Strange Rumblings on the Way to Las Vegas

Ruben Salazar was killed by a police officer on August 29, 1970. The journalist was killed in unusual circumstances on the day of the National Chicano Moratorium march and rally against the Vietnam War, and soon became somewhat of a martyr for the repressed community.

Hunter Thompson covered the story for Rolling Stone, in the article, ‘Strange Rumblings in Aztlan’. This article is the first real introduction of Oscar Zeta Acosta, and it was during the writing that Thompson and Acosta took their famous trip to Las Vegas, which resulted in the novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.

‘Strange Rumblings in Aztlan’ is all too often overlooked by fans of Hunter S Thompson. It doesn’t really conform to the stereotypical Thompson piece of writing that those who’ve only read the famous books will know. Thompson appears in the book, with Acosta, but there is little in the way of goofing around. It’s not quite Gonzo, and it’s not as wild and crazy as what Thompson was known for, but ‘Strange Rumblings in Aztlan’ might well be the best piece of muckraking journalism that Thompson ever managed to assemble.

The story appealed to Thompson, unsurprisingly, because of the sense of hopelessness and injustice perpetrated by the authorities. He said the story had ‘all the proper hooks for outrage’.[1] Thompson had never been able to sit silently while such things happened, and this case seemed to him to be a great opportunity to expose evil deeds. However, it may come as a shock to some readers to see Thompson striving always for the truth, rather than taking the sense of injustice and using his words to convey it. He never gets fully behind the Chicano claim that the white authorities were silencing a Hispanic reporter, and he doesn’t necessarily try to support Acosta’s claims. Instead, he lays them out and confirms or denies them, adopting the technique he used in Hell’s Angels. As a result, the article takes the form of an obituary, an investigation, and a study of the violence and racial tensions prevalent in the Chicano areas of Los Angeles at the time. Consequently, whilst Thompson does manage to take his usual shots at the police and the media, he casts a critical eye in the search of truth rather than mocking and accusing his enemies. He takes the police accounts and discredits them, and although he goes into detail in regards the charges of the militant Chicano community, he does not necessarily take their arguments as truth.

The result is a serious piece of journalism with elements of Gonzo inserted for mild comic relief. Thompson remains the narrator and a participant, but unlike ‘The Temptation of Jean-Claude Kily’ and ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’, in ‘Strange Rumblings in Aztlan’, Thompson takes a much harder approach. Obviously his contempt for injustice saw him strive for something more than the thrown-together madness of his recent work, as he returned somewhat to the style of his South American reportage.

While he does come clean about his prejudices against the police and his scepticism over the death of Salazar, as well as his sympathies towards the Chicano cause, Thompson refuses to jump on the conspiracy, and eventually comes to a conclusion that neither the militants nor the authorities were entirely correct in their claims.

By offering his prejudices up front, Thompson is employing a technique that will be explored in the second part of this book, as frequently applied in his political writing. He states his position and shatters the idea of objective journalism. The reader knows that what follows is biased, and must then approach it differently. When an outrageous claim is made, perhaps it is not a fact, but rather a method of conveying an understanding of the subject. Nothing can be taken literally.

In ‘Strange Rumblings in Aztlan’, though, this technique is carefully applied, whereas in his later writings, it is used to a more ruthless effect. Here, Thompson states his opinions and seeks a truth that he may not want to discover. He makes himself vulnerable as a reporter, but somehow more honest. The reader knows Thompson’s opinions, but is also presented with alternatives, and consequently can come to a conclusion different to that of the author. He portrays himself as flawed and human, unlike the journalists of supposedly objective journalism, who purport to having all the facts. Instead, Thompson is a ‘frantic loser’[2] and troublemaker, searching for the truth, and this helps to draw the reader into the search as well.

Nonetheless, Thompson’s conclusion is shocking. Rather than his wild assertions about Nixon, the government and the media, he provides a conclusion that blends his feelings with the facts in a last attempt to search for the real truth.

 

Ruben Salazar couldn’t possibly have been the victim of a conscious, high-level cop conspiracy to get rid of him by staging an “accidental death.” The incredible tale of half-mad stupidity and dangerous incompetence on every level of the law enforcement establishment was perhaps the most valuable thing to have come from the inquest. Nobody who heard that testimony could believe that the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department is capable of pulling off a delicate job like killing a newsman on purpose. Their handling of the Salazar case – from the day of the his death all the way to the end of the inquest – raised serious doubts about the wisdom of allowing cops to walk around loose on the street. A geek who can’t hit a 20 foot wide ceiling is not what you need, these days, to pull off a clean first-degree murder.[3]

 

This has the hallmarks of a Gonzo text – most notably when Thompson refers to a police officer as a ‘geek’ – and it is simply Thompson’s opinion, but it is the result of a long and honest search for the truth in a complex murder investigation. Rather than rave about the evil of the authorities, Thompson reflects upon his exploration of the story by questioning the intelligence of the police in dealing with the killing, which one can hardly dispute.



[1] Reference needed – taken from The Great Thompson Hunt

[2] Wolfe, T., The New Journalism p. 172

[3] Thompson, ‘Strange Rumblings in Aztlan’, Rolling Stone 81, April 18, 1971

Related posts:

Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom magazine and the author of The Dog Farm. He travels a lot, and is currently working as a professor in China. His latest book is called Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. You can read more about and by David at his blog, www.davidswills.com or on Tumblr.

Share This Post On

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>