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by Steven Puchalski


New York City. 6 p.m. Election Night, 1988, and we're standing in the cold outside The Ritz, waiting for the doors to open. The show has been sold out for weeks and the line of ticket holders quickly snakes around the corner of 11th St. and up 3rd Ave. The event? An evening with the illusive Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Fear and Loathing, Live on Stage. No one knows what he'll be speaking about (we assume the presidential campaign), what illicit pharmaceuticals he'll be on, or if he'll even show his face, but it's worth the wait (and cost) for the rare opportunity to see one of the great semi-coherent writers of our gnarled age.

When the doors open at 7:30 we scurry up the staircases and manage to snag a block of second row seats. Close enough to read the fine print on Thompson's liquor bottle... His scheduled arrival is at eight, but of course, the good doctor keeps his ever-tardy reputation intact. 8 o'clock slowly flows into nine, while we're 'treated' to music videos on the big screen projector, with the election returns randomly on display. But as we watch the electoral votes tabulated and the grim truth of four years with George Bush at the helm becomes all too apparent, the crowd's mood grows perceptibly darker. President Bush. The words lock in your throat. Bush, who had once been likened by Thompson to a "dead animal that had turned in on itself"; and every joke writer's wet dream, Dan Quayle -- a plastic man poured into an expensive suit of lies. Elected on a package of false promises, resembling a beautiful chocolate bon bon filled with diarrhea... But we put these grisly thoughts behind us, because we're here to see our ally. Even though there are a few random Bush supporters sprinkled through the crowd (what the fuck are they doing here?) we can ignore their hollow-headed, greed-induced cheers, and a couple of cold beers put a temporary bandage on the open wounds... Almost 1,000 people are here, with every seat filled and late- comers packed shoulder-to-shoulder along the back and sides of the hall. When Hunter S. finally arrives at 9:40, the crowd is in a lather -- chanting, shouting, and erupting when he takes centre stage, as if it is the combined Second Coming of Jesus Christ, Jim Morrison and Aleister Crowley. Within five minutes, the place has fallen to the wolves and any survivor will exit counting their fingers and toes... Hunter is prepared for a long night, making his entrance armed with a bottle of Chivas and an ornate club with an end the size of a doorknob ("passed down through my family," he explains), which he pounds on the tabletop to restore "order" (Ha!).

Soon every monosyllabic bozo on the East Coast rushes the stage in order to touch the hem of The King. One guy hands him a lit joint, from which Thompson takes a healthy drag before passing it along to the hungry hordes. Without any prepared speech, it soon turns into Question and Answer Chaos, with dozens of people shouting at once, microphones lost in the thick of the crowd, and the front row crushed beyond recognition by the ever-bellowing Moat of Swine surrounding the stage. Meanwhile, Thompson stalks the floorboards like a trapped animal, with The Moat cheering at every garbled word. Half the time the audience's questions can't be heard, and most of the time Hunter's answers are unintelligible. Outstretched hands stuff fresh grapefruits and dollar bills into his face -- buying his attention with crisp currency and Vitamin C. His fingers bandaged from a recent BMW accident, he admits he's moving to Perth, Australia in order to escape from Bush's hit squad... "Is Elvis alive?" asks one spunky lass. "Elvis? Sure, I think he's alive," he replies, in one of his few complete sentences of the evening... A huge Nixon mask hovers over the sweltering crowd, and Hunter tries it on during a nostalgic moment for evil times past... "Who killed the Kennedys?" one long-haired mutant screams from the centre aisle, while fisticuffs break out behind him... Meanwhile, any half-way intelligent question is met by derisive shouts of "fuckin' homo" or "fuckin' lesbian" from the Shithead Contingent, who admire Dr. T only as a fellow drug fiend who'd hit the Big Time and could now afford top shelf brands. By now, Thompson is sucking straight from the bottle, strutting about in a biker jacket passed to him from the crowd... One dazed young woman who'd obviously elevated the man to Demi-Godhood stands on her chair and repeatedly shouts, "Speak to me, Hunter! Speak to me !" A poor demented sot, with more than a passing resemblance to the lemming-like followers in Life of Brian... Half of the crowd has left before the midway point, but I just stretch across the now-empty row of seats. Perched on the eye of the hurricane. One gent takes control of the mike and confronts Thompson: "How can you justify us paying $20 to listen to this ego-babble bullshit?" "Uh, I'm guilty," Hunter replies...

The management had announced at the start of the show that no cameras were allowed, but after an hour of this unreined nonsense, I realise all rules were on vacation. So when Thompson suddenly pulls out a rifle and begins brandishing it in front of the crowd, I click off a few shots. He's a Secret Service agent's nightmare: An armed madman, equipped with press credentials and a rifle powerful enough to spread any politician's brain-pan across three counties... Hunter pounds on a nearby television set with his club. Ripping open grapefruit with his bare teeth. Reaching over the crowd's heads and snagging beers off a busboy's tray... But in the crowd, more inconsiderate shitbags in one place than I've ever experienced. Politically unaware dirt-for-brains, led by -- yes, it's that squinty-eyed MTV-clone Kevin Seal at stage right, proving he's just as big a loud-mouthed geek in person as he is on the air... "Lyndon LaRouche ripped off my thumbs!", one basket case proudly announces, and even Thompson is confused... It was all so fitting. Another Republican puppet stuffed into the catbird seat (an ex-CIA head, no less, so expect the underhanded worst), while HST rants incoherently to his salivating minions, most of whom had probably never even considered voting today. A sad state indeed, once again proving that America deserves every ounce of shit shovelled onto it... At midnight, Thompson wipes himself down with a handy towel and stumbles to the safety of his dressing room. The Ritz is a fuckin' war zone, populated by Full Metal Jackasses. Two-thirds of the crowd had left early, most of the hangers-on were pissed off, and to sum it up, the evening was so alternately hilarious, depressing, disgusting, weird, and brutal that it singed its way through my skull. I wouldn't have missed this Carnival of Scum for the world, but one taste of this particular hell is enough for me... Next stop, McSorley's, for some much needed mugs of stout. And as the weight of the day's events cut through, one observation on the next four years became obvious: It's going to be a grim, Flaming Shitstorm. So keep your wits about you.

© 1988 by Steven Puchalski.