Every landmark writer has a voice.  It first appears to the reader as a series of words upon the page, but there is much more to it.  It’s not just a trail of ink splotches upon leaves of paper.   It’s the sum of a great many parts.  Sometimes it resounds from the reek of old fibrous cellulose pulp stained with resins and lubricants.  Inside the reader’s head, the words come to life; they bounce around the brain and flirt with the subconscious mind, jarring loose long-forgotten memories and stimulating the sense organs.  Somewhere out of this electric madness of synaptic impulses arises a voice that defines the writer.
Some voices are stronger than others.  Few are as powerful and resonate as deeply and colorfully as Hunter S. Thompson’s.
Thompson’s philosophy of Gonzo Journalism mandated that he blur the line between objectivity and subjectivity.  By becoming part of the story he was covering, (and often its central character) Thompson was forced to exist in a bizarre schizophrenic state of detachment.  He forsook the conventional pen and pad approach and chose, instead, to arm himself with a tape recorder.  This allowed him to slip the journalistic noose and experience the story completely, without being constrained by detailed documentation.  And after listening to the analog notes that blaze a weird and reckless trail for his written word, his thought process is further illuminated.  Thompson’s writing throbs with the unmistakable pulse of free flowing stream-of-consciousness.  To hear him speak, it sounds as if the Hunter on the scene is dictating to the Hunter behind the typewriter.  The voice has always been audible in his work, but with the release of The Gonzo Tapes: The Life And Work Of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, a window into the mind of mad genius has been opened.
The Gonzo Tapes present a fascinating glimpse into The Good Doctor’s methodology.  The five-disc box set spans some of Thompson’s most notable work from 1965-75.  Disc 1 focuses on his time spent with the Hell’s Angels.  To hear him describe the events of a party at Ken Kesey’s five-acre property adds an entirely new dimension to the story.  Thompson paints a horribly carnal scene where Neal Cassady’s wife takes on a group of Angels in a sordid gang-bang.  Thompson unleashes the story into the tape deck as another journalist would jot down notes after an interview.
“Too Much…An unbelievable sort of scene to see…Very easy to hear about it, to write about it…But to see it…A woman down on the floor like that…”
Despite the equanimity in his voice, his account betrays vocal nuances that are difficult to pick up on paper.  In his voice is the irrevocable shock and condemnation at the act he witnesses.    But he is lucid as he unfolds the tale.  Beyond the clear disdain he evinces for the Angels, we can hear the pity he feels for the woman involved.  He doesn’t share a a personal connection with her, but it seems as if he understands the misery she will have to endure when she sobers up.
In Disc 4 there are striking moments where a completely different Thompson, a fierce and unstable madman, flies into a maniacal rage.   It’s almost frightening to hear him completely lose control over himself in Kinshasa before The Rumble in the Jungle.  Overtaken by fatigue and reeling from the barrage of powders and pills in his bloodstream, Thompson bellows at a someone at the door and then proceeds to scream and squawk like a creature possessed.    The Zaire tracks are important because they unveil a side of Hunter not heard on the other discs.  He bares his fangs like a snake and his mouth is full of venom.  We can hear him in his most raw and savage form.  Finally, we come a little closer to understanding the monster he so often writes about.  The Hunter in Zaire is on the precipice of lunacy.  It is not simply another one of his induced hyperbolic crises.  He is a man truly on the brink of utter mental collapse.  He gives away his tickets to one of the greatest fights in history and goes swimming in the hotel pool instead.  Ralph Steadman, his illustrator and photographer on the story declares to him, “You’re a passenger on this one.”  And as Thompson unravels, we realize that he is neither dictating the story nor writing it.  This time he is the story.
It is difficult to overstate the effect that the narrative will have on legions of Hunter fanatics.  Along with the CDs, the box set comes with a 44 page booklet filled with pictures of The Good Doctor, Hell’s Angels and other freaks along for the ride.  But The Gonzo Tapes isn’t a posthumous piece of fluff created by a pack of ravenous greedheads eager to make a quick buck.  It provides a purely unfiltered look into Thompson’s psyche.  The thing to remember is that none of these tapes were created with commercial revenue in mind.  Hunter created them for his own research purposes.  They were his meticulous personal  records; they were the best way to organize the madness.  It’s not always clear in what direction Thompson is going.  His thoughts roam and meander, feeding off of themselves.  They are often raw, coarse and deranged.  But they are also replete with moments of jaw dropping clarity and chilling insight.   The Gonzo Tapes is yet another chapter in the saga of a bold voice whose words burn as brightly as a fire spreading over a lake of ether.  Even in his most lunatic frenzies, Thompson sizzles with more individuality than other writers might muster over the course of a formulated lifetime.   These tapes remind us that Thompson’s legacy continues to be a restless voice that knows no fear and plunges into a chasm that most of us would hardly dare stand on the edge of.

Purchase The Gonzo Tapes: The Life And Work Of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson @



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