Monday, September 16, 2013

Good Reads: Double Live Gonzo

The book: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 by Hunter S. Thompson
  Hunter Thompson disrupted the very idea of journalism. For all his faults (and they were legion, both personal and professional), he’s a towering figure whose influence, utility and repeatability are still being parsed four decades after he did his best work. Unfortunately, his legacy seems to blaze brightest among the cadre who reduce Thompson’s evocative prose to the level of cheap snark, imitating his antics more than his insights. Thompson may have been the kind of reporter who drove editors and subjects alike to heavy medication, but for all of his sins, the man truly had a grasp on the tenor of his times. Probably not as widely read as his other Fear and Loathing effort, Campaign Trail ’72, I’d argue, is by far the more important and the better representation of what Thompson was actually like as a journalist. Rather than hiding behind tales of screwball antics and exuberant drug use, here Thompson chronicles the drudgery and orchestration of the campaign trail grind as he tagged along with Richard Nixon challenger George McGovern, a genuinely decent man running for office in the most indecent of times. If Richard Nixon had not existed, Hunter Thompson would have had to invent him. There could be no greater foil for Thompson to riff on his favorite topics of venality, corruption and narcissism in the political universe. Collecting Thompson’s various reports for Rolling Stone after Nixon crushed McGovern, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 is not just an elegy for one man’s presidential aspirations but for a nation that was so terrified and twisted that it would reelect a man as petty and grasping as Richard Milhous Nixon. There’s a pall that hangs over the book decades later, a sense of disbelief at the kind of moral bankruptcy that could shock even the soul of one of America’s greatest cynics.

A representative passage:

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I would rather not write anything about the 1972 presidential campaign at this time. On Tuesday, November 7th, I will get out of bed long enough to go down to the polling place and vote for George McGovern. Afterwards, I will drive back to the house, lock the front door, get back in bed, and watch television as long as necessary. It will probably be a while before The Angst lifts—but whenever it happens I will get out of bed again and start writing the mean, cold-blooded bummer that I was not quite ready for today. Until then, I think Tom Benton’s “re-elect the president” poster (above) says everything that needs to be said right now about this malignant election. In any other year I might be tempted to embellish the Death’s Head with a few angry flashes of my own. But not in 1972. At least not in the sullen numbness of these final hours before the deal goes down—because words are no longer important at this stage of the campaign; all the best ones were said a long time ago, and all the right ideas were bouncing around the public long before Labor Day.
That is the one grim truth of this election mostly to come back to haunt us: The options were clearly defined, and all the major candidates except Nixon were publicly grilled, by experts who demanded to know exactly where they stood on every issue from Gun Control and Abortion to the Ad Valorem Tax. By mid-September both candidates had staked out their own separate turfs, and if not everybody could tell you what each candidate stood for specifically, almost everyone likely to vote in November  understood that Richard Nixon and George McGovern were two very different men: not only in the context of politics, but also in their personalities, temperaments, guiding principles, and even their basic lifestyles….
There is almost a Yin/Yang clarity in the difference between the two men, a contrast so stark that it would be hard to find  any two better models in the national politics arena for the legendary duality--the congenital Split Personality and polarized instincts—that almost everybody except Americans has long since taken for granted as the key to our National Character. This was not what Richard Nixon had in mind when he said, last August, that the 1972 presidential election would offer voters “the clearest choice of this century.” But on a level he will never understand he was probably right…and it is Nixon himself who represents that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in world has learned to fear and despise. Our Barbie doll president, with his Barbie doll wife and his box-full of Barbie doll children is also America’s answer to the monstrous Mr. Hyde. He speaks to the Werewolf in us; the bully, the predatory shyster who turns into something unspeakable, full of claws and bleeding string-warts, on nights when the moon comes too close….

The album: De Anarkistiske An(n)aler by Parlamentarisk Sodomi

There’s lots of bullshit “political” posturing in grind. Most of it means attacking “the system” in the vaguest of terms, particularly since favorite punching bags Reagan and Thatcher fucked off the scene. It relies on the comfort of familiar slogans that make the chanters feel superior and the audience righteously indignant but results in very little real world action. Hunter Thompson was a man who blistered his enemies by name, excoriating their every flaw. Papirmollen may be his musical heir, flaying his favorite target, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, mercilessly in his Parlamentarisk Sodomi persona. Though Stoltenberg may be laughably too liberal to ever play more than  a fringe role in American politics, Parlamentarisk Sodomi still ravages the man personally and politically whenever the opportunity presents itself.

A representative song: “Klaebukranikene (de Anarkistiske An(n)aler)”

If there’s a song that combines Parlamentarisk Sodomi’s disdain for politics and kinky sense of humor, it’s the 10 minute, multipart grind epic “Klaebukranikene (de Anarkistiske An(n)aler).”  Allegedly taken from a 19th Century book that chronicles the laws of politics and sex--perpetually linked in the mind of authoritarians everywhere and therefore to be controlled--the song is a Ferris wheel of antic energy and political pathology that perfectly sums up the clownishness of modern politics. It’s the sort of song Thompson would have been rocking while eviscerating the Obama administration for its many faults, hypocrisies and reversals if he’d managed to slip into a wormhole connecting to the early 21st Century. When the grinding gets weird, the weird turn pro.


DesiccatedVeins said...

Very nice. You've convinced me, I think, to pick up Thompson again. I'm tired of his schtick, but his journalism might be something I need to give another shot, because the bastard could write when he could be bothered.

Andrew Childers said...

for a good overview of his genuine journalism, hunt down a copy of the great white shark hunt. it's a lot of stuff for rolling stone and similar mags. then immediately flip to "the scum also rises," it's his treatment of the nixon resignation. schadenfreude never sounded so venomous.

DesiccatedVeins said...

Hahaha, "The Scum Also Rises" is just begging to be the title of a Napalm Death retrospective you write (or a 30th anniversary piece about Scum in 4 years).