I find that by putting things in writing I can understand them and see them a little more objectively … For words are merely tools and if you use the right ones you can actually put even your life in order, if you don’t lie to yourself and use the wrong words.
– Hunter S. Thompson from a letter to Larry Callen, July, 14, 1958
The godfather of this space wrote that when he was 21. It took me some time to find it this week from the volumes of his collected letters compiled by my friend and filmmaker Wayne Ewing at the turn of the century. It is the best way that I can describe how I’ll cobble together these thousand-or-so words to fill out this column I’ve been sending to press for two decades this week. There is a great deal of wisdom the Doctor imparts in those pages, some of them I was lucky enough to discuss with him on several occasions when he was alive. Last time I saw him was in 2004 at the Union Square Barnes & Noble where I was honored to give him a copy of my second book, Fear No Art, the first collection from words written right here in this space. When I first met him in the early ‘90s I had yet to be a published author. I was still a freelance geek wrestling with a baseball manuscript that I would later abandon to finish my first book. All the time, somewhere in the ether, was the Aquarian Weekly and what would become this monstrosity we call Reality Check.
To borrow an overused phrase; it was 20 years ago today…I was in New York City to see Sinead O’Connor (whom I later interviewed for a cover story) at the Beacon Theatre, a show I would review for this paper and others. I ducked into the Roosevelt Hotel, where my dearest and oldest friend Master Chris Barrera was toiling in an audio/visual mélange, and faxed (that’s right, kids) a 350-word piece about a riot at a vegetarian rally in Eastern Connecticut. For all intents and purposes it was a “first date” for me and my soon-to-be wife of 18 years and my first stream of words of this run. It was, to say the least, a significant moment on all fronts.
I can’t recall what the segment was called, but it was three commentators taking on similar subjects from different angles. This lasted a few months, maybe close to a year, but at some point, as is my wont, I was the last one hanging around, and this paper’s managing editor at the time, a burly and gregarious biker-scribe named Dan Davis, asked me to just keep writing.
Davis had nabbed me (and by nabbed I mean a phone call that I taped at the time in which he literally threatened me) during my writing of the aforementioned first book, which would become Deep Tank Jersey. That thing, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, provided me the most writing gigs I had ever been offered. I was 32 and I was determined to take on too many stories and go to too many queer places for the bylines. Some of that period ended up in my only novel, completed in 2002 and published 11 years later. It will no doubt stand as my manifesto on the damage inflicted by sending words for a living.
Davis and I concocted some weird shit for many magazines, including the now-defunct East Coast Rocker, where I wrote regular sports and social commentary for two years. Then all of a sudden, Chris Uhl, my second managing editor, came on board and demanded words. Uhl was an ornery but fair bastard with an incredible penchant to locate enemies without much evidence. I found that an enviable trait and immediately took his orders as gospel. It was Uhl who told me not to worry about petty things like censorship or decorum or what Keith Richards once described to a presiding Sussex judge as “petty morals” and to write “whatever the hell you like”, and I took that straight to the core of my terrible being and began to do so.
Uhl was the one who named this space Reality Check sometime in 1998, the year I first “covered” the World Series, which I would do for this space and others for the next four years. I covered the controversial 2000 presidential election and began to build on my “connections” and get access to some of the most bizarre places in politics and sports and entertainment and did not apologize for any of it. There were many warriors I befriended and many deviants to squelch. I once shared these pages with a proud maniac named Bill Roberts, who toiled at this thing for a few years before he had to quit due to dangerous circumstances that I knew all too well. The cover story after 9/11 may have been our proudest moment. It hangs framed in the Reality Check News & Information Desk headquarters at the Clemens Estate. It was high combative times and no one got rich, but there were words, so many words.
Somewhere along the line I worked my way through a decade of this nonsense and built an incredible mailing list, abused many interns and assistants, and met some incredible artists and politicians and actors and musicians and you name it. The first time I did something like this on the anniversary of my 10th year, we had many of these people weigh in; Ani Difranco, John Cusack, Ralph Nader (still my favorite interview among many), Pat Buchanan, Eric Hutchinson, Dan Bern and more. It was kind of gratuitous, but how could you blame me? Ten years? That seemed insane then; 20 years is pure madness.
I have been writing under this banner longer than anything I have ever done. Period. Longer than my marriage, longer than my entire schooling, way longer than I have ever lived in one place – Reality Check has outlived Yankee Stadium and many of my favorite places in NYC that have long been turned into banks or Starbucks. I now have a daughter, as many of the beloved people in my life have added to this human experiment. I went from a transient to domesticated (started at the Putnam Bunker in New York through Mount Vernon up in ski country, New Jersey, to my current digs in the mountains) during this run. I have seen myself speed closer to death and somehow understand why it needs to come.
Manning this ship has given me life-long brethren in my ensuing managing editors who carried on Uhl’s edict to “Let Campion go!” and for that pristinely glorious gift I thank the dogged J.J. Koczan, the mercurial, Patrick Slevin, and that man for whom I now stand at the parapets and aim high, Giorgio Mustica, the only one of these lunatics I have yet to meet and bend an elbow and close a musty tavern to spit on the universe and thank whatever is up there for the time it takes to crank one of these fuckers out for posterity.
I was able to accomplish here for 20 years a damnable edict; millions upon millions of words to pursue what I had always dreamed of long before I wanted to be a writer – when my mom took me to get my first library card – find a place where you can get it down and get it out and have people read it – unfiltered, undeterred, ample and willing. I am reminded of Earnest Hemmingway’s wonderful mantra for the writer with a deadline, “Do not worry. You have written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
Here is mine: It is a tribute to the very point of this existence to find those truths for you, the reader; the one who makes the writer whole. We dance this thing together because we must. We disagree, we agree, we debate and we ride the piss-train, but it has to remain so.
Not sure I have much left in me, but as long as the words come I will take pride in putting them together here, like I did this morning of August 25, 2017, nearly 20 years to the day I first sent words to this paper and began this journey that somehow keeps on going. It is my scar, my disease, my elixir and my anguished joy.
Thanx for reading it.
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James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey”, “Fear No Art”, “Trailing Jesus”, “Midnight For Cinderella” and “Y”. and his new book, “Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon”.