Posted by: wolferiver | August 15, 2009

I Skipped That Party

There’s a famous quote by Hunter S. Thompson about the music industry which I’ve seen often.  By all accounts from people with direct experience, it is considered to be an apt and trenchant description:

The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.

I once saw Hunter S. Thompson give a lecture.  This was in the mid-seventies, but even then he was famous as a “Gonzo journalist“.  For me and a few friends, living as we did among the cornfields of the vast fly-over region of this country, it seemed an unlikely chance to observe a major figure from the counter-culture movement, so we figured that it would be stupid to miss out on the experience. 

The experience was, to say the least, disappointing.  I don’t know what exactly we expected, but afterwards over sundaes at the local Howard Johnson (um…we were in high school and it was close to our curfews), we all agreed that the talk he gave was rambling and pointless, and it seemed it would never end.  In retrospect I suppose it is unsurprising, given his recreational drug use proclivities.  However, the experience left me with a rather jaundiced view of the man, who seemed to me was past his prime, and unlikely to produce anything particularly notable again.

Yes, I was very judgmental in my youth, and my only defense is that it is not an uncommon condition at that age.  I certainly never gave the man another thought, except when reading Doonesbury, where he was the basis for the character Uncle Duke.  I have no patience for twisted and wasted geniuses, no matter how brilliant they might have been, and I thought that the caricature encapsulated the man perfectly.

Thus, when I came across the quote attributed to him about the music industry while searching for a usable quote about the television industry, I was somewhat impressed at a) how brutally apt it seemed, and b) how it seemed much more apt for the television industry and too bad I couldn’t use it in that context.  Surprisingly, according to a thoroughly well researched article at About.com, it turns out that this quote actually IS about the television industry.  The original quote, from Hunter S. Thompson’s book called Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ’80s (New York: Summit Books, 1988) is:

The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.

This is a lovely cautionary quote, but I think it is much improved by the embroidery of popular culture.  In the spirit of Gonzo, which seems to be “anything goes as long as it works”, I would not hesitate to use the more popular version quoted at the top, and to change its subject to reflect whatever the context required.

I will admit that time and age have softened my perspective on the man.  He captured the zeitgeist of the seventies and did so in a manner that matched the times perfectly.  He never completely lost his ability to distill the essential truth out of current events, as is clear from the beginning of this documentary on his life and times.  He also seemed aware that the legend of his life outstripped the reality.  From the Wikepedia article about him comes this quote:

Thompson himself admitted during a 1978 BBC interview that he sometimes felt pressured to live up to the fictional self that he had created, adding “I’m never sure which one people expect me to be. Very often, they conflict – most often, as a matter of fact. …I’m leading a normal life and right along side me there is this myth, and it is growing and mushrooming and getting more and more warped. When I get invited to, say, speak at universities, I’m not sure if they are inviting Duke or Thompson. I’m not sure who to be.”

This certainly describes the muddle of a man that I witnessed at the lecture that I attended, which was only a few years before that BBC interview.  In the wisdom of my much older self, although I still have little respect for drug-addled public figures, I am also able to metaphorically shrug and repeat a quote from another popular figure of the seventies counter-culture, “so it goes”.

We live in what is often described as a “post-ironic” age.  I don’t know when we slipped from the Ironical to the Post-Ironical ages.  Some say that 9/11 marked the death of irony, but based on the barometer of popular culture, the late night talk shows, it’s not entirely clear that the transition is complete.  Perhaps it’s all one massive mashup of hipness and jive.  However, I think this David Letterman interview with Hunter S. Thompson marks a milestone in the transition from the Age of Gonzo to the Age of Irony As We Know It (or Whatever).

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