HIGH WHITE NOTES
The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism
By David S. Wills
High White Notes takes a phrase from F. Scott Fitzgerald that was of prime importance to Hunter S. Thompson (or any serious writer) – being in the zone while creating. It is of course important to all artists to be in that zone, and thus David Wills uses Thompson’s writing exclusively (rather than a more conventional biography) to get to the man and his self-created myth, one far more invented than I previously realized.
Most of us enthusiastic about Thompson agree that Hell’s Angels, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, and Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 are his “high white notes” – and anyone attempting to follow and understand him can see that there is a deterioration in his work from that point – relatively slow enough to entice us back momentarily (I used to regularly pick up the San Francisco Examiner just to read his column, already a lesser series of work as Wills shows) and Wills chronicles the alcohol and coke just briefly enough to suggest some sort of cause for Thompson’s descent, though I feel besides his obvious decline in physical powers, clinical depression was the main culprit, certainly worsened by his drug and alcohol intake.
Wills does not end with talking about Thompson’s suicide (permit me a sort of Citizen Kane approach to reviewing the linear structure of the book) – he lets the writing speak and in his own admiration of Thompson, allows it to be his legacy – though as any of us know, it is doubtful that means anything to whatever became of Thompson after that fateful bullet.
First and foremost, there is the creation of Gonzo – which comes from the particular title of a song of James Booker that Thompson loved. It is Cajun slang that meant “to play unhinged.”
Gonzo journalism as created by Thompson seems similar to Jack Kerouac’s “spontaneous bop prosody” – Thompson’s own rocket-fueled “high white notes.” It is interesting that Thompson himself identified more with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway than the Beats, even if he has more in common with the blazing style of On the Road, which he admitted as an influence. Thompson really wanted to be a novelist of Lost Generation caliber, as Wills shows us, and for all he achieved, this wish was not realized. Instead, Wills shows how much Thompson fabricated, (including made-up quotes) — at times he literally was a fiction writer pretending to be a journalist. For instance, the litany of drugs he describes taking did not actually occur in Vegas, though he was certainly well acquainted with them. So Arthur Rimbaud’s “derangement of the senses” doesn’t seem the model for Thompson’s work at all, even if his myth is a major advertisement for it.
The irony of this is how many of us emulated that “gonzo” view with mixing the drugs he claimed to have taken in Vegas. The Hindu-Tim Leary approach was obviously alien to him, and even the Merry Prankster party approach paled in his mirror of gallows humor that foreshadowed punk – this same darker view many of us wound up arriving at after Altamont and the Manson Family murders It allowed for a cynical courting of madness and a recognition that, as Hunter put it, there was no one “tending the Light at the end of the tunnel” While not necessarily the materialist atheism of the existentialists, it seems a recognition that was virtually Buddhist – a non-theist Light that remained unaffected whether we were naughty or nice, but we were still bound by the effects of our behavior, as Thompson tragically realized.
The fact that Wills, the publisher and editor of Beatdom, had never ventured outside of the agreed-upon Beat roster until Thompson comes as no shock. Thompson was definitely post-Beat, something one could not say of New Journalism’s Tom Wolfe let alone one of its original pioneers, Joan Didion. (While Norman Mailer did brush wings with the Beats, he was never included by his own preoccupations – while New Journalism certainly owes much to him.) It is precisely the courting of madness that places Thompson so easily in the Post-Beat lineage because ultimately he wants to get to the truth of things. Though Post-Beat has become the accepted critical term for writers influenced by the Beats after 1965, it does allow some wiggle room, even as the those labeled Beat often rejected the term; Kevin Ring, the editor of the magazine Beat Scene, saw fit to include crime novelist Harry Crews in an issue. It is not an argument I want to back up, though I understand Crews’ inclusion.
Still, for all the various films and comic strips, we are left with only Thompson’s writing and the underlying wound of a man who chose not to really show it – and somehow revealing himself all the more for it. His myth and work are hopelessly entangled – and Wills’ book certainly goes a great distance in helping us understand the genius of Thompson even as we may be disappointed by the man. The college lecture circuit frequently found him slurring and cursing rather incomprehensibly. My friend Joshua Hayes reported this drunken interaction with him at Cal Poly in 1983: “Thompson said, ‘hey kid, would you like my autograph?’. I thought he looked pathetic. I said no.” Suddenly Thompson began crying, ‘I’m sorry…I’m such a fuck up…I’m sorry…’”
Wills’ exhaustive and unequaled research shows Thompson the journalist slowly evolving his style, including the later reworked novel The Rum Diary. He also shows exactly how Thompson began to burn out, repeating his original phrases like a wanna-be of his own work. Though Thompson contradicted himself on what drove him in many interviews, he eventually could not even write for profit.
The unrealized projects, like his drunken San Francisco stint as a night manager in the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell adult theater, are probably in the double digits. (The Night Manager apparently exists in some form, but was deemed unpublishable.)
But even in today’s journalism, he lives on – prominent in a woman reporter’s kitchen as she weighs on the 11th Hour of MSNBC, that double-thumbed fist with peyote button icon of his Aspen Sheriff’s Freak Power poster. That same icon marked a 150-foot tower when Johnny Depp shot his ashes into the sky from a cannon. Fireworks ensued.
As Kerouac said, “burn, burn, burn.”
–review by Marc Olmsted