What's the diff between Brutus & Bluto?

This interview generously provided by good friend and 'Gonzo' writer himself,
Tony Jenkins of Atlanta--

2/20/05 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas author takes own life

Interview by Tony Jenkins

H S TI am still haunted by the screeching sound of feedback. It was coming from the speakerphone on my computer, and it was coming at the worst possible time. On the other end of the screeching line was famed 'Gonzo' writer, Hunter S. Thompson, and he was not in the mood for faulty equipment.

“That’s not a very good way to start
your journalism career,”
he told me,
“I’ve lost a lot of assignments
because of bad equipment.”

I could feel my balls shrinking, my confidence was fleeting. Shortly after the speakerphone mishap, I realized that my tape recorder was still paused, and for some crazed reason I will never understand, I chose to tell Thompson this. He wasn’t in the mood for young, faulty writers.

“You won’t be doing it long
if you keep fucking up like this,”
he tells me.

My balls were now residing deep inside my groin. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. When I read the opening sentence of Thompson's classic book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for the first time, I knew that writing was something I wanted to pursue. I was playing drums in a small band at the time I read the drug-drenched book and like most kids that get involved in music, I wanted to be a rock star. Thompson’s musical style of writing and his erratic behavior showed me that I didn’t have to be in a band to live out my rock ’n roll fantasy, because he was a fucking rock star. Now, years later I was on the phone with him, getting my balls busted about my shitty equipment and for being a dumb prick by forgetting to start my tape recorder.

“It’s like if someone comes up and asks you to pose for a picture
and they can’t get the camera going,”
Thompson says without sympathy.

It was also like a small town guitarist showing up to jam with Eric Clapton and forgetting his guitar: what a first impression. Luckily, I'd noticed the tape recorder wasn’t on before I got too far into the list of questions I had prepared for the self-professed 'Doctor of Journalism'. It was a list of questions that I hoped would stimulate him and garner more than a simple yes or no answer. It was not to be, however, for the good doctor was in no mood for questions like “How would you describe the influence that drugs and alcohol have had on your creative process?”

“You better ask more direct questions” he grumbles,
“more than this ‘what’s it all mean’ sort of thing.”

The list of questions was quickly discarded, along with my fear. Something about this experience was starting to feel good. I was getting grilled by the guy who influenced me. How fucking cool is that? He sure seemed content on spending this Friday night schooling a youngster in the interview game. He has said that the fun went out of journalism long ago, and when I asked him what new writers can do to put the fun back in it, he questioned me:

“Well what are you doing to put the fun back in it?”
Before I can answer, he burns me again.
“Do you have your tape recorder going?
You’re having fun now aren’t you?”

We both agree that it is indeed more fun now that the tape is rolling. It doesn’t take long for me to realize that talking to Hunter S. Thompson is not easy. He is like the wild grandfather your parents always tried to shield you from at the family reunions. The old, grumpy man that slurred his words and reeked of strong liquor all hours of the day. Even talk show hosts such as David Letterman are taken aback by the 60-year-old Thompson, who during a Late Show appearance walked out with a glass of whisky, and a lit cigarette. Even remembering how Dave stumbled through his interview with Thompson couldn't make me feel any better about my shoddy performance thusfar. Regardless of what Dave did or what had already transpired, it was too late for me to turn back. For good or ill, I had to continue, and try to get something good out of this mean, old bastard.

“I wasn’t really conscious of doing that,” Thompson says,
speaking of the cigarette and cocktail he enjoyed
during the Letterman appearance.
“He’s a bully, you know, and he makes a living
out of kind of beating up on people,”
he continues,
“I wouldn’t go on that show without expecting a little bit
of a sparring match. It’s always been a little wild on there.”

In 1983, Thompson brought a live bomb on Dave’s show. How’s that for 'a little wild?' In 1998 though, my interview was bombing. The reason for Thompson’s Letterman appearance was to promote his 'long lost novel' The Rum Diary. Begun when Thompson was in his twenties, Rum Diary had been 'close to publication' for forty years. The story in the press release for the book claims that the delay is due to the book being stolen back from the publisher forty years ago by a secretary that Thompson hired.

“Where did you hear that?” he said
when I ask of the secretary's whereabouts.
When I mention the press release, Thompson chimes in with:
“Well she went to an institute in Switzerland and I never saw her again. She started subscribing to a union philosophy."

For his previous book The Proud Highway, Thompson faced the difficult task of having people rummaging through years of letters that he had written. Going over the manuscript for Rum Diary proved to be even more difficult.

“Oh boy, now that was hard work,” he says.
“I did a lot of cutting, but I didn’t make any changes.
You can’t change your thinking forty years later.
It kind of meant disregarding everything I’ve learned since then.
I learned a lot about writing by doing it.
I learned a lot about what Hemingway described as the tip
of the iceberg effect, that the story is like an iceberg
and the ten percent that shows above the waterline
that you read is what makes it…”

SCREEEEEECH!!!! The goddamn speakerphone went wild once again. This time, without thinking, I slapped my meaty paw across the monitor, sending the various trinkets that had been adorning it, smashing to the ground. Thompson was in no mood for a screeching computer coupled with the sound of glass breaking:

“Well, forget that one,” he grumbles,
“you missed a good one. Next question.”

I began to wonder if this is what they meant by 'paying your dues'. Then I realized that, unfortunately, it only meant that I was fucking up. A movie based on the Rum Diary is currently in the development stages, and Johnny Depp is slated to reprise his role as Thompson. After Depp’s performance (which Thompson calls “elegant”) in Terry Gilliam’s big screen version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part. However, Gilliam will not be occupying the director’s chair for this one.

“He’s more in the realm of special effects
and this is a straight forward, old timey,
Casablanca type movie,”
Thompson says.

The Rum Diary is a love story for those that can see past the rogue journalists and dirty politics that play a lead role in it. Those that are 'just crazy about' the Meg Ryan-type love story will have trouble identifying with this one. Still, it should be easier to grasp then the Vegas movie.

“This one is about romance,” he says,
“the other one wasn’t about romance
unless you can call Christina Ricci’s scene a romance.”

It was a romance for those that pattern their morals after Roman Polanski. I know what I can talk about that will excite him, I thought: politics. Hunter S. Thompson breathes politics. His 1973 book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 72 was hailed by a large number of journalists as the reason they got into news reporting. Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie followed Clinton and his campaign. The obituary Thompson wrote for Rolling Stone on his life-long nemesis Richard Nixon was the most vicious thing ever written about someone, living or dead: with lines like, “If the right people had been in charge of Nixon's funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles...”. It was also one of the funniest things ever written about anyone. Yes, I was sure that politics was the way to go. “How do you feel about American politics today?” I ask.

“Goddamn it boy, you’ve got to get more specific than that,”
he says sternly.

I quickly reworded my question to please this unconscionable ball-breaker. “What’s your take on the whole Clinton/Lewinsky scandal?”

“I don’t like Clinton for political reasons,” he says,
“I think certainly Starr is by far… if you're looking for a bad guy here,
a villian, Starr is a Nazi. Clinton is just a mushy-mouthed
treacherous politician who’s given sex a bad name.
The real trouble here is going to come when the power
has been conveyed to police and courts, grand juries,
and other law enforcement for your own good.
It reinforces the fourth Reich mentality:
'The police are always right, what are you complaining about?'
There’s a goddamn bee in my ear,”
Thompson shouts,
as I am about to ask a follow up question.

“A bee in your ear?” I ask.

“A wasp,” he says,
“all the wasps are dying this time of year
and they drop out of the attic.”

With this, I could tell that our interview was reaching its end. He was not in the mood to talk to a young, nave writer any longer. Indeed, the interview was about to end in a way that only Thompson could end it. I could here a female voice in the room with Thompson.

“Excuse me Hunter,” she says, “There is a car in the driveway, and I think it’s the sheriff.”

Before I can get excited thinking that I am going to hear Thompson scuffle with the law, I hear the sound of someone knocking, but the sound wasn’t being made by knocking on a door, no. It sounded more like someone knocking on a desk or a table. Then I hear a siren. It wasn’t being made by a sheriff, that was for sure. It sounded like one of those little laser guns that make different noises.

“Christ, it is the sheriff,” Thompson says,
“you better wrap up here.”

With no time to think, I blurt out my last question. “How do you want to be remembered?”

“Remembered?” he asks.

“Yeah, Leary shot his ashes in to space, what are you going to do? Maybe sprinkle them on Nixon's grave?”

“Every once in awhile I come across a pretty good line,” he says,
“Let me read you the thing. Voice of my generation,
a roadman for the lords of Karma, that’s my real job.
Yeah. I’m a writer, and that’s what I want to be remembered as.”

Then, after all the grief he's given me, Hunter S. Thompson finally gives me something good, a line that will stick with me throughout my career, which as he put so elegantly:

“won’t be long if you [Tony] keep fucking up like this.”

I just sit back and listen:

“I heard the music, and I wrote to it.
Some people beat drums. Some people strum guitars.
It’s all in the music you hear.”

Have you read Tony's Woody Allen interview?

2010  R K Puma    ro@rkpuma.com
HOME     Menu