DEAR KEN,When I finally met Hunter S. Thompson, at the age of 18, the first thing I did was inexplicably throw a shoulder into his chest and knock him into the couch near the keg in the editor's office. Five minutes later, in an unrelated matter, I collapsed into an uncontrollable fit of sobbing that lasted more than 90 minutes.
WHISKEY AND PEACE SHORE MAKE THINGS BETTER. DOAN WORRY 'BOUT ME NONE.
IF IT CAN BE USED, THEN TAKE ALL LICENSE TO SAY WHAT I WANTED TO SAY, AND LEAVE OUT WHAT I CLEARLY MEANT TO LEAVE OUT. ASK ME SOMETIME ABOUT THE "COBAIN VERSION." I'LL BE UP FINISHING MY GLASS FOR THE NEXT 30 MINUTES, SO TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK ...
By the time I recovered, Hunter was up in the bell tower, snorting fresh cocaine off the wristwatch of former Time magazine cover-boy and perennial would-be Democratic Party svengali Pat Caddell, who was in town that season laying heavy UC-bankrolled political muscle on an ambitious but obscure state technocrat named Gray Davis. Caddell would spend much of that summer and fall in my chaotic apartment looking for "young pussy"
But at the time of Thompson's horrible campus "lecture," I had only met Caddell once or twice. So when he called two days later at my girlfriend's apartment, demanding immediate delivery of an IBM Selectric typewriter and an Apple MacWrite disk at 3:30 a.m. so that Hunter could finish an overdue San Francisco Examiner column, I took offense.
"Listen, you swine!" I croaked. "I didn't give you this phone number, I'm not remotely awake, and I am not in charge of 'fixing' this man's deadline problems."
I had spent the previous two hours picking up my best friend's meat & vodka-stained vomit off the bathroom tile with a pair of yellow rubber gloves while my girlfriend glowered and some crazy Mexican played "Angie" on the turntable, screeching "Eye-nit good tah be uhlaheeyaahaaahive!" over and over again. I was in no mood to be leaned on.
"If you need to call me, call me at a decent hour," I said, and hung up the phone, feeling 40 years old.
Four hours later, at 7:30 on a Sunday morning, the phone rang again.
"Hullo, ahhh, this is Dr. Thompson calling for a Mr. Matt Welch. Would this be the gentleman in question?"
I grinned, and realized distractedly that it was the first coherent sentence I'd heard him utter after more than three hours in his presence.
"Yes, we seem to have reached a hostile sort of impasse here in the Santa Barbara bureau. We have spent the past 17 hours dissecting the future of the Democratic Party, and the conclusions reached have been rather grim. Meanwhile the editors in San Francisco are very nervous because the column was supposed to be finished Friday. Luckily we've got the whole jangled discussion on tape, but Maria needs a MacWrite disk for transcription purposes, and I'll need the Selectric to start lashing something together ...."
I couldn't believe he actually talked like this, too.
When we opened his cliffside bungalow door an hour later Thompson was shaking a Chivas & ice in a tumbler over the sink. We spent the next three remarkable hours locked in a wide-ranging conversation about politics and journalism and art and music, pacing around an explosion of press clippings and notes while poor Maria typed in the next room. In a stunning contrast to the stumbling frat boy charade of three evenings past, Hunter was intelligible, engaging and sharper than the razor blades lying on the coffee table.
My best friend and I, a scant eight months removed from a Southern California high school where we were grudgingly tolerated and severely under-sexed, were being asked WHAT WE REALLY THOUGHT by the man most responsible for us pursuing the high white calling of journalism. He found it more important (or maybe convenient) to argue about Al Haig and Tom Petty with two headstrong teen-aged imitators, rather than give his editors long-promised insight on the 1988 presidential campaign.
It was not important to us, at that moment, that the man hadn't written anything crucial since we were six years old. He was giving us a valuable lesson in Southern generosity, urging us without ever spelling out the words to ride with our own motorcycle gangs, pick on our own politicians, discover our own drugs, and -- fer chrissakes -- develop our own style of writing.
Last weekend, the 13,000 or so former college students who once had similar experiences with Thompson were all at the movies, watching Terry Gilliam's stylish interpretation of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." I saw the 2:30 p.m. matinee in the town of Tigard, Ore., and the small theater had maybe 30 people, most of them single men with red beards and wild, knowing eyes. They laughed at Johnny Depp lines no one could have possibly decoded without reading the book three times, and they tittered in anticipation for some of the biggest crowd-pleasing bits, like the lizard scene in the hotel bar.
It is hard to imagine any Fear & Loathing diehard upset about Gilliam's attack, beyond quibbles over his too-predictable method of providing "context" (teevees in the hotel room showing Vietnam or Nixon), and his choice of music (where was "Sympathy for the Devil," or the "ten years too late" "Power to the People"?) Depp is hilariously spot-on with his impersonation, down to the last bow-legged stagger; remarkable considering how short he is.
Gilliam's version is so faithful and artistically realized, in fact, that it forces the movie's many critics to find flaws with what Gilliam had to work with. And find flaws they did -- The Oregonian ran a chart of what eight or so national critics thought of 20 current movies, and "Fear and Loathing" tied with the abominable "Woo" for the booby prize.
The complaint is that the movie has no real plot (it doesn't), the characters don't develop in any non-narcotic way (they don't), and that it fails to show the "consequences" of heavy drug use (though I would argue that attempting suicide while in an overflowing bathtub of your own feces and vomit fairly qualifies as a "consequence" of eating an LSD-ether cocktail).
The film's fatal flaw in the eyes of its detractors is that, 27 years later, it's the kind of crude flashback we just don't need anymore ...