Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Discovering Kings of Leon

Proof of Purchase.
Earlier this year I was surfing various songs on youtube for my Notice: Music e-zine.  One thing often leads to another when I am doing that.  I check out performers that I have never heard of before just to broaden my knowledge of what is out there.  So it was that I randomly happened upon Kings of Leon (KOL).  They are not a new band but, since I basically live in middle of nowhere and my friends are not necessarily into newer alternative rock, the band was new to me.  When the band was maturing I was busy listening to the Backstreet Boys  and NSYNC with my pre-adolescent daughter, so my mind was elsewhere.  What a wonderful find!

Off and on over a few months, I acquainted myself with them enough to know they were a band whose music I wanted to acquire.  It was an experience similar to my discovery of The XX - which I blogged about previously.  KOL has been around a lot longer than The XX and has a larger catalog of music.  I purchased a fine boxed set of their five albums up to 2010 - which included a DVD of an excellent concert they gave at the O2 Arena in London in 2009.  I also bought their 2013 album, Mechanical Bull.

I have spent a lot of time listening to this material in the evenings recently as well as reading what I could find about the band on the internet.  KOL is a “garage” type band with southern rock and blues influences.  The members (three brothers and a cousin) did not start out with exceptional musical talent.  In their earliest incarnation, the brothers were still learning to master their musical instruments.  But they know their strengths and they definitely play to them. Listening to over a decade of their music in the span of a few weeks revealed solid growth and development as musicians.

Their early material was not really appreciated in the US.  It was, rather, in the UK where this Nashville-based rock band took off with a series of hits in 2003-2004.  Only in 2008 was their presence felt substantially in the US market and they became a major commercial accomplishment. They have developed a very strong core following and have enjoyed some critical success including a Grammy win in 2009 and two more in 2010.  

Achieving success was a challenge for the band, but maintaining it was perhaps even more difficult as lead singer Caleb Followill, disillusioned, walked off the stage mid-performance in 2011 forcing a cancellation of rest of their tour.  Caleb and his brother Nathan got into a full-blown fist fight while recording Come Around Sundown.  Caleb just wasn't into the overindulgence that came with all that fame anymore. Many thought that was the end of the band.

This past Friday, KOL released WALLS, their seventh studio album, which I purchased through amazon and paid a little extra for to have it delivered to my house the day of its release. I was not disappointed with the album.  Everything on it is worth listening to multiple times. It is rare that I find a group who produces entire albums of music that I enjoy from start to finish. WALLS is the group's fifth No. 1 album in the UK.

Personally, I find their music is somewhat unique in that it is not tinged with sadness or angst or other dark themes that seem to be commonplace among rock bands in general.  KOL is generally upbeat, positive without sentimentality, fun music to enjoy.  As I mentioned before with Coldplay, this music makes me feel good and that is the primary attracter driving my sudden, obsessive interest in what they have to deliver.

Though WALLS is a superior album, I would rank it behind Mechanical Bull as their strongest effort to date.  For me, Mechanical Bull (peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard  200) is a rare album, without weakness, followed closely Only by the Night (2008) and WALLS based on my personal preferences. Come Around Sundown (2010, peaked at No. 2 of the Billboard 200) and Because of the Times (2007) are both also solid efforts and would rank below those previously mentioned. Their debut album, Youth and Young Manhood (2003) sounds very stripped down, reflecting their limited early musical abilities but still manages to impress me.  It sold well in the UK which made the band’s continued evolution possible.  Aha Shake Heartbreak (2004) continued the success, but I would rank it last in the KOL catalog compared with their other material.

As I assimilated this music I made a mix of my personal favorite tunes spanning their entire career, which I listen to regularly now.  I just added six songs off of WALLS to the mix.  What follows are the songs on my mix as an introduction to what I feel to be the strongest music by KOL. Where relevant I will make a comment or two on the album or song.

The mix is grouped by album in chronological order.  So it starts with four songs off their 2003 debut and continues album by album (in the order the songs appeared on each album) right on through to WALLS.  Where possible I will offer the official music video for each tune, otherwise it is just the audio track from youtube. By happen coincidence, the first track on the mix is the first track of their first album. The last track on the mix is the final track of their most recent album.  

That first album, first track song is “Red Morning Light.” It sounds rather simple compared with their more recent work but, once again, this was before any of them had matured as musicians – Jared, the youngest brother and bass player, was still learning how to play that instrument at the time of this record, so the bass is subdued throughout this album.  This song was a hit in the UK and launched the band’s career. “California Waiting,” “Dusty,” and “Holler Roller Novocaine” (a really fun song) round out my choices from the first album, all of which show a bit of the band’s range which included blues from the very beginning. Rolling Stone reviewed this first album and found it to be a promising blend of “southern boogie and gritty garage rock” while NME called it "one of the best debut albums of the last 10 years."

One of the distinctive qualities of the KOL sound is the lead vocals supplied by.  In the earlier albums he was not so picky about singing clearly, allowing his often murmuring, crackling voice to serve almost as another musical instrument from time to time.  This reminds of how Michael Stipe performed on the early REM albums.  

“King of the Rodeo,” “Taper Jean Girl,” “Pistol of Fire,” and “Day Old Blues” are all fine songs from the second album, which represents a slightly more diverse sound.  Even though I consider this album to be the bottom of the band’s catalog, there is nothing wrong with these tunes.  They feature emerging talent with more diverse playing by drummer Nathan, and some really nice riffs by lead guitarist, cousin Matthew Followill. The blues is still an influence along with the southern rock and dirty garage sound.

By the time we get to band’s third album we have a fully expressive, musically competent band, though apparently this record did not resonate with critics as much as the first two releases.  Whatever.  I find it better than those.  At just over seven minutes, “Knocked Up” is the band’s longest song and is easily their most distinctive sound up to 2007. “Ragoo” has a nice reggae feel to it.  “Fans” is a solid, accessible rocking tune.  With “Trunk” KOL again sounds different from anything else they had played before.  A very nice bass line by Jared on this one as well as some of Caleb's finest lead vocals; a richly layered and textured song.  To me, “Arizona” is the most sophisticated song the band created up to that time.   

The fourth album was the band’s first large US commercial success (peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200), thanks to two hit songs.  “Closer” is not one of them but it is one of the most experimental KOL songs, very much worth listening to.  “Sex on Fire” (peaked at #56 on the Billboard chart) and “Use Somebody” (peaked at #4 on the Billboard chart, their biggest single to date) are the hits from this album. “Manhattan” is an easy, effective ballad.  “I Want You” has a really cool, funky groove to it.  “Cold Desert” also represents the band expanding the boundaries of their creativity, a powerful tune. I rank Only by the Night closely behind Mechanical Bull as the band’s best effort.

“The End” starts the fifth album.  It is a fact that every KOL record’s opening track is among the strongest songs on each album.  No different here. “Radioactive” (peaked at #37 on the Billboard chart) has a wonderfully huge, powerful sound. “Pyro” is one of my all-time favorite KOL songs.  They sound a bit like Coldplay on this one. “The Immortals” offers another large, passionate sound. “Back Down South” is an excellent song with the band paying homage to their Nashville roots with fiddle and slide guitar, a very laid back and celebratory track.

As I said, everything on Mechanical Bull is solid, there is no filler on that CD.  But, six tracks strike me as the strongest. “Supersoaker” is yet another example of a strong KOL opening track. “Beautiful War” continues the KOL tradition of featuring slow, steady anthems on each album. “Wait For Me” is a fantastic song with a carefree, open and loving feeling. “Family Tree” is another distinctive funky KOL tune with some grooving a cappella vocals near the end.  The four Followill’s harmonize very well and they feature strong backing vocals on many of the songs I mention here. “Comeback Story” is a really sweet, sentimental song which the group manages not to take it too far; very enjoyable with a small string section supporting and especially great backing vocals.  “On the Chin” is another big sound slow song that seems to float in the air and rounds out this incredible album.

I have now listened to WALLS (which stands for “We Are Like Love Songs”) a dozen times or so. While not quite as strong as Mechanical Bull, it is a confident and worthy effort. “Waste A Moment” was released before the album and achieved No. 1 on Billboard’s Adult Alternative Songs list. This song is a driving positive force, you can’t feel depressed listening to this.  “Around the World” is a more recent release and has no charting information yet, but I like this one even better than the prior tune. A fun song that makes you want to grab life.  “Find Me” has some great guitar riffs, another song with a lot of drive, only this one is a more layered studio experience.  This song proves KOL has graduated from garage band status to more sophisticated level of performance. “Muchacho” is an incredibly easy-going tune with a Latin beat, another unique sound in their catalog. “Eyes on You” is really representative of where the band is today; upbeat lyrics, nice guitar, tight forceful music.  “Walls” itself is another distinctive song, probably the most contemplative the band has ever performed.  

Of course there many other songs that might have made my mix.  “Notion,” "Molly's Chambers," and “Reverend” come to mind. But, for me, these two tunes mark the limit of what I find best about KOL. I have presented what are in my opinion the 36 best KOL songs in a chronological mix. If you take time to tour them I am confident you will see how much these guys have grown in talent and musical expressiveness.  I highly recommend that if you like alt rock music tinged with garage and southern influences you should check out Kings of Leon. It took me awhile to discover them but, now that I have, they will be satisfying part of my musical life from now on.

Late Note: It was announced that WALLS became KOL's first #1 album on the Billboard 200 a few days after this post.  Deservedly so; the album is chocked full of great songs.  A real treat to listen to. Even so, comparatively the album did not outsell Mechanical Bull (which peaked at #2 in 2013) in its first week; reflecting changing economic patterns in the music industry with respect to new music.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Sizing Up the Downfall: HST on the Campaign Trail 1972

Note: This is the final entry of a four-part review on Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo history of the 1972 presidential election.

The month of October in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72 takes up less than three pages.  By this time HST was in despair over the prospect of Nixon’s re-election, when a McGovern victory seemed so promising at the end of July. “Due to circumstances beyond my control, I would rather not write anything about the 1972 presidential campaign at this time.  On Tuesday, November 7th, I will get out of bed long enough to go down to the polling place and vote for George McGovern.  Afterwards, I will drive back to the house, lock the front door, get back in bed, and watch television as long as necessary.  It will probably be awhile before The Angst lifts – but whenever it happens I will get out of bed again and start writing the mean, cold-blooded bummer that I was not quite ready for today.

“That is the one grim truth of this election most likely to come back and haunt us.  The options were clearly defined, and all the major candidates except for Nixon were publicly grilled, by experts who demanded to know exactly where they stood on every issue from Gun Control and Abortion to the Ad Valorem Tax.  By mid-September both candidates had staked out their own separate turfs, and if not everybody could tell you what each candidate stood for specifically, almost anyone likely to vote in November understood that Richard Nixon and George McGovern were two very different men: not only in context of politics, but also in their personalities, temperaments, guiding principles, and even their basic lifestyles…

“There is almost a Yin/Yang clarity in the difference between the two men, a contrast so stark that it would be hard to find any two better models in the national politics arena for the legendary duality - the congenial Split Personality and polarized instincts – that almost everybody except Americans has long since taken for granted as the key to our National Character.  This is not what Richard Nixon had in mind when he said, last August, that the 1972 presidential election would offer voters ‘the clearest choice of this century’ but on a level he will never understand he was probably right…and it is Nixon himself who represents that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character almost every country in the world has learned to fear and despise.” (pp. 415-416)

Soon thereafter, in the chapter on November, the reader comes across an abrupt change in the narrative.  An “Editor’s Note” explains that “Dr. Thompson suffered a series of nervous seizures” so most of the remaining pages are in the form of transcriptions of various interviews.  In this gonzo manner HST searches for meaning in the failed McGovern candidacy and expresses his personal struggle to make sense of what he views as a treacherous and disastrous post-election landscape.  The first “transcript” is of the “editor” (known as Ed) interviewing HST himself.

Ed: Gary Hart later admitted he had known McGovern would lose for a month before the election?

HST: He told me when I stopped in Denver on the way to the Super Bowl that he’d sensed it as early as September, but when I asked him when he knew, he thought a minute and then said ‘Well, I guess…it was around October 1…’ According to Pat Caddell’s polls they had known – when I say ‘they’ I mean the McGovern top command – what kind of damage the Eagleton thing had done and how terminal it was ever since September.  Pat said they spent a month just wringing their hands and tearing their hair trying to figure out how to overcome the Eagleton disaster.

Ed: By ‘the Eagleton disaster,’ do you mean the question of McGovern’s competence in handling the affair?

HST:  His whole image of being a … first a maverick, anti-politician and then suddenly becoming an expedient, pragmatic hack … who talked like any politician in anybody’s ... kind of a … Well, he began talking like a used car salesman, sort of out of both sides of his mouth, in the eyes of the public, and he was no longer … either a maverick or an anti-politician … he was … he was no better than Hubert Humphrey and that’s not a personal judgment, that’s how he was perceived … and that’s an interesting word. ‘Perceive’ is the word that became in the ’72 campaign what ‘charisma’ was for 1960, ’64 and even the ’68 campaigns.  ‘Perceive’ is the new key word.

Ed: What does ‘perceive’ mean?

HST: When you say perceive you imply the difference between what the candidate is and the way the public or voters see him.

Ed: What causes the difference between perception and reality?

HST: The best example of how perception can drastically alter a campaign is the difference between, for instance, how McGovern was perceived by the Wallace voters in the Wisconsin primary as being almost as much of a maverick and an anti-politician as George Wallace himself.  He carried the south side of Milwaukee – one of the last places anybody expected him to carry.” (pp. 428-429)

HST: The Eagleton affair was the first serious crack in McGovern’s image as the anti-politician. He dumped Eagleton for reasons that still aren’t … that he still refuses to talk about.  Eagleton’s mental state was much worse than was ever explained publicly.  How much worse, it’s hard to say right now but that’s something I’ll have to work on … In any case there was no hope of keeping Eagleton on the ticket.

“The Eagleton thing is worth looking at for a second in terms of the difference between perception and reality.  McGovern was perceived as a cold-hearted, political pragmatist who dumped this poor, neurotic, good guy from Missouri because he thought people wouldn’t vote for him because they were afraid that shock treatments in the past would have some kind of lingering effect on his mind.” (page 430)

HST: … and in Miami I wasn’t down on Eagleton because I knew any foul secrets about him … But when I was talking to Stearns and Bill Dougherty [McGovern advisor, William Dougherty, Lieutenant Governor of South Dakota] on the beach that Saturday afternoon after the convention, I told him Eagleton looked like the first mistake they’d made up to then – because he seemed out of place in that campaign; he was a hack, just another one of these cheap hustlers …” (page 439)

Ed: So the public’s perception of McGovern was distorted – but you think McGovern essentially was at the root of that distortion.

HST: I think his indecisiveness was at the root of that distortion.  At every crisis in the campaign McGovern appeared to be – was perceived to be – and, in fact, was indecisive … for unnatural periods of time.

Ed: Unnatural periods of time?

HST: Well, unsettling periods of time.  The selection of a replacement for Eagleton was one of the most heinous botches in the history of politics. Here he was calling Humphrey and Muskie and offering it to them publicly - and then being turned down … He had offered it to Humphrey at the convention --- I didn’t realize that until later.” (pp. 440 – 442)

In December HST, as “National Affairs Editor” of Rolling Stone, sat down with McGovern in an attempt to find some answers.  The subsequent interview is revealing of the wide number of factors that crushed the initial optimism of the campaign. A few were attributable to the way Nixon orchestrated matters of policy, but most were the self-inflicted sins of the McGovern campaign itself. 

McGovern: I think there was just a chance, coming out of Miami, that we could have ignited the public.  There was a period there right after I got the nomination when I’m sure the majority of the American people really weren’t sure what they were going to do about me.  But the impressions that they had were rather favorable.

HST: I would have bet dead even coming out of the convention…I was optimistic.

McGovern: Yeah, I was, too.  Now I think the first thing they saw was the Eagleton thing, which turned a lot of people off. No matter what I’d have done, you see, we were in trouble there.  And so that was an unfortunate thing.  And then there were some staff squabbles that the press spotlighted, which gave the impression of confusion and disarray and lack of direction, and I think that hurt.

HST: I know it hurt.  At least among the people I talked to.

McGovern: So those two factors were related and the Eagleton thing upset the morale of the staff and people were blaming each other, and there was no real chance to recover from the fatigue of the campaign for the nomination – we had to go right into the Eagleton battle, and so I think that – if there was a chance, at that point, to win the election – we probably lost it right there.  And then other factors began to operate, the ‘peace is at hand’ business, the negotiations sort of blunted and killed it; actually, I think the war issue was working for the President.  And then the accommodation of – at least the beginning of the accommodation of Peking and Moscow seemed to disarm a lot of moderates and liberals who might otherwise have been looking in another direction.” (pp. 472 – 473)

McGovern: There was a feeling on the part of a lot of the staff that after Miami there wasn’t the central staff direction that should have been.  Whose fault that is I don’t know … I found in the field a lot of confusion about who was really in charge, pushing and pulling as to where you got things cleared, who had the final authority.  That could have been handled more smoothly that it was.  When you add all of those things up, none of them, in my opinion, comes anywhere near as serious as the fact that the Republicans were caught in the middle of the night burglarizing our headquarters.  They were killing people in Vietnam with bombing raids that were pointless from a military point of view.  They were making secret deals to sell out the public interest for campaign contributions, you know, and routing money through Mexican banks and all kinds of things that just seemed to me to be scandalous.

HST: Wasn’t there a Harris Poll that showed that only 3 percent of the electorate considered the Watergate thing important?

McGovern: Yeah.  That’s right.  Mistakes that we made seemed to be more costly.  I don’t know why, but they were.  I felt at the time that we were being hurt by every mistake we made, whereas the most horrendous kind of things on the other side seemed to – because, I suppose, of the great prestige of the White House, the President’s shrewdness in not showing himself to the press or the public – they were able to get away with things that we were getting pounded for.” (pp. 473 – 474)

McGovern: I think we exaggerated the amount of the enthusiasm for change among young people. We saw activists in the primaries, but it’s always a small percentage that were really working, and you’d see stadiums packed Saturday after Saturday with tens of thousands of people.  There really are a great number of people in this country that are a helluva lot more interested in whether the Dolphins beat the Redskins than they are in whether Nixon or George McGovern ends up in the White House.  I think there is a lot of apathy and a lot of feeling - also a lot of kind of weariness over the activism of the sixties - the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the crusades, the marches, the demonstrations.  Nixon kind of put all that behind us.  Things quieted down.  He disarmed the peace movement - there were no riots, no demonstrations, and I think people were afraid of anything that kind of looked like a fundamental change..." (page 478)

But, for all its insight into specific reasons for the landslide dimensions of the defeat, the McGovern interview left HST with more questions than answers.  This is revealed when, once again suffering from a psychotic inability or unwillingness to write, the book offers a "transcript" between HST and the "editor." 

"HST: I spent about two weeks in Washington talking to fifteen or twenty of the key people of the campaign, and I was surprised at the lack of any kind of consensus - no hard figures or any kind of analysis - except the kind of things that McGovern said in his interviews which were mainly speculation ... he was saying, I think this, and that might work, and I'm sure this could happen if...

"But when I asked him, for instance, who the 45 percent of the voters were - eligible voters who didn't vote this year - he said he had no idea.  And when I asked the same question to Mankiewicz, he said I should ask Pat Caddell ... I just talked to Pat on the phone yesterday, and he said it would take him a long time to get the figures together on a nationwide basis, but one thing he could say was one of the most noticeable hard facts of this '72 presidential campaign was that, for the first time in anyone's memory, fewer people voted for the President in, I think it was, half the states, than had voted for the state level offices - which on the average runs about 15 percent higher in terms of voter turn-out ... no, excuse me, the presidential vote runs on an average about 15 percent higher." (pp. 480-481)

"HST: According to Pat's pools, based upon repeat interviews with the same people all year long, it shows a conscious decision on the part of an incredibly large number of people not to vote for President, but to go in and vote for state-level offices.  I'm not sure just what that means ... if they felt that they had no choice. despite what somebody said that this was supposed to be the clearest choice of the century...

"The Eagleton affair was so damaging to McGovern's image - not as a humane, decent, kind, conservative man who wanted to end the war - but as a person who couldn't get those things done even thought he wanted to.  He was perceived, then, as a dingbat - not as a flaming radical - a lot of people seem to think that was one of the images that hurt him.  But according to Pat, that 'radical image' didn't really hurt him at all ... The same conclusion appeared in a Washington Post survey ... They agreed that the Eagleton affair was almost immeasurably damaging ... according to Gary Hart, it was so damaging as to be fatal. ... They could all see it happening, but they couldn't figure out how to deal with it - because the damage was already done and there was no way McGovern could prove that he was not as dangerously incompetent as the Eagleton Affair made him seem to be.  They couldn't figure out ... there was nothing they could do ... no issue they could manufacture, no act that they could commit ... or anything they could say ... that would change people's minds on the question of McGovern's competence to get anything done, regardless of what he wanted to get done.  In other words, there were a lot of people who liked him, liked what he had to say - but who wouldn't vote for him, because he seemed like a bumbler." (pp. 482 - 483)

"HST: My own theory, which sounds like madness, is that McGovern would have been better off running against Nixon with the same kind of neo-'radical' campaign he ran in the primaries.  Not radical in the left/right sense, but radical in the sense that he was coming on with ... a new ... a different kind of politician ... a person who actually would grab the system by the ears and shake it. And meant what he said. Hell, he certainly couldn't have done any worse.  It's almost impossible to lose by more than 23 percent ... And I think that conceivably this country is ready for a kind of presidential candidate who is genuinely radical..." (page 488)

"HST: Maybe the McGovern constituency came out, but I doubt it.  The people who might have voted for the candidate McGovern wasn't, like you said, they didn't turn out.  Half the people I know didn't vote ... And besides that, the black vote was very low, the chicano vote was negligible ... and it was only 47 percent of the new voters voting. McGovern was counting on at least two-thirds of those people ... and he was getting it consistently in the primaries, but of course those were Democratic primaries ... One of the odd things about the McGovern campaign is that nobody has any figures to explain the disastrous results.  Nobody involved in the campaign seems to really have the will to understand.  I don't think we learned much from the McGovern campaign." (page 494)

So, to summarize all the analysis, the McGovern presidential campaign, so successful in the primaries, was butchered by Nixon in November for the following reasons: the failure to properly vet Eagleton as a VP candidate, McGovern lost his "anti-politician" perception with the electorate, McGovern was indecisive about the fundamental issues confronting his campaign, his campaign became increasingly reactionary and disorganized, Nixon was able to "campaign" using the powers of the Office of the Presidency (visiting China and Russia, initiating negotiations with Hanoi, etc.) while essentially ignoring McGovern (there were no presidential debates in 1972), the youth vote, black vote, and latino ("chicano" in HST's day) vote were all marginalized, and fewer people actually voted for president than usually did in a general election, minimizing the disenfranchised and blue-collar coalition McGovern enjoyed in the primaries. Finally, the criminal Watergate affair had no impact at all in 1972, but that would change, of course, two years later when Nixon resigned in the face of impeachment. 

That is a awful lot of things working against any presidential campaign, but most of the blame has to rest squarely on the shoulders of George McGovern himself.  He wanted to become "the leader of the free world."  But, in the end, he couldn't effectively lead his own candidacy for the office and the vast majority of voters knew it. Although McGovern was well liked and respected as a Senator by most people, that did not translate into anything more than a momentary surge in political power just before the Democratic convention.  So, while HST says we didn't learn much from the McGovern campaign experience, he nevertheless manages a superb analysis of all the factors that contributed to his demise - in spite of HST's overwhelming angst and acute writer's block regarding how things transpired after September 1972.

In a 1997 symposium (see video starting at 13:30), Frank Mankiewicz called Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, “The most accurate and least factual account of that campaign.”  Outside of the solid political analysis of the race, everything in the book is subject to gonzo embossing.  Still HST's work offers plenty of fascinating scrutiny of the great McGovern massacre (or Nixon's grand triumph) in its final section.

As for the rest of what is contained in the splendid narrative of the book, it is best summed up by HST's introduction (unlike the rest of the book, written in retrospectively in January 1973), which also serves as a kind of confession to the reader: "I had never covered a presidential campaign before I got into this one, but I quickly got so hooked on it that I began betting on the outcome of each primary - and, by combining aggressive ignorance with natural instinct to mock the conventional wisdom, I managed to win all but two of the fifty or sixty bets I made between February and November. My first loss came in New Hampshire, where I felt guilty for taking advantage of one of McGovern's staffers who wanted to bet that George would get more than 35 percent of the vote;  and I lost when he wound up with 37.5 percent.  But from that point on, I won steadily - until November 7, when I made the invariably fatal mistake of betting my emotions instead of my instinct.

"The final result was embarrassing, but what the hell?  I blew that one, along with a lot of other people who should have known better, and since I haven't changed anything else in this mass of first-draft screeds that I wrote during the campaign, I can't find any excuse for changing my final prediction.  Any re-writing now would cheat the basic concept of the book, which...was to lash the whole thing together and essentially record the reality of an incredibly volatile presidential campaign while it was happening: from an eye in the eye of the hurricane, as it were, and there is no way to do that without rejecting the luxury of hindsight." (page 20)

Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 is a one-of-a-kind work of political journalism.  HST went days and weeks asking questions and listening, developing personal relationships with key players, taking notes but never writing anything intended for publication until the last minute, just as the Rolling Stone deadline loomed. He was perpetually late with his copy and could not have written the thing at all had not been for "the Mojo Wire," this incredibly massive, primitive, first-generation  fax machine that allowed him to literally rip his typed pages out of his IBM Selectric and send them to the magazine as it was going to press.  

The experience was exhilarating for him and also nerve-racking.  All that sense of urgency and confusion is apparent throughout the fantastic prose of his work.  HST was one helluva writer. And, as my extended quotes through this series of posts hopefully demonstrate, his work reads just as fresh today as it did back then; offering a rare insight into both a historic election and into the mechanics of politics that are fundamentally still with us today.

I reread this book because of how strange and ludicrous the 2016 presidential election seems to me (and to a lot of other people).  I feel nostalgic for HST's insights and shenanigans. We need him around today to make sense of the impending presidential train wreck.  There is urgency and angst and, well, fear and loathing more so today than ever before.  But HST is not here to guide us, to interpret, to ask the hard questions that will make some tragic sense of it all.  Trump, Clinton, what does any of it mean?  I miss HST's proclivity for distilling the essential bullshit out of the almost unfathomable hubris.  Even with him around, we were horrendously disoriented in 1972. Now, without him, it seems to me we are completely lost.

(This completes my four-part review of Hunter S. Thompson's remarkable journey into presidential politics.)  

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Meeting McGovern: HST on the Campaign Trail 1972

Hunter S. Thompson with Senator George McGovern in 1972.
Note:  This is part three of a four-part book review.

HST had exceptional access to the brain-trust of the McGovern campaign and he spent most of his time reporting what he learned from observing and talking to them.  He met McGovern personally on several occasions.  Most encounters are mentioned in passing in the book, but a few others are entertainingly fashioned by HST, who has a knack for mixing in a heavy dose of factual truth with some, shall we say, embellishment.  Gonzo journalism is meant to shock and entertain as much as present the facts.

“It was up in New Hampshire, several weeks before the vote, that I blundered into the now infamous ‘Men’s Room Interview’ with McGovern.  People have been asking me about it ever since – as if it were some kind of weird journalistic coup , a rare and unnatural accomplishment pulled off by what had to have been a super-inventive or at least super-aggressive pervert.

“But in truth it was nothing more than a casual conversation between two people standing at adjoining urinals.  I went in there to piss – not to talk to George McGovern – but when I noticed him standing next to me I figured it was only natural to ask him what was happening….I cursed Senator Harold Hughes for siding with Muskie instead of the man I was talking to…and if we had just driven through a terrible hailstorm I would have probably cursed the hailstones instead of Hughes.

“Which hardly matters.  The point is that anybody could have walked up to that urinal next to McGovern at that moment, and asked him anything they wanted – and he would have answered, the same way he answered me.

“That is the odd magic of the New Hampshire primary, and I didn’t really appreciate it until about two months later when I realized every time McGovern wanted to piss, at least nine Secret Service agents would swoop into the nearest men’s room and clear it completely, the cordon off the whole area while the poor bastard emptied his bladder.” (page 366)

Really not much of a meeting, but after the McGovern win in Wisconsin there was a more substantial interaction, again more by accident than design.  HST went into a crowded hotel restaurant and bar looking for Frank Mankiewicz to discuss what was considered a stunning upset at the time.  “I had come down the aisle very fast, in my normal fashion, not thinking about much of anything except what I wanted to ask Mankiewicz – but his loud accusation about having ‘the nerve to show up’ gave me a definite jolt.  Which might have passed in a flash if I hadn’t realized, at almost the same instant, that four thugs with wires in their ears were so alarmed at my high-speed appearance that they were about to beat me into a coma on pure instinct, and ask questions later.

“This was my first confrontation with the Secret Service. They had not been around in any of the other primaries, until Wisconsin, and I was not accustomed to working in a situation where any sudden move around a candidate could mean a broken arm.  Their orders were to protect the candidate, period, and they are trained like high-strung guard dogs to react with Total Force at the first sign of danger.  Never hesitate.  First crack the wrist, then go for the floating rib…if the ‘assassin’ turns out to be just an oddly dressed journalist – well, that’s what the SS boys call ‘tough titty.’ Memories of Sirhan Sirhan are still too fresh, and there is no reliable profile on potential assassins…so everybody is suspect, including journalists.

“All this flashed through my head in a split second. I saw it all happening, but my brain had gone limp from too much tension…and perhaps the most unsettling thing of all was the fact I’d never seen Mankiewicz even smile.

“‘You better stay away from my house from now on,’ Mankiewicz was saying.  ‘My wife hates your guts.’

“Jesus, I thought.  What’s happening here?  Somewhere behind me I could hear a voice saying, ‘Hey, Sheriff!  Hello there!  Sheriff!’

“I glanced over my shoulder to see who was calling, but all I saw was a sea of unfamiliar faces, all staring at me…so I turned quickly back to Mankiewicz, who was still laughing.

“‘What the hell are you talking about?’ I said. ‘What did I do to your wife?’

“He paused long enough to carve a bite of what looked like a five or six pound Prime Rib on his plate, then he looked up again.  ‘You called me a rumpled little man,’ he said. ‘You came over to my house and drank my liquor and then you said I was a rumpled little man who looked like a used car salesman.’

“‘Sheriff! Sheriff!’ That goddamn voice again; it seemed vaguely familiar, but I didn’t want to turn around and find all those people starting at me.

“Then the fog began to lift.  I suddenly understood that Mankiewicz was joking - which struck me as perhaps the most shocking and peculiar development of the entire ’72 campaign.  The idea that anybody connected with the McGovern campaign might actually laugh in public was almost beyond my ken.  In New Hampshire nobody ever even smiled, and in Florida the mood was so down that I felt guilty for even hanging around.

“Even Mankiewicz, in Florida, was acting like a man about to take the bastinado…so I was puzzled and even a little nervous to find him grinning like this here in Milwaukee.  Was he stoned?  Had it come down to that?

’Sheriff! Sheriff!’

“I spun around quickly, feeling a sudden flash of anger at some asshole mocking me in these rude and confusing circumstances.  By this time I had forgotten what I’d wanted to ask Mankiewicz in the first place.  The night was turning into something out of Kafka.


“I glared at the table behind me, but nobody blinked.  Then I felt a hand on my belt, poking at me…and my first quick instinct was to knock the hand away with a full-throttle hammer-shot from about ear level; really crack the bastard…then I immediately apologized: ‘Oh! Pardon me, old sport! I guess my nerves are shot, eh?’

“Which they almost were, about thirty seconds later, when I realized that the hand on my belt – and the voice that had been yelling ‘Sheriff!’ – belonged to George McGovern.  He was sitting right behind me, an arm’s length away, having dinner with his wife and some campaign staffers.

“Now I understood the Secret Service presence.  I’d been standing so close to McGovern that every time I turned around to see who was yelling ‘Sheriff!’ I saw almost every face in the room except for the one right next to me.

“He twisted around in his chair to shake hands, and the smile on his face was the smile of a man who had just cranked off a really wonderful joke.

‘’God damn!’ I blurted, ‘it’s you!’  I tried to smile back at him, but my face had turned to rubber and I heard myself babbling:  ‘Well…ah…how does it look?’ Then quickly: ‘Excellent, eh? Yeah, I guess so.  It certainly does look…ah…but what the hell, I guess you know all this…’

“He said a few things that I never really absorbed, but there was nothing he could have said at the moment as eloquent or as meaningful as that incredible smile on his face.” (pp. 148-150)

HST had run for sheriff in Colorado (politically known as "The Battle of Aspen") in 1970.  He lost and had written an article about the experience for Rolling Stone, which is why McGovern was having some fun with him in that regard.  All of McGovern’s personal encounters with HST were rather commonplace.  But these snippets from the book serve to illustrate HST’s writing style and ability to spin a good, human-interest story in with his factual political reporting. The following excerpt occurred before the previous one, but, in typical rambling HST fashion, it is mentioned over 100 pages later in the book. 

“Four months ago on a frozen grey afternoon in New Hampshire the McGovern ‘press bus’ rolled into an empty parking lot of a motel on the outskirts of Portsmouth.  It was 3:30 or so, and we had an hour or so to kill before the Senator would arrive by air from Washington and lead us downtown for a hand-shaking gig at the Booth fishworks.

“The bar was closed, but one of McGovern’s advance men had a sort of beer/booze and sandwich meat smorgasbord for the press in a lounge just off the lobby…so all six of us climbed out of the bus, which was actually an old three-seater airport limousine, and I went inside to kill time.

“Of the six passengers in the ‘press bus,’ three were local McGovern volunteers.  The other three were Ham Davis from the Providence Journal, Tom Crouse from the Rolling Stone Boston Bureau, and me.  Two more media/press people were already inside: Don Bruckner from the Los Angeles Times, and Michelle Clark from CBS.

“There was also Dick Dougherty, who had just quit his job as chief of the L.A. Times New York bureau to become George McGovern’s press secretary, speechwriter, main fixer, advance man, and all-purpose traveling wizard.  Dougherty and Bruckner were sitting off by themselves at a corner table when the rest of us straggled into the lounge and filled our plates  at the smorgasbord table: olives, carrots, celery stalks, salami, deviled eggs…but when I asked for a beer, the middle-aged waitress who was also the desk clerk said beer ‘wasn’t included’ in ‘the arrangements,’ and that if I wanted any I would have to pay cash for it.

“’That’s fine,’ I said.  ‘Bring me three Budweisers.’

“She nodded. ‘With three glasses?’

“’No. One glass.’

“She hesitated, then wrote the order down and lumbered off toward wherever she kept the beer.  I carried my plate over to an empty table and sat down to eat and read the local paper…but there was no salt and pepper on the table, so I went back up to the smorgasbord to look for it & bumped into somebody in a tan gabardine suit who was quietly loading his plate with carrots and salami.

“’Sorry,’ I said.

“’Pardon me,’ he replied.

“I shrugged and went back to my table with the salt and pepper.  The only noise in the room was coming from the L.A. Times corner.  Everybody else was either reading or eating, or both.  The only person in the room not sitting down was the man in the tan suit at the smorgasbord table.  He was still fumbling with the food, keeping his back to the room…

“There was something familiar about him.  Nothing special – but enough to make me glance up again from my newspaper; a subliminal recognition-flash of some kind, or maybe just the idle journalistic curiosity that gets to be a habit after awhile when you find yourself drifting around in the nervous murk of some story with no apparent meaning or spine to it. I had come up to New Hampshire to write a long things on the McGovern campaign – but after twelve hours in Manchester I hadn’t seen much to indicate that it actually existed, I was beginning to wonder what the fuck I was going to write about for that issue.

“There was no sign of communication in the room. The press people, as usual, were going out of their way to ignore each other’s existence.  Ham Davis was brooding over the New York Times, Crouse was re-arranging the contents of his knapsack, Michelle Clark was staring at her fingernails. Bruckner and Dougherty were trading Sam Yorky jokes…and the man in the tan suit was still shuffling back and forth at the smorgasbord table – totally absorbed in it, studying the carrots…

“Jesus Christ! I thought  The Candidate!  That crouching figure up there at the food table is George McGovern. 

“But where was his entourage?  And why hadn’t anybody else noticed him?  Was he actually alone?

“No that was impossible.  I had never seen a presidential candidate moving around in public without at least ten speedy ‘aides’ surrounding him at all times.  So I watched him for awhile, expecting to see his aides flocking in from the lobby at any moment…but it slowly dawned on me that The Candidate was by himself: there were no aides, on entourage, and nobody else in the room had even noticed his arrival.

“This made me very nervous.  McGovern was obviously waiting for somebody to greet him, keeping his back to the room, not even looking around – so there was no way for him to know that nobody in the room knew he was even there.

“Finally I got up and walked across to the food table, watching McGovern out of the corner of one eye while I picked up some olives, fetched another beer out of the ice bucket…and finally reached over to tap The Candidate on the arm and introduce myself.

“’Hello, Senator.  We met a few weeks ago at Tom Braden’s house in Washington.’

“He smiled and reached out to shake hands. ‘Of course, of course,’ he said. ‘What are you  doing up here?’

“’Not much so far,” I said. ‘We’ve been waiting for you.’

“He nodded, still poking around with the cold cuts.  I felt very uneasy.  Our last encounter had been somewhat jangled.  He had just come back from New Hampshire, very tired and depressed, and when he arrived at Braden’s house we had already finished dinner and I was getting heavily into drink. My memory of that evening was somewhat dim, but even in dimness I recall beating my gums at top speed for about two hours about how he was doing everything wrong and how helpless it was for him to think he could ever accomplish anything with that goddamn albatross of a Democratic Party on his neck, and that if he had any real sense he would make drastic alterations in the whole style & tone of his campaign and re-model it along the lines of the Aspen Freak Power Uprising, specifically, along the lines of my own extremely weird and nerve-rattling campaign for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado.

“McGovern had listened politely, but two weeks later in New Hampshire there was no evidence to suggest that he had taken mu advice very seriously. He was still plodding along in the passive/underdog role, still driving back & forth across the state in his lonely one-car motorcade to talk to small groups of people in rural living rooms. Nothing heavy, nothing wild or electric.  All he was offering, he said, was a rare and admittedly long-shot opportunity to vote for and honest and intelligent presidential candidate.

“A very strange option, in any year – but in mid-February of 1972 there were no visible signs, in New Hampshire, that the citizenry was about to rise up and drive the swine out of the temple. Beyond that, it was absolutely clear – according to the Wizards, Gurus, and Gentlemen Journalists of Washington – that Big Ed Muskie, the Man from Maine, had the Democratic nomination so deep in the bag that it was hardly worth arguing about. Nobody argued with the things McGovern said. He was right, of course – but nobody took him very seriously, either…” (pp. 240 – 244)  

(To be continued.)