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Gabba Gabba Beat…Richie Ramone Talks to Beatdom!

Richie Ramone is Back: An Interview
with Michael Hendrick

(from Beatdom #11 – available on Amazon and Kindle)

In rock and roll there is a rarefied pantheon populated by a select number of bands who make us feel, who speak to Everyman, who splay the grizzled guts of the emotional, romantic, workaday routines of our lives into powerful melodies which touch and motivate us. Many bands exist in the industry of pop music but only a dozen or so speak to us directly, powerfully. These storytellers find themselves on a pedestal because they connect to our realities at the most basic, primordial level. The Coasters, the Crickets, the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and, of course, the Ramones come to mind first. There have been individuals, like Chuck Berry, Dion, Bob Dylan, and Tom Waits who have done this, too. Bands like the aforementioned not only speak to us all but are known in the most seemingly remote parts of the world. Speaking for us all leads to deification and hero status. They influence younger musicians and, in so doing, influence our future, and light new recollections on the ends of the dying embers of old memories.

The Ramones may be the last of these supergroups to have emerged. Certainly, since the punk invasion that started in the 1970s Lower East Side of New York, many new groups have popped up, but few speak as well to our inner child. There have been more cerebral, more political, more ‘artsy’ bands, like REM, Nirvana, and the Patti Smith Group, to cite just a few. There are plenty of new faces in the melee of the indie music explosion, but not many of these are as recognizable or whose name alone can start a panic in countries where English is rarely spoken.

The Ramones had (and still have) this power. It is hard to imagine a world without the Ramones; just as difficult to imagine is the hard truth that their principal founders and faces – Joey and Dee Dee and Johnny – are dead and gone. Oddly, the drummers still survive. The pumping lifeblood of the trademark Ramones sound, part hard rock, part fifties tribute, part head-banging fun, drums drove the action. Other powerful groups of the era, like the Clash, the Dictators, the Damned – while all spurred to action by The Ramones – could not keep up the pace.

In a time when might was right and fast was class, the Ramones were hardest and fastest of them all. In the documentary film on the Ramones, “End of the Century,” the late Joe Strummer, of the all-powerful Clash, speaks of not being able to keep up with the boys from New York. Of all the Ramones drummers, Richard Reinhardt, aka Richie Ramone, was the fastest. This makes Richie Ramone the fastest drummer of all the original punk bands, which is no mean feat.

The Ramones were punks, not Beats. Their lyrics and lifestyles, however, were rife with Beat sensibilities and situations; the never-ending road, the need to express emotion through art and the Word, the ability to influence others to get up and move!
Recently, Beatdom caught up with Richie. As he came out of rock retirement and launched his new version of the Ramones 2012 Invasion, he has been very busy and we are happy to have him on the pages you hold.

Joey was your closest mate in the Ramones. He seemed to like other punk musicians who were on the intellectual side. A lot of them hung out with the Beat writers who lived on the Lower East Side, back then. Did you ever associate or see much of the Beat writers?

No, I never got to meet them or nothing. I don’t know that much about it. I’m not the biggest reader on the planet. I just never get around to it.

Why were you closest to Joey?
He was very supportive. Nobody else really wrote any songs before me, besides them…no other drummers really did anything like what Tommy co-wrote with the band. I was writing my own material but John didn’t like me to have more than one song because it picked his pocket. He would make less, the more songs I had, so that got frustrating…but Joey was always an encouragement to sing more. I was singing a lot of stuff live with him. It was really powerful, like in 1985-87. He was fully supportive of me. He didn’t feel like, “Oh, no, don’t take attention from me,” and that sort of thing. He even encouraged me to sing. That’s why I sing one of the songs on one of the records. He told me to sing it. I said, “What are you gonna do?” He said, “Don’t worry about it. Just sing it.” The song was mine…“Can’t Say Anything Nice.” I sang that song for the Ramones album.

“Can’t Say Anything Nice” is one of six songs written by Richie and released by the Ramones. The others are “Humankind,” “I Know Better Now,” “I’m Not Jesus,” “Smash You” and the ever-popular, oft-covered “Somebody Put Something In My Drink” – which got stuck in the interviewers head, incidentally, for five days after playing it on a car stereo.

When we were home, as far as Joey, he couldn’t really leave the house much without being mobbed but we would go places like bowling and do ‘normal’ stuff that he could never do on his own. We would do all that.

“End of the Century” shows you trekking all over the place at odd hours. On the road with the Ramones did not look like fun.

Traveling, when we went to Europe and stuff, we’d go for a month but other than that we’d do a lot of like… leave New York, go to Massachusetts, play, and then drive home. We would drive as far as Vermont, drive there whatever it takes, six or seven hours, do the show and then drive home and be back at six or seven in the morning. We did a lot of that with the group, as opposed to just sleeping there at night. You’d kind of sleep on the way home. You drive seven hours. Leave at noon. Get up there. Play…then just jump right back in. It’s about fourteen or fifteen hours on the road in one day. We would do that in winter with ice on the road and it was scary for the band. We always worried that we were gonna crash.

In “End of the Century,” it seemed a lot scarier in South America, where there is not much ice. We see that you are going back there this year.

In Brazil, the fans are crazy…a really good place to play.

You have been working the Gobshites, a Boston band, who mix rock and roll with traditional Celtic music. How has that worked out?

I never played live with them but we went to Ireland, to Dublin, and recorded the record there. The week we spent there was great. They are mixing and doing it up and that should be out in a few months or something like that. I played all the tracks. I’ll be doing some shows with them. I’m not a permanent band member but I will be doing some shows.

You also did some work with the Ramonas (an all-female Ramones tribute band from the UK).

I did one show with them. I went all the way to Ireland and London is only an hour’s flight away. I just said, “Ah, I’m gonna go do a show in London and I hooked up with them and did a show with them there so I could see fans in London. I hadn’t been in London for twenty years, so I did the recording, then went to London to do a show and flew home from there. I may do something else with them. They were a lot of fun and I may do a festival or two with them…you know, summer festivals in New York.

That sounds like fun! Tell us about the record you did with the Gobshites.

It’s great. It’s a mixed bag but there won’t be any electric guitar…there’s a lot of acoustic guitar, there is accordion, bass, fiddles, banjo…we actually cover “Somebody Put Something in My Drink”…a really cool version of that with lots of chanting vocals. I can’t wait to hear the final take on that. It is similar to the original, the same type of beat. They never really officially released that so I said, “Let’s cut this again,” and it came out really good. The rough tracks were really cool.

Another of the many projects you have going is an appearance on the second posthumous Joey Ramone solo album, “Ya Know?” (It is slated for release in May 2012.)
They found tracks of Joey’s…new stuff, so they just took the vocals and snipped the vocals out of it, really. Everything else was redone. It was done on four-track cassette machine and they processed the vocals and we put all our bits around it. I think there are fifteen or sixteen songs. I played on five of them. Bun E. Carlos from Cheap Trick played drums on two or three and some other people played on others.

In the Ramones, playing that kind of beat, with the third-sixteenth hi-hats [polyrhythmic hi-hat ostinato], it’s not half-time beat.

Yeah, no one had a right hand like I did on the hi-hat. People would just stop and stare at the hi-hats, how I could make that hand go so fast…haha…

So what do you think about being the fastest drummer of the original punk bands? Many say that the churn of drummers from the seventies into the eighties slowed the group down and you brought back the hard edge.

At that time [before joining the Ramones] I was in a band named 384. The scene was changing to groups like the Cro-Mags and speed-metal came out. All the new punks used speed metal and that’s why we started speeding things up more and more. That’s how our stuff got really fast. We just took our songs and played them faster.

The fans sure dug it but we understand the promoters didn’t?

The promoters would start to get upset because we would be short of an hour. That is how fast we were, we did 33 songs in less than an hour…haha…

What do you enjoy most, these days?

There are a lot of things going on with the Gobshites. We are doing an EP with a video and I am starting work on my own record. I rerecorded some of my songs and also some of my new material, my music.

What is it like?

I don’t stray too far away from what I do. Some of my stuff is a little but harder, a little more metal, a little more guitar soloing than the normal thing. My stuff is mainly a little darker than the Ramones. Not that fifties sound, as you can tell from the songs I wrote. There are a lot of things I will be doing this year. I will be on tour. I’ll be going to Australia…eventually. There is nothing set in stone but I was not around the scene for a while so that is what the whole ‘2012 Invasion’ is about. (Since taping this interview, gigs in South America have been booked, as well as appearances at a Johnny Thunders tribute concert and a benefit show to raise money for children with cancer.)

Before you decided to ‘invade’ and were out of the rock scene, what had you been doing?

I was doing orchestra stuff…I did “Suite for Drums and Orchestra” based on the theme from “West Side Story” with the Pasadena Pops. I orchestrated for the symphony…ten or eleven songs and made them an eighteen minute medley. It is all-around drumming and it is drum filled. It really glorified the ‘Drum God Era.’ It is a whole other side of drumming that people got to see and that they didn’t know I could do.

How was it received by the orchestra crowd?

Standing ovations! They jumped up…it was really crazy. You’re playing not so much to the punk crowd but playing to an older audience…and they loved it! It brought back the Buddy Rich/ Gene Krupa era. In the fifties, there were drum gods; in the eighties there were guitar gods. Now, all of that is gone. When they wheeled the kit on the riser wheels at the end of the show, people gasped. The funny thing about orchestra is that it is taboo to clap or anything until the piece is over. I remember the first time I did it…I wondered what was going on. They said they had never seen a response like that for the eight years that they were doing it. The people just jumped up and it was crazy.

I played a lot of outdoor events. I didn’t do many shows, only a handful of shows and the economy hit and you know orchestras are generally funded by donations so it slowed down. I am going to do it again. I am doing the rock and roll for now – but it would be a wonderful thing to do until I croak. You know what I’m saying? I really like it. It is really exciting! It’s you and your drums and they hand out the music and do one rehearsal and you go. You don’t have to deal with anything and you have ninety instruments behind you that you are driving and it is amazing. I really enjoyed that but I owe a lot to my fans right now and they are killing me to get back out on the road with my stuff. While I have the time I’m gonna do that first.

The main reason you gave for leaving the Ramones was that Johnny was being cheap and not giving a fair share of the tee shirt concession.

I have my own tee shirt line now. It has my name, not the Ramones. It says Richie Ramone.

We understand you are active in your community as an animal rights activist.

My dog passed away ten days ago. It was hard. I had to put him down. He had cancer but I still have two other min-pins, miniature pinschers. Every one was a rescue. One got stepped on so he has a limp. The other got hit by a car. The neck is a little tweaked. All rescues. That’s all I do. I spoke at City Hall (in Los Angeles) about what they do here, though…I like to get the dogs as puppies, when they are five weeks old, especially when you are dealing with mixes of pit bulls. Everything in LA has a mix of a pit bull in it. I don’t want them to be in someone else’s home for a year and they kick it around and the dog’s all fucked up, you know? Everybody…they take their kids and they go, “Let’s get a puppy!” They don’t understand the work involved…how to train the puppy. It starts shitting and pissing all over the house and they kick it and yell at it and then bring it back. The dog is psychotic by then. It’s a shame.

What did you speak about at City Hall?

Out here, what they have is…I used to go a place and you see the picture of the dog, ‘available this day.’ So I would go there. I remember once or twice, I would go there at six in the morning and they open at eight and I’m the first in line but it’s not ‘first come, first served.’ What happens is, if somebody else wants the same puppy, it goes to an auction and that’s the thing I was fighting. It’s really horrible.

So you have three or four families, people with children, and they start auctioning at $50, $60, $80…I have seen these mutts go for $300. The average family can’t pay that and the children go out crying, “Mommy, why can’t we get that dog?” It’s heartbreaking. I’m trying to get them to change this auction thing. Whoever has the most money in their pocket gets the dog. It’s bullshit. If you see a dog that’s available and you want it, pitch a tent, sit there all night and be the first one in line. Online it always said they keep the puppies for a week and it is available that day. Not many cities do this. It is usually like, “I’m the first one here. That’s the puppy I want.” You get it. It costs maybe fifty or sixty bucks for the shots. Auctioning them is heartbreaking. You see the families and they can only go to $100-150 and that’s it. It’s stupid. They go to auction in LA because they make more money. Half of these people that want the puppy won’t keep it because they have no idea of the work involved.

When I train my puppies, I am up every two hours through the night. It takes about a month with the box next to the bed. Then when you hear them walking, you get up and take them outside. It’s a lot of work for a few weeks. People don’t do that. They don’t know how to train a dog. They think it’s a toy. I don’t have children. That’s why I love dogs…because it IS a responsibility. You have to be there to take care of them. You have to feed them and all that stuff. Walk them and things like that. Without things like that in my life, I’d be totally lost…haha…The heartbreak is that they don’t last forever.

We hear you can have a cat cloned for $5000. Maybe they do it with dogs, too.

I think they can…I wouldn’t want that. Every time a dog goes, I always get another one but it always has something of the dog that passed in it…like the dog that passed before this never really ate. It wasn’t a good eater. Then I got this dog, who became the most fabulous eater and is still the same kind of dog…there’s always something in there. No, I would never clone. There are too many dogs in the shelter to begin with.

Elsewhere in this issue, Hank Williams III talks about how pit bulls have been demonized.

If you don’t own a house, you can’t even have a pit bull in LA. They won’t let you put it in an apartment. They won’t allow that breed in apartments. It really got a bad rap.

What shall we expect from you next, musically, that is?

There will be a lot on the future, the whole ‘Invasion’ is that you are gonna see a lot more of me on different records, and putting my album out…I just did something in the studio and am going to do a video with it. I’m just re-introducing myself to the world again. Then I’m gonna follow it up with a whole bunch of records because I am in this little bubble of being a Ramone and I don’t stray far from my rock and roll roots.

I write all kinds of different songs but I only perform the ones I like that are hard and stuff. I am looking to collaborate with other people and submit my other songs, which are really not for me. As an artist, I don’t only write one type of song. It could be a ballad. It could be a keyboard song…it could be for Alicia Keyes or whatever, so there is going to be more of that.

Are you working with anyone beside the Gobshites and Ramonas?
There’s a band out of Canada called the Rock and Roll Rats. I just did five songs on their EP. That should be out soon. It’s so cool. I never met them. They send me the files, then I record on them in my studio and I send them back. It gets them more attention. They can have Richie Ramone on their album and I can do it in my pajamas and sneakers…haha…It’s a wonderful, tool, Facebook…I’ve hooked up with a lot of people and gotten a lot of work from it. I make new friends every day. People can find me, you know?

You can find out more about Richie Ramone, the 2012 Invasion, and even buy one of his tee shirts at www.richieramone.com. See him when he gets to your town, it is always fun to see a legend at work!

Why Bob Dylan Was Wrong About Lenny Bruce

“You are talking about a writer singing something that might rhyme,” says Kitty, “Bob Dylan has written wonderful songs but I sincerely don’t believe that my father didn’t want to live anymore.”

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What Do The Rolling Stones Have In Common With Mr. Burroughs?

Aside from the love of guns, hard drugs, being cultural phenomenons and part-time movie stars, what did William S. Burroughs share with the Rolling Stones?

Recently released on DVD,  Stones In Exile is a documentary premiered by the BBC in May.  Amid the great footage of the boys (?) jamming and living at Keith Richards’ house in France, we get a gliimpse of the song-writing process that put Jagger/Richards on the pop map.

One pleasant surprise, among many, is the creation of the song, Casino Boogie.

Casino Boogie was written in the famous ‘cut up’ style created by Williams Burroughs and Brion Gysin. Words and phrases and cut from sentences and thrown into a hat. Then the cut up pieces of language are magically arranged by the forces that be and are divined by the artist, who randomly picks out the cut up pieces and puts them together into some semblance of order.  Burroughs based novels on the concept, as is explained in David S. Wills’ essay on Burroughs and Scientology in the soon-to-be-released Beatdom Number 10, The Religion Issue.

Here is what Mick and Keith did with their cut ups…just click on the link below.

Casino Boogie

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.”

Come Join Uncle Sam’s Band

by James D. Irwin

It’s about ten past four on a Sunday afternoon. I feel like I’ve been beaten up; there is pain… bruises… cuts… none of them I can explain with any certainty. I think I have whiplash. I feel dead and decaying on the inside and all I’ve eaten is an apples, washed down with a few cups of coffee— the diet Christian Bale undertook for his role in The Machinist.

I could be doing this in better, more appropriate conditions. At least the sun is shining through the narrow window of my bare, white-walled room that’s covered in dirty laundry— all my clothes— and patches of mould slowly fading back from where it rained a few nights ago. And so I’m in a hovel of a room feeling like death could come at any moment, and would be quite welcome. But today is the deadline. So I better turn my thoughts to the subject I promised I’d write something on…

More build up first: a few months ago I got into a discussion with a few American friends about the notion of the ‘Great American Rock Band.’ We kind of concluded that there was no such thing. No band could compare to the cultural importance and impact of The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. America has produced a great many rock bands, but none have the same cache… the same monolithic significance as the British bands that became big in the Sixties and peaked in the mid-Seventies. We talked about how Creedence Clearwater Revival were called ‘The American Beatles,’ but their success doesn’t translate. KISS has the success, but theirs is a success comparable to McDonald’s— the vast sales of products aren’t a signifier of quality.

But then perhaps comparing American groups to British groups doesn’t stand up. Maybe our cultures are just too different. It’s certainly true when it comes to literature. We have different standards… expectations. For example the ‘Great American Novel’ exists, and doesn’t need to compare itself to the British literary canon; it is instead focused more on the truest expression of America. This would draw The Ramones into the mix, but then they’d have to be thrown out. For as much as they embody a lot of the ‘American Spirit’ their music, whilst great, is tied forever to the narrow confines of punk culture, whether it should be or not.

I think perhaps the best we could do is compare the ‘Great American Novel’ to the ‘Great American Band.’ I have a friend who refuses to read American literature, something which I find incredibly narrow minded and downright stupid. There is a perception among some, like my friend, that because ours is the older country, with longer literary tradition ours is just better. And that’s what I was doing with bands earlier on. Maybe CCR are on par with The Beatles.

American literature is slightly different to British literature. Even now ours tends to be in the stuffy, uptight mould of Dickens and the Victorians. It’s modernised, of course, but our literary tradition remains very traditional. That goes for our journalism too. We never had ‘New Journalism’ or ‘Gonzo Journalism’… some of the best writing in the Twentieth Century… Meanwhile I’m getting marked down on my Non-Fictions assignments for not writing ‘properly.’ My tutor writes for The London Times.

I referenced Hunter S. Thompson in an accompanying essay, which didn’t go down well. British writers stuck in the notion of prestigious papers don’t like writers like Thompson. Only poetry professors have any time for Kerouac and the Beats; meanwhile guys like Norman Mailer and George Plimpton don’t get a mention. Neither does Tom Wolfe. So you transformed journalism in the 1960s? Well, not in Britain you didn’t. We like our journalism dry and fact based, keep your opinions to yourself…

Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 introduced me to the band that would eventually become my All Time Favourite Band: the Grateful Dead. They are also the band I think come closest to being ‘The Great American Band’, at least by my measure of comparing them to the ‘Great American Novel.’ Of course for this to stand up I should lay my cards on the table and state what I consider to be the ‘Great American Novel.’ We can safely assume it’s not Spider-Man #1, otherwise I’d still be talking about KISS.

There are strong arguments for a couple of books. It’s not The Catcher in the Rye though— miserable, whiny and a contributing factor to the murder of John Lennon. Huckleberry Finn is basically the sequel to a children’s book— a very good book, but not the greatest. Not the Muhammad Ali of American literature. The Great Gatsby lacks scope and scale… For me it’s not just a case of the Great American Novel, but the greatest novel I have ever read: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.

Why? Because it has everything; it is epic in the scale of location, of human emotion… it has humour, sadness, is a timeless slice of history and, perhaps most importantly, has the Joad family chasing the same mythical American Dream Thompson failed to find in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

It’s not my favourite Steinbeck novel either. That would be Cannery Row, in which Steinbeck revisited the Depression with a more romantic, nostalgic eye. One band wrote a song inspired by a rundown building that features in Cannery Row. Unless you’re mentally retarded, or just plain stupid, you can probably guess it was the Grateful Dead— the song being ‘Brokedown Palace’ from 1970’s American Beauty.

Both Steinbeck and the Dead are uniquely American. Britain doesn’t have any writers or bands than can really compare in terms of cultural relevance and significance. And wasn’t that what we were looking for earlier? Both the writer and the band have always been more popular in their own country than they have been in Britain. However, both have also been outsiders in their own time and place too.

The Grapes of Wrath was banned for a long time in a lot of schools and libraries on publication. Similarly the Dead were always an underground, counter-culture band that only the liberals dug and enjoyed. And it’s not like the Dead have always been cool. Through the mid-70s and most of the ‘80s they weren’t counter-culture, but simply obscure and faded. They had a resurgence though, and in 1987 finally scored a number one with ‘Touch of Grey.’

It took a long time, but both Grapes and the Dead finally got the recognition they deserved. Steinbeck’s novel is now widely regarded as one of the best ever, whilst the band from San Francisco finally got a bit of mainstream attention and recognition.

Maybe it’s a bit of a flimsy comparison… It’s not, I don’t think, meant as direct as a comparison as perhaps I’ve been attempting. I don’t know, but as far as I’m concerned the Grateful Dead are as close to a ‘Great American Band’ as there is.

They played at the President’s inaugural ball: Great American Band or not, they are Uncles Sam’s Band…

Hunter S. Thompson’s Ten Best Albums of the 1960s

A list of Hunter S. Thompson’s favourite music

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