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Going gonzo: The new Hunter S. Thompson CD set

December 4, 2008 |  8:28 am

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How did Hunter S. Thompson capture the manic, drug-fueled energy of his reportorial pursuits? He was a mad genius, but he had help: He carried a tape recorder. Shout Factory has just released "The Gonzo Tapes: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson," a five-CD set that begins with his Hells Angels work in 1965 and ends in Saigon in 1975.

In the early days, when Thompson was a focused, gutsy reporter, he brought his tape recorder with him to work on the book "Hell's Angels," instead of using a pen and notebook. On the first CD, you can hear him eagerly engaging with some of the bikers -- particularly Terry the Tramp. He leads, he encourages his subject to go on, to say more. Later, there's fear in his voice when he is trying to get out of town. He's reporter first, fellow hedonist second.

That balance shifts by the second CD -- it, and the third, were recorded during his Las Vegas trip. "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," his 1971 book, narrates through "the depths of an ether binge," prodigious amounts of alcohol, pot, mescaline and anything else he and his lawyer can score. But a writer can't write like that -- or at least, Thompson didn't. These tapes document his substance-fueled conversations, ramblings, jokes and phone calls. It's this period when he sinks deeply into his slur, when silly or paranoid fantasies spin out into story lines, when the wobbly outlines of his gonzo style take their splattered form.

The fourth and fifth CDs are fascinating for fans, a bit depressing for working writers, because they consist mainly of source material for pieces Thompson didn't write. (There is nothing here from "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72"). With little excitement, he chronicles days and days of cocaine ingestion -- in Freud's footsteps -- for a Rolling Stone piece. And while this is a kind of gleeful listen -- hey, Thompson was bored by cocaine! -- it's impossible not to notice that his skepticism about the drug is erased by the last day, and that the piece was never written. Rolling Stone sent him to Zaire in 1974, but for the Rumble in the Jungle; Thomson recorded notes but sold his tickets to the boxing match, going for a swim in the hotel pool instead. He never wrote the story. It was brave and crazy for Thompson to travel to Vietnam in 1975, but someone else wound up filing the Rolling Stone piece about the last helicopter evacuating the American Embassy; he published only one piece at the time (some other snippets made it into collections). So much work went into creating very little writing.

Music is a constant presence: The Carpenters are on the radio in the background in Vegas, the Hells Angels listen to Joan Baez. The tapes themselves have only mediocre sound quality -- some people are too far from the mike, the sound of traffic intrudes, parts are muffled, and sometimes the recording stops mid-sentence. Then again, listening to these CDs is like sitting in a room with Thompson, with the soundtrack of popular music and the motion and the chaos. You can even hear the ice in his glass. They provide a ringside seat to witness the glory -- and the destruction -- of the great gonzo writer.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credit: p373 via Flickr

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