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Tuesday, 22 February
Man Down

Over the (mercifully long) weekend, I did something rare for me these days: I left the house. Yes, the wife and I, professional shut-ins in our dotage, actually tasted the night air on TWO WHOLE NIGHTS rather than watching the latest ass-bomb go off on pay-per-view. We went to see our chosen craft, some theatah.

Friday night was barely theater, really: it was a show called Delaware, which featured some very loose-limbed performance art-stuff that basically served as framing devices for a band named . . . oh dear . . . "Awesome." (I can make fun of this band's name because (a) it's just terrible, and (b) they all know it, and (c) I am friends with all the band members--two of them served as my groomsmen, in fact.)

We had a great time; Awesome plays an art-rock sort of wankery that I can firmly get behind; I annoyed them all afterwards by telling them that they put on a really great Grandaddy show. (Strangely, I liked their music; not so much Grandaddy's. Further proof that I am a complicated man . . . or just a dithering fool.) Anyway, it's impossible for me to be impartial anyway, as they are all my pals, so it was just nice to have a good time. And to hear lyrics along the lines of "My mouth tastes like my mouth." I await their collaboration with Laurie Anderson with a mixture of dread and anticipation.

Then on Saturday, the wife and I were treated to FREE TICKETS to see one of the more lauded current shows in town, a production of Clifford Odets' Waiting for Lefty. We also knew many members of this production as well, and they acquitted themselves very well--the performances were, for the most part, superb, and the director (another acquaintance of ours) gave up a typically inventive and engaging production.

Too bad the play is so fucking terrible. It just chafes me that so many people in town are howling about how great this show is, because, unfortunately, it is not. What it is is a simpleminded, ham-handed, clumsy pile of claptrap gussied up with song and bombast so that what you're left with is something like several SNL sketches as written by Bertolt Brecht, minus, you know, the talent.

It's not hard to figure out why a show like this was picked, given our political climate and the typically pinko (or, well, lefty) bent of most theater folks. (It's a series of vignettes regarding Depression-era cabbies and their corrupt union. It's main message: FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHTS! This philosophy has resonated through the ages with some of our society's finest thinkers, such as the Beastie Boys.) What is difficult to understand is why this play was picked, as it wanders aimlessly from scene to scene, bringing with each two or three utterly dimensionless stock characters uttering inane, cliched dialogue. Hard-luck cabbie arrives home to find his furniture repossessed, his wife weeping about How we gonna feed our children, Joe? Check! Young gal in love with her hard-luck cabbie beau, but her brother disapproves? Check! Doctor getting fired due to hospital cutbacks because, despite seniority, she's a . . . Jew? Check!

Look, I'm not unsympathetic to anything the play tried, however ineptly, to say: I definitely skew towards the pinko side of many, if not most issues. What just bums me out is when they're delivered so badly, so baldly, so shoddily, that it dilutes the message to the point of irrelevance. The left isn't exactly kicking ass these days, and it saddens me to go see a play that ostensibly aims towards shoring up our resolve, and ends up being something that not only just preaches to the choir, but becomes good fodder for those who would tear down that resolve. Clifford Odets was what we don't need any more of: a boring hack with a good heart; a true believer without any of the chops he needed to get his message heard.

I don't mean to sound nasty. (And I reiterate: the production and the actors were very good. I'm not hedging, either. It's just a terrible play.) But I think I'm also a little raw over someone we lost Sunday: Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. (In some sort of cosmic jest, Sandra Dee died too, which makes for a kind of wicked duality.) Dr. Gonzo evidently blew himself away.

I don't know what to do with this. I don't even know the details, but I will say that my first reaction was, "He didn't pull a Hemingway; he didn't just fold after his talents went queer. He must have been diagnosed with something." I don't know. I will say, without embarrassment, that the man--even after he went stupid crazy--could still whip up a sentence, a phrase, that could make me laugh and laugh. I remember reading him when I was, oh, I suppose ten or twelve, and wondering, How the fuck did he come up with that? I would put, on my personal list, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as my second-favorite work of comic (though it wasn't really that at all) literature, right behind A Confederacy of Dunces (and that guy offed himself too).

I won't say Hunter made me want to write; I don't know what did. I do know that his voice--that scalding, logorrheic, priceless invective--awed me at times, even later, when his clarity was obviously failing: he could still occasionally poleax me with some meltdown phrase. Or his throwaway details, like his casual mention in F&L about how drug users get used to visions like seeing their dead grandmothers with a knife in her teeth crawling up their pantlegs. Or just his chutzpah: I still remember the Rolling Stone piece he wrote when Nixon died; Thompson brutally pointed out that he was a vile, pillaging tyrant, and the world was better for being without him. This is not what you'd call material for the Bravo channel.

And if it makes any difference, he wasn't a total fucking lunatic--at least not always. Read Hell's Angels, a startlingly lucid account of hanging out with the biker gang of that name--yeah, he's engaging in typically Hunteresque behavior (shooting off a .357 through his window), but the prose is nothing like the (sigh) hallucinogenic tales related in later books (a lot of which I recognize are terrible). Or the other Fear & Loathing book of the 1972 campaign trail, where he displays a rather sophisticated understanding of that uniquely bizarre beast, American politics. I don't think David Halberstam (and I like him) is prepared to hammer out a 10,000-word piece about Howard Dean while amped on distillate of mongoose adrenalin, and even if he did, would you read it?

I never tried to imitate the Doctor, certainly not in any conscious way (though I once did imagine him as visiting my home, so that's close), because that would be stupid, though many tried. His rhythms were purely his own; and you certainly didn't have to like him, but you have to admit that you could pick one of his sentences out of pretty much any crowd. I don't think there are a terrific number of writers that you could say that about (just try to write a parody of Thompson's writing: if you can even come close to being as funny as the man himself--or as insightful--then my hat is off to you).

I would very much like him back.


Res ipsa loquitur.

Note: Comments are closed on old entries.


Me too chief. Me too.

Comment number: 005028   Posted by: Fissell on February 22, 2005 10:45 PM from IP:

My first attempts at writing were blatant Thompson rip-offs. (I later moved on to blatant Mark Leyner rip-offs, but that's a tangent...)
But our current political situation would have benefitted greatly from a voice like HSTs.

Too bad.

Comment number: 005029   Posted by: Jef on February 23, 2005 09:27 AM from IP:

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