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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Cue “The Day the Music Died”

posted by on May 25 at 11:54 AM


So I saw Gonzo yesterday at the Egyptian. Brad’s review is dead-on. It’s okay…it’s probably great if you don’t know much about Thompson but you want a crash course…but the great Thompson documentary has yet to happen.

The best part of the movie has to do with the 1972 campaign, which of course was the basis of Thompson’s best book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72. The movie pretty much nailed the deflated weirdness of the entire campaign.

(Politics-wonk ahead, and for the entirety of this italicized paragraph, so skip over if you’re not a history nerd: I was kind of perplexed by why the movie tried so desperately to make it seem as though Thompson derailed the Muskie campaign with his allegations that Muskie used drugs. Muskie had already derailed the Muskie campaign by crying, well before Thompson’s Ibogaine allegations. Also confusing was why they left out the fact that McGovern really fucked himself over by declaring that he was behind Eagleton 1000% before he flip-flopped and dropped him from the campaign.)

The beginning and the end of the film get a little too sappy and “you weren’t there, man” with the whole sixties thing. My entire life has been spent being told, again and again, exactly how important the sixties were, and I am so tired of hearing about it. This canonization of the entire sixties has gone from a cliche to some sort of meta-cliche back to being a cliche again. And the musical choices—“All Along the Watchtower,” (really?) “Sympathy For the Devil,” (oh, come on!) and “The Day the Music Died” (Jesus fucking Christ!) are embarrassing, obvious, and dull.

So there’s some stuff to get through. But there are moments where Thompson really shines. And there are other moments where he looks like a total dick. And those parts of the movie are really wonderful. It plays again at the Egyptian at 9 pm on Monday. If you have an interest in seeing it, you should go, and if you adjust your expectations, you’ll be glad that you did.

Also last night at home, I watched a documentary called Chisholm ‘72: Unbought and Unbossed. It’s about a black woman who ran for president in 1972. It’s a pretty great documentary about the same period as Gonzo, and it also is a perfect example of how you can make a movie about that time in American history without falling back on Freedom Rock. And Shirley Chisholm, with her giant hair and her dense lisp, is totally an inspiration. You should Netflix that after watching Gonzo.

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Back in the 90's, I had just gotten used to rolling my eyes and tuning out every time I heard some self-important Boomer screed about how pivotal the 60's were when I suddenly realized I had to get used to rolling my eyes and tuning out every time I heard a Generation X-and-beyond-er launch into a self-important screed about how the Boomers were ruining everything with their endless revisionist nostalgia-fests. Now I'm not sure which is more annoying. They're both shopworn cliches.

I always thought one of the most appealing things about Thompson was how he pointed out the emptiness of a lot of that flower-power bullshit while it was happening, even while making it clear what it was a reaction to. But, like Bukowski, he also inspired so many bad imitators who aped the signature romantic self-destructive lifestyle and hyperbolic misanthropy (without any of the attendant insight) that it's hard to be %100 positive about the cultural legacy he left behind.

Still, if a good biography ever does come out, I'd see it.

Posted by flamingbanjo | May 25, 2008 12:20 PM

More politics-wonking ahead (sorry, don't know how to italicize):

It's not really a fair telling of the story to say that Muskie cried and that was that. You leave out the fact that he was provoked to give the press conference in which this supposedly took place by the forged "Canuck Letter", which appears to have been engineered by Nixon's ratfucking team.

Also, Muskie claims not to have cried at all. He gave his press conference outdoors during a snowstorm and claims that what were reported as tears were actually melting snowflakes.

Even the odious David Broder seems to regret the way that he reported on the incident:

Posted by Bison | May 25, 2008 12:34 PM

Paul, this isn't a mere quibble. I disagree. The documentary was actually much, much better than I expected it to be. Though I disagree with some of the editorial choices (nothing pre-Hells Angels, too much Sheriff of Aspen) I think the 2 pivotal moments of the film are as follows.

In the opening, HST's reaction to 9/11 was featured. His column, written contemporaneously with the event, was about 97% accurate. His instincts on the security state mechanisms, the religious war angle, were all spot on. He sussed out the broad trends of the last 7 years in an instant. Which other writers with any following at all predicted, that very ay, with such accuracy?

Second, the interview with McGovern, in which McGovern starts complaining bitterly about the old men's wars, as his head is replaced with a split screen showing vietnam on the one side, and iraq on the other. The crowd, as you will recall, applauded.

Yes, the boomers are self-obsessed. Yes, Thompson became a caricature of himself. Yes, it gets silly at times watching Johnny Depp read from a book.

But step back for perspective. Later in the day I saw "California Dreaming (eternal)" at the Harvard Exit. What does the hot Romanian teen read to help her learn english? The Momas and the Poppas. American pop culture, and especially that of the 60s, permeated world culture. Do you excoriate Murakami for constantly bringing up the 60s?

The other day I was reading a thread about who people missed in a given on-line community. Rather than make the obvious 60s reference, I said they sounded like a bunch of 40 somethings talking about that great Black Flag show.

Also, the film brought out things I had not known. Had you ever heard Jimmy Carter's Law Day speech before? I hadn't.

But thanks for bringing the movie to folks attention.

Posted by rtm | May 25, 2008 1:17 PM
The Momas and the Poppas. American pop culture, and especially that of the 60s, permeated world culture.
Right. There was no American pop culture before or after the 60s, and no American culture before or after the 60's spread around the world.

The thing that's so annoying about boomer nostalgia isn't just bringing up the 60's. It's the blinders that make you ignore everything else and pretend that the first, the last and the most important of everything all happened during that time only.

As long as they keep making that blatant error, it is no cliche to point it out.

Posted by elenchos | May 25, 2008 1:36 PM

I'm not a boomer, OK? I'm older than that. I have been here in Seattle since the 1960s and I saw all the changes that happened here, then and since.

The 1960s were no more important, and no less important, than any other time. The only thing more boring than boomers telling us how pivotal the 1960s were are you little pissants telling us ad nauseam how full of shit the boomers are.

It's all happening, all the time, everywhere and to everybody. Live in the moment and just piss on all this tiresome ageist crap. I'm just as full of shit as you are and vice versa.

Posted by ivan | May 25, 2008 1:47 PM

Chisholm '72 is fantastic: THERE'S a female presidential candidate I could get behind. If only she'd been born forty years later, she could have been a kind of combination of the best of both Hillary (not much left) and Obama.

Posted by Grant Cogswell | May 25, 2008 2:19 PM

Elenchos makes my point about the '60's perfectly. Thank you, elenchos.

@Bison: I know all the backstory about Muskie and how it was much more complex than that--what presidential campaign-ending gaffe isn't a very complex misinterpretation of something?--but thank you for caring enough to post. Muskie, a fellow Mainer, breaks my heart. But Thompson didn't really have anything to do with it, which was my main point.

@rtm: Yes, I had heard the Law Day speech before--I'm very interested in that period of history--and Murakami approaches the time period without cliche. That is why I like Murakami.

@Grant: Right on.

Posted by Paul Constant | May 25, 2008 2:34 PM

Nobody believed Hunter's puckish allegation that Muskie used Ibogaine.

Posted by Tim Appelo | May 25, 2008 2:54 PM

The sixties did have a more cohesive coming-together of attitudes than other decades, which makes it easier to talk about them as if they were a discrete unit of meaning. Unfortunately it also makes it easier to fall back on a cliche when doing so. "The Sixties" encompasses a fairly small part of what transpired in the Sixties. Using those particular musical tracks is easy, because it does the work that the film should be doing -- painting a picture. Using them means they're getting someone else's picture, which is lame.

You want to represent the REAL Sixties? Use "Everybody Loves Somebody" by Dean Martin, which outsold all three of those songs combined by a huge margin.

Posted by Fnarf | May 25, 2008 3:10 PM


That's great that you were already aware of the nuances of the Muskie story, but don't you think there's a way to tip-off your readers that there's more to the story beyond the mere conventional wisdom? You needn't have wasted lines of text going along that tangent, but a couple of scare quotes might have let you reference the story without seeming to reinforce its prevailing narrative.

Posted by Bison | May 25, 2008 3:17 PM

elenchos (and followers)

I was making a point not about boomer nostalgia. Did you see why I cited the Mommas and the Poppas? Because a Romanian filmaker used it to make a point in his movie. Did you see my other point? Murakami. OK, so the boomers are stupid. If you are right, it's still too late, because they already brainwashed the Romanian new cinema and Japanese novelists.

And you know what Fnarf, citing Dean Martin's sales is like saying that CD's were not important in 1985 because cassette tapes outsold them that year. The writing was on the wall. OR more to the point, that we ought to junk SIFF because video games do bidder box office than movies. C'mon man, other than being funny, did you have a point? You are better than that.

And you are right Fnarf - all documentaries about historical figures should avoid using music from that period. It's cheap. They should be silent, or perhaps commission serious composers of today to re-create what the music of that era should have been like, rather than what it was.

The final point, which I don't notice anyone quibbling with? His 9/11 writing. Dispense with the boomer wars already - the guy had fine instincts about the american psyche and deployed them that day.

Bottom line - I was arguing that the documentary was *better* than I expected it to be (rather than Paul's comments) and tried to support it with references to the film.

Seems y'all are still fighting a culture war that HST knew was already lost.

Posted by rtm | May 25, 2008 4:40 PM

@ rtm: I didn't argue with your 9/11 writing because you were right; he nailed it. But I wasn't talking about Thompson's writing. I was talking about the movie's cliche take on the late '60s and early '70s. And then I suggested a documentary that I felt avoided those cliches. I have no interest in fighting a fight about the '60s, but I feel like I should point out when a movie does a bad job of portraying the time. Gonzo did a bad, lazy job of that. It did many other things well. This is what happens with movies.

@Bison: I have a hard time with scare quotes, as I always picture people making air quotes with their fingers. But I take your point. Muskie's decline was fascinating and complex.

Posted by Paul Constant | May 25, 2008 5:25 PM

Would you prefer, RTM, that I used the example of The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, or Buck Owens, or The Free Design? Sixties music is infinitely richer and more varied that the same old "brank bronk" of "All Along The Watchtower". Inasmuch as Hunter Thompson embodied the cliche of the sixties, I guess it makes sense; remember his rhapsodizing at the beginning of Fear and Loathing about the turgid pomposities of "Whiter Shade of Pale"? Thompson had terrible taste. So maybe cliches are appropriate.

But the movie's not for Thompson; it's for us. So maybe they could show a little imagination. But that narrow band of sixties-ism doesn't allow for imagination; if it wasn't in Rolling Stone Magazine, it didn't happen. But virtually nothing of interest was ever in Rolling Stone Magazine, which makes it difficult to tell the truth.

Posted by Fnarf | May 25, 2008 5:35 PM

Fnarf @ 13 says:

if it wasn't in Rolling Stone Magazine, it didn't happen. But virtually nothing of interest was ever in Rolling Stone Magazine, which makes it difficult to tell the truth.

Got to back Fnarf up on this one. For me the 60s were James Brown, Motown, B.B. King, Ray Charles, the Isley Brothers, Buck Owens, Joao Gilberto, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. The Beatles? The Stones? Hendrix? Damn straight! Them too, but not only them. People's mileage may vary.

Posted by ivan | May 25, 2008 6:04 PM


You know, one time I went out to the Eastside to see A Midsummer Night's Dream set in a nostalgic vision of a 1950's high school. It wasn't bad. But the music was song for song exactly the same as John Waters' Crybaby. I just know there have to be other songs that evoke that era without being the exact same ones that I've heard 1,000 times whenever somebody wants to say "Heyyyy it's the 50's!"

So I think you have a point there. Along with what Fnarf and Paul Constant are saying, there is much more material there then the same old fucking re-run of "All Along the Watchtower." I mean, no, I wasn't there, man, so why not give me a taste of what I missed? Instead of merely a cue.

In closing, may I just mention: Song of the Sausage Creature?

Posted by elenchos | May 25, 2008 8:05 PM

Paul, I loved the movie! My only criticism is that they used too many clips of Fear and Loathing the movie. And the camera shots sometimes seemed a little too "home-movie". But I laughed a shit load, and the bf and friend that went with me (with little or no knowledge of his body of work) loved it and laughed at the same parts. I also agree the writing from 9/11 was amazing.

But I am biased, Thompson is one of my favorite authors of all time, 60's cliche or not.

Posted by Original Monique | May 25, 2008 8:06 PM

As a 10 yo kid I remember my gay divorced dad saying happily, "I voted for Shirley Chisolm." And it stuck with me all my life.

PBS broadcast unbought and unbossed a couple of years ago. It made me proud of my dad, dead lo these many years...

Posted by shattered | May 25, 2008 11:02 PM

I'll try not to get into the boomers vs. X wars. I'm in the middle. I feel the 60's were somewhat important (they almost kinda stopped a war, which I must point out nobody's doing one fucking thing about this time around)... I will say that maybe pop culture was a bit monolithic back then, and more (but not all, of course) folks went through a lot of common experiences. But after all this, music began to fragment some (and I'm not complaining, just saying it, I've got one foot in the Black Flag camp, too, although the one show I went to sucked for me.)

ANYWAY, me and some friends watched "Where the Buffalo Roam" again and again back in college, before "Freedom Rock" was invented, before Classic Raaawk radio became its own, official cliche. And I loved it. (And read the good doctor's works.)

A friend of mine recently loaned me a DVD of WTBR. First time I'd seen it without the real soundtrack. I just about puked. Right at the point where Dylan's "Hwy 61 Revisited" was supposed to kick in, some ersatz Henley crap started. I turned it off and will get back to it some other night.

And yes, looking at that track listing today, it's a bit Classic Rawk/Motown superhittish, but this was before (kinda) all that really got pounded into our heads way too many times (i.e., James Brown, "I Feel Good.") Oldies & Classic Rawk stations nowadays do a major disservice.

Oh, and make your own bitch about the Big Chill soundtrack here. ; )

Posted by CP | May 26, 2008 11:03 AM


I've heard baby boomers, with a straight face, claim that the Vietnam war was more dangerous than WWII. When I brought up the well documented body counts of the two wars and the whole one-year-tour thing, they told me that the average WWII soldier saw something less than a minute of combat.

I've seen a baby boomer say "I started smoking back then because we all thought we were going to die before we were old enough to care about lung cancer" RIGHT FUCKING IN FRONT of his WWII era parents.

While I expect you're right that people have been full of shit throughout history, I see these couple of episodes as something like evidence that boomers are uniquely fulla shit on the subject of the unique importance of their own era.

Posted by Luke Baggins | May 26, 2008 1:58 PM

If anyone can cite an example of people from other generations absurdly exaggerating the importance of the decade when they were 20ish, I would love to see it. I mean "absurdly" measured in terms of ass-hattery of the comparison, and ass-puckering embarrassment of being in the same room with someone who said that.

Posted by Luke Baggins | May 26, 2008 2:02 PM

"The Day The Music Died"? You mean the song "American Pie"?
But yeah, that Shirley Chisholm documentary kicks ass. I own three DVDs and that is one of them.

Posted by --MC | May 27, 2008 7:19 AM

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