Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hunter Thompson and CSNY- what happened to 60's idealism?

I wish I had thought of it myself but it's true that the 60's ain't what they used to be. Along with the scars of Vietnam, we're still fighting cultural wars, both big (prez campaigns) and small (online and offline arguments about 100's of social issues). What it meant or what we can learn from the decade is still being hashed out, including a thoughtful new book called Nixonland.

And along with dozens of Vietnam war films, there's two more movies wading into the debate, both about counter-culture icons. Not surprisingly, Gonzo is a tribute to the work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (one of my favorite writers), where even Pat Buchanan has some kind words to say about him. You have to give director Alex Gibney credit for delving into HST's work itself and what made it so unique instead of spending most of the time detailing his years of drink, drugs and debauchery, though that's definitely in the film too. Tom Wolfe is a good barometer for HST though some later writers who admire his work would have been interesting to hear from.

The truly sad part, which Gibney can't conceal is that Thompson's golden age, from 1965's Hell's Angels book through about the mid-70's after Nixon's fall and Carter's rise, is followed by some three decades of decline, leading up to his own suicide. During that time, Rolling Stone magnate Jann Werner makes a good case for some of HST's later work, not to mention his prescient take on 9-11 that begins the film, but the truth can't be avoided- Thompson started to feed off his reputation and relish his position as a star writer while letting his craft lapse (much like Truman Capote).

When he was on point, HST was noble not just for his unique style (pre-Lester Bangs wild man who inserted himself in the story) but also his eye for detail and an unerring B.S. detector. Cynic that he was, he did revel in the liberal ideology of the mid-60's and really did think that it might bring about great change. When it didn't, he lashed out at the forces he thought responsible for destroying that dream, especially Nixon.

A problem that he faced in later years is the same one that many cultural rebels run up against- how do you stay a relevant radical for the long term? Thompson didn't have an answer for that for himself. He didn't totally give up the fight but he found it harder and harder to be the same thorn in the establishment's side that he'd been earlier. Maybe part of it was the fame that went to his head or the changing times that he wasn't necessarily a part of or at the center of, mainly tucked away in his Colorado enclave. His sports pieces for ESPN (which there should have been more about in the film) still had flashes of brilliance but where once he was turning sports reporting into a extended philosophy about the American Dream (not just his Vegas book but also his famous story on the Kentucky Derby), he didn't have the podium or motivation that he once did for his later stories.

The same issue about 60's radicals being culturally relevant later on in life also runs through CSNY Deja Vu. The narration near the beginning notes the group as being a 'popular cultural band.' Popular? Maybe but not as much as they once were. Cultural? Yes, but not always in the way they think.

Fitting that although it's credited to CSNY, the real star is the director, aka Neil Young, who launched the 2006 tour documented in the film after his Living With War album. Crosby and Nash have little say in the film and when Stills talks, it's usually in a croak (his voice is kind of shot now) though we do see him successfully stump for a number of Democratic senate candidates.

Young wanted to make a fair and balanced chronicle of the tour, showing the good and bad of the crowd reaction to the anti-war material. Along with reviving their older material, songs from Living With War itself were part of the set, most pointedly "Let's Impeach the President," complete with karaoke-lyrics projected on a screen behind the band. Predictably, this went over pretty well until the tour hit Atlanta. When playing that song, the band was treated to a round of boo's and walk-outs by some fans. Interesting that they didn't respond the same way to all of the other anti-war material earlier in the set but that might have been because it was about a different war.

But part of the point of the tour and movie was to draw connections between the two wars, as if to say that the same thing is happening today though without the mass protests (Bush's team did learn one lesson from Vietnam- drafts aren't popular so keep rotating and wearing out the troop force you already have). The Iraq War is still a relatively fresh wound, even if most of the country is unhappy about it now. But it's hardly a balanced picture, considering director/leader Young's perspective. The Atlanta fans who walk out only are allowed to deliver swears and sound-bytes rather than extended dialog or thoughts about their position. Young obviously sought to engage them through the music only and then give them a tiny podium to respond (and also some negative reviews of the tour which are woven into the narrative). Not that we haven't heard enough jingoist trash from the unrepentant mainstream media that parroted the administration's talking points leading up to the war...

The most moving part of the film are the clips of Iraq veterans and their families and how they're struggling to cope now. Former Marine and present singer-songwriter Josh Hisle and Gold Star mom (who lost a son in Iraq) Karen Meredith can barely hold back tears as they watch CSNY perform.

But how did Young climb on the anti-war bandwagon again, after mostly shunning politics for years? "Rockin' in the Free World" was a jab at Bush Sr. and during the 80's, he had kind things to say about Reagan (which might have still given solace to some conservative fans seeing CSNY). But it took about three years after the Iraq War for him to take such a bold stand. One thing he doesn't credit in the film, and he should, was a moving speech by SXSW head Roland Swenson who in March 2005 said this to introduce the singer/songwriter at the conference, referring back to "Ohio," Young's unflinching attack on the Kent State massacre: "Neil, we need a new song." "Ohio" was recorded and released quickly after the incident (with the single sleeve showing the text of the First Amendment). Similarly, Living With War was recorded not long after Swenson's speech.

Even if Neil was a little late to the game, it's still better that he did say something eventually. He refuses to thrown in the towel for his idealism and hope, still believing that his work can still have an effect on people, decades into his career. It's a shame that perhaps Thompson didn't feel the same way.


Blogger Ed Ward said...

Excellent interview of Young by Jaan Uhelski over here:

And my old RS co-worker John Lombardi, who brought HST to the magazine, chimes in here with a thoughtful piece:

6:20 AM  

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