-adored book, it provides fodder to the idea that Thompson moved through his writing career with as much of a determination to the root of the story as he had a flair for creating an alternate persona to generate situations that would upset the cultural stasis of society. Granted, this is before the Gonzo journalism tag made him a literary superstar, but it sheds light that Thompson is much more serious about his work than his public persona let on. In his role as an outsider and insider to the proceedings, the tracks reveal someone finding lucidity and understanding of the biker club and the reactions to it. With the majority of these glimpses into his world, he wants to get the information down on tape before the memories relinquish the facts to oblivion.

With a nod to his journalistic approach, the entries from the infamous Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas period gives credit to his writing genius. The selections present daily recordings between himself and his Sin City compatriot, attorney and activist Oscar Zeta Acosta. These tapes are mere tidbits of information for what transpires as the hallucinatory run through self-made chaos found in the article and book. Listening to much of Thompson and Acosta interacting shows little difference than what you’d get from leaving a recording device sitting in the middle of a Las Vegas hotel room during a Grateful Dead or Phish run — talk of drugs, looking for something to do, work, checking out of your hotel room What is relatively mundane garners a degree of interest because the background seems so quaint as opposed to the revved up tome that Thompson built around it.

Other Vegas recordings find Acosta making one last attempt at finding the American Dream and Thompson, now alone, back in journalist mode, ruminating on the recent escapades as he ponders how to put together all the pieces of his trip on and around the Las Vegas Strip. The final segments take a layer off the confrontational public tone of the relationship between Thompson and Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, and present the usual routine of editor and writer coming to grips with the contents of a story. And, in this case, how to best promote it.

Surprisingly, we’re not treated to the work tapes for Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. Don Fleming, the curator of Thompson’s recordings and producer of this box set, jumps ahead. Gonzo Gridlock 1973-1974, the fourth disc, finds Thompson following the glories of Hell’s Angels and his two Fear and Loathing books. The recordings take on a randomness as they move from his description of a novel/screenplay he wants to develop, titled Guts Ball, to a cleansing vacation, another adventure with Acosta, dealings with artist Ralph Steadman and more. To some degree, it’s a warning that the idealized Personality of Thompson is overtaking the Writer. He doesn’t just lay waste to deadlines, he fails to complete assignments, such as his re-enactment of Freud’s Cocaine Papers.

Like many in the 70s, the decade is doing his talent an injustice, and as listeners we go along for the mesmerizing journey. Eventually, his desire to lash out at authority overwhelms him and his journalistic sensibilities return on the fifth disc, Fear and Loathing in Saigon, when he travels to Vietnam during the final days of U.S. troop involvement. During his telephone calls with New York Times reporter Gloria Emerson we find a slightly vulnerable Thompson sounding tentative about going there. It’s a telling moment for two reasons: despite his reputation as reckless, in reality he was no fool and took as much preparation as needed and her encouragement of him to find and reveal the real horrors in Southeast Asia shows the respect of his peers.

I recall seeing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in a movie theater slightly bigger than the economy class cabin in a 747. Terry Gilliam’s direction did its best to mimic the mescaline, weed, acid and alcohol state of its source material. And it certainly worked. I left after the end credits, stumbling from seat to aisle and steadying myself during the route to the door. I think of this as I’m deluged by the waves and waves of words of Thompson, the unrelenting pace, the rambling and mumbling, the thoughts of brain synapses clicking and whirring with transcendent thoughts tearing to shreds the reality of the world around us. I’m reminded of these things while listening to Dr. Thompson’s Private Stash. These tapes — a downloadable set of four discs which can be found online — which according to legend are culled from Thompson recording his interviews and the results being sold on eBay years after he fired his final gunshot.

The interviews take place in 1988 as George Bush and Michael Dukakis run for President of the United States. Promoting his Generation of Swine, Thompson moves between sobering and spot-on analysis and defense of himself and his Gonzo style to the type of showboating that’s called out by the Today Show interviewer. As he laments the possibility of another four years of a Republican administration, he makes a prescient comment about politics. “We lose, don’t we, if we don’t get it into it. Democracy. You either play or you don’t.” He’s much more serious during the interview for USA Today, which includes his comments to a televised Nightline interview with Bush, discussing future Democratic candidates (“Gore’s a dingbat”). One can sense his frustration with the political and social turn of events in the country, and imagine how much more difficult it became for him in the days before his suicide.

The soundtrack to the documentary, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson connects the two worlds of Thompson — the working tapes of the Writer and the interview tapes of the Showman. He could turn into whatever character when he chose to — carrying a glass of some unknown liquor and slurring his words during a visit to Late Night with Conan O’Brien and then a much more sober conversation in the same week with host Charlie Rose on PBS. The tracks, literally, act as a soundtrack to Thompson’s life with nearly two dozen of his favorite tunes occasionally interspersed with brief readings from and by the author. Music invigorated his life and his work as much as using words as weapons. What would, on the surface, seem like an eclectic compilation that treats genres as indiscriminately as the mixing of narcotics runs from the 40s (“Haunted Heart” by Jo Stafford with Paul Weston and his orchestra) through the counterculture (Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, the Youngbloods) to the appropriate “Lawyers, Guns and Money” by Warren Zevon and a lone contribution from the 80s (Lyle Lovett’s “If I Had a Boat”). The combination of Thompson’s writing with songs that shed a little light into his emotional core, his mojo, illuminates like a good story and cuts with the same precision as the Gonzo writer’s sentences did.

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