Last week I’d spent the day at the New York State Writers’ Institute at the University of Albany, a terrific institution whose founder and guiding spirit is the superb novelist William Kennedy (Ironweed et al.) I was there to talk about %%AMAZON=037503390 The Shakespeare Wars%%, but, man they worked me hard. Seminar with students, vidoetaping “How I Became a Writer” for their archives, formal talk at night.
Still it was worthwhile not least because of a hugely enjoyable dinner with Mr. Kennedy, his wife and Writers’ Institute people. It was toward the end of the dinner that Mr. Kennedy and I realized we had a friend (or in my case acquaintance) in common: Hunter Thompson. Kennedy had known Thompson from back in the late 50s from when Thompson was newspapering down in the Carribean, and their correspondence is a highlight of Thompson’s collectecd volume of letters.
I had known Thompson from covering presidential campaigns, superbowls and other national spectacles when I was a correspondent for The Village Voce.
And from a lesser known but, I think, highly emblematic episode in Thompson’s career of media disruption that Mr. Kennedy had heard about from Thompson but scarcely believed.
I can scarcely believe myself, now that I recall it, I’m not even sure how I got involved, I think I happened to be in somebody’s loft, a friend of Hunter’s, when the pipe dream of disrupting the America’s Cup was conceived.
The idea was to charter a motor yacht up in Newport where the Cup race was to be held, and to charge into the line of sailboats, flying a pirate flag and–this detail was addded later–bearing on board a noisy, indeed noisome, band from the Lower East Side led by madman street rocker David Peel blaring out their best known anthem “The Pope Smokes Dope”. The idea–if it could be called an idea–was to bring some street chaos into the midst of the snooty choreography of the Cup race. It was Hunter’s idea of how to “cover” an event.
Well I don’t recall alll the details but it actually turned out almost the way it was planned.. I’ll never forget Thompson in a yahcting cap swallowing fistfuls of blue pills (don’t ask me what), Peel looking like a raunchy derelict, and me, sort of cowering waiting to be blasted out of the water by the Coast Guard.
But in fact we did get close to the line of yachts, a number of lockjaw jaws dropped before the harbor police escorted our motorized intruder back to the dock where, for the life of me, I’m not sure why we weren’t locked up.
Just another day in paradise, but in a way a metaphor for Hunter Thompson’s intrusive, disruptive, hilarious intrusion into the formalized conventionalities of media and spectacle in America.
Mr. Kennedy and I talked about what a great talent he was, and how unfortunate it was, in his later years that his fame and notoriety got in the way of his pure storytelling talent.
But anyone who forgets that talent should revisit his great work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas one of those books that has grown–and grown more melancholy and brilliant–with the years. It’s widely misunderstood as a celebration of the 60s, but in fact it was its requiem. It’s Hunter’s Gatsby. The way Gatsby was a requiem for the Roaring 20s. And in a way that mad America’s Cup foray was a herald of the way Hunter was like a pirate intruder into Fitzgerald territory for his generation. And followed Fitzgerald’s trajectory, alas. But jeez do we miss him and need him now.