Sunday, October 19, 2008

Hunter S. Thompson's Fear & Loathing Down Under

In 1976, the great American writer Hunter S. Thompson, came to Australia for a lecture tour. This story promoting the new Thompson documentary, Gonzo, tells a few tales about the good doctor's Australian experiences :

...Peter Olszewski, who back in 1976 was "manager" of Thompson's often disaster-prone Australian lecture tour, says he was surprised by how "writerly" the Kentucky-born Thompson was.

"He worked on every word," Olszewski remembers.

"He told me how he wrote Las Vegas — what was true about the book and what was fiction — and that he set out to write an American classic, and even that admission gives the measure of the man.

"He deduced that most US classics were short books and he told me that if I did a word count on Las Vegas and The Great Gatsby, I would discover that the two were identical in word count, down to the last word."

...Thompson's...notorious smoking-drinking-swearing appearance on The Don Lane Show, but after a thorough search "in the bowels of Channel Nine's archives" (the documentary makers) discovered that all footage had been lost or destroyed.

Olszewski remembers it well. "This just confirmed the stupidity, crassness and ineptness of commercial TV producers at that time," he says.

"Rather than let Hunter the talent present himself as himself, the producer pushed him into appearing like a poseur, with coat casually draped over one shoulder. It looked so fake that when Thompson saw himself in the monitor he swore and brushed the coat aside, and of course the expletive was not deleted and it became a quite large story the next day in the morning papers."

I can still vividly remember Thompson's appearance on The Don Lane Show. He didn't brush that jacket off his shoulder, he violently jerked in his seat when he saw that he looked like a dick, and shouted something like "Get this fucking thing off me!" Don Lane's mouth fell open, a perfect O.

It's amazing to me now to think how incredibly controversial it was back then for someone to swear on live TV, particularly a loud, drunk American, and how impressive his performance was to a seven year old, already writing short stories, who didn't know that writers could be so outrageous, free, and wild.

Olszewski, who as J.J. McRoach stood for the Senate as an Australian Marijuana Party candidate, wrote about his often nightmarish job minding Thompson in Mandraxed Wombats and The Monster in Room 450, which was published in his 1979 book A Dozen Dopey Yarns.

His worst moment came when he "disobeyed the doctor's instructions" and swallowed a small piece of powerful blotter-paper LSD.

"Several hours later, after I had crashed a Fairlane into a concrete pillar in the car park under the Southern Cross Hotel, Thompson admonished me with, 'I clearly told you to chew it slowly'," he recalls.

Olszewski remembers (Hunter) on stage at the Melbourne Town Hall. "People weren't all that interested in meaningful discourse — they wanted gonzo madness. At one stage he turned to me and said, 'Help me in this thing. I feel trapped. I feel like a goddamned animal in a cage with people poking sticks at me.' "

Hunter S. Thompson never seemed to lose that feeling that he was a sideshow, that his notoriety, the Dr Gonzo character he created, consumed him and trapped him, as a person and as a writer. His widow recently said that his celebrity, the unreality of the rampaging Hunter myth versus the old, near crippled man that he actually was, added to the reasons why he shot himself in the head in February, 2005.