Or How Hunter Thompson and The Stones Drove a Spike into Hippie Hearts
“Did you ever wake up to find
A day that broke up your mind
Destroyed your notion of circular time
It’s just that demon life has got you in its sway.”
– The Rolling Stones – “Sticky Fingers”
“Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave….So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark —that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
– Hunter S. Thompson, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas
It happened in the spring of 1971, 40 years ago.
It was like a snap; the kind of ghastly sound a finely tuned athlete hears when it all goes wrong inside. A major tendon gives way. A knee buckles. The elbow dangles gruesomely. Pain. Terror. The very real sensation that the change from full-speed ahead to over can be cruelly immediate, and soon, very soon there will be a long, dreadful period of rehabilitation. Even then, there’s no guarantee the body will ever be the same again.
Oh, the game goes on, but not for some.
This is what happened when the fast-paced, anything-goes wild and free ‘60s youth movement heard a snap from deep inside. Actually, it was two snaps; one literary, the other musical. A long-form, two-part journal piece gone awry for Rolling Stone Magazine, rather haphazardly titled, Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, and a 10-song ball-breaker of a record called Sticky Fingers.
In March of ‘71, journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who was a year removed from “inventing” a frantic style of fantastic deadline humping gibberish called Gonzo, escaped to Las Vegas with a Chicano lawyer by the name of Oscar Zeta Acosta to ostensibly work on an investigative piece about a slain East L.A. activist named Ruben Salazar. To bankroll the proceedings, Thompson accepted a Sports Illustrated gig to cobble together 300 words on a weird desert event called the Mint 400 motorcycle race, but ended up delivering a 25,000 word screed about drugs, violence and mayhem.
Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas would become a sensation, then a book, and inevitably made Hunter Thompson a star, helping to create a bestial character, which would enslave him for the rest of his life. But as he struggled with the mountain of his random scribblings and garbled tape musings in a San Francisco hotel room through much of April and May, what Hunter Thompson was actually doing was fashioning a eulogy; a final dirge for the hippie generation and an ugly mirror poised on a drug culture he would expertly exploit in a long and very successful literary career.
Thompson’s last biographer, William McKeen aptly describes Fear & Loathing as “a look back at the promise and hope of the ‘60s that had been stomped to death somewhere in the middle of 1968,” the year that the its author was beaten with other anti-war protestors outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago.
As the crippling images of hotel, automobile and brain cell destruction began to careen from his IBM electric typewriter, the dark, savage rhythms of “Sympathy For The Devil” blasted from Thompson’s tape recorder—a song recorded in 1968 by The Rolling Stones and one quite prevalent in his unfolding tale. It was the very song the band played at the infamous Altamont free concert just outside San Francisco in December of 1969 as a man was being stabbed to death by a pack of booze-addled Hell’s Angels. Ironically, two years before, and one year before the Stones unleashed “Sympathy” into the fading echoes of the Summer of Love, Hunter S. Thompson made a fringe motorcycle gang famous with his first groundbreaking book, Hell’s Angels.
In April of 1971, across the Atlantic, The Rolling Stones’ new album, Sticky Fingers was wrapping blues riffs and snarling vocals around what would be Thompson’s final bugle call for the ‘60s. Before long the two would remain connected by time and tone for what would be dueling Baby Boomer tolling bells.
The Stones had been hinting at what might be coming for two previous records, Beggar’s Banquet and Let It Bleed, both sinister clarions to the darker side of the counter-culture soon to be realized in political assassinations and street riots, an escalating Vietnam War, the Manson Family murders and the deaths of four pop icons, one of them a former Rolling Stone. But Sticky Fingers is different. It is a dreary exhale, less foreboding and more grimly apathetic, as if the sense that doom could be avoided or marked as historical imperative was laughable. It was just doom, both personal and cultural, and that’s all.
But this was The Rolling Stones, so the doom was fraught with tongue wagging humor, a whistle past the gallows reeking with funk and jazz and down home raunchy blues, country honk and bittersweet melancholia. Never had the death knell of fast times sounded so goddamn good.
“It’s a bleak record about what the morning looks like after a decade of unchecked hedonism,” rock journalist and author, Robert Greenfield told me on the occasion of his last book about his time with the Stones in the South of France. “The Stones were making it clear the party was over and what was left was not pretty.” Sticky Fingers, it’s most charming song boasted a rather spot-on metaphor for the sharp decline in hippie ardor, “Dead Flowers,” was the kind of ‘fun’s over’ message the purveyors of decadence would be gleefully inclined to make.
As Thompson was imagining the Death of the American Dream as a fat-cat fascist money-grubbing moral sinkhole on the Vegas Strip invaded by acid-crazed radicals hell-bent on wresting its corpse from Mother Authority, The Stones filled the airwaves with odes to slave master rape, misanthropic suicide jags and morphine hallucinations. Thompson’s “gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country” is echoed in Mick Jagger’s haunting “Moonlight Mile” with his “dreams fading down the railway line” or Keith Richards’ rather dire “I have my freedom but I don’t have much time” from the gorgeous “Wild Horses.”
Then, of course, there is the drugs; as in the opening paragraph of Fear & Loathing wherein a phalanx of pharmaceuticals is recited as if names in an invading army troop, soon to be consumed in herculean fashion by men (“too weird to live, but too rare to die”) who would finally be overcome but not defeated by the “excessive consumption of almost every drug known to civilized man since 1544 AD.” Not to be outdone by the “cocaine eyes” and “speed-freak jive” of Sticky Fingers, wherein nearly every song has at least one reference to mind altering—it’s seductions, consequences and mysteries.
Make no mistake, Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas nor Sticky Fingers celebrate drug abuse, although both Thompson (an openly unrepentant dope fiend until his suicide in 2005) and Richards (Keith is still kicking and has recently released his memoir, which reads as an unapologetic junkie handbook). They simply tell the truth about the experience—something rarely found in either the ‘Feed Your Head’ or ‘Just Say No’ camps four decades since. In these tales of excess, the piper indeed comes to call.
And perhaps no more honest portrayal of the drug culture has been improved upon since Thompson’s masterpiece hit the streets in late 1971.
“We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled the ‘60s. That was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling ‘consciousness expansion’ without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him seriously… All those pathetically eager acid freaks that thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their loss and failure is ours too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole lifestyle that he helped create—a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody… or at least some force – is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Hell, or maybe it’s “Love…it’s a bitch!”
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 and Midnight For Cinderella.