RIP HST

I’m sure the blogoverse is going to be simply awash with eulogies for Hunter S. Thompson today, as people process and ponder the passing of the father of gonzo journalism, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. While I hate to be part of any meme du jour, here’s my two cents worth anyway . . .

I came to appreciate Thompson relatively late in his career, around 1983 or so, and I think I was drawn in as much by the art work of frequent collaborator Ralph Steadman as I was by what I knew about Thompson’s writing itself. Steadman’s work reminded me of Geralf Scarfe’s art, the best known of which was the graphic design and animated films associated with Pink Floyd’s The Wall, one of my favorites at the time. About the only thing I knew about Thompson at the time was that he was the inspiration for Duke in Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury. I liked both Duke and Doonebury a lot, and didn’t really want to muddy the waters with knowing anything about the truth behind them.

The first book I read by Thompson was The Curse of Lono, loaned to me by my friend Adam. As noted, the Steadman drawings for that book were what piqued my curiousity at first . . . until I got a few chapters into the thing, at which point I was hooked. I quickly went backwards and read Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. The last one was (and remains) my favorite, and it influenced my decision to major in Political Science, since it showed me a whole side of politics that I’d never imagined before then. I also adopted Thompson’s practice of signing his correspondence “HST” . . . I probably wouldn’t ever have used “JES” as a sign-off if I hadn’t seen him do that first. It seemed cool.

As I got older, I read Thompson less, and haven’t purchased any of his last few books. I’m not really sure why . . . I don’t know if it had to do with me changing or Thompson changing or (more likely) Thompson not changing. I can still read the classic books from the ’60s and ’70s and early ’80s, but his late ’80s and ’90s stuff left me cold for the most part. It felt more forced and shrill than the early stuff did. (Maybe Thompson felt that way too . . . maybe that contributed to his suicide, who knows?)

I also think it may have to do with the fact that I knew more about the things he wrote about in those days than I did when I read his earlier work. I had already formed my opinions, political and otherwise, so his work didn’t educate me as much as it did when I read about things that I had a lower level of knowledge about. I think another thing that got to me was the profusion of bad HST (and Lester Bangs, for that matter) clones and knockoffs in the journalism and literary world. Thompson made what he wrote seem easy, and loads of lesser lights tried to cop the gonzo style, but few (if any) of them succeeded. They proliferated, though, and collectively gave me an aversion to gonzo-style writing that, sadly, probably filtered back into my own appreciation of the master’s works.

All that having been said, though, it’s a tragedy when anyone takes their own life, particularly someone with as much influence as Thompson. I don’t like adding a tick mark of the roster of suffering writers and artists who chose suicide, since I worry that some of those other gonzo-imitators out there may see his death as a romantic gesture meriting imitation. It wasn’t, though. It was a sad end to a troubled life, and I hope in the long term people focus on the power and significance of what he did during his life, and not on the tragic way he chose to end it.

Rest in peace, HST. You certainly deserve it.

In the Navy

Interesting news (for me and lots of others) in the papers this morning, as the USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23) is being commissioned and going to sea this weekend. The SSN-23 is the last of three Seawolf class attack submarines the Navy is building, before shifting to the more affordable Virginia class of attack submarines, the first of which went to sea last fall. In the mid-to-late ’80s in Washington, I helped write research and development budgets for the Seawolf class of submarines (then intended to include more than three ships), and went in a staff capacity to the Pentagon and Capitol Hill to help my bosses (first Admiral Kinnaird R. McKee, then Admiral Bruce DeMars) as they made the case for these ships before the Department of Defense and Congress. Then, in the mid-’90s in Schenectady, I negotiated the government contracts needed to acquire several key components for the last two Seawolf ships and the first couple of Virginia class ships. So I’ve got some sweat equity there on the SSN-23. I’m proud to know it’s finally going to be out doing its thing, and applaud the persistence of vision that has finally brought it into the fleet, long after I and countless others were no longer playing our own small parts in the process.

Signs of Spring

1. Every school morning, I leave home at 6:50 to take Katelin and our neighbor to school, then I drive to work, arriving at about 7:15. Most of my commute is in the Hudson River valley: we live on a ridge on the west side, the C+CC is on a ridge on the east side. So even though on paper, the sun has risen by the time we leave home, and there’s light out, we don’t actually see the orb of the sun itself until well after sunrise, because it has to clear the east ridge of the river, while I’m in the valley, driving Katelin to school. So around this time of year, we watch the horizon for our first glimpse of the sun itself during the commute to school. We saw it on Wednesday, February 16, for the first time this year. I don’t care what the Groundhog says. When I see the sun in the morning, I can conceive of spring.

2. Having my coffee this morning at the kitchen table, I was distracted by motion just outside the kitchen window. Looking down, I saw the first robin of the season, eating red berries of our holly bush. Another sign that the worse of winter is behind us. I approve.

One Other Grammy Observation

I’m glad that Green Day’s American Idiot didn’t take the “Album of the Year” prize, instead being relegated to the lesser “Rock Album of the Year.” Not that I have anything against Green Day (I will probably be taking Katelin to see them later this spring), or that album particularly, but I am sick of all the critics and pundits who are citing their “punk opera” as some kind of cultural or musical breakthrough. It’s not. For instance, Husker Du created a far better “punk opera” way back when punk and its early hardcore offspring actually mattered: their Zen Arcade blows American Idiot out of the water, hands down. And even among recent records, American Idiot isn’t the best conceptual musical look at contemporary politics and culture. I’ll take . . . And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead’s Worlds Apart in that department, any day.

Dumb Media Quote of the Day

From the AP write-up of last night’s Grammy Awards:

“Ray Charles had a legendary career that defied categorization and influenced generations of artists, but he never had one of those blockbuster albums that many lesser artists have enjoyed. Eight months after his death, all is right with the world. Charles’ final album, Genius Loves Company, won a leading eight Grammy awards on Sunday night.”

No, idiots, all is not right with the world. If people behind the Grammy’s wanted to give Ray Charles some recognition, what would have been right was if they had given it to him while he was still alive, duh.

I love Ray Charles, don’t get me wrong . . . but I remain perplexed and bemused by how the Grammy Awards continue to get any media attention and public credibility, given their penchant for over-rewarding artists long past their peaks (Santana, Steely Dan, Bonnie Raitt, Ray Charles, to name but a few), to make up for the fact that they ignored them when they were actually vital, because they were giving awards to the likes of Milli Vanilli instead. No other major awards event gets things as badly wrong as the Grammy people do. (Well . . . except for the year when the Academy gave Kim Basinger an Oscar. But that was just a momentary lapse, they’re normally more on top of things like that in Hollywood.)

Plus, why can’t the Grammy people figure out some way to make these things actually feel timely? Maroon 5, best new band? They’re old news in the rapid fire world of contemporary music. Yawn, yawn and yawn again.

My Favorite Live Record

I should note right up front: I don’t like live records as a rule. I love seeing music played live, where the sound and vision and audience interaction and smells and heat and all of the other tangible sensory elements merge together to create an amazing, full-body experience that can’t be captured at home. But . . . when I’m home (or in my car), I generally want to listen to studio recordings, since I really don’t care to hear other people cheering, and I’m not all that big on hearing ‘tween-song banter more than once, and the audio dynamite of most live shows loses something when its pressed down for home (or car) listening levels.

There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and I’ve mentioned one of them here before, but I’ve been listening to it obsessively for months now, and feel the need to further lift it up for your consideration. The record? Absent Lovers: Live in Montreal 1984 by King Crimson. This is, beyond question, the greatest live album I’ve ever heard. Period.

What makes it special? First off, it’s a document of an historic concert: the very last show by the ’80s incarnation of King Crimson, featuring Robert Fripp (guitars), Adrian Belew (guitars/vocals/drums/percussion), Bill Bruford (drums/percussion) and Tony Levin (bass/stick/synth/vocals). After this show, King Crimson went into hibernation for nearly seven years. When they regrouped, there were two new members (stick/bass player Trey Gunn and drummer Pat Mastellotto) added on to the ’80s lineup. Over the next decade, these six players worked together in various configurations, sometimes under the King Crimson banner, and sometimes as related “ProjeKCts”. (The current incarnation, in the early stages of their next recording, features Fripp, Belew, Levin and Mastellotto). After the Montreal show, though, the ’80s band never again stood (or sat, in Fripp’s case) onstage together to play, just the four of them.

Of course, I’ve seen enough tour ending shows to know that they can often be either completely rote performances (as bands are sick of each other and their material by that time) or freewheeling, self-indulgent meltdowns (as bands just don’t want that last night to end). The July 11, 1984 set captured on Absent Lovers was neither: I’ve heard and seen videos of enough other shows from that tour to know that the band pretty much kept to the same set list they’d been playing, and pretty much played the songs in the arrangements that earlier sets has included.

But something magic happens anyway. It’s intangible, I suppose, for the most part, but the energy level, technical virtuosity and enthusiasm leaking out of this concert document is exquisite on every count. King Crimson just nails these songs, one after the other, in many cases producing versions that far outstrip the ones featured on their ’80s studio albums. This record is live, yes, but it feels like its alive when you play it. It wants you to turn up the volume. It wants you to drive faster. It fights you when you try to take it out of the stereo.

While you might have to be as much of a Crimheaded geek as I am to have enough comparative listening to appreciate just how definitively powerful some of these recordings are, I think even complete newcomers to Camp King Crimson could do well by starting with this recording. It includes a pretty complete set of essential highlights from the ’80s band, along with crucial cuts “Red” and “Larks Tongue in Aspic, Part Two” from the mid-’70s band (which also featured Fripp and Bruford, along with bassist-vocalist John Wetton and, sometimes, violin player David Cross and percussionist Jamie Muir).

There’s a 20-minute block on the second disc of this record that may be one of the most dense, perfect chunks of music imaginable. “Waiting Man” features Belew and Bruford dueling on marimba-like electronic percussion, then morphs into a beautiful, wistful pop melody atop a ferocious groove, as Belew switches back to guitar and duels some of the same patterns with Fripp that he duelled with Bruford mere minutes earlier. “Sleepless” is breath-taking, orders of magnitude more powerful than the studio version (that seemed to be polished for radio, and actually even featured a rare King Crimson music video); it also offers the finest Tony Levin performance I’ve ever heard, and given the breadth of his catalog, that’s saying something. Both songs would also be on the very, very short list of all-time best vocal performances by Belew.

Next up is “Larks Tongue in Aspic, Part Two.” I have probably heard at least 20 different recordings of this song by several different Crimson lineups, and have no doubt that this one is the greatest of them all, by a long shot. I’ve watched two different concert videos where it’s performed, and I still can’t comprehend how the four players make so much complicated noise together without it disintigrating into a complete audio trainwreck. I have sat in my car while driving and literally played this one song over and over again five or six times at a pop. It’s that amazing. The only downside: it makes it hard for me to listen to the original studio version, which I’d always thought was incredible itself, but which seems slow and energy-deficient in comparison to the one captured on Absent Lovers.

The best part of the first disc in this set is hearing the largely-instrumental material from the second side of Crimson’s last ’80s record, Three of A Perfect Pair, played the way it was meant to be played. In the studio, it felt alternatively forced and wandering. Live, these songs (“Lark’s Tongue in Aspic, Part III,” “Industry” and “Dig Me”) make you hold your breath as they unfold dramatically, majestically, perfectly.

There’s only one song on Absent Lovers that I (occasionally) skip: “Man With An Open Heart”. But it’s less because of the quality of the recording or the performance than it is because I don’t really care for the song itself. If I had to listen to it, though, I’d listen to it here. And I do, most of the time.

So . . . go buy Absent Lovers: Live in Montreal 1984, and then write me to tell me about it, so we can geek out together. And if hearing this record gets you interested in learning more about King Crimson, and you’d some recommendations on which studio albums to get first, I’ve done an online guide to that, too: click away!