Dateline: March 11, 1987 – The University of Washington, Seattle, Washington
“So, hang on a second. Who are you dumbasses going to see tonight?” She stared at us dumbfounded.
“Hunter S. Thompson, Timothy Leary, and Abbie Hoffman,” Chuck answered, pride dripping from his voice.
“All of them? In one room?”
Chuck just nodded.
“What the fuck?”
I let Chuck sort it out. I was busy staring at a piece of ‘art’ on Chuck’s sister’s wall: a mummified dead cat, wrapped in barbed-wire, suspended in a bicycle wheel rim. The honest truth is that the cat was distracting me—Chuck’s sister was intimidatingly alluring. She was smarter than whoever she was talking to, didn’t take any shit, she rode a motorcycle (an old Indian that she restored herself), was earning her PhD, and always had the newest Public Image Ltd. or The Damned record on the turntable of her badass downtown Seattle apartment. Oh, and she looked like a punk rock Brooke Shields. A real goddess. I could barely stand to be anywhere near her. And she knew it.
But, yeah, Thompson, Hoffman, and Leary in the same room. What the fuck? indeed.
I was dubious. This wasn’t a book tour that these guys were doing together, this was a one-off, a one-night-only type of thing. I was certain that we would show up to the hall and, maybe, one—or none—would be there. Knowing Thompson’s reputation, I thought the odds that he would actually show up were hopeful at best. And, with all due respect to Misters Hoffman and Leary, it was Thompson who I had wanted to see.
Chuck and I were friends from community college. We were both in our early twenties and both had to, unlike most of our high school contemporaries, investigate options other than attending university upon graduating high school. Chuck went into the military and earned his college tuition stipend. I spent four years playing in a band and teaching music, finally saving up enough money to pay for the two years I would need at community college to apply to a four-year institution. The simple fact is we didn’t have the option to go to university straight out of high school like most of our friends did, so we did other things—and bided our time. Chuck, like me, spent a lot of this time reading, writing, learning. By the time we were actually in a classroom, we were chomping at the bit to try out our skills, to speak our minds, to make mistakes. When we finally attended our first days at community college we quickly stuck to the other three or four other spikey and coloured haired individuals on campus like electrons finding their protons.
And we were lucky. We were lucky to have a group of amazing instructors—PhDs, anomalous in this environment, unhappy with their lot in life, forced to make a living teaching budget undergraduates. They were more than up to the task of dealing with a group of goofy haired overachievers with high IQs but questionable fashion and lifestyle choices.
It was on a weekend trip to Seattle, ostensibly to see a show by the punk band D.O.A., that we saw it. A flyer advertising the reading—if that’s what we can call it.
“Hey, check this shit out,” Chuck said as I was making my way to the washroom of the watering hole we frequented before a lot of these shows. I looked on the bulletin board and saw the words Hunter S. Thompson, Abbie Hoffman, Timothy Leary. “What the fuck? Is this for real?”
Having survived the weekend, safely back at home in Olympia, we called the the number listed on the flyer—a student group at the University of Washington. Yes, crazy as it sounded, all three of them were going to be there, and yes, we could get tickets—but it was a good thing we called. They were nearly sold out. But he would save them for us if we got them the next day. We made the the trip, bought the tickets, looked forward to the ride we were going to take.
Unlike a lot of my friends, I didn’t get into Hunter S. Thompson by reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in my university English class. The fact is, I was reading Thompson in issues of Rolling Stone magazine as a kid in the seventies. Then, one day, I was perusing my mother’s small bookshelf. On that shelf were her book club selections—books that were, like record clubs at the time, automatically sent to her. Sure enough, there was a name I had recognized from my current Rolling Stone issue.
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’76 was an interesting article to me because, simply, I was interested in who was going to be president—and it was written by Hunter Thompson. This Thompson guy, I had learned by now, would talk about ‘bastards’ and ‘strange times’ and pace his stories like an episode of Starsky & Hutch on amphetamines. Looking at the bookshelf, I spotted Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. I read the hell out of that book. I was twelve. (Later, in 1979, she would get The Great Shark Hunt in the mail, probably because the book club just sent books by authors that they had previously sent. Regardless, I sopped that one up too, reading article after article like a fiend.)
Now, before you go thinking that I’m thinking that I was some smart kid or something, make no mistake: I mostly didn’t understand most of what I was reading. And I knew that. But I had a dictionary. And I watched the news. And, most importantly, I paid attention.
But there was something undeniable about Thompson’s prose, even to my young, unskilled mind at the time. The writing was fierce, powerful, punchy. And it provided the undeniable thrill of the illicit, the feeling that I was doing something dangerous and ‘wrong’ just by reading his words.
In 1983 I was going into my second year out of high school. I occupied my time by playing poor paying gigs in far flung locales with my band at night and tried my best to educate myself during the day. I read constantly and began to dabble in writing. One of the ways I kept myself in the education ‘loop’, so to speak, (being that I was not attending college) was to sign up for first crack at the new releases at the library. I went into the library and saw what I had been waiting for: a new Hunter S. Thompson book.
The Curse of Lono is an oddity in the Thompson oeuvre—or at least that’s what a lot people think. I would argue, however, that if you know Thompson—if you really know Thompson, particularly his article The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, that first appeared in the June 1970 edition of Scanlan’s Monthly, then you would know that this was a return to form, a near self-allusion to the very beginnings of Gonzo journalism.
Like the Kentucky Derby article, Thompson is teamed up with his ever-suffering, ever-British partner in crime, illustrator Ralph Steadman. And like the Kentucky Derby article, Thompson and Steadman are sent on a mission to cover a sporting event—in this case, the 1980 Honolulu Marathon—only to be diverted by insanity, mayhem, and depravity of the kind that Hunter Thompson—and, indeed, Ralph Steadman—fans are all too familiar with.
I won’t spoil things for you by revealing the plot, but I will say that it includes beautiful illustrations by the stupidly talented Steadman, exceptionally sharp writing by Thompson, and some truly worrying excursions into madness and the terrible and tragic history of Captain James Cook. Some people get what’s coming to them.
And that’s all I’m giving you. Go read the book. It’s amazing. And I don’t use that word carelessly. It is actually a wonder; the teaming of two amazing talents at the very top of their game is something to witness and to experience. That book kicked my ass in the best possible way.
“A VW? A fucking Nazimobile? What the hell is wrong with you?
It was raining as we parked Chuck’s car into the dark parking lot at the University of Washington campus. Getting out of the car, I looked around at the, to me, gigantic campus. I had dreams set on attending New York University, but I knew that that was the longest of long shots, at best—if I ever had the opportunity, the University of Washington would be, probably, more than I could reasonably hope for. I got out of the car and felt good, for a moment, thinking that other people assumed I was a student there, just like them, and not just some community college student up for the night, slumming. (Spoiler alert: I ultimately attended and graduated New York University.)
We walked into the small hall and took our seats. We were right in the middle, maybe ten rows back from the stage where there was a long table with three microphones and three chairs. We didn’t have to wait long; right on time, a student representative came out and thanked various sponsors and organizing committees. Then he gave an introduction to the evening and then introduced Abbie Hoffman and Timothy Leary and…
“Sorry, folks. Looks like Hunter’s going to be a bit late,” offered Hoffman apologetically in his affable hippy manner. Leary simply looked annoyed. “But let’s get things started.”
And start they did. For the next thirty minutes, Hoffman and Leary discussed current political policy, Ronald Reagan, U.S. foreign policy, Ronald Reagan, and, yup, Ronald Reagan.
Then it happened.
From stage right came a projectile, rolling across the stage, bouncing off of the table leg with a loud CLANK.
It was an empty bottle of Chivas Regal.
Following the bottle, bounding after it as if it were a dog that got off its leash, was Thompson. Tall, gangly, and twitchy. He sat down and looked about nervously, seeming to both be amazed at his own attendance at and immediately bored with the proceedings.
“What is all this bullshit?” he mumbled. “You guys are full of shit; you know that?”
“Hey, Hunter. Nice of you to show up. And thanks for interrupting us; we were just talking about—“ Hoffman said.
“Well, get on with it then,” half barked, half mumbled Thompson.
“As I was saying to your question, the fact that this administration refuses to acknowledge their participation in…” offered Leary to a question from an audience member.
“Jesus Christ on a stick,”’ mumbled Thompson as he poured another drink from a phantom bottle of Chivas that seemed to appear out of nowhere, his face leaning into the microphone on the desk maniacally. “Is this what we’re going to talk about? I say bring back Nixon. Let’s really burn this mother down.”
And so it went. Hoffman and Leary entertaining the idea that these University of Washington students wanted to have real, meaningful conversations, real discourse about current political events and their place in the social landscape—and Thompson circumventing their efforts at every turn. Like some super smart court jester with inside knowledge of the king’s eminent demise, Thompson had both smarter answers, better questions, and the timing of a terrorist.
Then came the audience question session.
A few people were selected to go up to the podium set in front of the stage, to ask, presumably, questions befitting the social and political experts—both observers and agents of their times—there on stage. I got lucky; when I raised my hand, I was one of the handful of people to get picked.
I joined the others and listened to their predictable questions about politics, social and economic concerns—the usual.
I had a good question for Thompson about Oliver North and the whole Iran-Contra thing but when I got up to the podium I froze. Suddenly, as if someone else were saying it, I heard myself say, “This one’s for Hunter. Hunter, I saw on a BBC documentary that you drove a VW Beetle at your place at Owl Farm—not exactly what we we would expect a maniac like Raoul Duke, or, for that matter, Hunter Thompson to be driving. What’re you driving these days?”
Thompson’s face suddenly went from slack disinterest to… well, outrage.
“A VW? A fucking Nazimobile? What the hell is wrong with you? Are you having withdrawals? Get your facts straight, bubba. I wouldn’t take a shit in one of those deathtraps. Seriously, go back to Berkeley and unfuck yourself!”
I turned to look at Chuck back in our seats. He was giving me the thumbs up, laughing hysterically, and holding up a portable cassette recorder—he got the whole exchange on tape. The hall was bathed in laughter.
I kept my footing though and, bloodied but unbowed, asked a question I actually cared about. “All right, then. When are you going to stop fucking around and publish another book?”
“Now that’s a goddamned good question—finally,” he mumbled. He neglected to provide an answer.
A few more questions came up. A guy who made sure we all knew worked for Boeing began his question to Timothy Leary by saying, “Okay, this one is for Mr. Leary—so don’t go interrupting me, Thompson.”
Thompson flew into a rage, calling the man a “pig fucker” and suggested that he should go get his head “surgically removed” from his ass. It was glorious.
After it was over, we went to Chuck’s sister’s apartment—we were staying the night there instead of making the long trip back home in the rain. A few of her friends were there and, like giddy school children, Chuck and I regaled his sister’s friends with our events of the evening, even playing Thompson shredding me on the cassette player. After a while, everyone left and Chuck called dibs on the couch. I was stuck with a rickety chair, definitely for looking at, not sitting in and not sleeping in. Soon, Chuck was snoring to beat the band.
His sister and I stayed up and talked—mostly about a favourite author at the time, Paul Bowles and his mercurial and mysterious wife, Jane Bowles, who was, by this time, something of a feminist icon. Chuck’s sister loved Jane Bowles.
Then she abruptly stood up and took me by the hand. “Let’s talk in the other room…”
There is something of a coda to this story. Years later—just a few ago, in fact—I turned up a special edition of The Curse of Lono. A limited run, large format, including artefacts—reproductions of Thompson’s correspondence, right down to the stationary—printed by super-cool book company Taschen. There were a thousand of these babies produced and each copy is numbered and signed by both Thompson and Steadman. It wasn’t cheap but it would be a bargain at twice the price. Here are some pictures:
It’s funny how books capture things; how they absorb what’s happening around your life at the time that you hold them in your hands. I found this edition on a trip to Seattle with someone who was and who will forever remain very dear to me. It was, I suppose, a trip meant to save things.
But some things just won’t be saved.
And when I look at this book today I can’t help but feel a confluence of emotions. The memories of a young man, a boy, really, just learning his craft, learning about the power of words and brush strokes; a young man experiencing the power of personality, of beauty, of intelligence, the intersection of all of those things—what makes someone truly compelling. And then of a middle aged man in control of his talents, his ambitions, but still so very out of touch with mysteries that lie at the heart of every other person—of knowing the unknowable. The ephemeral nature of all that we do with each other, each and every one of us, on this ride.
Thompson taps into a ghost in this book—Lono. He is haunted by it.
As am I.
It’s like Hunter S. Thompson so famously said, “No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
Buy the ticket, take the ride.
Take the ride, indeed. Read this book.