levels below the strumpets, sailors, tourists and
shysters of Times Square, in the crypt of a shrine
to the god of disposable income, a glitzy warehouse,
solemn as any medieval church, an emporium selling
not so much consumer products as consumerism itself,
Johnny Depp and Hunter S. Thompson, with the help
of Ed Bradley (hey, why not?), find themselves on
a raised platform, haphazardly preparing to decant
a 35-year-old bottle of port.
mostly late-twenties, mostly white, mostly male crowd
has waited, mostly patiently, for nearly an hour as
the real-life Gonzo journalist and the hunk who plays
him onscreen did whatever it is celebrities do to
pass time while they keep fans waiting. The
H.S.T. we know from print would no doubt have spent
that interval snorting cocaine, puking up his breakfast
and blithely swirling a sheet of blotter acid in with
some rum and grapefruit juice. But the Good Doctor
in person moves like an old man, one with a smoker's
poor circulation and a drinker's familiarity with
sudden gravitational shifts. And although at the current
time of eight o'clock in the evening Mr. Thompson
has already downed his share of Chivas, he does not
appear to be hallucinating.
crowd—we've all been patiently conned into actually
sitting on the store's cold tile floor—lets
out a roar as the two stars, and, with obvious great
pleasure to himself, 60 Minutes' Ed
Bradley, emerge from somewhere off to the left. From
the brief wave hello Depp offers us you can tell he's
embarrassed about how little they've got planned.
But hey, that's celebrity; it doesn't have to do anything,
it's just fun to be around it. Depp and H.S.T. want
to sit and sip, and they set about tilting the podium
on its side while taking care not to spill their drinks
or let any ash fall from their Dunhills. A few boxes—party
supplies—have been brought along. The two begin
unpacking them, and as Johnny respectfully uncovers
the bottle of 1963 port the crowd reflexively lets
out its fratty yawp of approval.
Bradley says a few words. People—they're all
here to see Thompson; Depp is human garnish; Bradley
a mere curiosity—cheer with ironic abandon,
"Yeah, Ed! Wooo!" "Tell us a joke,
Ed!" He replies, "I'm not a comedian."
Brings the house down. An easy crowd. Sober, but jovial.
Not the kind who'd pound ether and mescaline while
tearing through desert bat country at 110 miles per
I had intended on showing up at this little publicity
stunt completely shitcanned. Stoned, well hopped up
on high‑grade cocaine and gliding along on the
velvet glow of an opium tea I like to make from dried
poppy heads, papiver somniferum. Also
I planned on toting in a pint of scotch to slurp on
as the readers got longwinded; I'd been led to believe
that such is the way Dr. Thompson would handle this
aggressively bland situation were he in my shoes.
most of those things are illegal, and difficult to
obtain in late‑nineties New York City, so instead
I popped over to the gym for a light workout and a
shower before the gig and stood in the back, sipping
a pulpy fresh orange juice purchased at the attractive
Virgin Cafe as the Good Doctor and "The Colonel,"
as Thompson calls Depp, decanted some very expensive
port, looking all the while slightly ashamed at what
they hadn't done lately—i.e., prepare for this
thing. All of which was clearly as far from what Raoul
Duke of Fear and Loathing would be doing
in a similar situation as the Virgin Megastore is
from the Mint Casino.
it's been a long time since the Mint 400, the dust‑ridden
motorcycle race Thompson went to Vegas to cover for
Sports Illustrated. And it came in handy
to remember that the book is a novel, its protagonist
a seamy fella named Raoul Duke and not the actual
"doctor of journalism," Hunter S. Thompson.
the thing Depp and Thompson had tried to make into
the star of the evening, the 1963 port, wasn't coming
through—it was practically too thick to pour,
much less decant. Guess there'd have to be some reading
after all. Which in the end was just fine, because
Hunter S. Thompson's writing, and not gorgeous Johnny
Depp, not the film, and not Sunday‑evening journalist
Ed Bradley, is what brought us all here. And Thompson
really is a wonderful writer, a fact often overlooked
in all his sensational subject matter. Especially
stunning was the heartfelt response Thompson wrote
a fourteen‑year‑old boy who had written
Thompson saying he had been turned on by the bikers
in Thompson's book, Hell's Angels.
Bradley commentates: "I appreciate the good things
you said about the book but I never in hell intended
it to be a propaganda job for the Angels or any other
cult," Thompson writes with typical crustiness.
Most of the Angels are "mean bastards" (of
which he warns there is an oversupply), and Thompson
urges the boy to follow his own road, because, he
writes, "from your letter you sound bright enough
to make something on your own instead of looking around
for something to join."
man enamored of powerful firearms and bouts of intense,
chemically fortified hedonism, Thompson is not a person
every parent would choose to advise their children.
But he offers a refreshing antidote to the standard
form most adult advice takes. "When I was fourteen,
I was a wild half‑wit punk who caused a lot
of trouble and wanted to tear the world in half if
for no other reason than it didn't fit me too well.
Now," he writes, "looking back on it I don't
think I'd change much of what I did in those days.
But I've also learned at least one crucially important
thing since then, and that's the idea of making your
your own scene," he urges the boy, and it's hard
to dispute that's exactly what Thompson has done.
By creating his Gonzo scene, ("pretty easy once
you know what you're doing") Thompson has carved
out a lasting market for himself and his seething,
interpretative journalism. And now, he tells the boy,
"My rent gets paid with no hassle and I have
as much time to hunt, get drunk and raise as much
hell as I want to...It's amazing how much you can
get away with if you don't go out of your way to cause
clear from the civility of the event—Thompson
and Depp aren't getting drunk of cheap hooch but rather
sipping, decanting even!, a well‑aged connoisseur's
port—that Raoul Duke is not Hunter Thompson
and it is a rare occasion when the twain meet. Thompson
has chosen his battles, and this night at the Virgin
Megastore isn't one of them. He knows when and where
it's okay to raise a ruckus: back in Woody Creek he's
free to fire off his shotguns at propane tanks and
douse human dummies with theatrical blood, but this
night he's sitting at the altar of American consumerism,
sipping on what Depp has sardonically referred to
as "the blood of Jesus."
plays the part. Signs the books. Gives off a few token
snorts and curse‑words and of course refuses
to put out the cigarette. Thompson, in fact, doesn't
read from his book. Johnny spouts off a few lines.
But the reading highlight comes from Laila—the
woman who produced the movie. I came for this? It's
just as well that I showed up sober and well‑exercised,
because if you want to see the old hell‑raiser
in rare form you'll have to head for the Rockies,
where, I'd imagine, a proper city guy like Ed Bradley
might feel a little less at home.