Reading the work of Hunter S. Thompson can be a true test of one's naivety and requires a certain amount of gullibility. Is it possible that Thompson's attorney actually asked a waitress if she was a "Back Door Beauty?" Were they kicked out of a Debbie Reynolds show? Was Hunter nearly stomped to death by the Oakland branch of The Hells Angels? Was The Mint 400 Motorcycle Race really as big as "The Super Bowl, The Kentucky Derby and The Lower Oakland Roller Derby Finals all rolled into one?" We know that some wild things did happen in Thompson's universe but how high did the insanity actually climb? We will perhaps never know; "The Brown Buffalo" Oscar Acosta is missing and long presumed dead and Hunter himself checked out in 2005.
The Gonzo Tapes, a five disc set of Thompson's personal recordings, shines a bit of light into the depraved darkness. Spanning the Hells Angels years through Vegas and ending with Hunter's time in the last days of Saigon, this set is a necessity for any diehard Thompson fan. From a literary standpoint, the recordings are a priceless record of Thompson's development as a writer.
Disc One opens with a whisper: "It is July 4th weekend and I am on the Bass Lake Run with The Hells Angels. I'm recording in my car for fear that someone will freak out and smash the machine." Thompson's comments about Ralph "Sonny" Barger, founder of the Oakland Chapter of The Angels, show a deep respect for the man. "He is an amazing type. A natural leader; he gives no quarter and expects none in return."
All of the first disc is dedicated to the Angels. There are interviews (Terry the Tramp talks about his rape charge in Monterey as Joan Baez blasts in the background) and dispelling the myth of the Hells Angels as a marauding, Viking war party tearing through the countryside on iron horses, plundering and taking the women of every town they encounter. He reveals the publicity loving, capitalist, conformist wannabe stars that they really were.
From there, the ride gets wild and random. Discs 2 through 4 are recordings done throughout the now (in)famous trip that spawned Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The best part of this section is the "Terry's Taco Stand" bit; in this long section, Hunter and his attorney, both ripped out of their minds on acid, stop for tacos and ask the ladies that were working if they could direct them to The American Dream. Believing the American Dream to be a place and not an ideology, the women direct them to the Paradise Club. From there they are sent to another club and another and another. It's hilarious straight man humor; like something you'd see on Saturday Night Live if SNL were actually still funny.
The Tapes is mostly entertaining but it does have its low points. Mundane phone calls asking for more cash, getting lost in the desert and nearly driving in a lake mires the otherwise comedic discussions with people like illustrator Ralph Steadman, beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Jann Wenner and of course, Hunter himself. The sound quality is sometimes horrendous and at some moments, Thompson's mumble is inaudible but for the first four disc the listener gets to hear one of the great American writer take shape and conquer the world at the height of his powers.
However, cocaine Gonzo is introduced into the mix and a downward slide begins for Hunter. He's done lines into the early morning hours, now unable to sleep. "I've snorted massive amounts of cocaine to prepare myself to read Freud's Cocaine Papers. Goddamn this is a despicable drug."
His output slowed, his marriage to Sandi disappeared and he made extremely poor decisions during this period. One of the worst decisions is included here. Thompson gave away his and Steadman's tickets to the Ali-Foreman title fight in Zaire. "I just want to lie here and listen to music. It will be a shitty fight anyway." he told Steadman. "Foreman will knock him out in the second round. I'm staying here, listening to music and watching TV." Turns out, "The Rumble in the Jungle" would be arguably the greatest fight of all time. And it happened while Hunter was at the pool smoking grass, totally missing what could have been one of the greatest stories of his career.
The Gonzo Tapesare much like the man that recorded them all those years ago; far from perfect. We all make mistakes. And as we all know, perfect is pretty God damned boring.