Hell's Angels

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No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride…and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well… maybe chalk it off to forced conscious expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.”

No doubt Fear and Loathing is a fabulous read, but I’m disappointed it’s the book Hunter S. Thompson has become best-known for. As a teenager, I bought Hell’s Angels and it has become a stand-out amongst all the books I own.

If you know about Hunter S., then you know he is ‘the’ gonzo journo; this is a school of journalism where the journalist essentially makes himself the main focus by getting as close to the subject as possible and, like a war correspondent, your enjoyment of the writing becomes intensified by the fact that he may at any time be overtaken by some kind of misadventure related to the ostensible subject itself.

On the surface, this is a gimmick as much as it is a device. It is not, however, what makes Hunter S. great.

I recently watched the doco about him, the name of which I can’t remember, but it struck me as hagiography and therefore, pretty useless. It does, however, make mention of an episode Thompson records in Hell’s Angels which I will now relate.

While hanging out with the Angels he attended a party, which I suspect may have been at Ken Kesey’s country house. While wandering amongst the revellers in the middle of the night, he came across a bizarre scene in the barn.

A woman was lying in the straw, naked except for the dress bunched around her torso, copulating with a succession of men who queued for their turn. Other people stood around in a ring and watched. Hunter S. explained that the scene was somewhat less than erotic, noting how the woman seemed to cling to each of her partners with a kind of grim determination.

There wasn’t much to see in the half-light, just one body mounting her and then the next in a clutch of teeth and fingernails and pubic hair. At one point, the woman’s husband, or ex-boyfriend, came into the barn to discover what was going on. He seemed drunk and upset, but then fell down on top of her and took his turn.

In my early teens, this was close to the most ‘pornographic’ thing I had read. I found myself sickened and repulsed by what was some kind of bizarre social rite but also, perversely aroused.

Here lies the power of the ‘great’ artist; what he actually does is take us into a frightening, repulsive scenario in which we are, because of arousal, even the tiniest bit complicit, right into its eye and out the other side. From there, we can see back into the event, grafting it into our understanding and thereby exorcising the terrors it contains.

It is one thing to depict horror; it is quite another to open it for us to travel through on the way to a future destination, the way a train travels though a tunnel in a hillside.

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