Life in the Stone Age 6

Thompson came to Rolling Stone in 1970, an important moment in the magazine’s history. Wenner had fired Greil Marcus, a music critic with an American studies degree who was then his reviews ed¬itor, for running a negative review of an inferior Dylan album called Self-Portrait (it was one of Wenner’s rules that the big stars must always be hyped); and most of the politically minded members of the staff quit after the “Get Back” episode following Kent State. There were financial problems as well. By the end of 1970, Rolling Stone was a quarter million dollars in debt. Hugh Hefner, who is to testosterone what Wenner is to rock ’n’ roll, offered to buy the mag¬azine, but Wenner found other angels. Among them were the record companies. Columbia Records and Elektra were delighted to ad¬vance their friends at Rolling Stone a year’s worth of advertising; Rolling Stone and the record companies, after all, were in the same business.
The next problem was to sell magazines. (Rolling Stone relies heavily on newsstand sales, since its readers are not the sort of peo¬ple who can be counted on to fill out subscription renewal forms with any degree of regularity.) Here Wenner had two strokes of good fortune. The first was a long interview he obtained with John Lennon, the first time most people had ever heard a Beatle not car¬ing to sound lovable. It sold many magazines. The second was the arrival of Thompson.
Thompson was a well-traveled, free-spirited hack whose resume included a stint as sports editor of the Jersey Shore Herald, a job as general reporter for the Middletown Daily News, freelance work out of Puerto Rico for a bowling magazine, a period as South American correspondent for the National Observer (during which he suffered some permanent hair loss from stress and drugs), an assignment covering the 1968 presidential campaign for Pageant, two unpub¬lished Great American Novels, a little male modeling, and a nar¬rowly unsuccessful campaign for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado. He had actually been discovered for the alternative press by Warren Hinckle, the editor of Ramparts, which is when his writing acquired the label “gonzo journalism.” But Thompson was interested in Rolling Stone because he thought it would help his nascent political career by giving him access to people who had no interest in politics (a good indication of the magazine’s political reputation in 1970). A year after signing on, he produced the articles that became Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972), a tour de force of pop faction about five days on drugs in Las Vegas. It sold many copies of Rolling Stone, and it gave Thompson fortune, celebrity, and a permanent running headline.
Many people who were not young read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and thought it a witty piece of writing. Wolfe included two se¬lections from Thompson’s work in his 1973 anthology, The New Jour¬nalism (everyone else but Wolfe got only one entry); and this has given Thompson the standing of a man identified with an academi¬cally recognized “movement.” But Thompson is essentially a writer for teenage boys. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is The Catcher in the Rye on speed: the lost weekend of a disaffected loser who tells his story in a mordant style that is addictively appealing to adoles¬cents with a deep and unspecified grudge against life. Once you un¬derstand the target, the thematics make sense. Sexual prowess is part of the Thompson mystique, for example, but the world of his writing is almost entirely male, and sex itself is rarely more than a vague, adult horror; for sex beyond mere bravado is a subject that makes most teenage boys nervous. A vast supply of drugs of every genre and description accompanies the Thompson protagonist and maintains him in a permanent state of dementia; but the drugs have all the verisimilitude of a fourteen-year-old’s secret spy kit: these grownups don’t realize that the person they are talking to is com¬pletely out of his mind on dangerous chemicals. The fear and loathing in Thompson’s writing is simply Holden Caulfield’s fear of growing up—a fear that, in Thompson’s case as in Salinger’s, is par¬ticularly convincing to younger readers because it seems to run from the books straight back to the writer himself.
After the Las Vegas book, Rolling Stone assigned Thompson to cover the 1972 presidential campaign. His reports were collected in (inevitably) Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail (1973). The se¬ries began with some astute analysis of primary strategy and the like, salted with irreverent descriptions of the candidates and many personal anecdotes. Thompson’s unusual relation to the facts-—one piece, which caused a brief stir, reported that Edmund Muskie was addicted to an obscure African drug called Ibogaine—made him the object of some media attention of his own. But eventually the re¬porting broke down, and Thompson was reduced at the end of his book to quoting at length from the dispatches of his Rolling Stone colleague Timothy Crouse (whose own book about the campaign, The Boys on the Bus [1973], became an acclaimed expose of political journalism). Since 1972, Thompson has devoted his career to the maintenance of his legend, and his reporting has mostly been re¬porting about the Thompson style of reporting, which consists largely of unsuccessful attempts to cover his subjects, and of drug misadventures. He doesn’t need to report, of course, because re¬porting is not what his audience cares about. They care about the escapades of their hero, which are recounted obsessively in his writ¬ings, and some of which were the basis for an unwatchable movie called Where the Buffalo Roam, released in 1980 and starring Bill Murray.
Thompson left Rolling Stone around 1975 and eventually became a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner. He began repackaging his pieces in chronicle form in 1979, and collections of his articles and his correspondence have been coming out regularly ever since. Thompson, in short, is practically the only person in America still living circa 1972. His persona enacts a counterculture sensibility with the utopianism completely leached out. There are no romantic notions about peace and love in his writing, only adolescent para¬noia and violence. There is no romanticization of the street, either. Everything disappoints him—an occasionally engaging attitude that is also, of course, romanticism of the very purest sort. Thompson is the eternally bitter elegist of a moment that never really was—it is significant that his favorite book is The Great Gatsby—and that is why he is an ideal writer for a generation that has always felt that it arrived onstage about five minutes after the audience walked out.

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