Saturday, May 7, 2011

Decadent and Depraved

It's Derby time, which always make me think of something important to me. Not the Derby itself, even the sport I actually care about (soccer, be shocked) is only sporadically in my mind and not really important in the long run. No, the thing that's important to me is one of my personal heroes, journalist Hunter Thompson, writer of the landmark article The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.

More after cut.

Those of you who are only aware of Hunter Thompson by reputation are probably wondering why he's a hero of mine. After all, most people who have never read him confuse him with many different hacks in the style of journalism he inspired (gonzo journalism as it were), assuming that his books like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Hell's Angels are mere exercises in writing through a haze of drugs and alcohol.

But go and read Hell's' Angels and you'll be surprised by how thoughtful it is. Rather than consisting entirely of terrified (or glorified) descriptions of the often savage actions of the titular gang as many similar reports might, his reports are much more intellectual. So much of the book is given over to musings on the nature of the gang themselves, the society that created them or their broader social implications.

Fear and Loathing is similar, if a little more ethereal. The books subtitle (A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream) is not lying. Thompson and his attorney do spend the entire time looking for the metaphorical American Dream, eventually deciding that it was 'a waste of time.' One of the reasons the Wave Speech is so famous, in my opinion, is because it comes from a place of very real pain that Thompson feels.

This leads to why Thompson is a hero of mine, despite my calling in life having little to nothing to do with his field. After all while Neil Gaiman may not be a filmmaker, as someone who wishes to writer screenplays as well as direct, it makes sense that I might admire someone with so much mastery of the written word as Neil Gaiman. What I admire about Thompson is twofold. Firstly his attitude, his stubborn refusal to quit through despair or horror, and while his desire to not grow old eventually led to him killing himself, I never got a feeling of despair from any of his writings.

Second is his stubborn (some might say insane) commitment to honesty in his work, something which journalism is sorely lacking these days. Over the course of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he tacitly admits to dozens of felonies, but this never seems to bother him; it's what happened and thus he has to tell it that way. Journalism could use more men like him, howling truth to power from out in the desert, no matter the consequences.

The man has influenced my own writings in many ways, both subtle and overt. A long gestating screenplay I'm working on bears the subtitle 'A Strange and Terrible Saga' a reference to Hell's Angels (full title: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club) and the screenplay itself is indirectly inspired by him, though the events and characters are original. Much of my essay writing is influenced by him (a fact which has baffled more than a few teachers) and my attempts at fiction often initially mirror his stream-of-consciousness style in rough draft, though they generally mold themselves into more my style as they work becomes more refined.

I was planning on reproducing a segment of The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved for you, but after rereading it, there's no particular segment of it that can be reproduced easily, without damaging the reproduction, so I've decided to shamelessly copy paste the Wave Speech into this essay. Hopefully it'll be enough to convince those of you out there who haven't read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to give it a look. I understand this is a little odd: I spend a lot of my time telling you what you should see, but this is the first time I've ever suggested what you should read. But if you find yourself interested, do give it a look; There's nothing quite like it.

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run...but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant...
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.
My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L.L. Bean shorts and a Butte Sheepherder's jacket...booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change)... but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that...
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda.... You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning....
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave....
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark —that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

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