–Gypsy Joe Hess (1919-1988), prospector, self-educated philosopher and horse trader
In my ragged assed 40 years of writing, I’ve been lucky enough — or sometimes unlucky enough — to meet and write about many of America’s “somebodies,” mostly vapid a**hole movie and TV stars and rock musicians. When I was young, so-called “media journalism” then was just what it is now, what we called “starfucking,” and amounted to writing PR for media corporations in “music journals” of the time. But we covered a few worthwhile iconic figures in the mix as well — the kind that stick around in the background of one’s thinking forever. At my age now, I find a lot of them are dying off, the Hunter Thompsons, Susan Sontags, Ken Keseys and Kurt Vonneguts. However, I have a self-imposed policy not to eulogize them because the hundreds of sentimental Internet tributes that flourish upon their deaths somehow seem ghoulish, and because it is a universal truth that we writers will do anything for an audience, and celebrity death is one of the easiest ways to attract one.
On rare occasions though, usually while writing late at night, the ghost of one of these people, the shade of an especially prescient writer or thinker, sneaks up, slaps me across the back of the head and says: “I told you so!” And when two appear in a single night, well, you gotta write about it.
So here I am at 2 AM pretending to write — at least until I’ve killed the rest of this bottle of Old Granddad — but actually thrashing amid my old files, when I stumble upon personal notes from 1982, rough drafts and clips regarding Hunter S. Thompson and Timothy Leary, written and published around the same time. Both of them now strike me as brilliant in their defiance of American mediocrity, and symbolic actors in the media’s Great Cultural Outlaw Game.
I say symbolic because the news media then and still does require all types of symbolic actors to hold the nation’s attention and shape its reality. Today they range from Paris Hilton and Bill O’Reilly to Rosie O’Donnell, or political actors such as Barack Obama and John McCain. Or heroic figures in sport and war such as Patrick Tillman (which didn’t work out as well as planned by its Pentagon managers.) Even the most insentient lump of flesh may serve the purpose. Terry Schiavo comes to mind.
But the media also needs cultural outlaws, and allows a few of them either to serve as national examples of our supposed freedom of expression, or to serve as definitions of deviation from the norm and how it is punished. Tim Leary called it “The Outlaw Game,” and he and Thompson were two examples of the outlaw’s part in the superstate’s instructive televised morality play. Real cultural outlaws are still allowed on stage. But to be acceptable to the corporate media state’s manufactured reality, they must construct a persona (or be assigned one based upon what their behavior symbolizes) and maintain that persona, for which they are either rewarded, as Thompson was, or imprisoned as Leary was, according to the role they play out in the TV news non-reality show. Ever it was thus since the advent of television.
Yet, what strikes me about this folder of wrinkled notes is the hardening of the media model, and the changes in the American attitude regarding freedom and state authority since then. Not to mention the sheer outrageousness or permissible persona then, and the ominous prescience of some of Thompson’s and Leary’s quotes, scrawled down so long ago. And so I write the following from those old notes.
A delightful evening of equine slaughter
It is 5 PM in an upper room of the Aspen’s Hotel Jerome, and Hunter S. Thompson is pacing. He speaks in punchy AK magazine round bursts: “We’ve got to get that horse murder flick! We gotta get that goddamned movie!!”
“What movie?” I ask.
“The movie I want to open with tonight. It’s a horse being slaughtered by acid freaks in the throes of a nervous breakdown — a hideous, horrible disgusting thing. Got to get it. Listen to this!” He punches at a small cassette recorder tucked under his arm …
“GAAAAAAAAGH! SHREEEEEEEEEE! GURGLE….WHINEEEEEEE! CRUNCH!”
The microphone is up close to the horse’s throat so you can hear its last bloody gurgles of agony, then deranged laughter.
“Jesus Christ, Thompson, the sound track alone would puke a Nazi oven tender off a gut wagon. That’s the sickest f*cking thing I ever heard.”
“Me too,” he answers. “It’ll drive a silver spike right through the rotten diseased heart of this town!”
The hearts he was plotting to impale this very evening belonged to the audience at an Aspen community school benefit where he was to appear, along with Jimmy Buffet and The Eagles’ Glen Frey (both of whom, if I remember correctly, had places in Aspen at the time). Problem was, nobody could find the film, since it had been stashed long ago to protect the identity of what Hunter claimed was a well-known national political figure who had starred in the blood gushing footage. Vague evidence indicated the horse snuff flick might be buried over on the farming town of Paonia, Colorado. “We’ll rent a chopper,” Hunter exclaims, “scour the state if necessary.” He was not getting much cooperation from the two other longhairs present, apparently there to help him accomplish this mad, eleventh hour plan.
Every 15 minutes or so he made one of those convenience runs to the bathroom we all made back then, the kind where you came out wiping your nose, just in case any of Aspen’s snowflakes had happened to fall while you were supposedly taking that ten second piss. I figured he was still working on that ounce of blow I’d copped for him the day before (and swiped a gram from before delivery). But when he comes out announcing he has to run a rather suspicious sounding errand, I think, “Could he really have hoovered up 28 grams of nose candy in 24 hours?” Yet 20 minutes later he was back and now “tapping the glass” with the rest of us. The afternoon rotted on.