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The Gonzo Tapes: The Life And Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson


         James Calemine

“People who count on luck don’t last long in the business of defusing bombs and disarming landmines, and that is what my business seems to be. It helps to know these things. Muhammad Ali was not lucky. He was fast, very fast…” 
             --Hunter S. Thompson

These are the original work tapes of Hunter S. Thompson. His personal audio cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes were transferred to digital by Don Fleming. Fleming was given access to Thompson’s tapes--stored in the “war room” of his Woody Creek, Colorado, home--by Thompson’s widow Anita.

Thompson, an inveterate audiophile, carried his tape recorders everywhere. He’d record his surroundings, interviews, conversations and monologues. These recordings, spanning the years of 1964-1975, find Thompson riding with Hell's Angels, violating various laws in Las Vegas with a drug-addled attorney, breaking down in Africa before the Foreman-Ali fight and burnt-out in Saigon during the end of the Vietnam War.

The tape recorder was Thompson’s most significant tool. Some of these monologues would be transferred verbatim into his books. Producer Don Fleming wrote this in the box set book regarding this particular collection: “This collection represents a select but essential, portion of the remarkable audio tape archive Thompson created. Hearing these recordings helps us to better understand the unique Thompson craft and technique, but ultimately what makes them so riveting is Thompson’s personality. His monologues and conversations often sound like his writing. The original cassettes were recorded in the field, usually under less-than-ideal circumstances. The sound quality, as a result, varies widely. I’ve cleaned them up to some extent, but intended to leave enough grit to keep it authentic.”

Disc 1: Hell’s Angels

These recordings served as the backbone of Thompson’s first book, Hell’s Angels, regarding the motorcycle gang. This disc contains interviews with Hell’s Angels, a Fourth of July bust, the first meeting between Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and Hell’s Angels at Kesey’s La Honda property during a time when the Grateful Dead played many gigs at these motley gatherings. The disc also preserves Thompson and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg getting pulled over by the cops after leaving a Hell’s Angels party.

Actual photos of the cassettes, original manuscript pages, photos and napkin notes are included in the boxset book. Thompson’s first book ends with him being beaten by the Hell’s Angels. This closed the era of Thompson’s early career and this disc verifies a changing of the guard.

Disc 2: Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas

This disc includes the actual dialogue between Thompson and Oscar Acosta while they ran amok in Las Vegas, which emerged as Thompson’s literary sapphire of the same title. To actually hear Acosta’s voice is interesting because he does not sound crazed at all during the notorious “One Toke Over The Line” interlude. Once again, the recordings served as the fulcrum to Thompson’s 1971 classic. By the time of these 1971 recordings, Acosta was a high-profile attorney and activist for the Chicano movement in East Los Angeles. The actual conversation between Acosta and Thompson regarding getting whacked out on drugs while attending the D.A. Conference on Narcotics And Dangerous Drugs proves nervy and brilliant in hindsight.

This stellar collection proves Thompson clearly was never so stoned that he could not document his experiences onto tape. A 21-minute segment at “Terry’s Taco Stand” verifies Thompson and Acosta’s high jinx were in fine form…especially when Acosta asks where “The American Dream” is, and the girls working at the Taco Stand think they are talking about a bar. Just like in the book, one waitress responds: “Wasn’t that the old Psychiatrist’s Club out on Paradise?”

Disc 3: More Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas

“As usual, you’re afraid of Mexicans, aren’t you? God dam you’re weird Thompson. Well, that’s what I’m here for,” Acosta says to the Good Doctor in the first part of the third disc. It’s amazing all of this material was preserved. I knew Thompson constantly used tape recorders, but I had no idea to what extent. Thompson reveals in a monologue he’s not sure what kind of story he has on his hands during the “Oscar Fled In Terror…Drug Up…Weird Road” segment. Thompson, cornered in the desert, while in a rented and thoroughly trashed white Cadillac by the police, is recorded on tape as Thompson narrates everything as it unfolds around him. This CD contains classic Thompson in a Neal Cassady-type streamlined narration that never loses its edge. Thompson’s description of the wrecked hotel room after Acosta’s wake of destruction in “Vegas D.A. Final Notes…The Whole Room Is Total Chaos” sums up the eternal strange and savage odyssey Thompson and Acosta spearheaded.

Disc 4: Gonzo Gridlock

In 1972 Thompson covered the Presidential campaign. The book, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail 72' was published in 1973. During that year, Thompson prepared for his next project. These recordings contain “Guts Ball”, “Cozumel”, ‘Fear And Loathing in Acapulco”, “Freud’s Cocaine Papers” and “Fear And Loathing In Kinshasa”. Acosta disappeared during this time, inspiring various theories on his whereabouts. Thompson believed he was killed on a boat during a drug smuggling operation.

Thompson began analyzing Sigmund Freud’s Cocaine Papers. He explored the drug on tape. One of the entries begins: “I’ve done what most people would consider an excessive amount of coke.” Thompson tested Freud’s findings as well as social conceptions and misconceptions concerning the drug. Thompson’s one real failed story was the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire. The tape shows Ralph Steadman tried to coax a story out of Thomspon. Thompson gave away their ringside tickets. His voice sounds un-hinged during this segment. He even lets out various unsettling squeals and sounds. He says, “Fiendish. The thing is so bad there’s no way to write a story about it.” Or “There’s no way you can conceive what’s going to happen to us tonight.” Thompson never avoided even the most bizarre environments. He even managed to smuggle to elephant tusks back to the States after this African trip even though he never wrote the story.

Disc 5: Fear And Loathing In Saigon

Disc five begins with a woman named Gloria Emerson—a New York Times reporter who spent several years in Vietnam--assuring Thompson Saigon was the place to be for his next story. Thompson wavered, but eventually he left for the war zone. He recorded everything from local radio stations and music as well as machine gun fire to bickering journalists, arguing with a desk clerk and final wisdom from a vicious American war. At one point during his stay in Saigon, Jann Wenner suspended Thompson’s Rolling Stone salary, which made his life insurance policy void, which enraged Thompson and may have contributed to his failure to deliver the story Wenner originally had in mind.

The final track, “The Last Dispatch From Saigon” Thompson commentates American evacuation from Saigon like a cold-blooded newsman leaving the perilous grounds where he lived. Thompson flew out on Vietnam Flight 783—the last commercial flight out of Vietnam--to Hong Kong. “I have a suspicion I will not be back to Vietnam,” are Thompson’s last words on this collection.

Each disc contains sleeve photos of various items in Thompson’s home. Disc one is a photo of his front door (Gonzo symbol engraving on wooden door) steps; disc two a bookshelf; three, a note on his typewriter; four a mantle photo; five a shelf of his record collection all of which gives this boxset a personal feel. The listener can be alone in the room with just Thompson’s voice...for hilarious moments...or eerie ones. Like a ghost from the past, Hunter S. Thompson shall never die as long as his work is read and his voice heard. I look forward to the 1975-1986 tapes. Take heed, The Gonzo Tapes take you straight to the heart of darkness…

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