Gonzo, We Hardly Knew Ya…

I stopped reading Hunter S. Thompson’s missives from the edge around twenty years ago.

I didn’t want to stop reading him… but, like Picasso, he had moved on to a place I could no longer understand. So, I sated my jones for good, hilarious political writing through P.J. O’Rourke (who, conincidentally, replaced Gonzo as Rolling Stone’s first-choice political reporter).

It wasn’t a matter of politcal slant, either. O’Rourke is a moderate Republican reptile, who lately has found himself to the left of the rest of the GOP. Kinda lost. Thompson defied being nailed down — the left wanted him, because he wrote about drugs, but he was at heart pure “go screw yourself” libertarian. He belonged to no one.

O’Rourke was once claimed by the left — in his youth, he was a star at the National Lampoon magazine, where he contributed heavily to the barely-fictious stories that (channeled through the brilliant Doug Kenney) became the movie “Animal House”.

He stopped doing drugs (so he says) after college, and settled on being a good, drunk Irish writer. And, once the fog of the sixties drifted away, he rediscovered his conservative roots.

No matter what your own politics are, you gotta love the guy.

Because O’Rourke — no matter how blotto he got — never lost his deft touch as a writer. His stuff is crisp, clean and has a point. It’s also damn funny. I have half a dozen of his books on my shelf right now, all dog-eared. You want good, savvy, funny political writing, he’s your man right now. (Molly Ivins comes close at times… but I think she’s too sober.) (What is it about Irish writers, anyway? It’s like some unfair advantage.)

But Thompson deserves his due. Picasso, most people forget, started out as a world-class “real life” painter. He knew anatomy cold, and probably would have attained fame anyway. But, for whatever reason, he turned his back on representative painting, and led the way into abstract art. His modern stuff is okay, to my eyes… but, like I said last blog, I think the real heroes of art are the illustrators who mastered their craft and went after that “moment of truth”. Their canvases are lush and deep. The abstract stuff is thin.

It’s okay, but it’s thin.

I’ve never quite understood why art that needs to be explained to the viewer (“he took the concept of white space in a totally different direction here, splashing color like angry emotions…”) gets such high marks from critics. It’s like modern attempts to “remake” music — John Cage gave whole concerts where his group just sat there in silence. Get it? Silence, the pure absence of music, becomes music.

Or whatever.

I’ll take Jimmy Smith, or the Smiths, or even the local bar band, thank you very much.

Now, before you think I’m an art hater, you should know that I collect the work of local artists, and much of it is very abstract stuff. But I really go nuts over the guys who show real craft, who have obviously paid their dues learning to master their medium, whether it’s ceramics or paint or masks. And, last night I went to the Laurie Anderson performance art thing (“The End Of The Moon”) and loved it. Well, most of it, anyway. There was a twenty-minute segment in there that lost me entirely, and I’m pretty sure she lost 90% of the audience, too.

But she won most of us back in the final fifteen minutes.

When her monologue again became something coherent you could follow.

For me, it’s all about clarity.

Not simplicity. It’s not the same thing. I love to get lost in difficult intellectual shit, and I don’t mind admitting I can be a snob about certain “insider” subjects… such as knowing the real story behind events happening now, so I can demolish anyone who tries to bludgeon me with the simplistic black-and-white nonsense they just heard on the radio.

No. Clarity is just the most fundamental method of high-end communication. You can say what you mean, because you’ve done the hard work — before sitting down to write — of discovering the essence of what you want to say.

So much of modern communication is like a Lassie episode: “What is it, girl? Did Timmy fall down the well again?”

I don’t have the time to figure out what someone wants to say. Or the energy.

Just lay it out, man. Tell the truth.

Hunter Thompson, believe it or not, was once a model of clarity. His most famous book is “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, and it’s a wild ride of a read. But it’s not his best work.

He wrote the grandfather of modern political books while immersed in the Nixon-McGovern presidential race in the early 1970s. “Fear and Loathing On The Campaign Trail ’72” is necessary reading for anyone interested in the amazing year that set in motion our current political environment.

I believe it will still be read a century from now.

But my favorite Thompson book… is his first big one. He went undercover with the Hell’s Angels in the mid-sixties, and did such a shocking expose that they later beat him within an inch of his life for writing it.

The book is “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs”. Studs Terkel called it “superb and terrifying”… and anything Studs likes is good stuff indeed.

Gonzo, like Picasso, started out doing what everyone else was doing… but doing it just a little bit better.

And both of them decided that wasn’t good enough. To please some inner Muse, they went off in search of their own versions of clarity.

And left many people in the dust.

As a professional writer with, oh, a quarter-century experience under my belt, I know how hard it is to be clear. You can spend your entire career honing those chops, and still have room for improvement after your masterpiece.

For me, that is a pure, wonderful goal to head for — to be understood, in a clear and riveting way that demands readership.

You can have the best damn story in the universe to relate… but if you lose your reader, that story gets tossed on the dust bin of history.

But if you can attain total lucidity… you transcend the mere act of being clear… and become a permanent voice in your reader’s head.

I can dig that brilliant artists, having conquered the “normal” way of communicating, want to stretch out in new directions. Let the voyager go. Dude, I hope you enjoy the ride.

But I ain’t going with you. Right now, I’m reading a compilation of Mark Twain’s non-fiction work, and his wicked-sharp pen still resonates a century later. He understood politics, and he communicates that understanding crystal-clear.

God, it’s good reading. Like O’Rourke, it’s crisp, clean, and has a point.

Thompson was like that, once. There have been a ton of eulogies written about him in the two weeks since he cashed in his ticket, and the world doesn’t need another one.

But hear this: He deserved the accolades. He really had the goods.

If you want to know why he made such a fuss coming on the journalistic scene, read the Hell’s Angel book and the ’72 Campaign Trail tome.

For your own writing… reread Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style”, and strive to effortlessly become a voice inside your reader’s head.

A clear, crisp, vibrant voice.

This new generation hasn’t got it’s own Gonzo yet. And it needs one.

John Carlton

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  • Wow. Another great post/essay.

    I’m amazed at your areas of expertise. Only uoi could tie John Cage, Laurie Anderson, The Smiths, and Studs Turkel together in the same post…

    Incidently, Turkel’s WORKING is an obligatory read to a niche marketer who wants to market to someone profiled in the book. It sorely needs updating.


  • Paul Roberts says:

    John Carlton: For me, it’s all about clarity.


    I don’t know Carlton well. I’m one of his lowly students – since October ’04. So here’s an unsolicited testimonial which may or may not belong on this blog – but what the hell.

    I bought his course. Went through it…oh…about six times. And wrote a KILLER sales letter for this project. Took me 12 revisions – and I was proud as hell of my work.

    Like I say – KILLER – or so I thought.

    The ugly truth is: the thing was 22 pages of well organized and keenly reasoned BLATHER.

    Lucky for me, I’m smart enough to know I’m DUMB – and because I am I signed up for Carlton’s INSIDER CLUB. It cost me WAY more than the course – but I got Carlton’s hairy eyeball on every draft.

    He kept poking at the letter – and at me.

    Sometimes it felt like I was getting a pummeling by Kung-Fu master. Sometimes like I was a rookie actor being directed by Scorcese. It was always challenging – sometimes fun – and sometimes just uncomfortable to be pushed past my comfort zone.

    Even when I had no idea what I was doing – I was able to listen – to take direction.

    So now – many drafts and several versions later – it’s FOUR TIGHT PAGES of CLARITY – and Carlton says “It’s GOOD”.

    CLARITY – spoken in a true voice – while staying in the pocket of my customer.

    Will my business idea WORK? We’re just launching it right now – so we don’t know YET.

    But here’s what I do know: without Carlton’s hairy eyeball I wouldn’t have ever known just how bad my first version really was.

    Without the hairy eyeball – this idea would have been stillborn – and I never would have known why.

    So – if anyone is reading this blog – and wondering if plunking down the big dough for the Insider’s Club is worth it – I have a definite opinion.

    You’d be crazy not to hook up to the one-on-one hairy eyeball of a guy who really is a master of the universe – in this particular domain.

    Thanks for the clarity, John – and the insight – and your obvious passion for helping a rookie like me.

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