Friday, 7 November 2008

Day 99.certain, Rocky Mountain High

From Vegas we drove nearly 1,000 miles northeast through the desert of Nevada and Utah to Pitkin County, in the mountains of Colorado.
Along the way the views are great: vast panoramas of desert fringed by the distant Rockies.
We stopped for lunch at a Mexican Taco restaurant in Green River, an old railroad town located in the parched wilderness of central Utah. It was eerily quiet, the main street little to speak of, just a few boarded-up stores, a garage and two restaurants. A beaten-up wooden shack near the freeway advertises “the best melons in America” for sale.
Pitkin County is where Thompson lived for most of his adult life in a ranch near Woody Creek, a sleepy hamlet a few miles down the valley from the ski resort of Aspen.
Thompson ran for sheriff in Pitkin County in 1970. Disillusioned with covering an election campaign that had brought Richard Nixon to power in 1968, he styled himself the “pro-hippie, anti-development” candidate, even shaving himself bald for a televised debate so he could refer to the opposition Republican candidate (who had a crew cut) as “my long-haired opponent.”
He ran on a ticket he dubbed “Freak Power,” saying he planned to mobilize the county’s small hardcore of hippies and odd balls. It was only a last minute face-saving deal between Democrats and Republicans that denied him victory.
Aspen today is awash with ski money, filled with boutique stores and high-end restaurants. On the main drag is the office of the “Aspen Times”, where the father of Gonzo once took out a full page ad promoting his run for office.John Colson, a reporter of two decades for the paper says that in spite of the writer’s best efforts to halt the developers, they won the day: “Money talks and bullshit walks. That’s the sad reality here,” he said.
To counter this reality and WAKE THE PEOPLE UP some Whoregyna got together a bunch of leaflets carrying the original campaign manifesto Thompson placed in the "Aspen Times". We handed it out on the street, Whoregyna's black-gloved fist punching the paper into outstretched palms. The polished faces of the Aspenites were creased in confusion as they drank in Thompson's words and finally, they understood.

Here's some of that original ad:

"(In) 1970 Amerika a lot of people are beginning to understand that to be a freak is an honorable way to go. This is the real point: that we are not really freaks at all - not in the literal sense -- but the twisted realities of the world we are trying to live in have somehow combined to make us feel like freaks. We argue, we protest, we petition -- but nothing changes. So now, with the rest of the nation erupting in a firestorm of bombings and political killings, a handful of "freaks" are running a final, perhaps atavistic experiment with the idea of forcing change by voting..."

Monday, 20 October 2008

Day 4.0, Registering voters in tent city, Vegas

The corner of Main and Owen -- this is where Vegas’s biggest homeless shelter is located. It is in the northern end of the city, an area which is still much as Thompson described it in “Fear and Loathing…” – “a slum and a graveyard,” a “cheap shoddy limbo,” the kind of place, he says, “where you go if you need to score smack before midnight with no references.”
The men’s homeless shelter is on a dimly-lit strip. A four-mile drive from the Disneyland of the “Strip”, it might as well be in an alternate universe. Vagrants line the street on both sides of Main; some sit inside grubby tents smoking crack; others rest on plastic chairs chewing the fat; still others lay out in the hot desert night on rags and blankets.
The street lighting is poor, the scene lit yellowy black and framed by the distant neon grandeur of the big hotel casinos – the Sahara, the Mirage, the flying saucer tower of the Stratosphere.
Before we went there we swung by a service station with a McDonald’s inside and bought 30 hamburgers and packs of cigarettes to win over the vagrants. The battle for hearts and minds is tough on the streets and you need all the incentives you can lay your hands on.
We set up stall in front of the shelter. A young meth-head babbles away at our side, a stream of consciousness splurge except he’s not really conscious in a way that you or I would understand. He’s racing through the last year with us; how he got kicked out of Cambodia, how he was supposed to be teaching English but got sacked for getting high all day. He’s the kind of person you might run into in a seedy bar in Bangkok, whose on first-name terms with all the hookers and who bores the shit out of you all night with some tedious racist invective against the locals.
Back in the day, he’d probably have been considered an exemplary subject by the colonial administration and given 20 acres and a bevy of servant girls to rape at his convenience.
These days he has to pay for it, though he said the hookers and drugs were dirt cheap out there. Too cheap it seems, since one night he got so ripped on speed he ended up climbing the walls of the US embassy and telling the guards on the other side to take him back home so he could kill his uncle. After that they kicked him out. He’s from San Diego but he’s come to Vegas, he says, to “rob bitches” and take advantage of the cheap meth. I just hope they never give him his passport back.
Around half the homeless outside the shelter are black or latino, many of them want to register but thought they were ineligible.
A large proportion of America’s estimated 750,000 homeless have criminal records, and until recently many states prohibited former convicts from voting. Civil rights groups claim the restrictions were rooted in racism since the number of states passing laws stripping convicted criminals of the vote doubled in the years after suffrage was extended to blacks and, then as now, a disproportionately high volume of African-Americans went through the prison system.
Legal challenges in the 1990s have returned voting rights to ex-cons. With the exception of a handful of southern states, most places (including Nevada and Colorado) now allow former felons the vote.
It appears, however, that no-one has bothered to tell the people concerned. The most consistent response we heard when asking them to register was: “I’m a felon. I ain’t allowed to vote.”

Half way through the night we ran out of supplies so I drove the convertible back to the gas station for more hamburgers and smokes. On public radio George McGovern was being interviewed. Back in ’72 McGovern was the left-wing anti-war maverick that came from nowhere to take the Democrat ticket for the White House.
Sound like anyone you know?
He is the de facto tragic hero of Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72,” beaten in the presidential race by Nixon, a result which leaves the writer at the end of the book drowning his sorrows in the Loser’s Club in LaCienega Boulevard, Los Angeles. McGovern is telling the interviewer that the Nixon team refused to let the President take part in a televised debate; then complained about liberal bias in the media. Nearly four decades later the GOP are doing and saying exactly the same thing. Witness, for example, McCain’s lame attempts to avoid the first TV encounter with Obama by claiming he was needed in Washington to negotiate the Wall Street bailout, though even most Republicans didn’t pretend to need him there.
At the service station I sign up Henry, a softly spoken black man from Chicago, accompanied by “his woman,” a spaced-out crack head, and her brother, an old guy with a walking stick who has emphysema. Henry said he’s only been on the streets three weeks after he lost his job and couldn’t make the bills.
“Do you want a burger for your friend Henry?”
“Thank you brother. I got to look after him, ‘cos he can’t help himself, you see.”
There is a level of camaraderie among some of the homeless out here that is touching to see. Like Mark with Jeffrey (see the Great Bum Hunt begins), Henry’s acceptance of his role as guardian and breadwinner was straightforward and unaffected…Basic human morals surviving in spite of the shit and hopelessness.
I got back to tent city where Whoregyna was working miracles, pushing through the vagrants with her clipboard and New York drawl. “All you motherfuckers signed up? We got hamburgers and smokes. Menthol too, to take away that dog breath.
“Ah, Britcoq. How do you like this. Cambodia tweaker boy thinks you shag with all your clothes on and just slide the zipper down.” She leans closer. “It’s like he can look inside your mind.
“I told him you haven’t taken your breeches off since you came to America because you’re afraid of catching the obesity virus.”
Tweaker boy meanwhile is busy doing squat thrusts beside her and babbling away as she leads some skinny old Mexican through the registration form.

By the end of the night 20 vagrants have signed up.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Day 2.5, Fear and loathing '08

"No, this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted." Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

It is a fact undisputed that some great moments in history are defined much more by context than by the actual events taking place.
Some kid playing the national anthem on his guitar may not in itself seem like an act of great import. When the kid is Jimi Hendrix, though, and the rock alien’s fucked up helter skelter rendition is ringing out over a field of hundreds of thousands of hippie space cadets at Woodstock, with the late sixties maelstrom of race riots, state murder and the bloodbath of Vietnam going on around it…well, then the “Star Spangled Banner” is made to really mean something.
When Whoregina hoisted up her dress and pissed all over a Ferrari in the parking lot of the Mirage casino with a head full of mushrooms and MDMA, it was a similar scenario.
A petite blond crouched back on her palms in one of the most prestigious and, therefore gaudy casinos in Vegas giving it full jets with a Camel light drooping from the side of her mouth is not a political statement. It’s Art, motherfucker.
But what drew us to such debauchery? The answer is complex and undoubtedly relates to some basic flaw in our hardwiring that most likely goes back to an incident in childhood.
For the purposes of this story, let’s just say it started a few hours earlier in the parking lot of the Taco Mexico. Our hobo friends had left us (see last entry) and the sun was setting in an ostentatious blaze of chimney red and orange out to the west and we decided to prep ourselves for the night ahead. Whoregina had bought the drugs in New York, a serious collection but we weren’t deluding ourselves, it was not anywhere near on a par with the Good Doctor…That’s fine though, do you know why? Because we’re standing on the shoulder of a giant here. And in any case, Thompson’s heroics were the product of a different time. The never-ending “War on Drugs” that Richard Nixon’s abysmal and corrupt administration dreamed up and which sucked so much of the joy and free-spiritedness out of the alternative lifestyle was not yet up and running when “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” came out. The National District Attorney Association’s anti-drugs convention his alter ego, Raoul Duke, attends in the book twisted on mescaline was just the tip of a relentlessly cold iceberg that has only grown more ridiculous and stifling with the passage of years. But that’s why we’re here. Trying to unpick ourselves from that onerous nonsense, trying to live outside the narrow confines of received pronounciation; recapture Thompson’s ribald sense of fun and theatre, and project it into all our futures. And we did too. At least this night.
We took the mushroom chocolate first right there in the parking lot, and drove to the Mirage to where we’d reserved tickets for the Cirque du Soleil Beatles extravaganza “Love.” As the performance began we ate some MDMA. Cirque du Soleil is an entertainment troupe formed by a couple of hippies from Quebec that uses dance, ballet, theatre and acrobatics to create mind-blowing spectacles. On mushrooms and MDMA the mix is beyond intoxicating. Sweating, pinned back in my seat by some invisible force, my eyes agape; I took deep, deep breaths to temper the burst of emotions pouring over me. Harrison had me in tears, whilst Lennon scared the shit out of me – “I am he, as you are he, as you are me, and we are all together.” Holy shit! The collective unconscious. I can’t get into that shit with a fat broad from Texas sat in front of me munching pop corn….don’t want to get in her mindspace; sucking me into an unholy vortex of Fox news headlines and hair lacquer.
Finally it ended and we collapsed back like we’d just had ringside seats for the crucifixion. What do we do now?
Whoregina was sure she had the answer: “There’s only one thing we can do after that. We drive out to the desert and spend the rest of the night looking at stars.”
“Yes, yes, yes.” But no…We had forseen this moment. A wave of panic when confronted with somewhere as sordid and barbarous as Vegas; and suddenly you’re driving into the night searching for a star, a point of light, something pure among all this debauchery. As always though, the importance was to maintain. Not to be cowed by finding ourselves flailing for footing in the belly of the beast. After all, we have a mission to complete, boxes to tick on the Thompson tourist trail – the famous old casino Circus Circus for a start, which he described as “what the whole hip world would be doing on a Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war.”
“Ok. I can only see one way round this one. We go to the car, snort a shitload of coke and then drink ourselves stupid in that fascist hell hole.”
I reflected a moment -- it was the only way. The blissful paradise world we’d created needed obliterating in spectacular fashion; fired out of a cannon into a bloody gore of decadence and depravity.
“Ok, but I need a cigarette.”
Just then a theatre attendant appeared beside us looking expectant.
“Yes. What do you want? Have you got a cigarette?”
“Err, you have to leave.”
“Why? What have we done?” It’s that blimp from Texas, I thought. Somehow I’ve managed to upset her Chakras, a sort of psychic rape that got the bitch spooked and ratting to the staff. Or maybe I just salivated on her by accident…I do that sometimes.
I look closer and see the attendant is dressed as “Lovely Rita, Meter Maid.” Dear god, I’ve entered Lennon’s unconscious. What has that mad Scouse bastard got in stall for me next? What dark recesses of the ex-Beatles mindscape will I confront now? Spooning with Peter Sutcliffe in Hamburg? Getting the shits at the Maharishi’s ashram in India? As long as it’s not Yoko’s hairy bush I think handle it…
“No. We need to close. I mean, if it was up to me you could hang out here all night but it’s the last show of the night and the cleaners got to do a sweep,” she smiled so sweetly it was sinister. It did at least bring me to my senses. When I looked around I noticed for the first time the whole place was empty.
We pulled our shades down and walked out into the casino, among the melee of roulette wheels and gaudy carpets (they design them that way so you look up the whole time, notice all those lovely, ripe fruit machines). We traced our steps back to the parking lot via an atrium filled with tropical rainforest and fat people.
In the lot we found the car and as I was clambering into its relative safety I heard Whoregina call me.
Good God. What was it now?
“Down here dipshit.”
I heard the gurgle of water before I saw her. “It’s a Ferrari.”
“That’s a fast car.”
“The plates say California. Hopefully some Hollywood assholes.”
The rest of the night acted out like a bull with a lit firecracker strapped to its tail. In the car we did the coke, rode up and down the “Strip” listening to the Happy Mondays with the top down, did more coke, danced naked in a car park, did more coke, drank shots in the Circus Circus. We managed to get back to the room without killing ourselves or anyone else and with the faint light of dawn creeping in we closed our eyes on the madness. RIP dear Mr Thompson.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Day 1.5/2.0, Cocaine nights on the road to Vegas...the Great Bum Hunt begins

Getting out of LA was intolerable. Backed up on the freeway waiting to be released from the endless spread of the city.
We’d defrocked the Great White Shark convertible and the sun and fumes were bubbling our minds. We needed some meds. Once we were clear of town we got into the coke, riding past strip malls a blood red sunset blazing away behind us. I took in a deep breath and felt the familiar cold trickle down back of the throat.
Cocaine’s only real quality is its ability to make you want more, the hooker drug. A cheap, numb fuck you know you’ll be coming back to again and again till the money runs out.
That could be sooner than you think with this economic crisis – a multi-billion dollar bailout from the Bush administration. Amazing. Been so busy jeopardising our future security with pointless foreign wars, the bunch of piss pots running America didn’t seem to notice the shambolic machines of Wall Street reversing right into the Hudson Bay. And now its left to Dear Mr Taxpayer to shoulder the burden, meanwhile all the Free Market Crazies are running around with their pants on fire whimpering about the return of Big Government. Strange times.
The go-slows in LA meant night had fallen by the time we got clear of the city. The stars were out and it was a clear ride through the desert. As the bright neon decadence of Vegas appeared like a godless mirage up ahead we found ourselves behind a truck with the MacDonald’s insignia emblazoned across the back. We followed it into the city, the familiar golden arches leading us along the freeway past the big hotel casinos at the bottom end of the “Strip” -- the Mirage, the Sahara -- until we pulled off into the downtown.
We checked into the Econo Lodge on Las Vegas Boulevard. The motel is notorious as the place where Mohammed Ata, the ringleader of the twin tower attacks is thought to have stayed on a wild weekend with his co-conspirators in the months leading up to 9/11 -- gorging themselves at the altar of capitalist excess before so spectacularly attacking it. Not exactly consistent behaviour for such supposed idealogues. Still, I hear Bin Laden’s mountain cave has a hot tub and a fine collection of body oils and exfoliaters.

The next morning we went to the local Obama office to pick up some registration forms. In charge of the office was a guy called T, a pony-tailed Democrat organizer from California who crossed his eyes in confusion when Whoregyna said we wanted to “reach out to the bums, you know what I mean.”
T was new in town and could offer no advice on where to locate the homeless. A creaky woman in round specs and an ‘Obama for Change’ t-shirt gave us a quick seminar on how to register people but she got cranky after Whoregyna kept asking her questions about voter rights she didn’t know the answer to.
“God damn Californian hippies,” Whoregina spat out as we walked to the Great White Shark with an armful of registration forms and two clipboards. “If that’s what we’ve got to look forward to if Obama wins, I’m heading to Mexico.”

First blood

Later that day we went on a bum hunt. Our first sign ups were two vagrants who rolled up on mountain bikes outside a 99 cents Taco joint on the Las Vegas Boulevard.
Mark – who was the spokesman for the two -- had half his teeth missing on the bottom set but his face was smooth and tanned from riding out all day on his beat up mountain bike. He sold junk to tourists with his friend Jeffrey and didn’t believe in the political process.
Jeffrey, an affable simpleton, had half a set of teeth missing too, but on the opposite side to Mark’s so that if you matched them you would have a full set. A Ying Yang situation if ever there was one.
“Are you registered to vote?” Whoregyna blustered in.
Mark looked sceptical. “Vote for what. Let me ask you, do you know what you’re voting for?”
Under his arm Mark carried a soft toy from the Cirque du Soleil franchise that has six shows running in town, including the homage to The Beatles, “Love.” He’d stole it from the Walgreens pharmacy further down the boulevard he told us.
“Why you care anyway?”
We told him about the mission, the road to Colorado, “Freak Power.”
“Hunter Thompson?” The knitted brow untightened a little. He looked interested.
“You know him?”
“Sure. You read any of his books? I’ve read them. He hung with the Hell’s Angels for a while.”
Thompson’s first published book was about a year spent with the biker gangs in California.
“If Obama gets in they’re going to kill him and this country’s going to explode,” Mark went on. “Believe me. I know what I’m talking about.”
And he did, at least to the extent that he was a signed up member of the Aryan Brotherhood during 20 years behind bars.
Like so many of the homeless we met in Vegas, Mark and Jeffrey are convicted felons. Many are under the impression they can’t vote. Nevada and Colorado recently changed their laws to allow felons to vote with a few exceptions.
Mark said his heritage was Irish though he told me he liked the Brits (“They always back America”). He was 48. “You look young for 48,” Whoregyna cooed.
The charm offensive was working.
“You know who’s the greatest patriot of all, in my opinion,” Mark said. “Timothy Leary.” Oh God. Here we go. Whoregyna, as you may have guessed from the first entry, has strong opinions about, well, pretty much everything. Her current hot potato is the conspiracy theory. She’s convinced Leary was a CIA stooge from the start whose game plan was to discredit the counter-culture. Not as mad as it sounds, if you think about it. “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” got a whole generation of smart kids to opt out of the political process. And we already know Leary was an FBI informer.
At the end of a five minute kick around about conspiracy theories Mark and Jeffrey were won over, realizing we were only marginally less crazy than they were. They agreed to sign up.
To confound everything he’d just said about the Aryan Brotherhood and race wars, Mark left us with this parting shot. He was, he said, planning to vote Democrat.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Day 1.0, Los Angeles to Vegas

"Our trip was different. It was a classic affirmation of everything that was right and true and decent in the national character. It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country -- but only for those with true grit. And we were chock full of that." Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
It’s lunchtime midweek, a bright sunny day in Los Angeles sitting outside at a Denny’s diner in Inglewood, west of the city, a dark funk has settled over me.
An endless stream of gleaming American motors whizz by on the two-lane freeway almost drowning out (but not quite) Whoregyna’s machine-gun patter as she talks down the phone to our friend V-nasty. “Get your ass up to Vegas bitch,” she screams twisting her hands manically and making the waitress rattle the coffee pot as she gives me a refill. I smile nervously. Whoregyna continues.
“We’re on a mission from God don’t you see. You wanna defile the honour of the greatest American patriot of the last 100 years? No way are you pussying out…Britcoq won’t ever speak to you again…” And on it goes.
A mission from God. Where is God these days, anyway? I haven’t seen him for a while. I know there are those who claim he never strays from their side and that for the last eight years, to the eternal detriment of the human race, these paranoid wrecks have been at the helm in America, using faith and patriotism as blunt tools to smash shit out of anyone who gets out of line.
I take a mouthful of egg and muffin and swig on my coffee. What the hell am I doing here? Sitting in the parking lot a rented Chrysler Sebring convertible we can’t really afford. We just got off a flight from New York (which we also most likely can’t afford), the place we dreamed up this plan.
I’m the Chrysler’s designated driver (I’m also Britcoq, because I’m British and I have a cock). We’re taking the shiny white convertible, top down across the desert to Las Vegas, the savage heart of America, to register the homeless and get high.
Somehow we’ve decided the two things are not mutually exclusive, and maybe they’re not. Hunter S. Thompson certainly didn’t think so. He took a lot of drugs and still managed to write one of the best works of political journalism of a generation, “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72,” the product of a year spent on the road in the “eye of the eye of the hurricane” following the Nixon-McGovern race for the White House.
He’s also the reason we’re here.
Just 72 hours ago and we were safely ensconced inside a Brooklyn brownstone in the heart of liberal America. Whoregyna, a loud-mouthed New Yorker (is there any other kind?), was screaming murder that the Republicans might actually get in again after the unholy abortion they’ve made of government for the last eight years.
The subject of Thompson came up. What would he have made of it all? The possibility of a black man in the White House; Sarah Palin’s crimes against the English language and common sense; the bile of misinformation directed against Obama.
In a hash and wine-coated surge of patriotic fervour we decided to do something about it. Fly out to LA and rent a car for Las Vegas, sample some Fear and Loathing in Sin City, and drive on to the ski town of Aspen, Colorado, where the originator of Gonzo lived and once ran for sheriff (solemnly promising his electorate that if voted in, he would not to eat Mescaline while on duty). Along the way we’d reconnect with Thompson’s America; register the freaks and homeless to vote in Vegas and Denver, insist they did have a part in the democratic process, however flawed that process might be. The audacity of hope.
Now we’re out here, I don’t feel anywhere near as confident. No time for pussying out now though. Must maintain.
I settle the bill as Whoregyna comes off the phone. Our friend V-Nasty has bailed on us. “It’s just you and me Britcoq. Think you can handle that?”I don’t say anything and we climb into the Great White Shark and pull out into the afternoon traffic. At a red light Whoregina turns to me grinning archly: “Now how about some drugs?”