Fear and Loathing and Rock and Roll

27 Oct

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.

True that, Orsino.

I acquired a ton of music over the last few weeks and my iPod is practically bulging from the sheer number of new songs. I downloaded the entire catalogues of Guster, the Hold Steady and the Sheepdogs. I finally captured a couple of Kinks albums I’ve been searching for; I picked up three early Ben Harper CDs at a library sale. I also found two killer four-CD anthologies from Rhino: Rockin’ Bones: 1950s Punk and Rockabilly and Love is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970.

With these and many other additions to my library, I am stuffed so full of music my eardrums need a break … which explains why I have been listening to a lot of NPR lately.

I’ve avoided NPR for years because I didn’t want to become one of those liberals: tweedy, achingly clever and ever so slightly but oh so deservedly smug. Yet when I found myself driving to my company’s fundraiser at the Detroit Gun Club listening to “Morning Edition,” I gave up and gave over.

It has been very Zen, hearing caramel-voiced hosts with gentle plosive consonants deliver story after story without getting all het up about anything. It’s the complete opposite of rock music.

My partner and I went to see NPR commentator and writer David Sedaris doing a reading at the Detroit Opera House. He’s as funny on the page as he is in person or on the air; if you’ve never experienced “The Santaland Diaries,” be sure to check it out this holiday season. It gives me hope, as a newbie novelist and a literate human being, to be in a theater full of people who paid cold, hard cash for tickets to see a writer.

Sedaris is clearly a rock star of the literary world—albeit an NPR sort of rock star like Weezer or Fountains of Wayne: he’s quirky, respected, not a household name and a bit of an acquired taste.

Let’s face it, he’s no Hunter S. Thompson. That guy was Keith Richards, Axl Rose, Ozzy Osbourne, Sid Vicious, Amy Winehouse and Keith Moon bound together with Ted Nugent’s bandolier.

His legend looms large and according to those who knew him, he lived up to the hype. Even if they’ve never read a word he wrote, a huge percentage of the US population could tell you who he is … if only because Johnny Depp keeps playing him in movies.

Back in 1989, my partner and I attended an “event” with Hunter S. Thompson – not sponsored by NPR, needless to say – in Somerville, Massachusetts. I had done my honors thesis comparing his work to that of Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer and wanted to see him  in the flesh. The two of us were likely the only women in the place. The theater was packed; about half were college students and recent graduates; the other half appeared to be motorcycle gang members.

Thompson was ninety minutes late; the crowd was pissed off and increasingly vocal. When he finally arrived, he assumed the stage without  apology, opened an oversized valise, took out a pinch bottle of Scotch and  placed it in the middle of his table. After pouring himself two or three  fingers’ worth in a tumbler also pulled from his valise, he offered some to the panel  of journalists enlisted to interview him. They were unimpressed and attempted  to move forward with their questions—all except the pencil neck kid from the Harvard Crimson who took swigs from the bottle throughout the rest of the evening.

He mumbled and rambled, careening from topic to topic. (The  only quote I remember was his commentary on the 1988 presidential election:  “Kitty Dukakis: now there’s an advertisement for speed if I ever saw one. She’s on reds? She’s the First Lady of Massachusetts and her husband is running for president. She cleans up? Look what happened.”) Then he was up and gone; Elvis had staggered out of the building.

I have never been so unnerved by a writer before or since.

“Rock star” has become a mundane compliment. You can  be deemed a “rock star” at the office or on your softball team without inordinate effort (and typically without ingesting street drugs). Yet the destructive creativity and terrifying charisma of true rock stars is a wonder to behold. Hunter S. Thompson was that kind of rock star.

The rest of us are lucky to sit in the audience and bask in the danger before going back to our compact cars to let Terry Gross wash away our fears.

Now here’s HST himself, uncensored and unsubtitled. Enjoy!

See you on the flip side …

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2 Responses to “Fear and Loathing and Rock and Roll”

  1. Hunter October 29, 2011 at 1:37 pm #

    I don’t even know what you’re talking about, you are SO that liberal and you have been before this week when you finally owned up to listening to NPR.

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