The Doc Down Under
(by Stanley, 1996)
In the second half of '76, there was a degree of excitement and anticipation among those who had followed the Doctorial essays in Rolling Stone and Playboy here in Australia. Thompson was coming to Melbourne. We're a long way away, and a visit like this is an important event.
Mixed reports appeared in the press depicting his Sydney "lectures" as a chaotic, unpleasant farce, with audience walk-outs and a fair degree of fear and loathing all round. Well and good, we muttered. If that's how it'll be, then that's how it'll be. Que sera. This is, after all, his Gonzo eminence. We bought our tickets.
He was due to appear on the Don Lane Show, Australia's equivalent of a Johnny Carson Show at that time. Several of us gathered around a communal TV set, and lit joints. Lane, an expatriate Afro-haired white American who specialised in bad interviewing technique, singing hits from "The Music Man" and gold chains over an open-necked shirt, introduced the interview with a degree of trepidation. "The only man to ride with the Hell's Angels and Richard Nixon", "Outlaw Journalist", the usual stuff... but there was a note of sincerity in his "I honestly don't know what will happen here tonight, folks..."
Perhaps coloring his unease were memories of the well-reported incident a decade or so earlier when Lane himself got busted en route from, I think, Hawaii. A quantity of marijuana was found in his luggage. It is testimony to the guy's dogged professionalism that he managed to overcome this stigma in a place as conservative as Australia, and rise to have the number one national show, nightly, and... live.
He went on to explain that due to unforseen circumstances, the Doc would be speaking via cable from Sydney, and not from the Melbourne studio as planned. (No one could have foreseen Thompson's instant ennui with Melbourne as it was on a sleepy Sunday afternoon in 1976, and his rapid insistance on an immediate charter flight back to Sydney. But more of that later.)
By now, we, the East St. Kilda chapter of the HST appreciation society were pretty fairly ripped as Lane introduced our hero. Cut to Thompson, seated, wearing aviator shades and a sport coat draped nonchalantly over one shoulder.
The interview proceeded smoothly enough. I don't have a very clear recollection of all that transpired, folks, to be honest, but I think it was pretty much the expected mix of Campaign questions ('76 - Carter v Ford), Richard Nixon, just a touch of "lifestyle" issues, and of course, the Hell's Angels.
Hunter was in good form, but strangely distracted. He seemed to start off in a particularly rocky fashion, apparently unaware that the interview had started, asking something like "Are you talking to me?"
Still, he appeared to warm to the situation, drawing particularly gratifying gasps from the studio audience with his description of an avenging Hell's Angel popping a man's eyeball out with his bare thumbs. Lane looked nervous but happy. This was as good as advertised - a dangerous yet cooperative subject holding court on exciting topics, no trouble so far. Lane was in control, at a distance of 600 miles.
And then it happened. Mid-sentence, Hunter breaks off and looks off-camera. "What the *f--k* is this doing here?" he asks, flinging the casually draped jacket off his shoulder to the floor.
Cut to Lane, slack-jawed, boggle-eyed to camera. It had happened... He stammered "Ah, did the 7 second delay work there? It didn't?" It hadn't. For some reason, the person with the digit poised over the 7 second delay cut button had blinked, and "f--k" was broadcast live, nationally. It made all the papers the next day, of course.
There was an interesting postscript for me. I was working in an advertising agency as an art director, teamed with a writer who moonlighted for one of the grubbier tabloids as their television critic "Veritas", or "ferret-arse" as we called him. (I swear to God, this guy wrote a 10 paragraph review of the premiere of a major new series without having seen it). He was, after all, down at the pub. ("The acting, while not startling, is competent. The direction, while avoiding the traps of modish avant-gardism suffers from a plodding adequacy." That sort of stuff - but with maybe shorter words.) Our customary couple of beers after work the day after Hunter's appearance had dragged on to several more, and it was after nine o'clock. About the time that inspiration kicks in. My friend L. was inspired.
"Why don't we go see the Lane Show?" he says, "I reckon I could get us past Security. I'm a Critic." I pretended to think for a while, and perceiving no flaw in the plan, said "Why not?"
We caught a cab, and at the gates L. was majestic. "We're here to see Peter Faiman, I'm Veritas from The Truth newspaper." It worked. Peter Faiman was the show's director (and later went on to direct "Crocodile Dundee").
We found ourselves inside the studios, through the side door we were directed to. I recall us ambling past video-tape recording departments, finding our way to an upper floor, and suddenly, there was the control room. Someone outside went in to tell someone inside we were there, and, perhaps with a sense of resignation, we were invited in. So we watched that show in company with the director and control room people and Lane's girlfriend of the time, and were invited back to the green room for a drink afterwards. And it was there that I found myself standing next to the Afro-haired Don Lane, chatting to him. (Yeah, I still can't believe it either. But it happened. ) I brought up the previous night's show, an act that only complete naivety and drunkenness could have inspired. Lane kind of shook his Afro sadly and muttered "Yeah, I don't know how that could've happened".
That's when I ventured my theory, folks.
"I don't think Thompson had a monitor."
Lane looks to the several assembled round him. "He didn't have a monitor??"
Nervous shuffling, coughing at glasses of wine. "He didn't have a monitor??"
"Aah, well, no, Don... there was a problem..."
That's when I realised I may have stirred something up.
"He didn't have a monitor??"
Lane left looking resolved. God knows what happened to whatever poor f--k the finger ended up pointing at.
This is one instance where Hunter Thompson could fairly and honestly be accused of being "off the air", because as far as he knew, he was. It later transpired that the feed to his monitor in Sydney, 600 miles away, was showing dog-food commercials as the disembodied voice of Don Lane was asking him questions. Understandably enough, he figured it might have been part of a warm up with the host, before actual on-air transmission. Suddenly, his monitor kicks in showing himself and the jacket the make-up lady had draped over his shoulder. Hunter Thompson as Jean-Paul Belmondo? No way. "What the f--k is this doing here?" Out it goes.
Came the night of the lecture itself. I went with my friend Hack. The Melbourne Town Hall is an imposing Victorian structure. In 1964, the Beatles waved to an enormous crowd of massed humanity from its balcony. Inside, it is reasonably cavernous. Into this splendid Victorian cavern went Hack, I and my brand-new Olympus OM-1 35mm camera, and my new Aiwa ghetto-blaster (before they were called that). I was gonna *cover the story*. Yeah.
Well, the audio tape resulted in an intermittent low-pitched rumble: Thompson's voice, recorded booming and echoing and mixing with all reflections off every surface of the building. That's when I learnt about the limitations of built-in omni-directional microphones and automatic level adjustments that cassette-radios have. At some stage, I must have ditched the tape. Today, I wish I hadn't've. It might have given me some further clues as to what he actually said that night. The pictures, with my newly-acquired telephoto lens on my newly-acquired camera are, well, fuzzy yet atmospheric, I like to think.
Obviously the rules about bringing equipment into venues were yet to be fixed to today's draconian strictures.
Anyway, the night went something like this. The hall was about half to three-quarters full, I think. We chose seats about 2/3 back on the right, prompted by nervousness on my part about being seen taking pictures, I suppose.
This was the second Melbourne show. We had heard reports that the Angels had attended the previous night's concert, and that there were gun-shots in the toilets. We gave it no mind. We were on the case. But it did add a certain *frisson*, as it were, to the atmosphere of the night.
So, let the show commence. We sit back, and out comes a little long-haired hippie with a guitar. Visibly timid, he apologises for being here, explaining that ("to all you politicos out there...") he has to perform as part of the Australian Actors' Equity (Union) ruling that for every imported act, a local act has to be employed. No wonder he was scared. So, he sang his folk songs unmolested, and got off unscathed, and it was intermission.
So we resume our seats. And the house lights dim. And the hall becomes black, totally black. And without any explanation, a loud sound is heard. A constant, roaring sound which continues steadily for some time, very loud. And then The Fear gripped me, because I realised that what I was hearing was nothing but the silence of tape hiss, amplified beyond reason. We were yet to hear a sound! And I tell you, it was loud. And then it started...
A jabbering, and a wailing and sobbing and a screaming and a rising in pitch and intensity and a shrieking and a shrilling that would rise and swirl and intensify and go on and on and on... it was the sound of mortal human having his soul ripped from his rib cage. It hurt the ears and it went on and on and on... it got louder and worse... it was the cry of the banshee... it was souls in purgatory... it was painfully loud. Jabbering, then screaming and wailing, then suddenly reverting to human voice and reason and starting to talk before breaking back into ear-piercing sobs... The sound was a physical presence that gripped and pummelled the body and it would not stop. It went on for several hours or several seconds, in pitch darkness...
And then the stage lights came up and the sound stopped. And there was a trestle table covered in cloth, behind which were two chairs, and on the table were an ashtray and an ice-bucket containing a bottle of Wild Turkey. And there was the organizer, Peter Olszewski, and there was the good Dr. Thompson, both seated.
And Thompson, cigarette-holder in mouth says: "Any questions?"
And then he said something like "I have nothing to say, really. However, if you have any questions, in the aisles you will find six audience mikes. If you could form queues at the mikes I'll try to answer your questions as best I can." And then he explained the tape we'd just been subjected to.
"A few years ago I was interviewing this patient in a mental hospital. We were alone in a room, and for about ten minutes he was perfectly lucid. Then something snapped, and he went crazy. When I went home and played the tape, I thought -- how the f--k do I translate *this* into the printed word? It was impossible. So I brought that tape along to demonstrate the limitations of print journalism."
By this time, lines of people had formed at each of the aisle microphones, and the Q&A began. Despite his explanation, he had to patiently deal with three or four dildoes asking "Was that you on the tape?" "No, as I said, it was a patient in a..." "Hunter, is that you on the tape?" "No, I'll explain again..."
There were the students, the druggies, the politicos... not many bikers, they'd had their show the previous night.
A student type got up and asked about the best kind of ether for recreational use. He called him "Hunter S.", which sounded like "hunteress". Thompson replied "I like the industrial stuff, rather than hospital ether. The raw, industrial ether works best for me."
Some jerk asked "Given your intake of chemicals, were able to reach climax the last time you had sex?" Without missing a beat, he snapped back "Multiple orgasms."
Someone asked about truth versus fiction in a book like Las Vegas. Thompson scratched his head, poured another tumbler of Wild Turkey and explained. "The book is essentially true. Everything in it actually happened. It's just that it all didn't necessarily happen on the one weekend. It's an amalgam of things that may have happened over a period of time, but they all did happen. With, ah, one exception... the hitch-hiker. I made him up."
Australia had some pretty fierce drug laws back in the 70s, and visitors like Joe Cocker had been kicked out for possession of substances. When asked about what he might be carrying in his medicine bag, he grinned and said "I *can* go cold turkey, you know... for, ah, three or four days..."
An article that appeared later, written by Olszewski, revealed that the Doc's pharmaceutical supplier was on tour with him, but travelling on different planes under an assumed name.
One of the most high profile Australians was and still is Barry Jones, a bearded former school-teacher who found fame in the early 60s on a TV quiz show called "Pick a Box". He was absolutely unbeatable. (At key points in the show, the champion would have to decide between an offered sum of money, or picking a box with a mystery prize. Invariably, the audience would scream "Pick a Box!") Subsequently, he entered federal Parliament and became Minister for various high brain-activity departments like Science and Technolgy, and, indeed, Department for The Future.
And there he was, taking his turn at the audience mike. "Doctor Thompson, in your opinion, why isn't Teddy Kennedy, -- a natural choice for candidate -- running in the 76 campaign?" Thompson took a drag on his cigarette holder, pondered, and said "Well, several reasons. Firstly, he's doing a perfectly competent job as an effective Senator. Secondly, he's had his share of personal family tragedy in the past year. And thirdly, how old is he now..." Jones grasped his forehead, frowned, and said "Wait... wait... forty-two. No, forty-three!" To which the audience roared "PICK A BOX!!"
Hunter Thompson's favorite band in 1976? "The Amazing Rhythm Aces."
That's about all I can dredge up out of the old Unreliable Databank. There was about two hours' worth, and it was a pretty damn solid performance. It reminded me of Groucho doing "You Bet Your Life" (yeah, I'm that old). He was having a good time and so were the punters. It surprised me to read about other nights in other places that reportedly disintegrated into shambles. Melbourne was lucky, I guess.
Towards the end, he became embroiled in a harangue with a feminist, over why he didn't include women prominently in his stories. This was the only time his temperature seemed to rise, and he paced back and forth and up to the footlights, jabbing his finger in the air. The details escape me, but his answer seemed to be based approximately on the premise: "well why the bloody hell should I?" Both parties seemed to enjoy this sparring match, and at the end the woman muttered something in disgust and wrote him off as a dead loss. They retreated to their corners.
We went home happy.
An interesting postscript appeared a few months later in one of the alternative mags written by Peter Olszewski, the tour organizer. (Mr Olszewski is an interesting personage in his own right -- journalist, editor, organizer and long-running candidate for the Australian Marijuana Party, a task he performed using the handle "J.J.MacRoach". I think he wore a mask and hat for public appearances, but I may be confusing him with the Hamburglar (TM).) I've lost my copy of this story, which is a pity because it was a behind the scenes report of the Thompson tour. It detailed the Doc's arrival in Melbourne (which, in 1959, while filming "On The Beach," Ava Gardner considered "the ideal place to film the end of the world"). Melbourne today is a quite different city to what it was twenty years ago.
On a Sunday afternoon you could fire a cannon down the main street and not hit anybody. All it lacked were the tumbleweeds. Apparently, it took but minutes for Thompson to assess the situation: "I'm going back to Sydney". There was an airline strike, I think, and the only way back was by chartered light plane. Olszewski's story relates the ensuing misadventures and near-death experiences, involving light aircraft, murderous electrical storms and plastic bagfulls of urine -- I won't attempt to steal from memory. It was a good piece.