November 7, 2011

The Case of the missing Gonzo Journalism

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Bob Patterson @ 6:45 pm

The typewriter looked very familiar
Getting the poster makes seeing a good movie even better
The movie produced a deja vu moment.

Seeing Johnny Depp, in “The Rum Diary,” portraying a rookie Hunter S. Thompson in Puerto Rico pounding away on a portable typewriter, we were again inspired to renew our efforts to draw attention to causes such as the effort to Save Richardson Grove State Park, “one of the 100 finest state parks in America” (according to a brochure from, and also draw attention to the environmentalists’ alarm that some gold mining activity in the area posed a threat to Yosemite National Park. We scaled back our goals and settled for spending a day taking photos of the November 2, 2011, General Strike in Oakland, and then posting them online, but wished we could do better.

Wouldn’t it be much more Gonzo if we still had an influential voice and a portable typewriter to bang out a column lamenting the fact that while Conservatives are shameless in their efforts to shield the rich from their civic duty of paying any taxes, the Liberals are being inundated by a tsunami of outrageous simultaneous assaults on causes that would (subjunctive mood) draw the scorn and vituperative sarcasm of Hunter S. Thompson, if he were still alive?

Would Hunter find humor in the oxymoron that while President Obama was winning the Nobel Peace Prize, bringing justice to Osama bin Laden (as Dubya had promised America he would do), giving the orders to get the troops out of Iraq (in compliance to commitments made by Dubya), and dealing with Ghadafi while the Republicans are constantly trying to tar and feather the President with an image as a lazy, no-good, shiftless, black bum?

While posting the photos of the General Strike, we checked our e-mail and leaned that our wish to be the fellow behind the Gonzo typewriter wasn’t so farfetched after all. A friend back in “the old country,” just South of the ’bu (= Malibu) sent us an e-mail saying:
“At one point, a girl came over & started asking me about a slim Olivetti typewriter I had: was it made in or before 1960? You might remember this item, Bob: lightweight, manual, somewhat anonymous, portable & only 2″ thick: you sold it to me back in 1997.
Now I know this model really came out in the early 1970′s, designed by Ettore Sotsass of Milan, I believe, but being the salesman I am, I replied, “Yes ma’am, this unit did indeed come out in 1960.” We haggled just a bit on price, & I let her have it for $25. With the sale complete, I asked, if she didn’t mind telling me, what she was going to do with it? She smiled & told me that she was the propmaster on a feature film set in 1960.
Well, Bob, I just saw “Rum Diary” last night, & Johnny Depp is writing with your typewriter! It has one big hero shot 1/2 hour from the end where they pull in real close, & it’s your typer, Bob! To fit the exegeses of the story, which in part is about American business’ despoilation of paradise, they had to have him using an American typewriter, so they refitted a REMINGTON ES nameplate in place of the OLIVETTI one, but it’s definitely your machine: the indispensable tool for the travelling journalist.
So—a young Hunter S. Thompson is portrayed beginning his legend using YOUR typewriter.
Does it get any better than this, Bob?
Oh, and the movie’s great.”

Yikes! The portable typewrite we had used in our efforts to imitate Hunter S. Thompson became the same one that Johnny Depp used to portray the father of Gonzo Journalism. Maybe we should be encouraged and renew our efforts to bring the Gospel of Gonzo to the Internets?

If Hunter S. Thompson were still alive wouldn’t it be child’s play for him to make a visit to one of the Occupy sites and then tie together the possibility that the law forbidding the use of masks in California, the burly provocateurs (do police officers use steroids to “bulk up”?) and the bad image that the (so called) liberal media pins on the OWS movement into a crazy conspiracy theory asserting that maybe the “anarchists” and the agents of law enforcement were collaborating their efforts to help the Koch brothers discredit the roving band of hippies who have terrorized the Establishment for over forty years? If Hunter could have done that; then why can’t we?

Don’t newspaper reporters on the crime beat and the police know that Section 185 of the California Penal Code make wearing a mask a misdemeanor? The police and any Occupy monitors could call out the people behind the mask for breaking the law, but that would stifle any attempts to use agent provocateurs to sabotage the Occupy Movement and isn’t it obvious who those scoundrels might be?

If the agent provocateurs are using masks shouldn’t the monitors at the Occupy site ask masked people to remove the masks or be reported to the local police agency? End of problem. It might be a bit embarrassing for things to happen that way if some of the masked people turned out to be undercover cops.

Wouldn’t the Gonzo pioneer point out that the Occupy issue is unfolding in the traditional Republican manner? The politicians want to remove the symptoms (the various encampments) rather than treat the disease: the rich don’t pay their fair portion of taxes. The debate has devolved into concerns about health and safety because the lackeys in the media say what the owner/publishers tell them to say. Wouldn’t Hunter S. Thompson lead by example and tell the truth to power?

Would Hunter have trouble directing the public’s attention to the potential for a revival of the Bush Dynasty? Would he be accused of being a conspiracy theory nut for making bets on a successful JEB run for the Republican Nomination?

Would Hunter be an effective voice if he pointed out that the sweeps of the encampments happen at night because the effectiveness of videos from citizen journalists is considerably diminished by the dim available light capacity of their equipment, thus making it easy to summarily dismiss any videos of alleged police misconduct by saying “you can’t see that clearly”?

Wasn’t the Internets supposed to supersede the old underground newspapers in supplying a voice of dissent? Do you suppose that the Internet hasn’t produced an fine examples of e-Gonzo Journalism because the media moguls don’t want voices of dissention and protest to be heard? What ever happened to mainstream media coverage of the blogisphere?

There is a great speculative fiction book about using a replica of Hemingway’s typewriter titled “The Hemingway Hoax.” Where is our copy of that book?

Herb Caen’s typewriter is on display (at an inaccessible location?) in a newspaper office in San Francisco. What ever happened to the typewriter used by the famed Berkeley native who was Caen’s good friend and biggest rival and used the nom de plume Freddy Francisco? What was that guy’s real name?

At one point, when Freddy Francisco and Herb Caen would prowl the nightclub beat together, a rookie cop stopped them and told them they were under arrest. The response was: “Do you know who you are trying to arrest?” The young policeman marched them down to the local station house and when they entered the desk sergeant recognized the two veteran (and influential) journalists, laughed uncontrollably, and then managed to ask the officer: “Do you know who you are trying to arrest?” Does that sound like a Gonzo legend or not?

What did the production company do with the typewriter they used in “The Rum Diary”? Now that they don’t need it, would they be interested in selling it?

Writing in the City of San Francisco’s August 10, 1975 issue, Freddy Francisco stated: “It should be explained that this was a juicy era in San Francisco journalism. The Chief (William Randolph Hearst) was still dominating all newspaper activities the way Alexander had ruled the ancient world.” Isn’t Rupert Murdoch carrying on that tradition to this very day?

Now the disk jockey will play some Forties era ♫ tunes such as “Baby, it’s cold outside,” “Riders in the sky,” and “Buttons and bows.” We have to go look for a new column topic. Have a “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” type week.

April 14, 2011

National Columnists’ Day for Gonzo Journalists

Filed under: Guest Comment — Tags: , , , — Bob Patterson @ 12:22 pm

National Columnists’ Day occurs annually on April 18 because it was on that date in 1945 that war correspondent/columnist Ernie Pyle was killed in action on the island of Ie Shima. In past years, our annual National Columnists’ Day column has detailed Pyle’s life and career and in other years it was devoted to other memorable columnists such as Herb Caen and Walter Winchell. About two weeks ago, we took a break from the task of selecting a subject for this year’s installment and went down to the local Half Price Bookstore in downtown Berkeley to score a bargain bin copy of Ammo Books’ “Hunter S. Thompson,” which is subtitled “Gonzo.”

Recently, we had caught a screening of the film “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and followed it up with an immediate repeat viewing via a VHS tape, on the following day. The “Gonzo” book, edited by Steve Crist and Laila Nabulsi, includes photos and reproductions of memorabilia from Thompson’s life. While perusing the new addition to the collection, because a friend is preparing to celebrate her fortieth birthday, we noticed one particular illustration in the Ammo book; it was a certificate of achievement, from the National District Attorneys Association noting the fact that the Thompson had covered the Third National Institute Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs convention which was held, in Las Vegas, on April 25 to 29 in 1971. We realized that the events described in Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” book were also celebrating their 40th birthday.

After starting to reread the book, we recalled reading columns by Hunter S. Thompson in the (now defunct) Los Angeles Herald Examiner and then later, in the computer age, online. Thompson has always been hard to categorize and so it seemed that selecting him to be the peg for this year’s installment of our annual National Columnists’ Day column made the choice a “slam-dunk” because forty years after Thompson blurred the lines between fiction and journalism all of American Journalism has become a credibility challenge for those who want to know if what the government is telling the people is fact or fable.

“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” is subtitled: “A Savage Journey into the Heart of the American Dream” and that may be a play on title of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Forty years ago, the concept of the “American Dream” evoked clichéd references to a home surrounded by a white picket fence. Today, the thought of a “home” conjures up images of thousands of families being thrown out of their homes by wealthy businessmen (who contribute generously to various political reelection funds?) who are just as savage and ruthless as any native warrior encountered by Marlow in the journey described in the Conrad novel.

Forty years after Thompson lampooned the American Dream, circa 1971, the USA is full of disillusioned families with broken dreams trying desperately to cope with homelessness and the darkness in their new depression era hearts. The country is going broke fighting three separate perpetual military adventures which are either just for the pure fun of it or are wars of imperialistic aggression. The American Dream has morphed into a nightmare while American Journalism stands by obsessing over the latest celebrity gossip about Charlie Sheen and ignoring the Republican Party’s coordinated efforts to vandalize and sabotage the Democratic process of holding honest elections.

Thompson helped popularize the term “Gonzo Journalism” which became a handy label for a Sixties journalism trend marked by the writer including himself in the events being described while simultaneously exaggerating some factual aspects of the story. (For a more scholarly approach to the wide open and vague bit of fact checking about the origin of the word “gonzo,” refer to page 128 of Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour’s oral biography of Thompson, titled “Gonzo,” published in 2007 by Little Brown and Co.)

In the early stages of Internets development, we belonged to an e-mail group of people (mostly scholars) who were focused on all things concerning Ernst Hemingway and they accepted without challenge the idea that the degree of involvement of the writer in his own story, as far as both Hemingway and Thompson were concerned, was about equal. The term “gonzo” had not come into contemporary American Literary culture when Hemingway was writing (and producing columns) about WWII and the Spanish Civil War. Is it possible to make the case for asserting that Hemingway was the spiritual godfather of gonzo journalism?

While George W. Bush was President, columnists who furnished vitriolic criticism of the fellow, who Thomas called “the child-President,” became wildly popular on liberal web sites and attracted an eager audience whose appetite for disparaging remarks about the occupant in the White House couldn’t be satisfied by a relentless torrent of criticism.

In “Kingdom of Fear,” the last of Thompson’s books published while he was still alive, the pessimistic attitude regarding the future of America is epitomized by the phrase “Big Darkness Soon Come” and it doesn’t take a scholar with impeccable academic credentials to say that if Thompson had lived, he would be very acerbic in his assessments of George W. Bush’s successor who has rubber stamped his approval (“imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”) of almost every one of Bush’s outrages against the Geneva Accords and the rules of engagement.

Thompson was relentless in applying his philosophy regarding politicians (“Don’t take any guff from these swine”) to the Bush Administration and anyone who wants to assume that Thompson would give President Obama a pass and, instead, provide partisan platitudes just because he wasn’t a Republican is asking for a stretch in logic that betrays the foundations of rational thinking.

Thompson’s righteous indignation, directed against George W. Bush, was a matter of principle not subject to change when a new President from the other major political party took the oath of office, rather than being an example of partisanship (of the German salute level of commitment kind) which would defy credibility when it broke the WTF barrier of logic and did a complete 180 degree about-face to mollify the new war monger (not that the new guy gives a farthing about what columnists or bloggers think of his ERA [or era?]) Thompson would have continued his acerbic snarky attitude with only the name of the President being criticized changed.

Philip K. Dick, in “Man in the High Tower,” envisioned a cult hero writer adored by his fans who lived in isolation in Colorado. The World’s Laziest Journalist is alone in his conviction that Dick had accurately forecast the cult of Thompson fans, in his alternative history novel which was written and published when Thompson was graduating from high school and serving a hitch in the Air Force. If this columnist was younger and more ambitious, he might consider doing a doctoral thesis as the basis for a comparison of the real life writer to Dick’s fictional character.

Thompson’s biographers report that he was obsessive in his slavish attention to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, “The Great Gatsby” and that Hunter may have either consciously or unconsciously patterned “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” on Fitzgerald’s work of fiction. Ironically, the Fitzgerald novel has become an icon of life in the Twenties during prohibition and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” has become a symbol of the hippie life style. Each novel has come to epitomize an American generation. Perhaps some diligent liberal arts graduate student will do a doctoral thesis comparing and contrasting the two (related?) examples of classic contemporary American Literature?

While gathering information for this column we were informed that Cliff Notes does not have a detailed critical analysis of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” available. Perhaps some industrious literary critic will now send a query letter to the Cliff Notes commandant and perhaps that gap will be remedied?

The fact that the Beat Museum (in San Francisco) has become the host site for two courses (for college credit?) in creative writing brought to mind the academic consternation caused when a pioneering effort to teach a course in Beat Literature was a controversial innovation and that, in turn, caused us to wonder if any college or university anywhere offers a course of study (Gonzo 101?) devoted to the works of Hunter S. Thompson or an overview of Gonzo journalism per se.

Ernie Pyle went to England to cover the Battle of Britain. Hunter S. Thompson covered the Viet Cong’s arrival in Saigon after American troops were evacuated. Would it be too Philip K. Dick-ish to try to envision how an imaginary encounter between Pyle, if he had lived longer, and Thompson, during the evacuation of Saigon, would have played out?

Looking through the index for Karl E. Meyer’s book “Pundits, Poets, & Wits (An Omnibus of American Newspaper Columns)” it is obvious that we could have made a different less controversial selection for this year’s installment of our National Columnists’ Day column, but the fact that Thompson could be a contentious choice made it all the more imperative to do so.

About his friend Oscar Zeta Acosta, Thompson wrote: “Oscar was one of God’s own prototypes – a high powered mutant of some kind who was never even considered for mass production. He was too weird to live, and too rare to die.” The same might be said of Thompson himself.

Now the disk jockey will play the “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” soundtrack album. We have to go to a wifi hot spot and post this column early as a way to stir up a “my National Columnists’ Day column is better than yours” competition to increase public awareness of the annual event. Have a “Gonzo” type week.

Powered by WordPress