HAIR AND HUNTER
Monday, February 21, 2005
Greg Palast on HST
was Princess Di's photographer who told me to shave the hair on top of my nose.
That was when I was famous, famous for a whole week. I was famous only in England,
an island off the coast of Ireland, but it was fame nonetheless. The entire front
page of the Mirror, a London tabloid newspaper, was splashed with a ghastly photo
of my head (hair on nose, not on head), an attacking my investigation of Tony
Blair. My own paper, the Guardian/Observer, wanted to give a different impression
of me, so the editors spent an ungodly sum of money to hire Princess Di's photographer
to make me pretty for a large photo spread of their own. But there was nothing
much the lens man could do. "Get rid of the nose hair," he suggested,
working, without success, on the 200th snap.
I met Hunter Thompson when
I was twenty years old; that is, saw him from the back of a crowd at the gym at
my college where he was performing. I say "performing" because that's
what Thompson did, even three decades ago. He'd become an astonishing success
as a writer -- and his writing was astonishing. Then he became very accomplished
at success and stopped accomplishing much as a writer. That's when I decided not
to become a journalist.
If that's what a journalist does, I thought, I'd
rather do something a little more interesting with my life. I switched to the
hospital administration program with a plan to open a community health center
in Woodlawn, then the hardest of the hard-core poverty troughs in Chicago.
didn't work out as planned; and twenty-five years later I ended up a reporter.
Thompson ended up as a cartoon character. No kidding: "Transformer,"
the bald-headed comic book journalist hero, drinker, druggie, smart-aleck scourge
of bad guys and editors.
That was the comic book; then there's the man.
Thompson the writer kept writing in bits and snips, but it was always a parody
of Thompson. His later compilations (he couldn't sustain a book) like "Generation
of Swine" were brilliant one-joke rants. You'd read them and you didn't know
a goddamn thing you didn't know before you read them.
taking on the big topics -- after all, what topic could measure up to him?
wasn't always that way. What impressed me about "Fear and Loathing in Las
Vegas" is that it was written as a coda, a needed break, from Thompson's
grueling investigative report on the death of Chicano activist Ruben Salazar.
And this I also know: all that cool fear-and-loathing patter was not written on
acid in a Ghia doing 140; it was typed alone in a quiet room.
in a quiet room. No school gyms of adulating audiences on their feet to cheer
the genius, no comic book figures dropping bon mots could press those keys.
then came the satanic sucker-punch, celebrity. Poor Mr. Thompson.
I think of how my one goofy week of offshore stardom twisted my head (I'm still
neurotically plucking hairs off my nose), I can only imagine what Thompson's daily
dose of fame cocaine did to him.
When I go off track, when I catch myself
obsessing about my number on the Times' paperback nonfiction list, I wrestle my
thoughts back to Tundu Lissu. Tundu's the lawyer who followed up on my investigation
of the deaths of 50 Africans in George Bush Sr's gold mines. They were buried
alive and Lissu brought back the evidence for which he was arrested and charged
with sedition by the government of Tanzania. Released from prison, he refuses
to seek refuge and safety.
Tundu Lissu is a giant. I barely reach his knees,
that is, as a moral being. But I can do one thing: tell his story to the world
-- and keep myself out of the way.
When a writer gets bigger than his subjects,
he's dead -- though not yet buried.
This morning, I heard that Thompson
faced this intractable truth, and completed the job; suicide with one of the guns
he toyed with for the cameras.
Goodnight, Mr. Thompson.
for those astonishing words, no matter what they cost you.
Palast is a journalist.