On Friday 19 March 1971, the journalist Hunter S Thompson and the lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta were sitting in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel – “in the patio section, of course” – drinking singapore slings and plotting the high-speed desert trip that would inspire Thompson’s most celebrated work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Fifty years and seven months later, I’m sitting on that same patio with the filmmaker Phillip Rodriguez, who made an incisive documentary about Acosta’s wild life and times, The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo. Reading Thompson as a teenager made me want to write for a living, so my plan had been to mark the 50th anniversary of Fear and Loathing first appearing in Rolling Stone by having a few drinks and toasting the memory of these two icons of cultural rebellion. Rodriguez has other ideas. “We have to rethink a lot of our gods,” he tells me, a smile breaking through his short-cropped snowy beard but his eyes deadly serious. “We become conservative if we’re still trying to preserve the mythologies of our youth.” I almost spit out my singapore sling.
These days, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas exists most powerfully in the popular imagination thanks to Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film adaptation, which starred Johnny Depp as Thompson’s alter ego Raoul Duke and Benicio Del Toro as Duke’s attorney, Dr Gonzo. On any given Halloween you will still find plenty of Raoul Dukes roaming the streets, cigarette holders clamped between their teeth, and a fair few Dr Gonzos trailing in their wake. In the film, as in the book, Acosta’s alter ego is essentially a sidekick, portrayed as a drug-crazed lunatic “Samoan”. When Acosta first read Thompson’s story, he had no problem being cast as a drug-crazed lunatic but was incensed that his identity as a proud leader of the Chicano civil rights movement had been erased. On top of that, Acosta believed he deserved credit for the work itself, in which much of the dialogue is reproduced verbatim from recordings Thompson made during their adventures in Vegas. “My God! Hunter has stolen my soul!” he wrote to Alan Rinzler, the editor who ran Straight Arrow, Rolling Stone’s books division. “He has taken my best lines and has used me. He has wrung me dry for material.”