Swine fever: An evening with Hunter S. Thompson

Buy the ticket, take the ride
By PETER KEOUGH  |  November 24, 2009

Photo: Michael Romanos, 1989

This article originally appeared in the November 24, 1989 issue of the Boston Phoenix

Only Hunter S. Thompson could come up with a line like that; no one else had his knack for the near-Biblical proverb. Few writers outside of Madison Avenue or the New Testament can sum up a zeitgeist so cannily in a phrase. Fear and Loathing. When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. A Generation of Swine. He's the idol of a generation of journalists, and so when the Somerville Theatre invited me to moderate his appearance there on November 15, I was flattered.

I was also a little wary. WFNX DJ Duane Bruce, who had MC'ed the Thompson shindig last year and was to do the honors again this time, calmly told me how after the last show the Dean of Gonzo had zapped him in the thigh with a 3600-volt stun gun and then, while he was helplessly paralyzed, attacked him with a flaming grapefruit. That was alarming enough, but the ground rules the theater had devised seemed shaky. A panel consisting of myself, Bruce, John Thompson (no relation) of the Harvard Crimson, and Kelly Davenport of WZLX would pose the questions to Thompson, occasionally turning to the audience for queries to spice things up.

After paying up to $20 to go mano a mano with their hero, wouldn't the audience feel a little peeved to find themselves left out? Still, I couldn't resist. Thompson was the one lasting icon of the anarchy and genius of the '60s; he was the reprobate, the prophet howling in the wilderness. That he also embodied the spirit that enflames pro wrestling events, the Morton Downey show, and lynch mobs I didn't realize until it was too late.

When Thompson arrived backstage, an hour and a half late for the 8 p.m. show, he seemed disoriented and irritable. The new procedure was explained to him, but he was having none of it. "Let's do it like last time," he mumbled, knocking a bottle of club soda over as he poured a four-ounce shot of Chivas. "They ask the questions, you know, give and take." Unfortunately, no microphones had been set up in the audience. To bide time until they were put in place, we decided to use the panel method for a while and then turn the show over to the crowd, whose boisterous impatience had been audible for some time.

That was the plan, but things went wrong fast. We panelists strode into the lights, and for some reason Thompson wasn't with us. We were about as popular as Tony Eason at Sullivan Stadium.

"Who are these assholes?"

"Get the fuck off the stage!"

I was reminded of a scene from Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, in which a character walks through a door and finds himself in front of an audience waiting for him to perform in a play he doesn't know. The difference, of course, was that in the film it was all a dream, and this was a real and angry mob, a horde of tanked-up Thompson wanna-bes who made up for what they lacked by overindulging in his bad manners and habits.

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