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Eating the Beat Menu

Words by Nick Meador

Illustration by Kaliptus

(from issue 10, available at Amazon)

Jack Kerouac’s books contain such a variety of subjects, styles, and voices that his readers have never shared many common characteristics. On the surface, many of Kerouac’s books seem to exude a tone of rebellion against mainstream culture and everything that comes with it, be it business, government, or religion. This voice speaks to the counterculture that has existed in the developed Western world since the 1950s. Similarly, Kerouac’s major works reflect his heavy interest in Buddhism during the ‘50s – an appealing characteristic to the hordes of young Americans disillusioned with their indoctrination under the various denominations of Christianity. Yet behind Kerouac’s Buddhist leanings remained his consistent views about Catholicism, as well as his constant mentions of Christian iconography in his writing. This voice calls to those who never fully departed from the Christianity or Judaism of their youth, often because of the painful experience of disagreeing with family tradition. What most readers don’t know is that Kerouac himself lived almost entirely in this religious mindset, spurning the counterculture altogether. Continue Reading…

Sympathy for the Devil? Reconsidering the Legend of Raoul Duke on the 40th Anniversary of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

hunter s thompson

by Rory Feehan

 

 

“He who makes a beast of

himself gets rid of the pain of

being a man”

– Dr. Johnson (epigraph to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)

 

Early spring 1971 and the first rays of the rising sun creep into a room at the Ramada Inn just outside Pasadena California, where one Hunter S. Thompson is holed up, crouched over his IBM Selectric, hands flashing back and forth over the keys, as though directing a kind of demented orchestra. The words flow faster and faster, a chaotic hell broth of paranoia and insanity that would culminate in one of the most original, hilarious and celebrated statements on the sixties drug culture – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson’s dissection of the dark side of the American Dream would catapult him to rock star status overnight and confirm his status as the infant terrible of the literary world. Through the pages of Rolling Stone he unleashed upon an unsuspecting American public what is undoubtedly his greatest artistic creation, not Gonzo Journalism as many would have you believe, but rather his compelling and brilliantly subversive literary persona – the Hunterfigure – as best exemplified through the guise of Raoul Duke.

What followed for Thompson was an almost Jekyll and Hyde relationship with his literary alter ego, a continuous symbiotic state of co-existence with the monstrous and unruly Duke, for good or ill. Such was the enduring power of the character, heightened by Ralph Steadman’s darkly captivating illustrations, that the public perception of Thompson became truly distorted, unable to distinguish between the serious author and the myth of the drug crazed Gonzo Journalist. Of course, Thompson deliberately contributed to this confusion, blurring the boundary between author and character to such an extent that the ensuing confusion was inevitable. Such was his method actor-like approach to the persona, spanning almost his entire literary oeuvre, that one can be forgiven for being unable to identify the thin line of differentiation between his public image and private self.

In many ways it is this aspect of the Raoul Duke phenomena that has come to define Thompson’s career – with a distinct marker separating the period prior to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, from that which subsequently followed, wherein the myth superseded the man. Of course Thompson was acutely aware of the dilemma that the Duke persona presented for him following the success of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and its immediate follow-up, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. As his output as a writer slowed, his critics accused him of becoming enslaved by the Duke persona, not to mention being creatively burnt out. Thompson himself broached the issue in the author’s note of The Great Shark Hunt, in which he confessed that the anthology marked a milestone in his career:

I feel like I might as well be sitting here carving the words to my own tombstone…and when I finish, the only fitting exit will be right straight off this fucking terrace and into the fountain, 28 stories below and at least 200 yards out in the air and across Fifth Avenue. Nobody could follow that act. Not even me…H.S.T. #1, R.I.P. 12/23/77

Thompson’s frustration as a writer was also evident during this same period in the hour long BBC documentary Fear and Loathing in Gonzovision, as part of which he returned to Las Vegas, accompanied by Ralph Steadman. Though Thompson wilfully participated in the film, he was not entirely comfortable with the idea, aware that there was an underlying presumption that he was somehow going to deliver a sequel to the events described in his classic work, once more running amok in a drug-crazed frenzy on the Las Vegas strip, only this time in front of a film crew. Yet again the misconception surrounding his literary persona had come to dominate proceedings, an issue that Thompson attempted to clarify somewhat when asked as to whether there was any pressure on him to live up to the image he had created:

Well there certainly has, I mean you have been putting it on me all week…I’m not sure at all what you think you are shooting…I have no idea whether you think you are making a film about Duke or Thompson. That’s a serious point, I’m never sure which one people expect me to be and very often they conflict, most often as a matter of fact  with people I don’t know, I’m expected to be Duke more than Thompson…I’ve been using Duke for 10 years, maybe more, I began to use him originally as a vehicle for quotations that nobody else would say, that was me really talking, those were my quotes…I’m really in the way as a person, the myth has taken over…I’m no longer necessary, I’m in the way. It would be much better if I die. Then people could take the myth and make films.

 

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and yet the discourse surrounding Thompson’s seminal work has changed little – largely still centred upon Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo’s astronomical drug consumption and withered analysis of the American Dream. Duke, of course, looms larger than ever, aided in no small part by the tour de force that is Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the character in Terry Gilliam’s cinematic adaptation, which in itself has attracted a sizeable cult of worship. Just as in Thompson’s own lifetime, the drug crazed Raoul Duke persona overshadows the brilliance behind its very creation. In retrospect, Thompson’s remarks to the BBC now appear to be particularly salient.

That Thompson is still largely misunderstood as a writer is unsurprising though, as there is a long standing pattern of ignoring the thought process behind his greatest work. More often than not, the trajectory of critical analysis has focused on the cult of personality surrounding Thompson and that of his legendary drug consumption, coupled with the subsequent effect of these influences on his writing. Rarely does it pause to reflect on just how and why Thompson came to that point in the first place. There is a wealth of material that pinpoints The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved as marking the birth of Gonzo Journalism, but there is a dearth of analysis on the seeds that were planted along the way. The same goes for Duke, with little discussion of the various incarnations of the Hunterfigure prior to his most infamous outing in the pages of Rolling Stone. Yet it is an essential task and one that does not lead to an undermining of Thompson’s as a writer. In particular by investigating the narrative genealogy of the Hunterfigure we can discover new layers of meaning to every facet of his writing and thus extend the discourse far beyond the current narrow parameters.

Ironically it is the very topic that has overshadowed the genius in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that offers the first clue as to why Thompson felt compelled to create the Hunterfigure and make him a paragon of gross excess. The infamous epigraph at the start of this article returns us to familiar territory – that of the role of drugs in the Gonzo narrative. The quote from Dr. Johnson has now become synonymous with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the rampant consumption of drugs by Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo as they travel across the desert to the very bowels of Las Vegas in search of the American Dream. To date, the significance of the quote has largely been confined to the relationship with the central thematic message of the story. However its deeper meaning in relation to Thompson’s life and work has been all but ignored, which is surprising given that the sentiment behind it, particularly in relation to the latter half of the quote, is tied so closely to understanding his need to create a fictive persona. In order to illustrate this, it is necessary to first take a step backwards and examine Thompson’s early life in Louisville, Kentucky, before subsequently discussing key aspects in the evolution of the Hunterfigure.

The Dark and Bloody Ground

For any discussion that involves deciphering the walking contradiction that was Hunter S. Thompson there is really only one place where you can begin and that is his birthplace of Louisville, Kentucky. Renowned for its bourbon whiskey and horse racing, the Bluegrass State is commonly referred by the natives as the “dark and bloody ground” in reference to the tumultuous and violent history of the region, from its use as a hunting ground by the Cherokee and Shawnee tribes to later bearing witness to the Battle of Blue Licks, one of the final clashes in the War of Independence.  Kentucky was also home to some of the earliest devotees of the American Dream, being the first area west of the Appalachians to be settled by frontiersmen. The opportunity to start a new life free from the constraints of the law governed east coast proved irresistible, with many of this motley crew harbouring a memory filled with contempt for the society they had left behind, where more often than not they had been treated as social pariahs. In many ways the spirit carried by these people became the spirit of the land itself – fiercely independent with a healthy appetite for rebellion and it was this same spirit that flowed in the blood of Hunter Stockton Thompson when he entered the world on July 18th 1937, the eldest son of Virginia Ray and Jack Robert Thompson. He was later described as having – “shot out of the womb angry”.

Thompson enjoyed a somewhat idyllic life growing up in the peaceful middle-class neighbourhood of Cherokee Triangle, a suburb of Louisville. Jack Thompson, an insurance agent who had previously been married, was forty-two when Hunter was born and his relationship with his son was always somewhat distant, perhaps due to Jack’s strict disciplinary role in Hunter’s life. He had a much closer bond with his mother Virginia, who introduced him to tales such as Jack London’s White Fang and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He was also particularly fond of reading about heroes and outlaws of the Wild West, an early influence that was hugely significant according to historian Douglas Brinkley:

when he was growing up in Kentucky, he was obsessed with tall tales. He would read about Mike Fink and Paul Bunyan and Daniel Boone, Davy Crocket, Jesse James, Annie Oakley, Billy the Kid. He didn’t care whether these stories were true or not – those personas became larger than life. (Stop Smiling Magazine Issue 22)

Indeed, in both his neighbourhood and in school, the young Thompson seemed to be hell-bent on creating his own unique brand of infamy, with his pranks and mischief resulting in a visit to his home by the FBI when he was just nine years old. Accused of having orchestrated the tipping of a Federal Mailbox into the path of a bus, leading to a collision that caused considerable damage, the Agents tried to pressure Hunter into a confession by informing him that they had witnesses. Unconvinced by their story, Hunter called their bluff and enquired as to the identity of these witnesses – the ensuing awkward silence signalled that the game was up. Pressed further by Jack Thompson and having no evidence to substantiate their claim, they swiftly made an exit and were never seen again.

Of course, Thompson was the ringleader of the entire incident and his reasons for doing so reveal an important side to his character. In his opinion, the bus driver needed to be taught a lesson, having become known for pulling away just as the schoolchildren arrived at the bus stop on their way to school. It was a somewhat cruel abuse of the little power he held and it was not going to be tolerated by Hunter and his gang – the Hawks A.C. – with the same spirit of lashing out at those who used their power for nefarious reasons later becoming a cornerstone of Gonzo Journalism. Hunter learned a powerful lesson from the experience and that was to never blindly trust anyone who represented the system, no matter what badge of office they held.

There are two major incidents that occurred in Louisville however, that altered the course of Thompson’s life forever. The first of these was the death of Jack Thompson. His passing had a profound affect on Hunter, coming shortly before his fifteenth birthday. Jack had always maintained a strict guiding influence in Hunter’s life, encouraging his interest in sports and ensuring that he didn’t get too out of hand. After his death, Thompson’s behaviour went unchecked and he quickly spiralled out of control. Virginia Thompson went to work at the Louisville Free Public Library in order to provide for her family, leaving Hunter with plenty of free time to indulge his newfound passion – alcohol. Despite Thompson’s reputation over the years as a notorious chemical abuser, it was a legal drug that first made him a slave to dependency, perhaps more so than any other substance, with the possible exception of cocaine.

In Louisville, it was Thompson’s thirst for alcohol that fuelled his descent into juvenile delinquency. Despite being underage it was never too difficult to gain access to alcohol – after all it was very much part of the social fabric and when the use of fake IDs failed to work for Hunter and his friends, there was always the option of raiding the household liquor cabinet. What followed was usually a bout of running amok and sometimes mindless vandalism, which inevitably brought Thompson into conflict with the law, leading to a stint at the Louisville Children’s Centre. In his inimitable memoir, Kingdom of Fear, Thompson acknowledged his tearaway behaviour as a teenager, likening his antics to that of his childhood hero:

I was a juvenile delinquent. I was Billy the Kid of Louisville. I was a “criminal”: I stole things, destroyed things, drank. That’s all you have to do if you’re a criminal.

Coupled with this reckless behaviour there was also something of a distinct split in Thompson’s identity during this period. At school, despite frequently skipping class to nurse a hangover, he displayed such a talent for writing that his English teacher Harold Teague recommended him to the exclusive Louisville Literary Athenaeum, where he won awards for his satirical essays. Yet the conflicting forces in Thompson’s psyche were never far from the surface, dragging him in opposing directions to such an extent that he was equally comfortable discussing the parable of Plato’s cave, as he was standing in front of judge following his latest bout of drunken revelry. Thompson was adept at compartmentalising different aspects of his life and this extended to his friends, of whom the social range stretched from the underclass to the very top of Louisville’s elite. While Hunter was comfortable moving in both worlds, the more he became exposed to the wealth of a certain circle of friends, the more painfully aware he became of his own social standing. Though Virginia Thompson did her best to raise three sons, it was not easy on her salary as a librarian. While Hunter’s friends talked of going to Ivy League Universities following their high school graduation, he knew this was not a financially viable option. While this situation created a certain resentment for Thompson, it paled into insignificance next to the rage that boiled over within him following an event that marked the end of his youth in Louisville.

Given his love affair with alcohol, it was only a matter of time before Thompson ended up in serious trouble. Yet for once, he was entirely innocent. His only crime was that of being in the company of a friend who had robbed a young couple in the park. Thompson was not even aware of what had actually happened, having been seated in a car during the incident, until he was charged by the police. Nevertheless it was Thompson who bore the brunt of the law, with the sitting judge being more than aware of his previous history as a young offender. This time he was determined that Thompson would not escape unpunished, handing down a six week prison sentence, forcing Hunter to miss two of the most important milestones in any teenager’s life – his eighteenth birthday and graduation from high school. The real injustice of the affair, however, was that the actual perpetrator walked free, courtesy of his influential family connections, leaving Thompson to sit in his cell cursing the injustice of the system and vowing to never again become ensnared in its net.

The social stigma attached to his incarceration was humiliating for Thompson and this was further compounded by his expulsion from the Louisville Literary Athenaeum, whose members had convened a special meeting to decide his status as a member of the association. The entire incident represented an overwhelming rejection by his hometown, but rather than try to atone for his past indiscretions and repair his standing in the community, Thompson instead vowed revenge upon the Louisville establishment. He viewed his treatment as a conspiracy by the authorities and the privileged elite, who had abused their power in order to make an example of him, the easy target with no father to fight his corner.

The fallout from this incident was so emotionally damaging for Thompson that it cannot be underestimated in relation to his direction as a writer. The pain of this incident was a constant driving force that was never far from the surface, strengthening his identification with “outsider” figures and heightening his visceral distrust of authority in all of its representations. Ironically it is also inherently linked to the creation of Gonzo Journalism through The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved. In the lead up to his hometown return it was obvious that the opportunity for revenge was on his mind. To Warren Hinckle, editor of Scanlan’s Monthly, he confessed – ‘And that’s it for now, I have to get some sleep before rushing off to confront my festered childhood. God’s mercy on us all.’ In a letter to Pat Oliphant, the first illustrator to be approached for the article, he wrote – ‘Ok for now. I have to get upstairs and call Hinckle. And get my plane ticket – and call my poor mother to warn her that I’m coming back, once again, to whip the shit out of everything I was raised and brought up to hold dear. Selah.’ When Oliphant was unable to accompany Thompson to the Derby, Scanlan’s Monthly made an inspired decision to send Ralph Steadman in his place. What followed was a pure exercise in avenger’s rhetoric by Thompson, with the mint julep-soaked prose eviscerating the Louisville elite in spectacular fashion, particularly when it came to his description of the ‘special kind of face’ that he wanted Ralph Steadman’s illustrations to capture:

It was a face I’d seen a thousand times at every Derby I’d ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry – a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture.

Of course the journey for Thompson as a writer was a long and convoluted one between his exile from Louisville as a youth and his triumphant return at the Kentucky Derby. The intervening period not only covers the birth of Hunter S. Thompson as a writer but also that of The Hunterfigure – and it is this construct that in many ways proved to be the single most important factor for Thompson in his determination to succeed as a writer, as it afforded him the irresistible opportunity to create a fictionalised portrait of his own life, a second opportunity where the cards of fate were not stacked against him as they had been in Louisville.

A Monster Reincarnation of Horatio Alger

The Hunterfigure was first mentioned by Thompson in correspondence whilst living in upstate New York in 1959. Having fled to New York in search of work as a journalist following his honourable discharge from the military, he struggled to make any discernable impact in the profession, habitually managing to get fired for insubordination or destroying office vending machines. Relying on friends and family to stave off hunger and the ever present threat of eviction, he increasingly began to question the merit of pursuing journalism as a career, particularly in light of his obvious disdain for the hierarchical structure of the typical newsroom, coupled with what he perceived as the shocking ignorance by an assortment of editors to his obvious talent. Thoroughly disillusioned with this state of affairs, Thompson composed a lengthy letter to a former girlfriend in which he revealed the predicament of the “Hunterfigure”:

I’m convinced, of course, that to play a role or adjust to fraud is wrong, and I damn well intend to keep right on living the way I think I should…I know I’m right, but I sometimes wonder how important it is to be right – instead of comfortable…The Hunterfigure has come to another fork in the road and the question once again is “where do we go from here?

What appears to be an otherwise innocuous statement in fact is a highly literary persona that would eventually be fully realised through the filter of Gonzo Journalism. Unsurprisingly, it also signals his move towards finding solace through fiction, with his first novel, Prince Jellyfish, once again illustrating the distinct sides to his psyche and the desire to make sense of this internal conflict through the cathartic power of writing:

It will be the story of Hunter and Hunter, the way he went and the way he could have gone. And, incidentally, why. I’m using the narrator-participant technique – a la Gatsby – and shooting for a short (300 pages or so) account of three people living a year in New York City that will decide the courses of their lives.

Drawing upon a multitude of experiences between his life in Louisville and his attempt to forge a new beginning in New York, Thompson inserts autobiographical details into a fictional framework to present the story of Welburn Kemp, the first thinly disguised Hunterfigure, who manages to succeed where Thompson himself had failed. Though Kemp experiences the same difficulty in finding work in New York, as a college graduate he is more confident in his dealings with editors, walking out of an interview upon discovering that he is expected to start out as a copyboy. In reality, Thompson could ill-afford to do likewise, accepting the same position with Time magazine, despite considering it as being beneath his talent. Through Kemp, Thompson attempts to exorcise many of his personal demons, creating an idealised world where the rules favour the underdog. The novel also displays the contradictory dichotomy between Thompson’s desire to be accepted by society and that of his embracing of the outsider mantle.

Another important aspect in relation to Kemp is that of the literary blueprint from which he is derived. According to William McKeen, Thompson turned to one of his heroes for inspiration:

The strongest literary influence was J.P. Donleavy’s Ginger Man. Like that novel’s Sebastian Dangerfield, Kemp is selfish and arrogant and yet too charming to be firmly repellent.

Donleavy’s protagonist is also the forefather of Thompson’s Raoul Duke and significantly shares not just the same attitude, but also a similar dispensation for substance abuse. Sebastian Dangerfield drunkenly rampages through the streets of Dublin, clashing with the authorities along the way and leaving a trail of chaos and destruction in his wake. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson amplifies this behaviour in Raoul Duke tenfold, upping the ante to such an extent as to make his drug use redundant. Of course, Duke is far more than a mere exaggeration of Sebastian Dangerfield and while he shares the same literary DNA with Welburn Kemp, there is equally a gulf of difference between Thompson’s respective charges. What ultimately separates the pair is Thompson’s incorporation of Duke into a larger narrative, that upon which America itself stands – the American Dream. Yet this aspect in the evolution of the Hunterfigure did not occur overnight, it was a long process, of which a crucial element is often overlooked – that of Thompson’s time in Big Sur and the influence of Henry Miller.

Thompson had long been an admirer of Miller’s writing and the prospect of living in the vicinity of one his literary heroes proved irresistible when he settled there in 1961. Unbeknownst to Thompson, Miller had earlier departed Big Sur for Europe and as a result their paths never crossed. It is Miller though who, in a way, was responsible for Thompson’s first big break as a writer, inspiring him to write an article, entitled “Big Sur: The Tropic of Henry Miller”, which subsequently appeared in Rogue magazine, marking his first national publication. The heart of the article consisted of a detailed analysis of the dichotomy between Miller’s public persona and his private self, a facet of his life in Big Sur that more than piqued Thompson’s interest:

Miller did his best to stem the tide, but it was no use. As his fame spread, his volume of visitors mounted steadily. Many of them had not even read his books. They weren’t interested in literature, they wanted orgies. And they were shocked to find him a quiet, fastidious and very moral man – instead of the raving sexual beast they’d heard stories about.

The observations made here by Thompson clearly illustrate the understanding that he had of the mechanics involved in the cult of celebrity that had enveloped Miller. He identifies the public appetite for controversy and scandal, the potential manner through which literature can create a persona in the public sphere and the ease at which this persona can develop beyond the boundaries of the written word. It was not lost on Thompson that Miller, who had written prolifically of the serenity of life in Big Sur, struggled to cope with the burden of fame that had besieged his once idyllic existence, despite his best efforts to discourage the flood of pilgrims that were now destroying that which he so valued.

He posted a large, insulting sign at the head of his driveway, cultivating a rude manner to make visitors ill at ease, and devised elaborate schemes to keep them from discovering where he lived. But nothing worked. They finally overwhelmed him, and in the process they put Big Sur squarely on the map of national curiosities.

In detailing the rise of Miller’s profile and the subsequent siege of visitors to pay homage to their literary idol, Thompson creates a portrait that is astonishingly prophetic of his own eventual profile. The essential difference however, which was already clearly evident in Big Sur, is that unlike Miller, Thompson not only enjoyed the glare of publicity, but actively craved it.

In Big Sur, Thompson began to realise the power of self-mythologizing as a gateway towards a higher goal. Through Henry Miller he witnessed the manner in which an author’s persona could becoming synonymous with nonconformist revolt in the public lexicon, which in turn fuelled the propagation of a discourse that elevated him to a status of near mythic proportions. In this sense, Thompson’s experience in Big Sur proved to be a watershed moment, for it marks the turning point in his development of the Hunterfigure – from being that of a basic autobiographical tool to that of a mythmaking persona.

That this would appeal to Thompson is unsurprising in light of his early childhood fascination with myths and legends. It is this same larger than life trait that Thompson invoked in his later portrayal of sports stars and politicians as the modern day heroes and villains within the new pantheon of American mythology. The common denominator here is the enduring power associated with these figures, the special quality that burns into the collective consciousness of man and survives there for generations.

Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality. Weird heroes and mold-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that they tyranny of “the rat race” is not yet final.

It is his creation of the Raoul Duke persona that is Thompson’s ultimate attempt to fashion a figure, a myth, that connects with a whole new generation in America – a generation that he believed witnessed the death of the American Dream through the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the election of Richard Nixon. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson even goes so far as to describe Duke as being ‘a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger’ to illustrate his sentiment towards this development, with Horatio Alger having represented the traditional rags to riches story of the American Dream, that with hard work and virtuous living any man could reach the top in life. For Thompson this was a con and in Las Vegas he had found the ultimate proof, a city built on corruption and sleaze that hawked the American Dream to gullible fools who parted with their money in the hope of hitting the big one and striking it rich. Of course, the house always wins, and it is this same false promise that Thompson associates with the blind optimism of the sixties, which was ultimately crushed by the cold hard reality of life under Richard Nixon’s reign.

In this sense, Thompson’s choice of epigraph – ‘He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man’ – can now be considered in a new light. For Thompson the beast is of course Raoul Duke and the pain of being a man harkens back to Thompson’s youth in Louisville where he was ostracised as a “criminal”. Duke is his ultimate revenge on the establishment, his outlaw hero who embraces his status on the edge of society and uses his position to lambaste and ridicule the establishment and their hypocrisy. In a broader context he speaks to the pain of an entire section of American society, from those who are criminalised by the War on Drugs to the many who bought into the sixties dream and were burned in the process.

In closing, I leave you with one final piece of wisdom from Raoul Duke – ‘Learn to enjoy losing.’

HST & the Music of the Sixties

HUNTER S THOMPSON

Illustration Isaac Bonan

Words by David S. Wills

From Beatdom #7.

 

Music has always been a matter of Energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people will call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel.

Music is a theme that crops up throughout the entirety of Hunter S. Thompson’s bibliography. It was an incredibly important aspect of his life, and he always took the time to listen to what he wanted. Those who know about Thompson know that Bob Dylan was one of his heroes, and it is often claimed his favourite song of all time was “Mr. Tambourine Man.” But, of course, there was more. Thompson’s interests were diverse. As a teenager he loved Bing Crosby, whose “Galway Bay” was once his favourite song. He tended to gravitate towards music that reflected the world around him – from Kentucky bluegrass to San Francisco rock ‘n’ roll.

Thompson’s times were wild ones. He lived through the 1960s and 70s, fully immersed in the counterculture of the era. He lived in the Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love and watched the musicians of his generation artfully reflect their environment, like he was doing with his writing.

Indeed, Thompson respected their work as much as that of any contemporary writer. He once said, “I’ve been arguing for years now that music is the New Literature, that Dylan is the 1960s’ answer to Hemingway.”

Music was fuel for him, too. Not only did he respect these artists as fellow documenters of the world, but they meant something to him. Good music drove him onwards. It helped him write. And he loved those bands and did what he could to push their careers forward.

As Douglas Brinkley puts it,

He would do anything for the music he liked – people like Warren Zevon, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Lyle Lovett, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker; old Kentucky bluegrass masters like the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and Lester Flatt; and some blues people like Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dizon. Those were gods to him, and a lot of them were friends. He would do anything to promote their CDs, to go to their concerts, to talk them up. But his interest in rock music was not as deep as people think. Because he wrote for Rolling Stone, people sometimes think he was a big music guy. Hunter was not up on current music and didn’t really care to be. He knew what he liked: some Bruce Springsteen; Van Morrison could really get him writing. He knew Leonard Cohen songs by heart. But it was Dylan first and foremost. Any of the Dylan live bootlegs he thought was the greatest thing of all time.”

The above note is telling, but far from complete. Thompson’s favourites spanned decades and genres. He loved folk and bluegrass, but also the various forms of rock music. He was discerning, too. In Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour’s Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, Brinkley also talks about Thompson refusing to sell quotes from his writing to bands that he didn’t like. In his later years musicians would approach him and what mattered was whether or not he liked their style – not how much they were willing to pay. That is telling for a man whose life was spent chasing paycheques and fighting expenses.

In 1970, Thompson took the time to compose a list of his favourite music of the 1960s (which he posed as “Raoul Duke’s” favourite music) in a letter to his editors at Rolling Stone. The list might be surprising for readers of his work. (It should also be noted that two of these albums weren’t even released during the 1960s!)

1)      Herbie Mann’s 1969 Memphis Underground

2)      Bob Dylan’s 1965 Bringing It All Back Home (especially noted as “Mr. Tambourine Man” in his letter)

3)      Dylan’s 1965 Highway 61 Revisited

4)      The Grateful Dead’s 1970 Workingman’s Dead

5)      The Rolling Stones’ 1969 Let it Bleed

6)      Buffalo Springfield’s 1967 Buffalo Springfield

7)      Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 Surrealistic Pillow

8)      Roland Kirk’s “various albums”

9)      Miles Davis’s 1959 Sketches of Spain

10)  Sandy Bull’s 1965 Inventions

With that list in mind, it should prove useful to explore a few names in depth – to look closely at the relationship between Hunter S. Thompson and the music he loved.

Bob Dylan

Dylan is a goddamn phenomenon, pure gold, and as mean as a snake.

That quote says it all, really. One could open nearly any Hunter S. Thompson book and find a glowing reference to Dylan. Dylan was there throughout much of Thompson’s life, singing about the changing times and documenting the turmoil of an unjust world. Thompson loved Dylan’s work, and viewed Dylan as one of his personal heroes. In interviews with Playboy and SPIN magazine he has even gone as far as to compare himself favourably with Dylan. He viewed both of them as artists against the world; leaders of the underground.

He told Harold Conrad that Dylan was one of the three most important men alive (alongside Muhammad Ali and Fidel Castro) and went on to say,

Bobby Dylan is the purest, most intelligent voice of our time. Nobody else has a body of work over twenty years as clear and intelligent. He always speaks for the time.

Let’s see. I just got the new Bob Dylan box set from the Rolling Thunder tour from 1975. It’s kind of a big package with a book and several CDs in there. It’s maybe the best rock and roll album I’ve ever heard.

 

In spite of the above list, one could argue pretty vigorously that Thompson’s favourite song of all time was “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Numerous sources testify to the fact that he would listen to this song before writing, and that it was a constant force throughout much of his life. He first heard it whilst living in San Francisco – surrounded by the musical forces of his day – and would play it over his custom-made 100 watt speakers from his home in the Rocky Mountains. When his most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was published, Thompson dedicated it “to Bob Dylan, for Mister Tambourine Man.” Then, after his death – as decided decades earlier – it was the song that played as his ashes were fired from a giant Gonzo Fist at Owl Farm.

The story of an artist chasing his muse, it spoke to Thompson like no other song.

As a struggling journalist Thompson constantly wrote to his friends and family, and frequently advised them to listen to Dylan. He kept promising to send Paul Semonin – a friend in Africa – some Bob Dylan records, but of course, he kept running into financial issues. It is clear, however, that he felt Dylan’s work was important enough to spread around. When he first met the Hell’s Angels, in a story that is well known to Gonzo fans, Thompson brought the biker gang back to his apartment, while his wife and child cowered in another room. The group partied all night, with The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan providing the soundtrack to this important meeting.

In 1968, Thompson wrote a long piece about hippy music in 1967, that appears at the very start of Fear and Loathing in America. In it, Thompson first describes Bob Dylan and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” He portrays Dylan as “the original hippy,” and his song as “both an epitaph and a swan-song for the… ‘hippy phenomenon.’”

Later in his career, Thompson found himself drawn to presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. This was largely due to Carter’s famous Law Day Address, from May 4 1974. For Thompson, justice meant the world. He was obsessed with right and wrong, and about the corruption and greed that he saw controlling his country. Carter’s speech meant a lot to him, and did so partly because Carter referred to Thompson’s favourite artist:

The other source of my understanding about what’s right and wrong in this society is from a friend of mine, a poet named Bob Dylan. After listening to his records about “The Ballad of Hattie Carol” and “Like a Rolling Stone” and “The Times, They Are a-Changing,” I’ve learned to appreciate the dynamism of change in a modern society.

 

Thompson recorded this speech and would play it back for friends, comparing it to General MacArthur’s “old soldiers never die” address.

This is perhaps a key to why Dylan meant so much to Thompson – a man whose work is characterised by an unrelenting attack on hypocrisy and injustice. Thompson saw in both Carter and Dylan an awareness of what was truly right. Dylan was a magnificent poet, but his work – like Thompson’s – sought to frame the guilty for their crimes, to expose the rank side of modern life and explore the possibility of change.

Jefferson Airplane

 

Although Jefferson Airplane only arrives at number six on Thompson’s list of his favourite albums of the sixties, a reading of his writing from and about that particular decade would suggest that he thought about the band, and in particular their singer, Grace Slick, a whole lot more than anyone except Bob Dylan.

His sixties-era writing is packed with references to his time in San Francisco, living in the Haight-Ashbury, and frequenting the Matrix. One night he witnessed the debut of a band called the Jefferson Airplane, and immediately began telling people about them. He seems to labour this point in his letters… He sent numerous notes to people to let them know that he “discovered” the Jefferson Airplane, and that he played some role in their rise to success.

He supposedly phoned Ralph Gleason and told him about the new band. Gleason became known for championing the Jefferson Airplane and helping them reach a greater audience.

The Matrix played a large part in Thompson’s life for a short period of time. Whilst writing Hell’s Angels, he used to ride through North Beach on his motorcycle, seemingly, just to watch Grace Slick in action. He said that she “made even the worst Matrix nights worth sitting through.”

After writing the book, whilst on his gruelling publicity tour, Surrealistic Pillow was released. Thompson demanded time out from his schedule, just to listen to the record. He could barely contain his excitement.

Upon hearing the first note I smiled. This was the triumph of the San Francisco people. We were all making it, riding a magical wave which we didn’t think would break.

His favourite Airplane song was, of course, “White Rabbit,” which he listened to for years after he left San Francisco. He claimed that its sound not only captured a vibe or a feeling, but a whole generation. It was the song of the sixties, in his eyes. When asked what he was trying to convey in his own work, Thompson once played Surrealistic Pillow for his publicist and said that was it. He said, “I could’ve written these lyrics myself. Today is my time.”

In his opus magnum, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Matrix appears in a brief flashback scene to what came before the fall of the sixties. It is viewed as an example of that wave that Thompson mentioned above, as well as in a more famous segment of his book. The song “White Rabbit” also appears in the novel. In one of the book’s more memorable moments, Dr. Gonzo demands that Raoul Duke (Thompson’s alter ego) play “White Rabbit” for him:

“Let it roll!” he screamed. “Just as high as the fucker can go! and when it comes to that fantastic bit where the rabbit bites its own head off, I want you to throw that fuckin radio into the tub with me.”

 

When Thompson left San Francisco and moved to Woody Creek, he found himself a home away from the madness. It was a place he could come to escape the world, and to give him some sense of security.

He needed his music, though. Away from the action, he had a custom-made 100watt amp that he used to blast inspiring music out over the mountains. These songs were fuel for his writing.

He once said,

I like to load up on mescaline and turn my amplifier up to 110 decibels for a taste of ‘White Rabbit’ while the sun comes up on the snow-peaks along the Continental Divide.

 

The Grateful Dead

Thompson’s love for the Grateful Dead is well known. He frequently makes reference to owning at least one Grateful Dead t-shirt, and the band’s name pops up throughout his body of work. Thompson even shared the same literary agent as the band.

As mentioned his list of favourite albums of the sixties, Thompson had a particular fondness for Workingman’s Dead. He said, in a letter found in his Fear and Loathing in America collection: “I think Workingman’s Dead is the heaviest thing since Highway 61 or ‘Mr. Tambourine Man.’”

His favourite song from this album – which it should be mentioned once again was released in 1970 and is thus not really a sixties album… – was “New Speedway Boogie.” This song was written in 1969 about the death of Meredith Hunter at Altamont, by a gang of Hell’s Angels who were hired as security. It was written by Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.

Thompson once said: “…at the moment my writing room is full of ‘New Speedway Boogie’ by the Grateful Dead. It says more than anything I’ve read in five years.”

Aside from the three “Hunter’s” involved, and the familiarity of the violence of the Hell’s Angels, Thompson was probably drawn to this song as an epitaph of sorts for the sixties. Thompson’s most famous work – and the most famous passage in that work – concerns the death of the idealism of the 1960s: “the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

After the advent of Gonzo Journalism, Thompson was taken by a burst of inspiration. He had – with Ralph Steadman – taken on the Kentucky Derby in his masterful short, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” He began tossing about the idea of taking Gonzo to all of America’s grand institutions. One such idea involved the America’s Cup. Thompson wrote numerous letters that announced his plan to commandeer a sort of Freak Press yacht and sail into the midst of the race with the Grateful Dead playing on deck.

Later, during George McGovern’s run for presidency in 1972 – which Thompson documented in his classic Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 – the author tried to bring the Grateful Dead on board the democratic nominee’s campaign. In the end, Warren Beatty successfully organised a fundraising concert that included the Dead, while Thompson merely suggested that McGovern go out in public while wearing “my Grateful Dead T-shirt.”

The Battle for Kerouac’s Estate

by David S. Wills

“Money is the root of all evil”

For I will

Write

In my will

“I regret that I was not able

To love money more.”

Jack Kerouac, 238th Chorus, Mexico City Blues

Jack Kerouac died on October 21st, 1969, of cirrhosis of the liver. By the time he died he had become a shell of the man he once was. He lived with his mother, drank himself beyond recognition, and was flat broke.

But as we all know, Kerouac’s fame only grew after his death, and in death came the respect he craved in life. His unpublished works were published, and his out of print books were brought back into print. People began caring about Kerouac again.

Many of the greatest writers, musicians and artists of the latter half of the twentieth century claim that Kerouac was a huge inspiration in their life. On the Road is now required reading in high schools and universities, and instead of Kerouac being loved only by literate fratboys, his work is considered by scholars and published by Penguin Classics. His influence upon Western society has been immeasurable.

In the past few years there has been a flurry of activity surrounding Kerouac’s old work. The fiftieth anniversary of the publication of On the Road came and brought the release of the original scroll version. And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks, co-written with William S. Burroughs, Wake Up: The Life of the Buddha, and The Sea is my Brother, have all been recently published.

So it is no surprise that Kerouac’s estate is worth a little more than the ninety-one dollars he owned when he died. After fifty years of fame and forty years of posthumous analysis, Kerouac’s estate is now valued at up to forty million dollars.

However, there has been somewhat of a furore over the ownership of that estate, and recently a long battle was ended with the shocking verdict of the American legal system, which deemed the will of Kerouac’s mother to have been a fake.

When Kerouac died, his will ignored many of the people who were expecting to be included. Instead, he left everything to his mother – a woman who had been an ogre-like figure throughout Kerouac’s life. When she died in 1973, Gabriel Kerouac allegedly passed control of Kerouac’s estate to his third wife, Stella Sampas.

Kerouac’s will deliberately overlooked Sampas, against whom Kerouac had allegedly planned upon entering divorce proceedings. In a letter posted to his nephew, Paul Blake Jnr, on October 20th, 1969 (the day before his death), Kerouac said,

I’ve turned over my entire estate to Memere, and if she dies before me, it is then turned to you, and if I die thereafter, it all goes to you…

I just wanted to leave my “estate” (which is what it really is) to someone directly connected to the last remaining drop of my direct blood line, which is, me, sister Carolyn, your mom, and not to leave a dingblasted fucking goddam thing to my wife’s one hundred Greek relatives. I also plan to divorce, or have her marriage to me, annulled. Just telling you the facts of how it is…

I want you to know that if you’re a crazy nut you can do anything you want with my property if I kick the bucket because we’re of the same blood.

Paul Blake Jnr has spent much of his life in poverty and consequently sold the famous letter from his uncle to art dealer Alan Horowitz, who sold it to the New York Public Library. At present it remains in the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature. The Sampas family, however, claims that the letter is a forgery.

When an attempt was made to make the note public, the Sampas family threatened a lawsuit, claiming that it was part of the Kerouac archive, but that it was also a forgery… One must wonder why they were so protective over something that they so strongly disputed.

In 1990, Stella Sampas died and left control of the estate to her family. Her brother, John Sampas, assumed control of the estate and became Kerouac’s literary executor. With the continuing fame of Kerouac and his work, the family profited by selling the scroll manuscript of On the Road for more than two million dollars to Jim Irsay, and even a raincoat, hat and suitcase to Johnny Depp for around forty thousand dollars.

Whilst the constant passing of ownership seems strange and confusing, the person who was most confused was Jan Kerouac, Jack Kerouac’s daughter by Joan Haverty. Having been denied any part in the control of her father’s estate, she called into question the validity of Gabriel Kerouac’s will. Her suspicions had been raised when she noticed, in 1994, that her grandmother had evidently spelled her name wrong on her own will.

Therefore, Jan Kerouac’s charge was that the signature on Gabriel Kerouac’s will had to have been forged, and that neither she nor her son had wanted control of the estate to rest outside the immediate family. The Sampas family’s ownership was thus illegal, in Jan Kerouac’s eyes.

In 1994, Jan Kerouac went to court to prove her argument. She cited the 1969 letter from Kerouac to his nephew that stated he wished his estate to be controlled by his blood family after his death. In the letter ee also discussed the idea of divorcing his wife, Stella, to whom Gabriel Kerouac’s will left the estate. Furthermore, the man who’d allegedly witnessed the signing of the will – Clifford Larkin – admitted to having witnessed no such thing. It was even suggested that Gabriel Kerouac was medically incapable of signing anything. After all, she was a frail old woman with few physical abilities, and the signature was strong and defined – that of someone with significant strength in their arm.

Jan Kerouac died in 1996, naming Kerouac biographer Gregory Nicosia (who wrote Memory Babe) as her literary executor, and her husband – John Lash – as overall executor. Lash, however, disagreed with her charge against the Sampas family and in 1999 Nicosia resigned from his post. The case was dismissed soon after.

Kerouac’s nephew, Paul Blake Jnr, has always kept fighting the same battle as Jan Kerouac, and recently he carried the litigation to court again, and won. It is argued, however, that Blake never particularly cared, and that he only took it this far on the advice of Nicosia, who brought him food when he was homeless, and dragged him along in his fight against the Sampas family.

Citing medical evidence and the testimony of a handwriting expert, Judge George W. Greer of Pinellas County, Florida, declared Gabriel Kerouac’s will a forgery. It seems, then, that the ownership of Kerouac’s estate by the Sampas family – aside from the one-third dowers entitlement to Stella Sampas – was illegal, and came to pass only through an act of criminal fraud.

Now, fourteen years after Jan Kerouac’s death, it seems she has succeeded in liberating Kerouac’s estate from its wrongful owners.

The question now, however, is what will happen if Paul Blake Jnr comes to control the estate. Jan Kerouac always said she wanted her father’s work given to a library, but it is argued that the Sampas family rejected numerous offers from libraries. No one even knows what exactly they owned, or the precise value of Kerouac’s estate. Fans of Kerouac tend to gather in opposition to John Sampas because of the sale of so many artefacts, but he argues that he has done Kerouac’s work a great service.

The problem now is that there is no evidence to suggest that any member of the Sampas family committed the act of fraud. They were not even involved in the 2009 court case. Kerouac’s estate passed from Jack to Memere to Stella and then to John Sampas. Mr. Sampas can therefore hardly be considered the crook he is portrayed by Nicosia and so many irate Kerouac fans.

Furthermore, it would be impossible to reclaim the sold items and return them to Blake – Kerouac’s only living blood relative. It would be unreasonable, too, to expect Sampas to repay Blake for the items he has already sold, considering he probably acted without knowledge of the forged will.

If Sampas is to hand over the remaining items to Blake, that might only account for a few pieces of writing, as Isaac Gewirtz, curator of the Berg Collection in New York, says “98% of what survives of his writing, not including correspondence, is here and are available for study.” Nicosia claims that thousands of pieces of Kerouac’s writing to collectors, although the Sampas claims that it was only fifty or sixty, and that they were sold to generate the required operation capital for the estate. These documents were copied and are presently available to view at the Berg.

Critics, however, posit that there are some major gaps in the collection. While Sampas sold around 2,000 items to the Berg Collection for an undisclosed sum in 2001, there are no complete drafts of The Dharma Bums or Vanity of Duluoz, absolutely nothing on Big Sur, and of course, the most famous piece – the original scroll manuscript of On the Road, one of the most famous documents in literary history – has itself been on the road since being sold to Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts and close friend of Hunter S. Thompson.

Jeffrey Weinberg – John Sampas’ consultant from 1991 to 1993 – claimed to have negotiated the sale of a hand-illuminated manuscript of Book of Dreams to a Rhode Island lawyer for more than $25,000, as well as many other letters and rarities.

However, the scroll of Big Sur belongs to Helen Suprenant, heir of Stella Sampas. Nicosia eludes to it having been sold to a random collector, but it seems to have been given to Suprenant as an inheritance. The scroll for The Dharma Bums was purchased by the Kerouac House in Orlando, Florida, in cooperation with a university. The Kerouac House, for those who don’t know, is a former residence of Kerouac that John Sampas helped Bob Kealing find and preserve turn into a literary monument.

As for the On the Road scroll, the fee it commanded and the fact that it is not readily available for study are offset by the fact that it tours the world, allowing people to view Kerouac’s work up close. Furthermore, the Berg Collection has a digitised version available for study, as well as a scanned replica.

Bob Rosenthal of the Allen Ginsberg Trust claims that it doesn’t matter whether or not the Sampas family sold pieces of the Kerouac archive, because many buyers apparently bought only with the intention of donating to the Berg Collection.

In terms of royalties, On the Road alone sells around 60,000 copies per year. Blake’s lawyers are looking into his claim to some of that money, although Blake claims he is only interested in looking after his uncle’s work. Experts say that Blake may be entitled to a third of the Kerouac estate, but no one really knows what comprises that collection, or what its value may be. Jan Kerouac was added to the list of copyright owners in 1985, when the copyright was up for renewal, after being told in 1982, at a Kerouac conference in Boulder, Colorado, by John Steinbeck’s son, that she needn’t have prostituted herself and lived in poverty for so long – she was entitled to a share of the royalties.

Only the Sampas family know for sure what remains of the Kerouac estate. Douglas Brinkley has been allowed to view the collection for what he planned on being the first official Kerouac biography, but when he failed to deliver the manuscript in time for the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road, the project appeared to be cancelled. Sampas himself claimed that there are no decent biographies of Kerouac in existence – something that Beatdom would vehemently deny. One only has to look at Paul Maher Jnr’s Kerouac: The Definitive Biography, Ann Charters’ Kerouac: A Biography or Barry Gifford’s Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac to see that Sampas’ claim is absurd. They may not be perfect, but perhaps Sampas is guilty of a little hyperbole.

One might well wonder what Kerouac’s contemporaries thought of the situation… After all, it seems unusual that for so long the battle raged between Jan Kerouac, Paul Blake Jnr and the Sampas family. Why didn’t Kerouac’s friends enter into the debate?

Well, the case was never exactly obvious. There was no way of knowing what Gabrielle Kerouac wanted, and so the words of Kerouac’s own friends are hardly worth much. Jan Kerouac was never a part of any circle of Beat Generation writers. She barely knew her father, and whilst Paul Blake Jnr and his uncle shared a close relationship, Blake was never as driven as Jan Kerouac in pursuit of the settlement of the estate.

Jan Kerouac’s godfather, Allen Ginsberg, waded briefly into the argument, examining the debate in the early ‘90s. He apparently studied the case for a few days before deciding the Jan Kerouac had no particularly strong claim to the estate. By all accounts, he was never particularly fond of his goddaughter, whom many consider coldly ignored by the otherwise loveable Ginsberg.

According to Aram Saroyan,

Nicosia had… been organizing a fund raiser to help Jan with her medical bills and told me Allen had called friends like Gary Snyder and Michael McClure and discouraged their participation and later about the Kerouac conference in Manhattan: With some of the participants having a claim to be there far less valid than Jan Kerouac’s, she along with Gerry Nicosia were thrown out of the conference by campus police when she attempted to get on the podium and speak about her father’s archives.

Gregory Corso, however, disagreed, and signed a petition to allow Jan Kerouac to speak at the conference in New York in 1995 that was held in honour of her father. But as Nicosia later claimed, “John Sampas was calling for the university police to arrest her, and Allen said, ‘Yes, take her out, she’s irrelevant.’ I stood up from the audience and started yelling at Allen: ‘Allen, you’ve got to let her speak! She’s Jack’s daughter!’ Sampas said, ‘Get rid of him, too!’”

William S. Burroughs seems to have sympathised somewhat with Jan Kerouac’s claim, and gave her several of his paintings to sell. One of those paintings was sold sight-unseen to a bidder for $3000. The money went to pay for her dialysis, which she required four times a day.

Brenda Knight, the author of the fantastic book Women of the Beat Generation, said that Kerouac’s friends “were worried about getting ‘blacklisted’ in an unofficial way.” Such was the power of the Sampas family that other writers were afraid of speaking against them. Gerald Nicosia speculated that perhaps they were afraid of aligning themselves with Jan Kerouac, who only met her father twice. He claimed that the Sampas family had spread rumours about her that had damaged her reputation, and that scared away members of the Beat Generation.

Nicosia himself claims to have been stopped in numerous endeavours by the apparently wicked Sampas clan. For one thing he claims that John Sampas forced his Kerouac biography out of print.

Michael Lally – a writer and friend of Nicosia –claims that a book he wrote that was in preproduction with Penguin books, was scuppered after he aligned himself against the Sampas family.

John Sampas, however, replied by saying: ““I’m a nobody. They make me out to be some powerful Mafia character. I’m just Jack Kerouac’s brother-in-law… Nicosia is a well known ‘nut case’ who has been stalking the Kerouac estate for years.”

Recently, a debate has been raging between two Kerouac scholars that may lend credit to Sampas’ remark about Nicosia’s integrity. Although it has no real consequence for the estate of Jack Kerouac, the argument throws a shadow of doubt over Nicosia, who supported Jan Kerouac and Paul Blake Jnr. It also casts a dark shadow over the past forty years of Kerouac studies.

At Litkicks (a fantastic website devoted to all things literary) Gerald Nicosia and Paul Maher Jnr took their personal and professional differences and exposed them to the world on the discussion board of a page titled “Kerouac Estate Battle Again”.

The author of the brief update regarding the news announcement was Levi Asher, a member of the well known Beat-L community in the 1990s. The Beat website was a target of Nicosia’s incessant spamming for his cause, and eventually the group disbanded after the flame war became too much for members to cope with. Nicosia would respond to arguments against him with ten page point-by-point retaliations. In the end, Nicosia went as far as to file a half a million dollar defamation suit against one of his detractors, Dianne de Rooy. The group founder, Bill Gargan even attempted to ban discussion of the Kerouac estate, but in the end Nicosia threatened him with legal action and forced the group to shut down.

It should be noted that John Sampas was also a member of the Beat-L group, although he never posted. He admits to giving encouragement to Nicosia’s detractors offline, but maintains that he liked to read only because he enjoyed seeing what people thought of Kerouac’s work.

Many comments on the Litkicks board were left in admiration of Nicosia, but several alluded to or charged him with certain morally dubious actions. Asher himself pointed out that Nicosia acted on behalf of Jan Kerouac when Asher published one of her short stories. Nicosia didn’t care that Asher had Kerouac’s permission to do so.

Attila Gyenis – editor of Dharma Beat – argued that Nicosia had misrepresented certain facts, including saying that Jan Kerouac received no money from the Sampas family, when she did in fact receive a yearly payment.

It didn’t take long for Nicosia to pass comment on the topic, and on the other members of the group. He denied the accusation that he misrepresented Jan Kerouac’s royalties, explaining that she was nonetheless lied to be the Sampas family, who tried to pay her nothing, and then less than she was entitled to, and finally paid her $50,000 per year only when her medical expenses exceeded that amount. According to Jeffrey Weinberg, Sampas “did absolutely nothing to help Jan Kerouac, which I think is despicable. It was legal, but it wasn’t moral.” Sampas denies this, claiming that he offered more money, but that the offer was pointedly rejected.

Nicosia then posited that John Sampas heavily censored Kerouac’s writings, citing Rod Anstee’s study that showed 300 deletions that were never marked. If true, that would be an astonishing blow to Sampas’ credibility.

He also repeated the claim that Sampas had distributed Kerouac’s work to collectors around the globe, and that the Berg Collection was woefully lacking the scrolls, on which Kerouac wrote between eight and ten of his novels, including On the Road, The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, Big Sur, Desolation Angels, Satori in Paris, Vanity of Duluoz, and Mexico City Blues.

One might wonder why exactly Nicosia levels his complaint at Sampas and not at, for just one example, the Ginsberg Trust, who auctioned his personal effects at Sotheby’s. Or the countless girlfriends and Kerouac associates who sold their personal Kerouac-related effects for personal gain, rather than donating them generously to the public interest. Indeed, according to Sampas, Jan Kerouac sold furniture for years by lying to people and claiming it was used by her father to write his novels.

Finally, Nicosia claims that the Sampas family forced the closure of his Memory Babe archive at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He says that it took him eleven years of legal action and that John Sampas kept pressuring the university to keep the archive shut.

After these arguments, Paul Maher Jnr jumped into the fray with some crude personal insults and some questioning of Nicosia’s work in comparison to his own efforts, which were apparently made with the blessing and supervision – although not too much supervision, he states – of John Sampas.

Maher also claims that the Berg Collection’s inventory refutes Nicosia’s claim that Sampas is selling off the Kerouac archive irresponsibly. He also claims that if Sampas were to auction off the estate piece by piece it would be perfectly legal, and that other authors have their work distributed across the world.

It seems as though Maher is missing the point a little, with Nicosia’s argument being that the scrolls (or rather, as he would call them, “the rolls”) are not available for study, and that it would be easier to have everything in one public collection. He does, however, make a reasonable argument by stating that it would be unreasonable to expect everything to be gathered in one place. He says that the Berg Collection is a phenomenal resource as it is.

After this, the two scholars get down to arguing matters surrounding their respective books. Nicosia asks why Maher used his work without crediting him – citing a witness from the University of Massachusetts. Maher argued back that Nicosia had profited from Xeroxing Kerouac’s unpublished writings – an act of obvious copyright infringement – and sold it to a university, therefore it was never Nicosia’s to begin with and that he need never have credited Nicosia. In fact, Maher claims, since the Sampas family was in control of the Kerouac estate, he could well have credited John Sampas.

Next, he offered the fact that Nicosia had sent threatening, paranoid e-mails to Maher’s publishers, and to Douglas Brinkley – whom the Kerouac estate had asked to write the official Kerouac biography – with insults about Maher.

Maher also claims that he doesn’t care at all about the court verdict and that it makes no difference to anything. However, in his personal blog (the arrogantly titled “You Don’t Know Jack”) he discusses the matter differently, calling it a “botched decision” and defending the Sampas family – with whom he, for posterity’s sake distanced himself from on Litkicks. He offers a portrayal of Stella as a literal saint, deserving of everything Kerouac owed, and eluding to a relationship with Gabrielle that would have resulted in her bequeathing Sampas everything in her will.

Maher also offered several documents – which have subsequently disappeared from the webhost – that show Jan Kerouac’s apparent desire to part company with Nicosia… Indeed, a little digging will show that prior to her death, she was trying desperately to get away from her literary executor. Nicosia was busy suing her relatives and guiding her literary career, and she wanted to get rid of him. But, just like when Kerouac tried to get rid of his wife, his daughter tried to ditch Nicosia and died before she could follow through. Nicosia, however, managed to convince Kerouac to sign a will that left him as her “literary representative”, in charge of all posthumous works. He has used this position to sue her beloved heirs, her brother David and her ex-husband John Nash. One of the documents she wanted to sign before her death was intended to repeal Nicosia’s position as her “literary representative”.

It is claimed that he travelled to Jan Kerouac’s apartment immediately after her death, took all of her possessions, then proceeded to destroy them, store them or hide them, depending upon their value and relation to his actions.

In life and death, Jan Kerouac’s name has been used by Nicosia to make money and to gain a reputation. He uses her sad life story to manipulate journalists and judges. Allegedly, he even managed to sell Jack Kerouac’s name to Levi-Strauss for $11,000, apparently because he copyrighted Kerouac’s name and image in the state of California.

And that’s about all I’m going to write on the subject of Gerald Nicosia and Paul Maher Jnr. Suffice it to say they continued their petty banter for some time after that. Their argument is fascinating as an example of the turbulent world of literary studies, which many would think dull and uninteresting. But people care. Sometimes they care enough to act like fools. Sometimes they care enough to lie, to insult others, and to bicker in front of bemused on lookers.

But the fact is that they care. Kerouac is still as relevant today as he ever was. His readers and scholars care so deeply about him, and think they understand him because of the intimate, personal nature of his writing, that they are willing to make grand leaps in faith to defend him and his legacy.

Whilst both Nicosia and Maher appear to be incredibly childish, I must say that I am lost in navigating this labyrinth of accusations, facts and lies. Their language is both grandiose and pathetic, with reason and logic largely lost in the midst of a flame war that is more commonly in the domain of the humble, non-professional nerd… We know for one thing that Gabrielle’s will was forged. It doesn’t take a genius to see that she was incapable of signing her name, and that control of the estate should never have gone to Stella Sampas. When it comes down to it, money ruined everything. It looks as though the Sampas family cheated Jan Kerouac out of money and profited unfairly from her father’s estate. But under John Sampas’ stewardship the name of Jack Kerouac rose from that of a famous author to that of a literary icon, studied the world over and given the respect he desired. One could try to predict what will happen next on a purely legal basis, but the only thing that is for sure is that Kerouac fans and scholars will be divided and reduced to the level of bickering children for years to come.

Sources

This isn’t an easy subject to research… For the basic facts pertaining to the court case, please consult Google News and look through old reports from reputable publications.

For more about Sampas, Nicosia and the debate that has long since raged you might want to prepare yourself. Nicosia’s confrontational information log-jam makes it hard to pick truth from fact. Likewise, Maher’s arrogant style of forcing facts at you makes it hard to take him seriously.

Be prepared to do some digging. Be a sensible reader, too. Don’t believe everything you read. Always remain sceptical. And for the love of god, don’t offend Gerald Nicosia… He might just take you to court.

Asher, Levi, ‘Not the Jack Kerouac Estate Battle Again…’ http://www.litkicks.com/KerouacEstateBattleAgain/

Maher Jnr, Paul, ‘Professors of Babylon’, http://kerouacquarterly.blogspot.com/2010/01/professors-of-babylon.html

Maughan, Stephen, ‘And the Beat Goes on’, http://www.finebooksmagazine.com/issue/201001/kerouac-1.phtml

Nicosia, Gerald, ‘Press Conference Speech, June 5 2007’, http://whollycommunion.blogspot.com/2007/09/gerald-nicosia-press-conference-speech.html

Nicosia, Gerald, ‘Report from the Kerouac Front Thirty Years After his Death’, http://www.geraldnicosia.com/html/geraldframeset2.html?kerouachtml/kerouacreport.html~content

Roadrat, ‘Fight over all things Kerouac’, http://www.roadratroberts1.bravepages.com/JACK%20KEROUAC%203.htm

Hunter S. Thompson & the Beats

Hunter S. Thompson was no Beatnik. For one thing, he was too late. By the time he was knocking out Gonzo journalism, Kerouac had died, the hippies had come to power, and Ginsberg had moved from Beat guru to counterculture superhero.

But Thompson frequently finds himself a place in the hearts of Beat readers, for he embodied a similar, although in some ways wildly different, ethos. Thompson was a rebel hero for a generation. His books shocked readers, appalled critics, and inspired millions. He didn’t seek to change the world in any grand way, but like the Beats, Thompson sought to point out its flaws, while working to create his own little place, a place where he could be free.

Thompson wasn’t a particularly great reader of Beat literature, either. He admired Kerouac’s discovery of Neal Cassady as a literary device, but disliked his style of writing. In Wenner & Seymour’s Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, Paul Semonin, a childhood friend of Thompson’s, claimed Thompson became interested in ‘beat culture’ in Puerto Rico, during the period Thompson later ficitonalised in The Rum Diary.

A letter to Jim Silberman (his editor at Random House) gives evidence of Thompson’s awareness of Beat literature, and some connection to it in his own work, as he talks about the Beats setting down a path that he could follow. It seems that he is suggesting that Kerouac and Ginsberg allowed him to write the way he did. In a 1965 letter to Carey McWilliams of The Nation, Thompson talks about his times around Columbia in ’58 to ’59, and says ‘I believe we were called “bums,” although “beatnik” quickly became popular.’ So at one stage Thompson did honestly consider himself a ‘beatnik’.

Yet, though one must look closely for these links, there are a few stories and connections that are less subtle. Thompson was a literary man, after all, and he had an opinion on his predecessors. He also got to meet many of them, albeit briefly, at various stages in his life.

Ginsberg

The most obvious link Thompson had with the Beat generation was his connection to Allen Ginsberg. Although the two were hardly kindred spirits, they had a respect for one another, and came to half-befriend one another over many years. In a letter to William J. Kennedy, in 1968, Thompson described Ginsberg as “One of the few honest people I’ve ever met, for good or ill.”

In his The Book Report interview, Thompson said:

Yeah. Allen was a particular friend, one of my heroes, really. I knew him almost as long as I’ve been writing… I was once arrested with Ginsberg. He was a big help to me. He was one of the few people who read unknown writer’s work. Maybe he was just hustling me. He liked to flirt, Allen. They called him a monster but he was only falling in love.

In Douglas Brinkley’s The Art of Journalism: An Interview with Hunter S. Thompson, Thompson tells of his first encounter with Ginsberg. They met in San Fransisco, through a mutual weed dealer. Over several months, Ginsberg helped Thompson to edit a book he was working on at the time, Hell’s Angels.

Later, during Ken Kesey’s legendary party for the unification of the Merry Pranksters and the Hell’s Angels, Thompson met Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. This is the night of Thompson’s ‘arrest’ with Ginsberg, as the two drove to buy booze for the party, and were stopped by the police. Apparently, all Ginsberg could say to the police was, “I’m a poet… I’m a poet!”

In a 1965 letter to Murray Fisher at Playboy, Thompson explains that:

My tail-light lenses were cracked, so they cited me, and would have taken me and Allen Ginsberg to jail, I think, if I hadn’t been sporting a tape recorder. Ginsberg was so enraged by the harassment that he might want to write an ode about it. If it interests you, I’ll ask him. Anyway, neither my woody gard nor Ginsberg’s foot-long beard made the right sort of impression…

In a 1966 letter to Ginsberg, Thompson asks permission to use the whole of the poem, ‘To the Angels’ in Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. Thompson explains to Ginsberg how much he loves the poem, and how much it means to his book, and then promises that although he has no money, to give Ginsberg a percentage of the royalties of the book.

However, according to Michael Soheim, in Gonzo, Thompson and Ginsberg seemed to have fallen out sometime around 1970. He tells the story of when Thompson was drinking in the famous Jerome Bar in Aspen, and deliberately avoided meeting Ginsberg. Apparently Thompson owed Ginsberg “some time together.”

Corey Seymour tells a story that perhaps elaborates upon this. In 1994, at a Beat Generation Conference in New York, Thompson told Seymour several stories about Ginsberg, and finished by saying that he needed to get in touch, as they hadn’t seen one another in a long time. Hours later, Seymour met Ginsberg and told him how to contact Thompson. Thompson then briefly explained to Seymour that Ginsberg had been too embarrassed to speak to him since a “lost weekend” in the late sixties. “It’s a little-known fact, Corey, that Ginsberg was a horrible drunkard.” Thompson and Ginsberg met later that day.

Johnny Depp tells the story of Ginsberg’s memorial service in Los Angeles. Thompson was unable to attend, but agreed to write something if Depp would read it at the service. However, Thompson delayed and cancelled, until a minute before Depp was about to leave, expecting to go onstage with nothing to say, and Thompson faxed him a eulogy that described Ginsberg as “a dangerous bull-fruit with the brain of an open sore and the conscience of a virus… crazy, queer, and small…” and that he was looking forward to meeting the Grim Reaper “because he knew he could get into his pants.”

Kerouac

To Susan Haselden, Thompson wrote:

Certainly I’ve read The Subterranean: all his crap for that matter. The man is an ass, a mystic boob with intellectual myopia. The Dharma thing was not quite as bad as The Subterraneans and they’re both withered appendages to On the Road – which isn’t even a novel in the first place.

Doug Brinkley, the editor of Thompsons letters and his literary executor, knew better than anyone what Thompson thought of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

Hunter never really liked Jack Kerouac’s On the Road – he thought the writing was kind of sloppy and romantic and oversentimental – but he told me he thought Kerouac was a genius for two things: discovering Neal Cassady, whom Hunter thought was flat-out amazing, and using the literary construct of ‘looking for the lost dad I never had.’ Neal was never properly raised by a father. He didn’t even know whether his dad was alive or dead, and the notion of a young son who never had a dad, looking for his biological father, appealed to Hunter a great deal.

In Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson, William McKeen says that Thompson admired Kerouac’s On the Road, but only in the political sense. He disliked Kerouac’s other books, and wasn’t enthusiastic about the Beats as a movement. In a 1962 letter to Paul Semonin, Thompson wrote ‘I have tonight begun reading a shitty, shitty book by Kerouac called Big Sur.’ But there are many references to his having read, and been influenced to some small degree, by On the Road. Granted, millions of people Thompson’s age at the time were influenced by the book, but nonetheless it seems to creep up when people talk about the young Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson took a cross-country roadtrip that was allegedly inspired by Kerouac, and arrived in San Francisco to visit the areas made famous by the Beats. Semonin eluded to an influence Kerouac held over Thompson whilst in Puerto Rico, as the two young men read Beat literature and came to adopt Beat ‘personas.’

As much as anything, it seems Thompson was drawn to the same kind of thing as Kerouac. Thompson was intrigued by the bright lights and temptations of the city, but he was also drawn to wilderness. Both loved to get away from people. At different times, they ended up in Big Sur, a rugged wilderness that drew many Beat and counterculture artists to its magnificent crashing shoreline. When living in Big Sur and struggling badly for money, he submitted writing to Sterling Lord, Kerouac’s agent, and was rejected. This prompted one of Thompson’s many nasty letters in reply.

If we look at the authors’ two most famous works, we can see similarities. Both claim their works as both truth and fiction; both wrote travelling buddy stories; both detailed outrageous fun and drug use and youthful exuberance. In Thompson and Kerouac, the words just fly off the page at speed, as natural as thought. Their most famous novels were popular and critical successes, particularly long after the fact.

Kerouac and Thompson sought critical success as serious writers, but lamented the fact that their fame largely extended to frat boys and wild youngsters with a rebellious streak. Both died feeling that they lacked recognition for their work and that their lives had spiraled into decline with the burden of fame.

In 1995, Thompson was on the panel at the Jack Kerouac Conference in New York

Burroughs

We know that Thompson read William Burroughs and respected him, but not much else is clear. He certainly wished to be uttered in the same breath as Burroughs, and not because they both wrote explicitly about drugs or that they loved guns.

In 1997, after Burroughs’ death, Thompson wrote an obituary that was essentially the story of when the two writers met and fired guns together. At this time, Burroughs was an old and frail man, but he managed to make a huge impression upon Thompson by firing a powerful handgun with some accuracy. Twice during the article, he manages to make a joke about Burroughs killing Joan Vollmer.

William had a fine taste for handguns, and later in life he became very good with them. I remember shooting with him one afternoon at his range on the outskirts of Lawerence. He had five or six well oiled old revolvers laid out on a wooden table, covered with a white linen cloth, and he used whichever one he was in the mood for at the moment. The S&W .45 was his favorite. “This is my finisher” he said lovingly and then he went into a crouch and then put five out of six shots through the chest of a human-silhouette target about 25 yards away.

Later, in Hey Rube, Thompson refers to Burroughs as his friend, and says that the author was ‘robbed and badly beaten, many years ago, by a gang of paramilitary dope addicts who had never even heard of him’ in New York.

Neal Cassady

Early in his life, Thompson was apparently fascinated by Neal Cassady. According to Dou Brinkley, he thought the star of On the Road ‘was flat-out amazing.’

In 1966, Thompson decided he wanted to write a story about Cassady and Ken Kesey after the Merry Pranksters were arrested for marijuana possession. Thompson had become friends with Allen Ginsberg and was riding with the Hell’s Angels when the meeting between the Pranksters and the Angels occurred. There was a famous party that was written about by both Thompson and Tom Wolfe, and Neal Cassady was there. Sandy Thompson recalled that the party was wild, with everyone just ‘being high and silly.’

Gregory Corso

The connection between Corso and Thompson is neither obvious, nor easy to find. I only added it here because it stuck strangely in my mind and I spent a great deal of time, calling in many favours, to get the right reference.

In Paul Perry’s Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson, there is a short story about when Thompson and Gene McGarr went to the Living Theatre on San Fransisco’s 14th Street to watch Kerouac read from Satori in Paris. Kerouac was naturally drunk and slurred through the performance. When Gregory Corso stepped on stage to read his poetry, Thompson and McGarr were enraged by his shortness and femininity, and proceeded to kick beer bottles, ending the performance and getting themselves thrown out.

Jack Kerouac & Hunter S. Thompson

by David S. Wills

Hunter never really liked Jack Kerouac’s On the Road — he thought the writing was kind of sloppy and romantic and oversentimental but he told me he thought Kerouac was a genius for two things: discovering Neal Cassady, whom Hunter thought was flat-out amazing, and using the literary construct of “looking for the lost dad I never had.” Neal was never properly raised by a father. He didn’t even know whether his dad was alive or dead, and the notion of a young son who never had a dad, looking for his biological father, appealed to Hunter a great deal. – Doug Brinkley in Jann Wenner’s Gonzo.

There are a great many similarities between the two legendary outlaw writers. For a start, both approached writing with firm literary influences, yet managed to create entirely unique styles of their own, almost unrecognisable from those authors they first wished to emulate. Hunter typed out whole novels by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and ended up tearing pages from his notebooks and submitting them as professional journalism to internationally renowned publications. Jack was driven by the desire to be a proper novelist with proper respect and to be the darling of the literary world, yet wrote the novel that sent millions on the road, inspired drink and drug culture for decades to come, and died with the respect only of those whose respect he didn’t want.

They both wrote wild tales of excess and burned out American Dreams, celebrating that which the establishment would condemn as the dark side of life, and not giving a fuck. Well, not quite. Hunter often said he felt forced to live up to the image of himself that he’d created in his books, which blended reality and fiction so chaotically that it’s hard to tell what happened and what didn’t. Nonetheless, most of his fans tended to be young and reckless and seeing nothing more in their idol than a crazed dope fiend. Jack, too, was plagued by the brutal life wrought by celebrity. He had written most of his novels by the time he had published On the Road, and simply sat and slipped slowly towards death as he tried drunkenly to cope with the torment of unwanted attention. His books were largely condemned by the critics until after his death from alcoholism at the age of forty-seven.

In style, we can see sharp differences between them. Jack was of the Beat philosophy that avoided political solutions, and instead focussed on carving out one’s own little space in the world. Consequently, Jack celebrated in grand romantic sentiment the things in life he thought were worth living for. Hunter, on the other hand, was an angry and energetic force of nature, who tried to fight anything he didn’t like. If he saw a system of power, he’d destroy it. His writing was characterised by vitriol, taking whatever it was that he loathed and saying everything he could think of to persuade the reader of his point of view. In the end, both writers embraced a spirit and a feeling and stated it better than any of their contemporaries, but lacked any hard truth or adherence to a traditional literary style.

Hunter thought of his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as essentially a road novel, comparing it to On the Road. He felt that his book was like Kerouac’s in politics: In the pessimistic certainty of the death of the American Dream. Both books has protagonists against the prevailing ideology of their times, immersed in destructive lifestyles and ruing an oppressive world.