HST author Timothy Denevi remembers the trip that put Fear and Loathing on the map.
Editor’s note: Below you’ll find a chapter from Timothy Denevi’s 2018 book Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism. April 25 marks the 50th anniversary of HST’s second trip to Vegas, which would help make up the basis for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
He looks dangerous.Thompson exclaimed
Note from the author: Fifty years ago this spring, Hunter S. Thompson, thirty-three at the time, flew to California to write about the murder of Ruben Salazar, a prominent Mexican-American journalist who’d died at the hands of a Los Angeles sheriff’s deputy in East Los Angeles. His main source for the article was the civil-rights attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta, a close friend. Over the course of his reporting, which included numerous tense interactions with both the police and local activists, Thompson escaped for a long weekend with Acosta to Las Vegas, where the two could at last speak privately about the case. This was at the end of March, 1971. Afterward, Thompson, struggling to meet his deadline for Rolling Stone, secluded himself for five straight days in a Pasadena motel, where, relying on his familiar diet of whiskey and Dexedrine, he finished the 19,200-word piece — ”Strange Rumblings in Aztlan” — the longest the magazine had yet to publish.
But as it would turn out, the Salazar article wasn’t the only thing Thompson had been working on at that motel. Each morning, as the sun came up — as the thin-walled rooms resonated and shook with the presence of so many different people preparing to make their way to the racetrack — he spent an hour or so typing up his recent notes from his trip to the desert with Acosta: the dozens of handwritten pages that he’d composed in and around Las Vegas. It was a story, he started to realize, one that was being related in the form of a hallucinatory road narrative. But the theme, it soon became clear, was the same: the limits of individual social mobility in the face of widespread injustice.
For Thompson, the concept of the American Dream was always at its heart a matter of agency — if you could just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and work harder than everyone else, you’d succeed; the only engine you needed to move forward across a truly level playing field was effort… a situation that existed in this specific society because of the freedoms and ideals that were initially enshrined in its political system. In this sense, the American Dream was indistinguishable from the American Ideal: both were premised on our capacity for improvement, and the death of one signaled the concomitant destruction of the other: a loss of all political and personal flexibility.
At the end of his week in Pasadena, Thompson showed the beginnings of this story to David Felton — the editor Rolling Stone had assigned him for the Salazar piece — who told him to see it through: “You’re really on to something,” he said, “Keep it up.” But as April wore on, he felt his momentum waning, and he was looking for a way to recreate the rush that had set in motion the initial pages when, by chance, the perfect opportunity presented itself: in his mail he discovered an invitation to attend The National District Attorneys’ Association’s Third National Institute on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, which was scheduled to take place from Monday, April 26 to Thursday April 29, at the Dunes Hotel.
Rolling Stone would let him cover it—and put him up at the Flamingo. Oscar Zeta Acosta agreed to join him again. And so, on April 25, 1971, just 35 days after his initial trip to Nevada, he took a Sunday flight back to Las Vegas.
This time around, knowing in advance that he’d be there for the “The Vegas Book,” he brought with him a portable, state-of-the-art recording system. The subsequent tapes he and Acosta recorded together — more than a hundred minutes of dialogue and interactions and reflections from that long-ago week in April — have recently been made available. As a result, please consider the section you’re about to read now — a highly condensed narrative of their second trip to Vegas — as an attempt, on my part, to reflect the present-tense immediacy of the source material; my goal is to articulate in the most direct manner the effect that the District Attorney’s conference inflicted on Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta, who’d recently suffered a fresh round of legal and political setbacks in his battle against L.A. law enforcement…
* * *
“It’s Monday afternoon,” Hunter Thompson said into the microphone, “We have a white convertible.” In the background Oscar Acosta could be heard playing a flute: the distinctive opening to “Taps.”
That morning they’d attended the drug conference’s first session. “Having to walk that fucking lobby…” Acosta said. “People mistake me for a bellboy and want me to take their baggage for them. I get tired of that shit.”
He and Hunter Thompson were standing at the window to their room at the Flamingo — #1224, Building Nine, a $23-a-night suite — and gazing down at the hotel’s kidney-shaped pool, where their fellow conference-goers were lounging.
“Look at that bald-headed fat son of a bitch by the tree,” Acosta said. “He looks like you.”
“Me?” Thompson exclaimed. “I don’t look like that. He looks like a waterhead. Hydrocephalic. He looks dangerous.”
A woman was jogging around a small grove of palms. Olive trees ringed the pool. “I saw some of the biggest fucking D.A.s of my life this morning,” Acosta said. “God, there were some huge Texas-looking bastards… I already feel weird without any weapons, except this little goddamn knife.” He was talking about his pocket knife, a Gerber Mini-Magnum. On his flute he started playing, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” an old Civil War ballad.
“I must have a haircut,” Thompson said. “I must get my shoes shined.”
“I don’t feel good without a gun anymore,” Acosta said. “I really don’t.”
In their possession on this trip they had marijuana, a bottle of Chivas Regal, a single red capsule of Seconal — “for when things get really unbearable,” Acosta said — and a dwindling supply of amphetamine: 12 Benzedrine pills and ten Dexedrines. Once again they hadn’t brought any psychedelic substances like LSD or mescaline.
The night before, they ended up at Caesar’s Palace, where, at 3am in the morning, they’d run into the wandering casino photographer and posed together for a picture. In it, they’re sitting at a small circular table. Thompson is wearing Levis, a striped shirt, and his bird-shooting jacket, to which he’s attached a large sheriff’s badge. At the brim of his tennis cap he’s sporting another pin, thumbnail sized and square: a shiny metallic American flag. He’s got on lightly tinted aviators. His right foot is propped on a chair, revealing, in part, the treads of a Converse shoe. His left hand grips his chin, the band of his wedding ring catching the flash: for the camera he’s mugging it up. And so is Acosta: dressed exquisitely — in a suit coat and patterned tie and rich wool slacks — he’s also got his thumb to his chin… Except that, unlike Thompson, he’s wearing a single, black-felt glove. His posture is perfect. His eyes are knowing and intent. Neither man is smiling. Instead their lips are pursed in the style of a nineteenth century daguerreotype — as if, in an effort to be seen clearly, they’ve spent the last five minutes in perfect repose, allowing the light around them to filter naturally.
On his flute the next day, Acosta was playing the first notes to “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.” The convention’s evening session was about to start, but he wanted to skip it. He hated the pall of silence and judgment that descended on the room when they’d walked in — the crowd of one thousand cops watching their every move. He and Thompson had arrived at the conference dressed for the part — that morning he wore his expensive courtroom suit — but it was clear by now that they’d never fit in. How could they? The opening session had unnerved Acosta so badly he’d walked out of it, drawing the room’s attention. “That’s two thousand eyes,” he told Thompson. “Two thousand ears listening to our footsteps. One thousand noses. Five thousand fingers reaching out towards our necks…”
“We’ve already missed half the workshops…” he replied. “We better zap over there.”
Together they headed down to the Dunes to catch the end of the session. For Acosta it was even worse than before; the mostly Middle-American police officers — men from Alabama and Texas and Georgia and Oklahoma — all looked like cheap knockoffs of Bull Connor and George Wallace. What’s more, he was sure that someone from East L.A. was going to see him here — evidence at last of what his rivals in the movement believed to be his true identity: an opportunist looking to infiltrate and betray his comrades…
Afterward, they walked over to Caesars Palace. “Those fuckers have been chasing me down,” Acosta said. They found a seat near the bar. Thompson wanted to purchase the photograph they’d posed for the night before. But when the server appeared — a middle-aged woman wired uncomfortably into a tight toga, the casino’s theme outfit — Oscar Acosta asked for someone named “Dusty” instead.
“I don’t know her,” their server replied. “Do you want drinks or what?”
“Yes,” Thompson said quickly. “We’ll have — ”
“Wait a fucking minute!” Acosta screamed at the woman. “What do you mean you don’t know her?”
The server darted off. She was talking to the captain of security. Clearly they were getting ready to walk over. Thompson pulled his tennis cap low. “We need to get up and go…” he said to his friend. “Flee!”
A horrible scene — they hustled away, barely making it outside before the casino goons could stop them. Acosta was still livid — about the waitress, about the conference, about life in general — and he kept bringing up all the things that had been coming down on him recently.
Back at the Flamingo, Thompson tried to contact a friend at the Free Press. He was hoping to score some mescaline — a way to cut Acosta’s amphetamine/alcohol stupor that, in a town suddenly filled with thousands of white, Southern-looking cops, didn’t bode well for the rest of their week. But they couldn’t get in touch with anyone.
The next day — Tuesday, April 27 — Thompson and Acosta skipped the morning session of the conference and drove around in the white Cadillac. “It’s now 11:30am,” Acosta said into the microphone. “Moby Dick is pulling away from Building Nine. We are going out again in search of the American Dream. We’ve yet to find it. We don’t think it’s at the District Attorney’s convention. Nothing’s happening there. They’re all a bunch of lily-colored liverworts. Dodging all the significant issues of the day. They’re spending millions and billions of dollars on rehabilitating persons that they’d obviously like to kill.”
Acosta told Thompson that it was time to take matters into their own hands. “I think we should seriously get to it and look for the American Dream. We should just start interviewing people, like, ‘Where is the American Dream and what is it?’ You know, sidewalk interviews…”
Thompson wasn’t so sure. They started to argue.
Acosta: “I’m getting tired of giving you advice you’re not taking. I’m working without a fee, you know.”
Thompson: “The trouble is obvious.”
Acosta: “Yeah, you’re lazy.”
Thompson: “No! Last time it came out accidentally. I was actually making an attempt to cover the Mint 400.”
Acosta, pausing: “The story that you did in between is what’s affected you. You did Salazar, and now you’re trying to do a continuation of the Mint.”
Thompson: “No, we’re just trying to act the story. That’s why.”
Acosta: “Yeah. But I’m not being paid very well for it.”
Thompson: “What do you want, all the rest of my money?”
Acosta: “All the rest of your money… How much money you got?”
Thompson, laughing: “A hundred dollars.”
Acosta’s laughing, too: “You must have a really low opinion of me.”
They drove out of the city. They passed a water and pumping station. They arrived at a subdivision called Via Bonita. “Yes, yes,” Acosta said. “They certainly like to use our language. Gives it all a romantic feel.”
Across Boulder Highway, they spotted a place called Terry’s Taco Stand USA and pulled over for coffee. At the drive-through, Acosta said to the waitress, “We’re looking for the American Dream, and we were told it was somewhere in this area.”
She took his comment literally. She asked her boss if he knew where they could find the place. After an extended discussion, she gave them directions — “It’s called the Psychiatrist’s Club now,” she said — to a gas station near the Tropicana.
They headed out that way, asking other people they meet the same question. Most didn’t know what they were talking about, or thought they were looking for some sort of brothel — “The Dream Ranch, out in the valley?” — or simply humored them by rephrasing the question back in their direction. At a music store — as Thompson was trying to bargain over the price of a clarinet — the attendant said he knew the place they were looking for, the American Dream: it burned down three years ago. He gives them the location. They drove over to see for themselves. All that was left was a base of charred concrete and weeds.
“It struck me what’s going on here,” Acosta said, “Anybody that is in search of the American Dream needs a lawyer and a doctor and a bodyguard because there’s no other way to look for it without that sort of counseling.”
“And a credit card,” Thompson said.
Afterward they ended up at a bar across the street from the blackened lot. The Fog Cutter. A tiki lounge. “Sort of Polynesian,” Oscar Acosta said. He was beginning to slur his words. With thirty dollars he worked out a deal with the management for a variety of goods: coconuts, grapefruit, wooden bowls, and a hammer. “That hammer…” he said. “That’ll outlast everything. That hammer will be here, somewhere, on this earth…”
They made it back to the hotel for dinner, and afterward they headed down to the evening session, a screening of the movie: “Know Your Dope Fiend.”
By now Acosta had changed out of his suit and tie. Instead, he was wearing a tight yellow fishnet shirt, his hairy chest spilling from its many gaps. At his hip, sheathed in a leather belt, he was carrying his pocket knife, the mini-Gerber Magnum. “You see,” he told Thompson, “it’s not concealed. The shirt makes it legal. It shows through the net.”
When they walked into the conference room, it’s dark. The movie was already showing. Acosta grabbed a chair and dragged it past the projector, all the way to the front. With his back to the screen, he stared balefully at the crowd of cops, who — watching the movie — had no choice but to watch him too: a very large Chicano man in a lurid see-through top burning his eyes into them all, a knife strapped to his belly.
Thompson backed slowly out of the room. A few minutes later Acosta exited, too; now he was deeply agitated — wild with paranoia. Those racist pigs! He was sure they were coming — that the whole room was about to empty out after him. Thompson tried to calm him down. They got in the Cadillac, drove away from the Dunes, cruised down the strip. Suddenly Acosta started vomiting everywhere, in his seat, on the dashboard, and over the side of the car; it was his stomach ulcer, flaring terribly after so much scotch.
They headed back to the suite. But Acosta couldn’t calm down. In the eyes of all those cops he’d seen the same thing he’d been up against these past three years in Los Angeles: pure, unrelenting hatred; they wanted him dead. And they had the power to make it happen — that was the most fucked up part — they could murder him like they did Salazar and still get away with it afterward, too.
He grabbed the hammer they’d bought at the Polynesian bar. He started smashing the coconuts. He pounded the table itself. Then he got up and shattered the lamps by the bed and the mirrors on the wall and in the bathroom. He was breaking everything. When there was nothing left he took out his pocket knife. Grabbed a grapefruit. And proceeded to slash it into smaller and smaller portions, until all that remained, afterward, was the pulp.
Thompson watched. He was waiting for his friend to calm down so he could offer him some Seconal. Which is what happened — eventually Acosta relented. He told Thompson this was it; he was leaving on the next flight. This whole fucking town full was full of cops, Jesus Christ!
At dawn the next morning, they headed to the airport. It should’ve been a short drive. But they’re nearly at the California line when they realized they’d missed the turn. Thompson threw the Cadillac into a screeching U-turn; he plummeted across the central gulley of dirt and weeds — the Interstate’s median — and gunned the enormous car up the other bank, emerging on the roadway again with a sickening flop. Now he was speeding back toward the terminal. At the Western Airlines counter, he pulled to a stop. Suddenly they were saying goodbye. “Don’t take any guff from these swine,” Thompson said. Acosta waved. It was not clear when they’d have a chance to see each other again.
Thompson drove back to the Dunes, where the morning session was about to start. There was a panel on the international supply chains for illegal drugs, but the Nixon administration official leading the discussion kept going on and on about organized crime syndicates and shipping lines originating in France — in Marseille — without ever once acknowledging what everyone knows to be the real source: Vietnam and Laos.
Thompson had seen enough. He was done with the cops and attorneys and their unendurable conference. He got in the convertible and started driving. Half-Crazy on Booze + Speed, he scrawled in his notebook. In three days he’d slept at most a few hours.
He headed toward Lake Mead, where he hoped to find a quiet place to do some work. But at an intersection near the water he passed in front of a cop car. He panicked. He pitched the half-full beer he had in his lap and turned down a random access road, which eventually dead-ended at a desolate, forsaken rise of earth. The cop didn’t follow. “What the hell is this?” he said into the tape recorder, trying to read the signs. “Blasting signals? All clear?” Suddenly he understood: he’d pulled onto a test range — part of a munitions factory he sees now on a nearby hill. “Turn the radio off!” he shouted to himself. “If it’s part of a shot I’ll hear a series of blasts…”
The sky was cloudless and blue, the first clear day of the trip. Thompson spent the rest of the afternoon driving in loops through the hills and ranges that marked the terrain east of Las Vegas. At the Colorado River he crossed into Arizona. He saw the Hoover Dam. He ascended a steep mesa. A sign read: WATCH FOR MOUNTAIN SHEEP. Another advertised an indoor reptile exhibit — KING COBRAS! Near the town of Henderson he was nearly run off the road by a tanker truck.
Later that night, back at the Circus-Circus, the folk singer Bruce Innes, an old friend from Colorado, was scheduled to play his usual set, and before he went on he and Thompson grabbed a drink by the main stage. They talked about the flight from Las Vegas to Denver—how, even in the face of the drunkest passengers, the stewardesses always seemed to remain preternaturally calm and accommodating. “I bet you could take an ape on that plane, and they still wouldn’t say anything,” Thompson offered. “Can you imagine? ‘This is my son, if you could be kind enough to avoid calling any extra attention to his infirmaries…he’s very sensitive.’ They wouldn’t say a thing!”
Overhead, the Flying Wallendas were performing their famous trapeze act — the Circus-Circus was actually an enormous four-story-high tented structure with nets and posts and tightropes set up above the gambling floor — and after a while the topic of their conversation turned to its owner, Jay Sarno, a vain, eccentric, unscrupulous real-estate developer known for attacking anyone who got in the way of what he did best — taking his customers’ money by convincing them they really are winners… or at least can be, as long as they keep coming back. Thompson had been trying to arrange an interview, but Sarno hated reporters; for him the free press was the very worst thing about America.
Not that Sarno seemed to care about the type of music he was paying Innes and his band to play; they could choose whatever songs they wanted, so long as the lyrics were loud and the tempo was upbeat and people were spending money at the bar.
That night, Thompson stuck around to catch the first part of the set. He was watching the action on the floor — distracted by the flurry of acrobatics above — when the band broke into “Chicago,” the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young hit that begins, “This is a song for Mayor Daley…” At that moment it was as if Bruce Innes, from a stage at the center of Las Vegas’s all-consuming blare—its endless, carnival heart—was singing to Thompson alone. We can change the world / Rearrange the world / Is dying / To get better…
“The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war,” Thompson would write afterward. “This is the Sixth Reich.” By now he’d seen enough. “After five days in Vegas you feel like you’ve been here for five years. Some people say they like it — but then some people like Nixon, too. He would have made a perfect Mayor for this town…”
This is an excerpt from author Timothy Denevi’s most recent book Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism, (2018, Hachette/PublicAffairs).