We still aren’t entirely sure about Hunter S. Thompson. His personal life has certainly been exhumed, er, to death, thanks to the post-suicide cottage industry of biographies, personal reminiscences and documentaries that have sprung up like dandelions around a gravestone. We do know, for example, that Thompson was a philanderer and a mean drunk on occasion, and that he had trouble setting things down on paper as the years progressed and substance abuse clouded his beautiful mind. And yet when it comes to the work itself — that half-mad hybrid of sharp reportage and venomous rhetoric — mysteries still abound

When discussing his own creative process, Thompson could be very cagey indeed. For years, readers have speculated about the fact-vs.-fiction conundrum that lies at the heart of 1971’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Doug Brinkley, Thompson’s friend and executor of the author’s estate, has in the past referred to the book as a novel. In his movie adaptation, Terry Gilliam literalized the book’s beastly hallucinations and turned Thompson’s terrifying thought-dreams into a kind of Tex Avery nightmare. When I interviewed Thompson in 2002, he danced around the subject of factual accuracy with digressive charm, a familiar feint whenever someone tried to dig into the marrow of his most famous works.

But for years there have been murmurings about a skeleton key: cassette tapes, thousands of them, that would unlock the mystery and allow us to tease out the truth from Thompson’s Boschian mind trips. Alex Gibney received permission from the Thompson estate to use the tapes for his documentary Gonzo, the best and most insightful Thompson documentary by a wide margin. And now we have The Gonzo Tapes, a companion box set that contains hours of the cassettes spread across five CDs.

For anyone but the most fervent Thompson heads, The Gonzo Tapes is a mighty tough trawl. The fidelity of the recordings, which span the years 1965 to 1975, is truly crappy, and given that Thompson often liked to play records in the background while recording, it sometimes takes a Herculean effort to discern what the hell is going on. You have to lean in a bit to catch the nuggets.

For the heads, though, it’s worth the effort. The tapes do answer some key questions that have dogged Thompson obsessives for years. For that reason alone, they’re essential source material for clearing up some of the hazy myths surrounding his creative mojo.

The Gonzo Tapes covers the most crucial decade of Thompson’s career, before fame and drugs began to engulf his talent. Listening to the CDs all the way through, you can actually overhear the morphing of the earnest reporter into the addled, paranoid misanthrope.

An interview with Terry the Tramp for the 1967 book Hell’s Angels is a fascinating peek into how Thompson wrested good material from intransigent subjects. It starts innocently enough, with Thompson gently prodding this brutish biker about his use of hallucinogens (drug-initiate Thompson agrees to eat some peyote as long as Terry “doesn’t get violent”). By the time Thompson sat down with Terry again, the stories got wilder and uglier: barroom rapes (“They wanna get molested by the beast”), assault and battery. Listening to such matter-of-fact recounting of so much nastiness is blood-curdling, yet Thompson keeps it on an even keel. Terry senses the wild-eyed beast in his interlocutor. That’s how Thompson got the dark stuff.

Here, also, is the tape in which Thompson tells the story of the notorious Hell’s Angels gangbang at Ken Kesey’s La Honda hippie compound, the very cassette that Thompson lent Tom Wolfe for The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Witnessing the roughneck Angels crash the blissed-out Pranksters party created a harsh cognitive dissonance that resulted in sexual and physical violence. It started out uneasy and only got worse.

“No combination could have been worse,” mutters Thompson into his Norelco tape recorder on a cold August dawn. From Kesey’s house, “you could see the shadows moving around inside . you could interpret the movements of the shadowy figures behind the curtain . and in that way it was kind of surrealistically horrifying.”

While the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas material does not reveal a mad, drug-drunk bacchanal through the neon jungle — Thompson spends more time on the tapes bemoaning the lack of drugs than actually ingesting them — it does provide some clues to the contributions of Thompson’s running buddy Oscar Acosta, the Dr. Gonzo character in the book. A civil-rights attorney whose appetite for self-destruction rivaled Thompson’s, he’s an instigator with a taste for the running gag. When the exasperated journalist bemoans the lack of action in Vegas, Acosta gets the ball rolling by requesting that they pull up at a “five tacos for a dollar” stand to eat lunch:

Acosta (to waitress): “We’re looking for the American Dream. We were told that it was somewhere in this area.”

Waitress (to cook): “Hey, Lou, do you know where the American Dream is?”

Waitress No. 2: “Could that be the old psychiatrist’s club?”

The scene made it right into the book verbatim — one of the many reasons Acosta felt shortchanged when Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas became a runaway success — but Acosta’s conceit didn’t end there. A few hours later, Thompson recorded his “attorney” asking a telephone operator if she has a listing for the American Dream.

These early recordings are a kick, primarily because the listener can follow a jagged discursive line from raw material to finished product: Thompson’s frustrated meanderings through Nevada’s prefab desert landscape, his bemusement at the mindlessness on display at the D.A. Drug Conference — from such dead ends did Thompson churn out his end-of-the-frontier metaphor for Fear and Loathing.

Although Thompson continued to produce some brilliant work in the mid-’70s, the productivity was gummed up by heavier drug use. Thompson got hooked on cocaine for life while “researching” a review of Freud’s Cocaine Papers for Rolling Stone. The review was never written, but the damage to the writer was immense. He recorded his cocaine experiences on the Norelco, and it’s no fun at all. “Coke would rank very close to the bottom of my list of things that I would do in terms of enjoying either consistently or sporadically at some later date,” he solemnly intones, his head full of the stuff. “I yet can’t resist the opportunity to buy coke.” Here is precisely the moment the worm turned and the going got really weird.

In 1974, when Rolling Stone sent Thompson and Ralph Steadman to Zaire to cover the Foreman-Ali fight, Thompson didn’t leave his hotel room. “I’d much rather go almost anywhere than that goddamn stadium tonight,” he barked to Steadman. “The important thing now is to get out of this place. I’ll be sure to grab Mailer’s arm . and drag him out with me.”

The recordings became more and more futile over time. A series of phone calls with New York Times Vietnam correspondent Gloria Emerson are amusing but pointless; it’s mostly Emerson encouraging Thompson to write “Fear and Loathing and the Fall of Saigon.” “You’ll get a marvelous 4,000 words and you can get out,” she tells Thompson, who seems to be more concerned with the prospect of becoming a POW if Saigon falls. He eventually did get up the nerve to go, but he didn’t get a marvelous 4,000 words out of the deal. The tapes became an end in themselves — a diversion from, rather than a path toward, great writing, despite all of that pontificating into a cheap condenser mike.

Shout Factory | 5 discs | $60 box

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