American Nightmare: What Hunter S. Thompson would think of Las Vegas today
It has been nearly 50 years since Hunter S. Thompson published his book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” yet it remains a startlingly accurate depiction of the perverse consequences of the American Dream.
Maybe the fevered, prophetic ranting of a genius seeing what was coming and choosing a bullet to the head might be worth another look.
I knew I had to visit Las Vegas again to see what Thompson might think of it today. I was immediately reminded of a line from the book:
“Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas ... with the music at top volume and at least a pint of ether.”
I’m vaguely haunted by the image of the young geek who first read it as a fresh and hopeful teenager before the housing crash. Since then, I’ve been living in an unapologetic world of riches; one where I’ve never had any. It’s easy to take Thompson’s advice, as life never seems more desperate than when you’re staring down the barrel of mounting student loan. Viva Las Vegas!
“We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers … and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.”
Now we have a case full of Xanax™, OxyContin™, Adderal™ and Ambien™ — which are nothing like ether, heroin, speed, or cocaine, of course. They’re far more wholesome and family friendly. Pop your dog another Prozac and stop asking questions Huxley! And all those multi-colored pills? Now they’re branded with blue smurfs, famous mice or lucky charms.
Why not put children’s cartoons or cereal on a drug? It’s no worse than the Ritalin the doctor orders for your children anyway. The new phenethylamines popping out from between China’s legs are the fruits of the best biochemists of the day who spend every waking moment slapping another molecule onto Molly and marketing it as orchid feed for ravers.
The precious powders ship over multiple borders, fueling frolicking millennials’ debauched revelry. Proudly embracing the speeds of the day, the clubs in Vegas welcome the wild-eyed bikinied girls looking for their next cuddle puddle. After all, you can’t be both a degenerate and a paying customer.
Our generation is on a drug binge the likes of which the world has never seen. They come in government approved, stamped-n-sealed bottles, as verifiable as your passport. But not as easy to swallow. Not that it’s worth trying to get high on the government’s supply, they offer barely any rush, with long-hushed epitaphs of side effects, usually including death. Even junkies aren’t so foolish. And it’s when you’re taking advice on pharmaceuticals from addicts that you realize maybe our Den of Sin has turned into a church for vanity and consumption, with the filth conveniently hidden in the confession booth, complete with a glory hole.
“Ignore the mess in the bathroom ... ” Just another weeping neon millennial, only high in order to ignore their role as the “doom-struck gimp” serving the baby boomer generation, as they work away their 20s for scraps from the table of the people who voted for Nixon.
Now we have a case full of Xanax™, OxyContin™, Adderal™ and Ambien™ — which are nothing like ether, heroin, speed, or cocaine, of course. They’re far more wholesome and family friendly.
Ignore that nightmare; don’t want to be one of the ones who can’t handle the pressure. In the club everything gets its candy coating again, the MDMA sparkles fly off the lights and writhing bodies, set to the deep bass “WUB WUB WUB” reverberating across the strip. Festivals and dance clubs make more money for the hotels than the guests, so you know that the music blares shamelessly into the night, upsetting the tourist families who should have known better. No one sleeps in Vegas.
Thompson said of Vegas 50 years ago, “No, this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted,” after seeing the giant clown in front of Circus Circus.
Today, as drug-free reality becomes more and more surreal, it gets easier to take shelter in the insanity of LSD. The revolving bar in Circus Circus that Hunter S. Thompson retreated to in the famous scene from the book/movie is no more. It was turned into an ice-cream parlor for the kids, and then closed when iPhones were invented and children stopped going out.
There is no commemorative sign.
Vegas is the mirror of America, we are just looking at our own reflection, even though it disgusts us. Thompson said “Las Vegas is a society of armed masturbator/gambling is the kicker here/sex is extra/weird trip for high rollers … house-whores for winners, hand jobs for the bad luck crowd” — but what was true of Vegas in the ‘70s is now true of the whole of America. Except that after the Baby Boomer’s masturbatory gamble, we’re the bad luck crowd, armed porn-addicted losers, sick of handjobs, when all we really want is a thrust at life.
In the past, Las Vegas was a guilty pleasure. Thompson describes the carnival of Vegas in the ‘70s: “Shoot the pasties off the nipples of a ten-foot bull-dyke and win a cotton-candy goat.” Now the incandescent bulbs have all been replaced with colored LEDs that flash in concert with the fountains. The guilt has also been replaced, along with the novelty of a cotton candy goat.
Where Vegas used to stand for what society would not accept, now it is a monument to the unashamed gluttony of conspicuous consumption, as gargantuan tourists waddle into a buffet of buffets to spend their hard-earned money to die one year sooner. Would Thompson approve of the shameless appropriation of his dissident story by Las Vegas marketing? It’s been re-packaged as a mild-flavor Fear & Loathing-like adventure, where even pastel-wearing suburbanites can dip their toe into the sea of flesh with the promise of “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.”
The Vegas of today is a stage to flaunt ill-begotten wealth; you don’t have to hide from the government in Vegas anymore. Vegas has gone corporate, with each economic player having a stake in the constant pissing competition of capitalism. The Tropicana-by-Hilton doesn’t allow for bribes, instead tacking it onto your bill as a “resort fee.” It’s the paper equivalent of having someone shake you down on your way in. Money is supremely important, because your rights and virtue come from financial success. Or at least that’s the lie we’ve all been sold.
Walking down the strip, the wealth of developers oozes out onto the pavement, which thankfully is still free to walk on, for now. The kitsch is being replaced with the facsimile of glamour, soon to be tomorrow’s kitsch.
Impossible to miss off the strip, Trump Tower might as well be called The Golden Penis He Wishes He Had; it stands as a monument of overcompensation. Somehow, a descendent of brothel owners — too shady for a gaming license on the Las Vegas strip — now rules the country. That one might have blindsided even Thompson.
“But our trip was different. It was a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character. It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country — but only for those with true grit. And we were chock full of that.”
Even as a drug addled cynic, Thompson knew everything that was about to be lost at that moment in the ‘70s, and what was to be gained from sending it off with a final salute. He had lived through the optimism of actual change, which now, as time recedes, looks more and more like a blip in history — never done before and never to be repeated. The opposite of “too weird to live, and too rare to die.”
It turns out you can be rare, and still die.
We have forgotten about equality and freedom, and embrace our yokes with open arms. Our trip in 2017 was different, we experienced the modern denial of everything right and true and decent. It’s summed up and caricatured by Trump being freely elected president, or not freely, but no one seems to care enough to get off the couch.
Impossible to miss off the strip, Trump Tower might as well be called The Golden Penis He Wishes He Had; it stands as a monument of overcompensation.
We fruitlessly scream, “Make America Great Again” as we stare into the void of our own destruction. And we’ll still be chanting it, as America crumbles, civil war ensues, and the final showdown happens between all those hidden guns.
In his obituary for Nixon, Thompson wrote, “By disgracing and degrading the Presidency of the United States, by fleeing the White House like a diseased cur, Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American Dream.” If Nixon broke the heart of the American dream, the current president is raping it now.
Although the heady, hazy American Dream that Thompson glimpsed in the ‘70s failed to ever materialize, what replaced it was exactly what he had described, “In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity.” And we’ve already been caught in the act of being stupid enough to elect Trump, crossing the final golden “T” off our demise, as he gets a golden shower from a Russian prostitute.
Thompson saw the high-tide mark for our generation’s attempt at the American Dream when George W. Bush was re-elected, and he killed himself. He might not be surprised by this American Nightmare after all.