Exit Music (For a Film): “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

Written by Exit Music, Film

Zack Dennis is back with another installment of Exit Music — and this week, he uses the closing credits of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a starting point for a discussion of Timothy Leary, Hunter S. Thompson, and the Kentucky Derby, all set to the strains of “Jumping Jack Flash.”

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

What would rock and roll be without drugs?  Tomorrow is the first anniversary of  the death of Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who first synthesized LSD-25.  Hoffman’s tale is one of the most celebrated stories of chemical discovery; he discovered the compound in 1938 but shelved it after preliminary tests on animals showed no particular pharmacological benefits (aside from “restlessness”).  A “peculiar presentiment” prompted Hoffman to revisit the substance five years later, and during the synthesis process he found himself sufficiently disoriented to discontinue work.  Three days later, on April 29, 1943, he intentionally subjected himself to what he thought would be a threshold dose of 250 µg (which is actually from two to five times the typical recreational dose), and the well-chronicled adventures that followed have been subsequently celebrated as  “Bicycle Day” amongst the psychonaut community.

The Film: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

The Song: “Jumping Jack Flash”

The Artist: The Rolling Stones

While Albert Hoffman has been thought of as a benevolent father to LSD (implicitly accepting his paternity by bestowing the title “LSD – My Problem Child” upon his memoir), Timothy Leary has been much more of a polarizing figure within the substance’s lore.   The same year that Hoffman was careening through the streets of Basel on his bicycle, Leary was dropping out of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  In the late fifties and early sixties, Leary’s experiments with (and enthusiastic distribution of) hallucinogenics got him bounced from the faculty at Harvard University.  Leary’s considerable charisma enabled him to find patrons who supported his continued research at an estate outside the town of Millbrook in upstate New York, but he developed a few enemies as well, amongst them G. Gordon Liddy, a local district attorney during those years.

Tim Leary’s attitude towards the use of LSD – as he carelessly championed the catchphrase “Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out” – was summarized in a scathing critique towards the end of Hunter S. Thompson’s semi-autobiographical tale Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as Hunter explained:

We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled that 60’s. That was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him seriously.  All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their loss and failure is ours too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped create.  A generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody – or at least some force – is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.

gdbearThe multitalented Owsley Stanley (who awesomely believes in a completely carnivorous diet and has eaten little other than meat, eggs, butter and cheese since 1959), a chemist who synthesized and distributed massive quantities of LSD in the Haight-Ashbury scene in the late sixties and an acoustical engineer who created the “Wall of Sound” for the Grateful Dead and provided the inspiration for their iconic “dancing bear” logo shared a similarly contemptuous opinion of the media-friendly Leary:

Leary was a fool. Drunk with ‘celebrity-hood’ and his own ego, he became a media clown – and was arguably the single most damaging actor involved in the destruction of the evanescent social movement of the ’60’s. Tim, with his very public exhortations to the kids to ‘tune in, turn on and drop out,’ is the inspiration for all the current draconian U.S. drug laws against psychedelics. He would not listen to any of us when we asked him to please cool it, he loved the limelight and relished his notoriety.  I was not a fan of his.

Even before I read Fear and Loathing, it seemed to me that Leary’s philosophy (and the basic foundation of the hippie movement) was destined to fail because it wasn’t grounded in the real world – the “grim meat-hook realities” that Thompson warns of.   Love isn’t all you need.  You need food and water and shelter too.  Humans have successfully manipulated our world such that these come at an astonishingly low price today compared to other points in our evolution – but they still come at a price.  To me, Leary’s greatest contribution to the psychedelic movement was the concept of “set and setting,” the idea that an LSD trip isn’t something to take lightly, that proper preparations should be made, both internally and externally, to ensure that the experience is as stress-free as possible.

My own adventures under the influence of LSD, which I approached with as much care as a teenager can be expected to produce, were very memorable, and quite wonderful.  The first time was during the summer after my senior year of high school.  I hosted a small gathering with a few trusted friends at my house (yes, my parents were away) that featured the sense of being the director of a film about my own life, “meaningful” conversations atop the rooftoop about colors, a makeout session with our school’s drama princess on the bathroom floor, and a magnificent sense of renewal and rebirth the following morning as I danced around the garage clad in an aquamarine blanket tied like a cape around my shoulders to the Beatles song “Ob La Di” while preparing the inserts for my Sunday papers.  For my second trip I went on a tour of the Wadsworth Atheneum art museum in Hartford.  On my third, in what has been immortalized in my memory as The Ice Cream Trip (even though I didn’t actually eat any ice cream) or “Tomorrow Never Knows” during Spring Break of my sophomore year in college, I took a walking tour of the Claremont Colleges campus, listening to classical compositions like Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” Mozart’s “Rondo Alla Turka,” and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  A friend of mine desperately wanted to drop acid at Disneyland (much like Lisa Simpson’s trip to Duff Gardens) but the idea never materialized (which is just as well, considering some of the images contained within Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride).  I’m too spooked by the idea of a bad trip to get anywhere near LSD today, and while I can’t say it provided me with any remarkable insights, it definitely left me with a few spectacular memories.

Next week the Kentucky Derby takes place, which is the first example of the “gonzo journalism” style that Thompson created with his article “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.”  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is of course the most famous – and lengthy – example of Thompson’s gonzo style.  The film version of the story, which was capably adapted by Terry Gilliam and well-received by Thompson himself, was actually a critical dud and a financial failure.  The end credits feature the Rolling Stones song “Jumping Jack Flash” as Thompson drives down U.S. Interstate 15 back to anonymity in Los Angeles.  There’s nothing groundbreaking about the effect of the credits sliding along the road behind the departing vehicle, but it’s a fitting way to bookend the story and the hand-painted sign is a nice touch.