Monday, February 21, 2005

The Day the Gonzo Died  

From The Kentucky Derby is Decadent & Depraved:

He had done a few good sketches, but so far we hadn't seen that special kind of face
I felt we would need for a lead drawing. It was a face I'd seen a thousand times
at every Derby I'd ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry
--a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable
result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture. One of the key genetic rules
in breeding dogs, horses or any other kind of thoroughbred is that close inbreeding
tends to magnify the weak points in a bloodline as well as the strong points. In horse
breeding, for instance, there is a definite risk in breeding two fast horses who are
both a little crazy. The offspring will likely be very fast and also very crazy.
So the trick in breeding thoroughbreds is to retain the good traits and filter out the bad.
But the breeding of humans is not so wisely supervised, particularly in a narrow Southern society
where the closest kind of inbreeding is not only stylish and acceptable, but far more convenient
--to the parents--than setting their offspring free to find their own mates, for their own reasons
and in their own ways. (
"Goddam, did you hear about Smitty's daughter?
She went crazy in Boston last week and married a ni*!")
So the face I was trying to find in Churchill Downs that weekend was a symbol,
in my own mind, of the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.
Hunter S. Thompson

I'm doing my twice a year divergence off topic to pay brief tribute to a unique talent who was one of the inspirations that propelled me into sportswriting. Hunter S. Thompson, Raoul Duke, died yesterday, and, as with every other creative act he performed, on a deadline of his own choosing.

This isn't going to be an obit. There's no point, because good ones have already appeared, most notably this one in The San Francisco Chronicle. It's not going to be post-mortem praise (he was a reprehensible id-monster in many ways, especially in his dealings with women; he had a hell of a time meeting any deadlines). Consider it a explanation of why he is important, even when his writing rarely reached the miracle standard of which he was capable. I think he created a lot of the foundation that evolved into the smashmouth Internet and TV journalism tradition that features adversarial in-your-face criticism. I think Thompson, however, picked targets he truly disliked. He didn't just go out of his way to fabricate his disdain in order to have something to say. And there's a lot of his cognitive DNA in my own writing, at least a lot of the portion that's worth reading. And I came upon the magic of his good writing at an early age.

When I was still a teenager, he wrote a lengthy article, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent & Depraved, for Scanlon's Monthly, a magazine I subscribed to. I didn't know who he was (I think he'd never published anything in his own voice, just that which went through standard editing) but he made a big impression on me. I read the article three times at the first sitting. It was like no other reporting I'd ever read about sports -- or anything else. Because of this article, I came to believe my interest in sports meant more than the enjoyment I got in being a fan or playing at them.

I was wacky about sports. I played whenever I could and followed them, to, until I lost interest in following for a time, but I kept my passion for playing. It seemed to me, even then, that sports were not just standalone events, but revealing views of our culture -- inextricable from who we were as a society.

If you've never read Thompson at his best, that fear and loathing at the Kentucky Derby article I linked to above is a trenchant example of that insight, and one, I think, he trumped just once. It embodies what I think are the two original aspects to his writing.

First, his writing voice was profane, salted with focused anger, and wrapped the story away from the on-field event and around the meaning the event had in the watchers' lives and what choices those lives were taking. He used the most popular of popular culture as a way to observe and analyse and comment on the culture in which he lived and sub-cultures to which he was an outsider. A traditional ethnographer brings to the table a certain aloofness, neutrality to the observation. She's careful not to create stress, a factor which always changes behavior.

Thompson intentionally created stress. There's nary a shred of sympathy for the insiders, barely any constraint on the cognitive terrorism he was compelled to release on the "connected", especially in making up lies to mess with their cognates, as in this excerpt from the Derby story:

"Say," he said, "you look like you might be in the horse business...am I right?"

"No," I said. "I'm a photographer."

"Oh yeah?" He eyed my ragged leather bag with new interest. "Is that what you got there--cameras? Who you work for?"
"Playboy," I said.

He laughed. "Well, goddam! What are you gonna take pictures of--nekkid horses? Haw! I guess you'll be workin' pretty hard when they run the Kentucky Oaks. That's a race just for fillies." He was laughing wildly. "Hell yes! And they'll all be nekkid too!"

I shook my head and said nothing; just stared at him for a moment, trying to look grim. "There's going to be trouble," I said. "My assignment is to take pictures of the riot."

"What riot?"

I hesitated, twirling the ice in my drink. "At the track. On Derby Day. The Black Panthers." I stared at him again. "Don't you read the newspapers?"

The grin on his face had collapsed. "What the hell are you talkin' about?"

"Well...maybe I shouldn't be telling you..." I shrugged. "But hell, everybody else seems to know. The cops and the National Guard have been getting ready for six weeks. They have 20,000 troops on alert at Fort Knox. They've warned us--all the press and photographers--to wear helmets and special vests like flak jackets. We were told to expect shooting..."

"No!" he shouted; his hands flew up and hovered momentarily between us, as if to ward off the words he was hearing. Then he whacked his fist on the bar. "Those sons of bitches! God Almighty! The Kentucky Derby!" He kept shaking his head. "No! Jesus! That's almost too bad to believe!" Now he seemed to be sagging on the stool, and when he looked up his eyes were misty. "Why? Why here? Don't they respect anything?"

I shrugged again. "It's not just the Panthers. The FBI says busloads of white crazies are coming in from all over the country--to mix with the crowd and attack all at once, from every direction. They'll be dressed like everybody else. You know--coats and ties and all that. But when the trouble starts...well, that's why the cops are so worried."

He sat for a moment, looking hurt and confused and not quite able to digest all this terrible news. Then he cried out: "Oh...Jesus! What in the name of God is happening in this country? Where can you get away from it?"

"Not here," I said, picking up my bag. "Thanks for the drink...and good luck."

Thompson knew this truth: That in any culture, sport is where people go to escape the constraints of their everyday lives, whether it's as a spectator or as a participant. For most who are interested, it's an area of vulnerability because they willingly make themselves vulnerable in this area of their lives. We all know the jock or rabid fan who, unable to bond to a significant other for more than handful of weeks is completely capable of having an emotional breakdown about a favored team's loss, a jockey out sick and missing a day of racing the fan was going to bet on, or even a trade that merely looks bad and hasn't actually played out yet.

So it's ethnologically revealing to observe people at "play", involved in sports, because they are more likely to reveal their own nature and their culture's.

Thompson took that a step farther. He hosed down the vulnerable with stress to elicit raw behavior, an attempt to peel back the gauze all see through when we look at our own culture. Everything they were comfortable with, he screwed with. All the small behaviors became big, easier (and more comical and sad and disgusting) to observe.

So Thompson's first original view was: Whatever you could observe in people that was worth knowing was more easily observed through their relationship with sports. The results were stunning. Hunter Thompson knew and revealed more about the American character between the coasts as it existed and exists than any of the other ethnographers who have tried to describe it. He doesn't bring the effete filters of the coastally acculturated observers who have tried to explain it. If you ever need to go on a journey to the heart of the American dream, Thompson is the most astute native observer of non-coastal American values you could take along.

His other original approach was his relationship with the truth. Professional journalism has a prescribed relationship with the truth. It's been sagging in the last couple of decades with more business-oriented management that knows the tough consequences of some truths to the bottom line. But the average professional reporter has a very high standard and an automatic response to issues that might muddy that in a story.

Thompson's stories were truer than any of his competitors -- but they had nothing to do with the truth. He made up quotes, perhaps entire days of reporting. So what makes him different from Jayson Blair who did it to avoid having to do real work? What makes him different from Jack Kelley who did it to burnish individual stories or his reputation or his chances for a Pulitzer?

What makes Thompson's work and his relationship with the truth original is his tales are in the Southern story-teller tradition: Clearly not true in the details but aimed at finding the essential truths about people and situations. You can throw away every who, what, when and where in a Thompson story, but he tended to dominate the competition with his exposition of the how and why he wrote. Like John McGraw, he used his competitors' adherence to the rules as an edge with which to beat them senseless.

That traditional tightly-wound reporter relationship with the truth makes his deviant grandiose and self-disserving journalistic transgressions more enjoyable, even to someone who buys into the tradition completely.

Hunter S. Thompson made a career out of making a rubble of traditions. I think I wouldn't have liked him if we'd met. As a former section editor, I have nothing but sympathy for the editor who is responsible for deadlines that don't move who works with a writer who is barely capable of meeting one. And it's worse when that writer hits so many home runs. The average, replacement level reporter who practices that relationship with time doesn't last long -- you just get rid of her. But because you never know if the assignment you give out to a writer like Thompson is going to be one of those unforgettable gems, you tend to let him do that to you over and over. Thompson just took joy in crashing deadlines of others' choosing and chose to live his life and produce his work on his own damned schedule.

I wasn't surprised then, that when it came time to meet his final deadline, he wasn't about to let someone else or the Big Managing Editor in the Sky pick the moment. He went out, as he lived, on his own time and his own terms.

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