Salon: Sharps and Flats

Published December 4, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

At 17, our high school commencement tassels hanging from the rear view mirror, three buddies and I set out by Buick Estate Wagon to discover the "real" America. We clocked more than 11,000 miles in six weeks, woke up most mornings fully clothed and had ourselves a beer. Seven years later, I wrote a stage play about the trip. It stank. And the reason wasn't difficult to suss: I couldn't make something new that was, even as it was happening, a reenactment. The four of us were living out every road movie, book, or advertisement we'd ever taken in, set to car-stereo rock 'n' roll.

The trip and its failed creative output came back to me flashback-vivid as I listened to the uneven, digital radio play of Hunter S. Thompson's classic "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," an adaptation by Lou Stein on Margaritaville Records. A reverential "audio valentine" to Thompson on the 25th anniversary of the book's publication, the CD contains a faithful reading of the book's "very ominous assignment" -- to report the American Dream -- complete with its catch-phrase familiar drug binges, Circus-Circus hallucinations and theme of self-destruction as transcendence.

Maury Chaykin and Jim Jarsmuch read Gonzo and Duke, respectively, but it is the narration of the weary-voiced Harry Dean Stanton that got me through two listenings. Oh, and there is some Robert Altman-esque typecasting, too: Jann Wenner as a Rolling Stone editor, Joan Cusack as Lucy and Jimmy Buffett as the motorcycle cop who collects a beer can -- the infamous "evidence bomb" -- from the Duke's front seat, and lets him off anyway.

Overall, however, the adaptation falls flat, lacking the true grit of its characters, lacking, in fact, in both the Fear and Loathing Departments. Maybe it's that the readers like their lines too much; imagine erasing the menace from Ralph Steadman's illustrations, and you'll have an inkling of the effect.

I can see those who can afford whimsical purchases picking this up for a nostalgic late night, sitting around with some old friends on floor pillows and passing a roach (does anyone do this anymore?). I can imagine, too, recording snippets of it on party mix tapes. ("The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the Sixth Reich.") I can even imagine popping it in the car stereo as you head across some dark, North American plain. But even then -- or especially then -- its tales of drug hysteria are likely to get tired fast and leave you feeling as I did driving the states at 17 -- like you've somehow seen it all before.

By Brad Wieners

Brad Wieners is a former Wired senior editor. He left Wired in December 1999 to work at Outside. He lives in New York.

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