The Doctor is Out: Hunter S. Thompson

“True gonzo reporting needs the talents of a master journalist, the eye of an artist/photographer and the heavy balls of an actor. Because the writer must be a participant in the scene, while he’s writing it — or at least taping it, or even sketching it. Or all three,” said Hunter S. Thompson of the brand of journalism with which his name was synonymous.

Indeed, Dr. Thompson had thrown down the gonzo gauntlet — heady stuff when I was a young Lumaville newspaperman. The narrative style, the experiential element, the release of the first-person from the cage of objectivity were the principle inspiration for my own bastard invention — Blonde Journalism — wherein I recounted my attempts at getting laid in Lumaville (see my Dateline Lumaville column, from November 17, 1999, in which I venture into the field to track the spread of “sexually transmitted ennui” ).

These kiss and tell columns were popular with the townies, some of whom would scour the callow text for their own bold-faced names (or at least the nom de guerres I’d appoint them) to count the dwindling degrees of separation between us. A closer reading, however, would reveal a couple of lifts from Thompson’s own oeuvre — as it’s been said, “imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism.”

A line of Thompson’s that has found its way into my columns on more than one occasion first appeared in a piece he wrote for the San Francisco Examiner called “Saturday Night in the City” (reprinted in “Generation of Swine”) in which he cajoles a colleague into getting a tattoo for the sake of a news story and his looming deadline. After the girl is indelibly inked and Thompson files the few hundred words soon line the city’s birdcages, he justifies the whole sleazy scenario with his deadpan “We are, after all, professionals.”

The line resonated with me particularly since I had just gone pro myself (my press pass and union pin always at the ready), and I gleefully paraphrased it as “After all, I am an accredited representative of the media.” The notion has remained something of a mantra for me and has gotten me cheekily through such low calorie assignments as wine country film festivals (where I see more wine than films) or when being wooed by PR sirens during fashion week in Vegas this month.

Though the term “Gonzo” is often attributed to Thompson, it was actually coined by Boston Sunday Globe reporter Bill Cardoso to describe Thompson’s work. Cardoso borrowed it from the slang of South Boston where it referred to “the last man standing after a drinking marathon.” Unfortunately, the last man standing often gets stuck with the tab and Thompson paid for his gonzo legend not just in the hard currency of brain cells but also in how seriously he was regarded as a member of the fourth estate. It is with a little squeamishness that I learned that Thompson’s last gig was filing online columns for sports website, a far cry from his alma mater Rolling Stone, but probably restful work for a 67 year-old journo who had long ago secured a seat in Valhalla.

“Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality,” Thompson penned in an essay collected in 1979’s “The Great Shark Hunt.” “Weird heroes and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of ‘the rat race’ is not yet final.”

Surely Thompson recognized that he himself had become a “weird hero,” if not to the counter culture at large then to every first year journalism student who sat bleary-eyed in front of a laptop after their first binge drinking experience. Thompson must also have been aware that fostering such a legend brought him precariously close to self-parody, to being a cartoon (literally, in the case of Doonesbury’s Duke). This possibility was furthered when he was portrayed by professional clowns Bill Murray and Johnny Depp in the films inspired by his work (Thompson kept up with at least one of his doppelgangers, see his final “Shotgun Golf with Bill Murray.”) But then, Thompson was journalism’s court jester, a niche role he devised for himself and elevated to kingly heights. His reach is perceptible still, from j-schools where Thompson is required reading to the blogosphere, much of which owes a genetic debt to gonzo principles.

In the early 90s, before I went legit as a newspaperman, I published the satire tabloid SCAM Magazine, an inky humor rag, which was, as the motto went, chock full of “lies, fraud and scandal.” Sometimes a year would pass between issues and at least two of the four editions (numbered 1, 9, 11 and 12 to suggest “lost issues”) included reprinted transcripts of Lenny Bruce’s stage act, which I had acquired by the bushel from Bantam Books. There was also a mock obscenities trial penned by Geoffrey B. Cain that featured your humble narrator mired in a sex imbroglio involving a “crotchless monkey suit.” Cain’s obvious genius notwithstanding, content was not king at SCAM Magazine and I decided we needed to tart the paper up with some high profile interviews. Thompson’s outsized persona, of course, seemed like a natural fit.

A bit of legwork led me to one of Thompson’s regular haunts, the Woody Creek Tavern in Woody Creek, Colorado. I was instructed to call the bar and ask for the Sheriff. Once I was connected to the Sheriff, I was told to make the rather arcane inquiry “Is the Doctor in?”

The call went about like this:

Ring, ring.
Voice on other end: “Tavern.”
Howell: “Uh, the Sheriff, please.”
Short pause. Ruffling — the sound of a receiver being switched from one ear to the other.
Same Voice on other end: “This is the Sheriff.”
Howell: “Hullo, Sheriff.”
Sheriff: “Hello.”
Howell: “Is the Doctor in?”
Long pause.
Sheriff: “Who’s askin’?”
Howell: “Daedalus Howell, SCAM Magazine.”
Sheriff: “Uh-huh. Hold on.”
Through the muffled receiver:
Sheriff: “Hey Doctor, got a kid named Doodles from Scum Magazine on the line. Is the Doctor in?”
A voice rumbled from the background.
The Doctor: “Fuck no!”

(I still have no idea to whom I had actually spoken.)

Sadly, the doctor is out. For good. A self-inflicted gunshot wound retired his byline to the annals of history, odd terrain for so vital a personality, but a place where perhaps he can be better understood — or perhaps not. As Thompson wrote in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”: “History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of ‘history’ it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.”

Morphic Resonance

Now write that 100 times!Good morning, Class — Today’s vocabulary lesson comes from biologist Rupert Sheldrake, author of “The Sense of Being Stared At.” Ready?

“Morphic resonance.” Say it together. Morphic resonance: A phenomenon wherein collective memories are transmitted and shared between members of a species as if telepathically, which results in disparate entities, completely autonomous of each other, developing the same idea. A mouthful, surely, but occurrences of morphic resonance are evident all around us. Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell, both inventors of the telephone — though one made it to the patent office and then the bank before the other — come to mind as examples.

In Hollywood, a market place of ideas where inflation is the rule, one bright idea can yield the price of a Hummer in a matter of hours. However, two iterations of the same bright idea occurs with nearly as much regularity. It’s often difficult to discern if similarly developed projects are the result of a moonlighting muse whispering the next big thing into the ears of more than one filmmaker or simply outright theft (or in Industry parlance, a “market trend”). The two virus movies, a pair of asteroid spectacles, Alexander the Great and Alexander the Also-As-Great are all big budget examples of films hailing from either morphic resonance or the litter box of Hollywood’s most prevalent pet (Latin name feline xeroxes) the “copy cat.”

On a smaller scale, I witnessed the phenomenon first hand when taking pitches in my capacity as a producer at the annual ScreenExpo Pitchfest. Inevitably, each hour brought another breathless screenwriter rhapsodizing about deceased spouses returning to their lovers but reincarnated in the wrong sex. Original? Sure, to them. All five of them. The day only brightened when some dude pitched me the imaginative, but fatally asinine, “Hitler’s Bath Tub,” about a claw-foot tub that drains the life from bathers. The sensation of having heard something new was squelched when some schnook pitched “Mussolini’s Ottoman” about an angry footstool.

* * *

In a script I’m currently drafting (smatterings of it have appeared in this space), one of the subplots involves a journalist covering an apocryphal story about the number of suicidal swan dives taken from the Golden Gate Bridge. In the film, the number is thought to be 999, consequently, people wearing t-shirts emblazoned with “1K” are being fished off the bridge as each attempts to be the landmark thousandth person to jump (a showdown eventually ensues between two characters each vying to be 1K — their spat leads to their salvation, laughs and tears, the end).

As I’ve been developing the work, I’ve kept files on the bridge and its suicide lore. Thus, it was with a modicum of both affirmation and professional envy that I learned of filmmaker Eric Steel’s flick about the bridge as a suicide hot-spot. Steel had apparently approached the Bridge Authority with the notion of doing a documentary on national monuments. Then he fixed a camera on the landmark, and over a period of months, captured a couple dozen suicides, resulting in an ersatz snuff film, which he claims was not his intention.

When I asked Steel if he would be interested in speaking to the matter for this column, he declined in an e-mail:

thanks for your inquiry but i am in discussions still with the bridge
district authorities and cannot comment.
eric steel

Mutual morbid curiosity or morphic resonance? More likely, Steel and I each had a case of the memes ( ), ideas that formulate and spread like viruses of the mind (with obviously different expressions in our individual cases). Memes can be passed person to person or from person to media to person. E-mailed pictures of weird shit count as memes — they incubate in our inboxes, infect us with the notion that they should be shared and we reproduce them by sending them onward to our buddy lists. A simple but very effective meme in my estimation is Homer Simpson’s ubiquitous “D’oh!” Count how many times you’ve heard the curse from someone other than a Simpson over the past decade and you can begin to assess our culture’s memetic viral load.

* * *

I first learned the term morphic resonance when my producing partner Jerry Rapp and I were researching a documentary on that increasingly rarified phenom in the music business — an actual Beatle. Not one of the fab four, but the fabled not-so-fab fifth: Pete Best, the band’s original drummer, the steely young man that would board the express train of pop stardom only to be excused before the last stop.

A canny promoter had uncovered Best just as his legend as “the Beatle that wasn’t” came back into public consciousness with the release of the Beatles Anthology, the demo sessions and other musical ephemera to which Best had contributed several tracks. Leveraging newfound interest in Best, the promoter launched the drummer on a tour across Cananda as “Pete Best: The Beatle that Time Forgot.” Appropriately, the tour began in Liverpool, Nova Scotia. Rapp and I believed a documentary lurked somewhere in Best’s near-miss with superstardom.

It was through Googling “Nova Scotia + rock ‘n’ roll” that I came across the following quote from Leon Bottman, associate professor, Halifax Community College:

“There exists an extraordinary species of sedge bamboo known as the tichenessus alterranus, or ‘White Knuckle’ bamboo. Though separated by thousands of miles, this plant grows all over the world, sharing, more or less, identical characteristics… But one primary shared trait that is hard to ignore is its time of bloom: The tiny, off-white flowers emerge every year, at more or less the exact same time, in every part of the world. This morphic resonance phenomenon occurs in many kinds of flora and fauna. There’s no earthly reason why this same potentiality can’t be happening — all the time — in rock and roll.”

What the hell? This is what he was referring to