By Joseph Siess
The Thompson Joplin Connection
In his final screed, the late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson wrote ,”Now, years later, I still have trouble when I think about Chicago. That week at the Convention changed everything I’d ever taken for granted about this country and my place in it… Every time I tried to tell somebody what happened in Chicago I began crying, and it took me years to understand why… Chicago was the End of the Sixties, for me” (Kingdom of Fear 2003).
The year 1968 was brutally flogged into the American collective unconscious and remains a strange and powerful moment in American history and culture. Not only was it the year Thompson realized swine had taken the country, but it was also the year that Big Brother and the Holding Company dropped Cheap Thrills, one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded.
In a way, the seventh track on the album, Ball and Chain, is the perfect musical rendition of the confusion, anger and sense of utter defeat that characterized the counter-cultural movement in America in the late 60’s. The manic and scattered screeching of the electric guitar solos in combination with Janis Joplin’s raspy gut-wrenching plea to “know why” everything “goes wrong”, sends the mind into a tailspin. Fragmented jolts of sorrow, loss, and anger seem to rush through the skull in synch with the rising and falling sound. It succeeds in being a ferocious tribute to the social tumult and malaise during the Vietnam war era disguised as the ballad of a love affair gone terribly wrong.
More so, the song is timeless. The sound uniquely describes the society and politics of the late 1960’s just as it fits ideally with the alienation and utter hopelessness of the millennial generation today. Ball and Chain is the perfect escape, as it takes the listener down the rabbit hole and far away from the shocking realities of this grotesque year of our Lord 2015; as the good Dr. might have said if he were still with us.
It’s rather strange that such a perfect song, the ideal musical rendition of a key historical event of the period, would smack the wavelengths only weeks before the riots. Cheap Thrills dropped on the 12th of August 1968, two weeks before the Democratic National Convention riots in Chicago sent the Dr. fleeing up to his hotel suite in a bout of disbelief and fear at what he was witnessing.
The Dr. was in Chicago as a credentialed journalist researching the convention for his book on the Death of the American Dream. In Fear and Loathing in America Thompson wrote, “The desperate scene outside seemed light-years away; only the plywood windows reminded those of us inside that the American Dream was clubbing itself to death just a few feet away”.
The utter viciousness of the authorities on that night in Chicago was enough to rattle Thompson into a state of pessimism that would define his career until he eventually blew his brains out at his home in Woody creek, Colorado in 2005; the bastards had delivered their coup de grâce to humanity in their waging of the War on Terror, and he just couldn’t take it anymore.
At least that’s the theory. The Doctor had seen too much degradation. The swine had taken over the country and there was no point in staying for the finale. The doctor writes in Kingdom of Fear that, “The last half of the 20th century will seem like a wild party for rich kids, compared to what’s coming now.”
“We are turning into a nation of whimpering slaves to Fear—fear of war, fear of poverty, fear of random terrorism, fear of getting down-sized or fired because of the plunging economy, fear of getting evicted for bad debts or suddenly getting locked up in a military detention camp on vague charges of being a Terrorist sympathizer.” —”Extreme Behavior in Aspen,” February 3, 2003
In a sense the Dr. is right about us; the millennial generation, or more appropriately, “the War on Terror generation”. Fear seems to be one of the defining characteristics of this gutless American youth in this post 9/11 American nightmare. That scumbag Bush waged the War on Terror and raped the people of our inalienable rights to the point that every porno, email, and text message is stored in some kind of mammoth data harvesting facility in the desert; they christened it the “Patriot Act” and told us it was all part of this crusade against the evil degeneracy of Islam which threatens to slap us down to our knees in prostration to Allah.
Then came Obama, the “change” we’ve all been waiting for, and the regime under which most of this brutal assault on our privacy proliferated. All that changed is that one murderous maniac supplanted another in the White House, sent in the drones and fucked the economy.
Not much has changed in regards to American foreign policy, and I think the Dr. would agree. From the Syrian Slump into civil war and the subsequent rise of ISIS, to Libya and the Ukraine Crisis; “but hey! Obama killed Osama, not according to the Pakistanis, but who cares? We’re normalizing relations with the Cubans, this is change.”
Shut up, sit down, clock in, buy shit, and pretend you are free.
We’ve witnessed the Ferguson and Baltimore riots, in tandem with the steady increase in police brutality. We’ve seen poverty skyrocket, and many have lost faith in the democratic process; or at least have realized there hasn’t been a democratic process for quite some time, if at all. Fear seems to be all the bastards have left, and you best bet they are going to use it to quash any inkling of dissent.
Recall the Boston Marathon bombing, and the Fox news coverage featuring armored vehicles rolling through residential zones flanked by beefed up robocops clad with military grade weaponry. These are Fear tactics people, and prepare for more of this, welcome to the Kingdom of Fear.
Flashback to Ferguson and Baltimore and the footage of the whole ugly thing going down. Recall Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity having a hell of a time calling all the black men busting up cars “thugs” as clips of the madness clogged the screen. Pure Fear and Loathing on all fronts. “Run for the hills people, stock up on bottled water and ammo and prepare for riots near you.”
These kinds of things define the day and age. We millennials have gone through a hell of a lot, but I don’t think the Dr. would be proud of our collective will and ability to channel our anger and malaise into something productive and revolutionary.
For the most part, we are disenfranchised, overeducated malcontents saddled with enormous debts, heirs to a ruined economy and crumbling infrastructure. I guess you could say we are a kind of new beat generation sans the revolutionary spirit or will to actually change anything for the better like our hippie predecessors.
The issue, and the Dr. might have agreed, is that too many would-be revolutionaries, leaders, gurus, painters and writers are too busy mopping the floor at Burger King three times a week in a futile effort to pay off the premium on their student loans to dedicate any time to lofty thoughts of challenging the establishment.
Like the Dr. said, “some may never live but the crazy never die”.