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Life in the Stone Age

Hunter S. Thompson, Rolling Stone, and the puritanical counterculture.

Universal Pictures

Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History
by Robert Draper
(Doubleday, 389 pp., $19.95)

Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream Gonzo Papers: Volume 3
by Hunter S. Thompson
(Summit Books, 315 pp., $21.95)

Blown Away: The Rolling Stones and the Death of the Sixties
by A. E. Hotchner
(Simon and Schuster, 349 pp., $21.95)

Stone Alone: The Story of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Band
by Bill Wyman, with Ray Coleman
(Viking, 594 pp., $22.95)


If you advised a college student today to tune in, turn on, and drop out, he would probably call campus security. Few things sound less glamorous in 1991 than “the counterculture”—a term many people are likely to associate with Charles Manson. Writing about that period now feels a little like rummaging around in history’s dustbin. Just twenty years ago, though, everyone was writing about the counterculture, for everyone thought that the American middle class would never be the same.

The American middle class never is the same for very long, of course; it’s much too insecure to resist a new self-conception when one is offered. But the change that the counterculture made in American life has become nearly impossible to calculate—thanks partly to the exaggerations of people who hate the ‘60s, and partly to the exaggerations of people who hate the people who hate the ‘60s. The subject could use the attention of some people who really don’t care.

The difficulties begin with the word “counterculture” itself. Though it has been from the beginning the name for the particular style of sentimental radicalism that flourished briefly in the late 1960s, it’s a little misleading. For during those years the counterculture was culture—or the prime object of the culture’s attention, which in America is pretty much the same thing—and that is really the basis of its interest. It had all the attributes of a typical mass culture episode: it was a lifestyle that could be practiced on weekends; it came into fashion when the media discovered it and went out of fashion when the media lost interest; and it was, from the moment it penetrated the middle class, thoroughly commercialized. Its failure to grasp this last fact about itself is the essence of its sentimentalism.

The essence of its radicalism is a little more complicated. The general idea was the rejection of the norms of adult middle-class life; but the rejection was made in a profoundly middle-class spirit. Middle-class Americans are a driven, pampered, puritanical, and self-indulgent group of people. Before the ‘60s these contradictions were rationalized by the principle of deferred gratification: you exercised self-discipline in order to gain entrance to a profession, you showed deference to those above you on the career ladder, and material rewards followed and could be enjoyed more or less promiscuously.

The counterculture alternative looked to many people like simple hedonism: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll (with instant social justice on the side). But the counterculture wasn’t hedonistic; it was puritanical. It was, in fact, virtually Hebraic: the parents were worshiping false gods, and the students who tore up (or dropped out of) the university in an apparent frenzy of self-destructiveness—for wasn’t the university’ their gateway to the good life?—were, in effect, smashing the golden calf.

There was a fair amount of flagrant sensual gratification, all of it crucial to the pop culture appeal of the whole business; but it is a mistake to characterize the pleasure-taking as amoral. It is only “fun” to stand in the rain for three days with a hundred thousand chemically demented people, listening to interminable and inescapable loud music and wondering if you’ll ever see your car again, if you also believe in some inchoate way that you are participating in the creation of the New World.

The name of the new god was authenticity, and it was unmistakably the jealous type. It demanded an existence of programmatic hostility to the ordinary’ modes of middle-class life, and even to the ordinary modes of consciousness—to whatever was mediated, accommodationist, materialistic, and, even trivially, false. Like most of the temporary gods of the secular society, the principle of authenticity was merely paid lip service to by most of the people who flocked to its altar, and when the ‘60s were over, those people went happily off to other shrines. But there were some people who took the principle to heart, who flagellated their consciences in its service, and who, even after the ‘60s had passed, continued to obsess about being “co-opted.”

There are two places in American society where this strain of puritanism persists. One is the academy, with its fetish of the unconditioned. The other is the high end of pop music criticism—the kind of criticism that complains, for instance, about the commercialism of MTV. Since pop music is by definition commercial, it may be hard to see how pop music commercialism can ever be a problem. But for many people who take pop music seriously it is the problem, and its history essentially begins with Rolling Stone.


Rolling Stone was born in the semi-idyllic, semi-hysterical atmosphere of northern California in the late ‘60s, an atmosphere that Robert Draper’s entertaining history of the magazine does an excellent job re-creating. His book is filled with vivid sketches of many of the classic period types who passed through Rolling Stone’s offices and pages during the years the magazine was published in San Francisco—from 1967 until 1977, when it was moved to New York.

The theme that Draper has selected to tie the story together, though, is the standard history-of-the-’60s theme of selling out. He chooses to illustrate it by making Jann Wenner, the magazine’s founder and still its editor and publisher, both the hero and the villain of the tale—the man who seized the moment and then betrayed it. This threatens to make Wenner a little more complicated than he actually is. An opportunistic, sentimental, shrewd celebrity-bound, Wenner was the first person in journalism to see what people in the music business already knew, and what people in the advertising business would soon realize: that rock music had become a fixture of American middle-class life. It had created a market.

Wenner knew this because he was himself the prototypical fan. He was born in 1946, in the first wave of the baby boom—his father would make a fortune selling baby formula for the children to whom the son later sold magazines—and he started Rolling Stone {he is supposed to have said) in order to meet John Lennon. He met Lennon; and he met and made pals with many more of his generation’s entertainment idols—who. once they had become friends, and with or without editorial justification, turned up regularly on the covers of his magazine. Wenner was not looking for celebrity himself; he was only, like most Americans, a shameless worshiper of the stars. “I always felt Jann had a real fan’s mentality,” one of his friends and associates, William Randolph Hearst III, explained. “He wanted to hang out with Mick Jagger because Mick was cool, not because he wanted to tell people that he WAS cool as a result of knowing Mick.”

The person who thinks Mick is cool is the perfect person to run a magazine devoted to serious fandom. But he is an obvious liability at a magazine devoted to serious criticism. Wenner was not a devotee of the authentic, not even a hypocritical one. He was a hustler: he believed in show biz, and saw, for instance, nothing unethical about altering a review to please a record company he hoped to have as an advertiser. “We’re gonna be better than Billboard” is the sort of thing he would say to encourage his staff when morale was low.

Morale was not thereby improved. For the people who produced Wenner’s magazine took the ‘60s much more seriously than Wenner did. It wasn’t merely that, like many editors, Wenner demonstrated a rude indifference to the rhythms of magazine production, commissioning new covers at the last minute and that sort of thing. It was that he didn’t seem to grasp the world-historical significance of the movement that his magazine was spearheading. “Here we were,” Jon Carroll, a former staffer, told Draper, “believing we were involved in the greatest cultural revolution since the sack of Rome. And he was running around with starlets. We thought that Jann was the most trivial sort of fool.”

Draper’s view is an only slightly less inflated version of Carroll’s view. “Quite correctly,” he writes of the early years, “the employees of Rolling Stone saw themselves as leaders and tastemakers—the best minds of their generation.” Rolling Stone covered the whole of the youth culture—though it generally steered clear, at Wenner’s insistence, of radical politics. (“Get back,” Wenner pleaded with his editors in 1970, after the shootings at Kent State inspired them to try to “detrivialize” the magazine, “get back to where you once belonged.”) But the backbone of the magazine has always been its music criticism, and its special achievement is that it provided an arena for the development of the lyrical, pedantic, and hyperbolical writing about popular music that is part of the ‘60s’ literary legacy. Rolling Stone wasn’t the only place where this style of criticism flourished, but it was the biggest. Rolling Stone institutionalized the genre.

This is what draper responds to in the magazine, and where his sympathies as a historian lie. His principal sources are from the editorial side of the magazine, because that is his principal interest. He tells us at some length about the editorial staffs travails, but gives a perfunctory account, as though be found it too distasteful to investigate, of, for example, the business staffs “Marketing through Music” campaign—a newsletter for “Marketing, Advertising, and Music Executives,” circulated in the mid-’80s, that encouraged corporate sponsorship of rock concerts and the use of rock stars and rock songs in advertising. The business deals are here, but they are generally treated from the outside, and always as inimical to the true spirit of the magazine.

From the point of view of social history, though, “Marketing through Music” is the interesting part of the story. For rock music, like every other mass-market commodity, is about making money. Everyone who writes about popular music knows that before Sam Phillips, the proprietor of Sim Records, recorded Elvis Presley in 1954, he used to go around saying, “If I could find a white boy who could sing like a nigger, 1 could make a million dollars.” But Elvis himself is somehow imagined to have had nothing to do with this sort of gross commercial calculation, and when Albert Goldman’s biography appeared in 1981 and described Presley as a musically incurious and manipulative pop star, the rock critical establishment descended on Goldman in wrath.

All rock stars want to make money, and for the same reasons everyone else in a liberal society wants to make money: more toys and more autonomy. Bill Wyman, when he went off to become The Rolling Stones’ bass player, told his mother that he’d only have to wear his hair long for a few years, and he’d get a nice house and a car out of it at the end. Even The Doors, quintessential tate-’60s performers who thought they were making an Important Musical Statement, began when Jim Morrison ran into Ray Manzarek, who became the group’s keyboards player, and recited some poetry he’d written. “I said that’s it,” Manzarek later explained. “It seemed as though, if we got a group together we could make a million dollars.” Ray, meet Sam.

Pop stars aren’t simply selling a sound; they’re selling an image, and one reason the stars of the ‘60s made such an effective appeal to middle-class taste is because their images went, so to speak, all the way through. Their stage personalities were understood to be continuous with their offstage personalities—an impression enhanced by the fact that, in a departure from Tin Pan Alley tradition, most ‘60s performers wrote their own material. But the images, too, were carefully managed.

The Beatles, for example, were the children of working-class families; they were what the average suburban teenager would consider tough characters. Their breakthrough into mainstream popular music came when their manager, Brian Epstein, transformed them into four cheeky but lovable lads, an image that delighted the middle class. The Rolling Stones, apart from Wyman, were much more middle class. Mick Jagger attended (on scholarship) the London School of Economics; his girlfriend Marianne Faithfull, herself a pop performer, was the daughter of a professor of Renaissance literature. Brian Jones’s father was an aeronautical engineer, and Jones, who formed the band, bad what was virtually an intellectual’s interest in music. He wrote articles for Jazz News, for instance, something one cannot imagine a Beatle doing. But when it became The Stones’ turn to enter the mainstream, the lovable image was already being used in a way that looked unbeatable. So (as Wyman quite matter-of-factly describes it in his appealing memoir) their manager, Andrew Oldham, cast them as rude boys, which delighted middle-class teenagers in a different and even more thrilling way.

These images enjoyed long-term success in part because they suited the performers” natural talents and temperaments. But it is pointless to think of scrutinizing them by the lights of authenticity. One reason popular culture gives pleasure is that it relieves us of this whole anxiety of trying to determine whether what we’re enjoying is real or fake. Mediation is the sine qua non of the experience. Authenticity is a high culture problem. Unless, of course, you’re trying to run a cultural revolution. In which case you will need to think that there is some essential relation between the unadulterated spirit of rock ‘n’ roll and personal and social liberation. “The magic’s in the music,” The Lovin’ Spoonful used to sing. “Believe in the magic, it will set you free.” The Lovin’ Spoonful was a self-promoting, teenybopper band if there ever was one; but those lyrics turn up frequently in Draper’s book. For they (or some intellectually enriched version of them) constitute the credo of the higher rock criticism.

The central difficulty faced by the serious pop exegete is to explain how it is that a band with a manager and a promoter and sales of millions of records that plays “Satisfaction” is less calculating than a band with a manager and a promoter and sales of millions of records that plays “Itchycoo Park” (assuming, perhaps unadvisedly, that a case cannot be made for “Itchycoo Park”). Theorizing about the difference can produce nonsense of an unusual transparency. “Rock is a mass-produced music that carries a critique of its own means of production,” explained the British pop music sociologist Simon Frith in Sound Effects (1981); “it is a mass-consumed music that constructs its own ‘authentic’ audience.” To which all one can say is that when you have to put the word “authentic” in quotation marks, you’re in trouble.

The problem is more simply solved by reference to a pop music genealogy that was invented in the late ‘60s and that has been embraced by nearly everyone in the business ever since—by the musicians, by the industry, and by the press. This is the notion that genuine rock ‘n’ roll is the direct descendant of the blues, a music whose authenticity it would be a sacrilege to question. The historical scheme according to which the blues begat rhythm and blues, which begat rockabilly, which begat Elvis, who (big evolutionary leap here) gave us The Beatles, was canonized by Rolling Stone. It is the basis for The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (1976), edited by Jim Miller, which is one of the best collections of classic rock criticism; and it’s the basis for Rock of Ages: The Roiling Stone History of Rock & Roll (1986) by Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker, which reads a little bit like the kind of thing you would get if you put three men in a room with some typewriters and a stack of paper and told them they couldn’t come out until they had written The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll.

All genealogies are suspect, since they have an inherent bias against contingency, and genealogies to which critics and their subjects subscribe with equal enthusiasm are doubly suspect. The idea that rock ‘n’ roll is simply a style of popular music, and that there was popular music before rock ‘n’ roll (and not produced by black men) that might have some relation to, say, “Yesterday” or “Wild Horses” or “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”—songs that do not exactly call Chuck Berry to mind, let alone Muddy Waters—is largely unknown to rock criticism.

The reason that the link between Elvis Presley and The Beatles feels so strained is because we are really talking about the difference between party music for teenagers and pop anthems for the middle-class—between music to jump up and down by and music with a bit of a brow. Even the music to jump up and down by is a long way from the blues: adolescents from Great Neck did not go into hysterics in the presence of Blind Lemon Jefferson. An entertainment phenomenon like Mick Jagger, with his mysteriously acquired cockney-boy-from-Memphis accent, surely has as much relation to a white teen-idol like the young Frank Sinatra as he does to a black bluesman like Robert Johnson. Except that Robert Johnson is the real thing. Of course some of the music of Jagger and Richards and Lennon and McCartney appropriated the sound of black rhythm and blues: that’s precisely the least indigenous and least authentic thing about it.

This is not to say that rock ‘n’ roll (or the music of Frank Sinatra, for that matter) doesn’t come from real feeling and doesn’t touch real feeling. And it’s not to say that there aren’t legitimate distinctions to be made among degrees of sham in popular music. When one is discussing Percy Faith’s 1975 disco version of “Hava Nagilah,” it is appropriate to use the term “inauthentic.” But the wider the appeal a popular song has, the more zealously it resists the terms of art. The most affecting song of the 1960s was (let’s say) the version of “With a Little Help from My Friends” that Joe Cocker sang at Woodstock on August 17, 1969— an imitation British music-hall number performed in upstate New York by a white man from Sheffield pretending to be Ray Charles. On that day, probably nothing would have sounded more genuine.


Spiro Agnew thought that the helpful friends were drugs, which is a reminder that the counterculture was indeed defining itself against something. The customary reply to a charge like Agnew’s was that he was mistaking a gentle celebration of togetherness for a threat against the established order—that he was, in ‘60s language, being uptight. Agnew’s attacks were ignorant and cynical enough; but the responses, though from people understandably a little uptight themselves, were disingenuous. Few teenagers in 1967 thought that the line “I get high with a little help from my friends” was an allusion to the exhilaration of good conversation. “I get high” is a pretty harmless drug reference. But it is a drug reference.

The classic case of this sort of thing is “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” also on the Sgt. Pepper’s album. When the press got the idea that the title encrypted the initials LSD, John Lennon, who had written the song, expressed outrage. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” he allowed, was the name his little boy had given a drawing be had made at school and brought home to show his father; and this bit of lore has been attached to the history of Sgt. Pepper’s to indicate how hysterically hostile the old culture was to the new. No doubt the story about the drawing is true. On the other hand, if “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is not a song about an acid trip, it is hard to know what sort of song it is.

Drugs were integral to ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll culture in three ways. The most publicized way, and the least interesting, has to do with the conspicuous consumption of drugs by rock ‘n’ roll performers, a subject that has been written about interminably, A. E. Hotchner’s overheated book on The Rolling Stones being one recent specimen among many. Lennon eating LSD as though it were candy, Keith Richards undergoing complete blood transfusions in an effort to cure himself of heroin addiction (“How do you like my new blood?” be would ask his friends after a treatment)—these are stories of mainly tabloid interest, though they are important to rock ‘n’ roll mythology since addiction and early death are part of Jazz and blues mythology as well.

The drug consumption was real enough (though one doesn’t see it mentioned that since the body builds a resistance to hallucinogens, it is not surprising that Lennon ate acid like candy: he couldn’t have been getting much of a kick from it after a while). Some people famously died of drug abuse; many others destroyed their careers and their lives. But overindulgence is a hazard of all celebrity; it’s part of the modern culture of fame. That rock n’ roll musicians overindulged with drugs is not, historically, au especially notable phenomenon.

Then there are the references to drugs in the songs themselves. Sometimes the references were fairly obscure: “Light My Fire,” for instance, the title of The Doors’ biggest hit, was a phrase taken from an Aldous Huxley piece in praise of mescaline. Sometimes the references were overt (Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” or The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin”). Most often, though, it was simply understood that the song was describing or imitating a drug experience: “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Strawberry Fields,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

The message (such as it was) of these songs usually involved the standard business about “consciousness expansion” already being purveyed by gurus like Allen Ginsberg and Alan Watts: once you have (with whatever assistance) stepped beyond the veil, you will prefer making love to making war, and so forth. Sometimes there was the suggestion that drugs open your eyes to the horror of things as they are—an adventure for the spiritually fortified only. (“Reality is for people who can’t face drugs,” as Tom Waits used to say.) The famous line in The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” was meant to catch both senses; “I’d love to turn you on.” It was all facile enough; but the idea was not, simply, “Let’s party.”

What was most distinctive about late-‘60s popular music, though, was not that some of its performers used drugs, or that some of its songs were about drugs. It was that late-’60s rock was music designed for people to listen to while they were on drugs. The music was a prepackaged sensory stimulant. This was a new development. Jazz musicians might sometimes be junkies, but jazz was not music played for junkies. A lot of late-‘60s rock music, though, plainly advertised itself as a kind of complementary good for recreational drugs. This explains many things about the character of popular music in the period—particularly the musical length of the songs. There is really only one excuse for buying a record with a twelve-minute drum solo.

How the history of popular music reflects the social history of drug preference is a research topic that calls for some fairly daunting field work. It was clear enough in the late ‘60s, though, that the most popular music was music that projected a druggy aura of one fairly specific kind or another. Folk rock, for example, became either seriously mellow (Donovan, or The Youngbloods) or raucous and giggly (Country Joe and the Fish), sounds suggesting that marijuana might provide a useful enhancement of the listening experience. Music featuring pyrotechnical instrumentalists (Cream, or Ten Years After) had an overdriven, methedrine sort of sound. In the ‘70s a lot of successful popular music was designed to go well with cocaine, a taste shift many of the ‘60s groups couldn’t adjust to quickly enough. (The Rolling Stones were an exception.) But the featured drugs of the late ‘60s were the psychedelics: psilocybin, mescaline, and, especially, LSD. They were associated with the British scene through Lennon, who even before Sgt. Pepper’s had apparently developed a kind of religious attachment to acid. And LSD was the drug most closely identified with the San Francisco scene, especially with The Grateful Dead, a group that had been on hand in 1965 when Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters took their “acid test” bus trips, and whose equipment had been paid for by Timothy Leary himself. It would seem that once a person was on a hallucinogen, the particular kind of music he was listening to would be largely irrelevant; but there were bands, like The Dead, whose drug aura was identifiably psychedelic.

You didn’t have to be on drugs to enjoy late-’60s rock ‘n’ roll, as many people have survived to attest; and this is an important fact. For from a mainstream point of view, the music’s drug aura was simply one aspect of the psychedelic fashion that between 1967 and 1969 swept through popular art (black-light posters), photography (fish-eye lenses), cinema (jump cuts and light shows), clothing (tie-dye), coloring (Day-Glo), and speech (“you turn me on”).

Psychedelia expressed the counterculture sensibility in its most pop form. It said: spiritual risk-taker, uninhibited, enemy of the System. It advertised liberation and hipness in the jargon and imagery of the drug experience. And the jargon wasn’t restricted to people under 30, or to dropouts. For in the late ‘60s the drug experience became the universal metaphor for the good life. Commercials for honey encouraged you to “get high with honey.” The Ford Motor Company invited you to test drive a Ford and “blow your mind.” For people who did not use drugs, the music was a plausible imitation drug experience because every commodity in the culture was pretending to be some kind of imitation drug experience.

Psychedelia, and the sensibility that attached to it, was a media-driven phenomenon, In April 1966 Time ran a story on the Carnaby Street, mods and rockers, Beatles and Rolling Stones scene in London. In fact, that scene was on its last legs when the article appeared; but many Americans were induced to vacation in London, which revived the local economy, and the summer of 1966 became the summer of “Swinging London.”

Swinging London was perfect mass media material: sexy, upbeat, and fantastically photogenic. So when 20,000 people staged a “Human Be-In” in Golden Gate Park in January 1967, the media were on hand. Here was a domestic version of the British phenomenon: hippies. Diggers, Hell’s Angels, music, “free love,” and LSD—the stuff of a hundred feature stories and photo essays. The media discovery of the hippies led to the media discovery of the Haight-Ashbury, and the summer of 1967 became the San Francisco “Summer of Love,” that year’s edition of Swinging London. Sgt. Pepper’s was released in June, and the reign of psychedelia was established. The whole episode lasted a little less than three years—about the tenure of the average successful television series.

Once the media discovered it, the counterculture ceased being a youth culture and became a commercial culture for which youth was a principal market—at which point its puritanism (inhibitions are oppressive) became for many people an excuse for libertinism (inhibitions are a drag). LSD for instance, was peddled by Leary through magazines like Playboy, where, in a 1966 interview, he explained that “in a carefully prepared, loving session, a woman will inevitably have several hundred orgasms.” This was exactly the sort of news Playboy existed to print, and the interviewer followed up by asking whether this meant that Leary found himself suddenly irresistible to women. Leary allowed that it did, but proved reluctant to give all the credit to a drug, merely noting that: “Any charismatic person who is conscious of his own mythic potency awakens this basic hunger in women and pays reverence to it at the level that is harmonious and appropriate at the time.”

Playboy is not a magazine for dropouts; and the idea that counterculture drugs were really aphrodisiacs was an idea that appealed not to teenagers (who do not require hormonal assistance) but to middle-aged men. (“Good sex would have to be awfully good before it was better than on pot,” Norman Mailer mused, presumably for the benefit of his fe!l<jw 45-year-olds, in The Armies of the Night, in 1968.) It was not teenagers who put Tom Wolfe’s account of Kesey’s LSD quackery, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), on the hardcover bestseller list. Hippies did not buy tickets to see Hair on Broadway, where it opened in 1968 and played over 1,700 performances, or read Charles Reich’s homage to bell-bottom pants in The New Yorker. People living on communes did not make “Laugh-In,” Hollywood’s version of the swinging psychedelic style, the highest-rated show on television in the 1968-69 season. And, of course, students did not design, manufacture, distribute, and enjoy the profits from rock ‘n’ roll records. Those who attack the counterculture for disrupting what they take to have been the traditional American way of life ought to look to the people who exploited and disseminated it—good capitalists all—before they look to the young people who were encouraged to consume it.


After the Altamont concert disaster in December 1969, when a fan was killed a few feet from the stage where The Rolling Stones were performing, psychedelia lost its middleclass appeal. More unpleasant news followed in 1970—the Kent State and Jackson State shootings, the Manson Family trials, the deaths by overdose of famous rock stars. And even more quickly than it had sprung up, the media fascination with the counterculture evaporated.

But the counterculture, stripped of its idealism and its sexiness, lingered on. If you drove down the main street of any small city in America in the 1970s, you saw dusters of teenagers standing around, wearing long hair and bellbottom jeans, listening to Led Zeppelin, furtively getting stoned. This was the massive middle of the baby-boom generation, the remnant of the counterculture—a remnant that was much bigger than the original, but in which the media had lost interest. These people were not activists or dropouts. They had very few public voices. One of them was Hunter Thompson’s. Thompson came to Rolling Stone in 1970, an important moment in the magazine’s history. Wenner had fired Greil Marcus, a music critic with an American studies degree who was then his reviews editor, for running a negative review of an inferior Dylan album called Self-Portrait (it is one of Wenner’s rules that the big stars must always be hyped); and most of the politically minded members of the staff quit after the “Get Back” episode following Kent State. There were financial problems as well. By the end of 1970, Rolling Stone was a quarter million dollars in debt.

Hugh Hefner, who is to testosterone what Wenner is to rock’n’ roll, offered to buy the magazine, but Wenner found other angels. Among them were record companies. Columbia Records and Elektra were delighted to advance their friends at Rolling Stone a year’s worth of advertising; Rolling Stone and the record companies, after all, were in the same business.

The next problem was to sell magazines. (Rolling Stone relies heavily on newsstand sales, since its readers are not the sort of people who can be counted on to fill out subscription renewal forms with any degree of regularity.) Here Wenner had two strokes of good fortune. The first was a long interview he obtained with John Lennon, the first time most people had ever heard a Beatle not caring to sound lovable. It sold many magazines. The second was the arrival of Thompson.

Thompson was a well-traveled, free-spirited hack whose resume included a stint as sports editor of The Jersey Shore Herald, a job as general reporter for The Middletown Daily News, freelance work out of Puerto Rico for a bowling magazine, a period as South American correspondent for The National Observer (during which he suffered some permanent hair loss from stress and drugs), an assignment covering the 1968 presidential campaign for Pageant, two unpublished Great American novels, a little male modeling, and a narrowly unsuccessful campaign for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado.

Thompson had actually been discovered for the alternative press by Warren Hinckle, the editor of Ramparts, which is when his writing acquired the label “gonzo journalism.” But Thompson was interested in Rolling Stone because he thought it would help his nascent political career by giving him access to people who had no interest in politics (a good indication of the magazine’s political reputation in 1970). A year after signing on, he produced the articles that became Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972), a tour de force of pop faction about five days on drugs in Las Vegas. It sold many copies of Rolling Stone, and it gave Thompson fortune, celebrity, and a permanent running headline.

Many people who were not young read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and thought it a witty piece of writing. Wolfe included two selections from Thompson’s work in his I973 anthology The New Journalism (everyone else but Wolfe got only one entry); and this has given Thompson the standing of a man identified with an academically recognized Literary Movement. But Thompson is essentially a writer for teenage boys. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is The Catcher in the Rye on speed: the lost weekend of a disaffected loser who tells his story in a mordant style that is addictively appealing to adolescents with a deep and unspecified grudge against life.

Once you understand the target, the thematics make sense. Sexual prowess is part of the Thompson mystique, for example, but the world of his writing is almost entirely male, and sex itself is rarely more than a vague, adult horror; for sex beyond mere bravado is a subject that makes most teenage boys nervous. A vast supply of drugs of every genre and description accompany the Thompson persona and maintain him in a permanent state of dementia; but the drugs have all the verisimilitude of a 14-year-old’s secret spy kit: these grown-ups don’t realize that the person they are talking to is completely out of his mind on dangerous chemicals. The fear and loathing in Thompson’s writing is simply Holden Caulfield’s fear of growing up)—a fear that, in Thompson’s case as in Salinger’s, is particularly convincing to younger readers because it so clearly runs from the books straight back to the writer himself.

After the Las Vegas book, Rolling Stone assigned Thompson to cover the 1972 presidential campaign. His reports were collected in (inevitably) Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail (1973). The series begins with some astute analysis of primary strategy and the like, salted with irreverent descriptions of the candidates and many personal anecdotes. Thompson’s unusual relation to the facts—one piece, which caused a brief stir, reported that Edmund Muskie was addicted to an obscure African drug called Ibogaine—made him the object of some media attention of his own. But eventually the reporting breaks down, and Thompson is reduced at the end of his book to quoting at length from the dispatches of his Rolling Stone colleague Timothy Grouse (whose own book about the campaign. The Boys on the Bus, became an acclaimed expose of political journalism).

Since 1972 Thompson has devoted his career to the maintenance of his legend, and his reporting has mostly been reporting about the Thompson style of reporting, which consists largely of unsuccessful attempts to cover his subjects, and of drug misadventures. He doesn’t need to report, of course, because reporting is not what his audience cares about. They care about the escapades of their hero which are recounted obsessively in his writing, and some of which were the basis for an unwatchable movie called Where the Buffalo Roam, released in 1980 and starring Bill Murray.

Thompson left Rolling Stone around 1975 and eventually became a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner. He has been repackaging his pieces in chronicle form regularly since 1979. Songs of the Doomed is the third collection, and most of the recent material concerns the author’s arrest earlier this year on drug possession and sexual assault charges in Colorado. Having made a fortune portraying himself as a champion consumer of controlled substances, Thompson naturally took the position that the drugs found in his house must have been left there by someone else. (The charges, unfortunately for a writer badly in need of fresh adventures, were dismissed.)

Thompson, in short, is practically the only person in America still living circa 1972. His persona enacts a counterculture sensibility with the utopianism completely leached out. There are no romantic notions about peace and love in his writing, only adolescent paranoia and violence. There is no romanticization of the street, cither. Everything disappoints him—an occasionally engaging attitude that is also, of course, romanticism of the very purest sort. Thompson is the eternally bitter elegist of a moment that never really was, and that is why he is the ideal writer for a generation that has always felt that it arrived onstage about five minutes after the audience walked out.


If all popular culture episodes I were only commercial and manipulative, they would not matter to us. Some things are what you make them, and even the shabbiest cultures contribute to character. If you grew tip in Disneyland, you would care about Mickey Mouse in spite of his artificiality, for Mickey would have been one of the presences in the world where your spirit was formed. Something like this is true for people who grew up in the ‘60s. For the late-’60s counterculture was not, by any means, the shabbiest episode of the postwar era, even if it now seems the most antique. It was imaginative and infectious, and it touched a nerve.

The faith in popular music, in consciousness-expansion, and in the nonconformist lifestyle that made up the countercultural ethos seems clearly misplaced today. You wonder why it didn’t dawn on all those disaffected Rolling Stone writers and editors that Wenner was successful precisely because he wasn’t the anomaly they took him for. But faith in anything can be a valuable sentiment; and what young people in the ‘60s thought their faith made it possible for them to do was to tell the truth. Of course, telling the truth is much harder than they thought it was; and the culture they imagined was sustaining them turned out not to be “authentically” theirs, and not really sustainable, after all. But those people had not yet become cynics.

The silliest charge brought against the ‘60s is the charge of moral relativism. Ordinary life must be built on the solid foundations of moral values, those who make this charge argue, and the ‘60s persuaded people that the foundations weren’t solid, and that any morality would do that got you through the night. The accusation isn’t just wrong about the ‘60s; it’s an injustice to the dignity of ordinary life, which is an irredeemably pragmatic and open-ended affair. You couldn’t make it through even the day if you held every transaction tip to scrutiny by the lights of some received moral code. Radicals and youthful counterculture types in the ‘60s weren’t moral relativists. They were moral absolutists. They scrutinized everything, and they believed that they could live by the distinctions they made.

There are always people who think this way—people who see that the world is a little fuzzy and proceed to make a religion out of clarity. In the ‘60s their way of thinking was briefly but memorably a part of the popular culture. Hotchner’s book on The Rolling Stones is a mélange of clichés and misinformation; but it is constructed around a series of interviews with people who were around the band in the ‘60s, and although most of the anecdotes have the polished and improved feel of tales many times retold, a few have a kind of parabolic resonance.

One of the stories is told by a photographer named Gered Mankowitz, who accompanied The Rolling Stones on their American tours in the 1960s. It seems that there were two groupies in those days who dedicated themselves to the conquest of Mick Jagger. After several years of futile pursuit, they managed to get themselves invited to a house where The Stones were staying, and Mick was persuaded to take both of them to bed. Afterward, though, the girls were disappointed. “He was only so-so,” one of them complained. “He tried to come on like Mick Jagger, but he’s no Mick Jagger.” The real can always be separated from the contrived: wherever that illusion persists, the spirit of the ‘60s still survives.