But now – even before the spectacle got under way – there were signs that we might be losing control of the situation. Here we were on this fine Nevada morning, this cool bright dawn on the desert, hunkered down at some greasy bar in a concrete blockhouse & gambling casino called the "Mint Gun Club" about ten miles out of Vegas ... and with the race about to start, we were dangerously disorganized.
Outside, the lunatics were playing with their motorcycles, taping the headlights, topping off oil in the forks, last minute bolt-tightening (carburetor screws, manifold nuts, etc.) ... and the first ten bikes blasted off on the stroke of nine. It was extremely exciting and we all went outside to watch. The flag went down and these ten poor buggers popped their clutches and zoomed into the first turn, all together, then somebody grabbed the lead (a 405 Husquavarna, as I recall), and a cheer went up as the rider screwed it on and disappeared in a cloud of dust.
"Well, that's that," somebody said. "They'll be back around in an hour or so. Let's go back to the bar."
* * *
But not yet. No. There were something like a hundred and ninety more bikes waiting to start. They went off ten at a time, every two minutes. At first it was possible to watch them out to a distance of some 200 yards from the starting line. But this visibility didn't last long. The third brace of ten disappeared into the dust about 100 yards from where we stood ... and by the time they'd sent off the first 100 (with still another hundred to go), our visibility was down to something like 50 feet. We could see as far as the hay-bales at the end of the pits. ...
Beyond that point the incredible dust-cloud that would hang over this part of the desert for the next two days was already formed up solid. None of us realized, at the time, that this was the last we would see of the "Fabulous Mint 400" –
By noon it was hard to see the pit area from the bar/casino, 100 feet away in the blazing sun. The idea of trying to "cover this race" in any conventional press-sense was absurd: It was like trying to keep track of a swimming meet in an Olympic - sized pool filled with talcum powder instead of water. The Ford Motor Company had come through, as promised, with a "press Bronco" and a driver, but after a few savage runs across the desert – looking for motorcycles and occasionally finding one – I abandoned this vehicle to the photographers and went back to the bar.
It was time, I felt, for an Agonizing Reappraisal of the whole scene. The race was definitely underway. I had witnessed the start; I was sure of that much. But what now? Rent a helicopter? Get back in that stinking Bronco? Wander out on that goddamn desert and watch these fools race past the checkpoints? One every 13 minutes. ...?
By ten they were spread out all over the course. It was no longer a "race"; now it was an Endurance Contest. The only visible action was at the start/finish line, where every few minutes some geek would come speeding out of the dust-cloud and stagger off his bike, while his pit crew would gas it up and then launch it back onto the track with a fresh driver ... for another 50-mile lap, another brutal hour of kidney-killing madness out there in that terrible dust-blind limbo.
Somewhere around 11, I made another tour in the press-vehicle, but all we found were two dune-buggies full of what looked like retired petty-officers from San Diego. They cut us off in a dry-wash and demanded, "Where is the damn thing?"
"Beats me," I said. "We're just good patriotic Americans like yourselves." Both of their buggies were covered with ominous symbols: Screaming Eagles carrying American Flags in their claws, a slant-eyed snake being chopped to bits by a buzz-saw made of stars & stripes, and one of the vehicles had what looked like a machine-gun mount on the passenger side.
They were having a bang-up time – just crashing around the desert at top speed and hassling anybody they met. "What outfit you fellas with?" one of them shouted. The engines were all roaring; we could barely hear each other.
"The sporting press," I yelled. "We're friendlies – hired geeks."
"If you want a good chase," I shouted "you should get after that skunk from CBS News up ahead in the big black jeep. He's the man responsible for The Selling of the Pentagon."
"Hot damn!" two of them screamed at once. "A black jeep? You say?"
They roared off, and so did we. Bouncing across the rocks & scrub oak/cactus like iron tumbleweeds. The beer in my hand flew up and hit the top, then fell in my lap and soaked my crotch with warm foam.
"You're fired," I said to the driver. "Take me back to the pits."
It was time, I felt, to get grounded – to ponder this rotten assignment and figure out how to cope with it. Lacerda insisted on Total Coverage. He wanted to go back out in the dust storm and keep trying for some rare combination of film and lens that might penetrate the awful stuff.
"Joe," our driver, was willing. His name was not really "Joe," but that's what we'd been instructed to call him. I had talked to the FoMoCo boss the night before, and when he mentioned the driver he was assigning to us he said, "His real name is Steve, but you should call him Joe."
"Why not?" I said. "We'll call him anything he wants. How about 'Zoom'?"
"No dice," said the Ford man. "It has to be 'Joe.'"
Lacerda agreed, and sometime around noon he went out on the desert, again, in the company of our driver, Joe. I went back to the blockhouse bar/casino that was actually the Mint Gun Club – where I began to drink heavily, think heavily, and make many heavy notes. ...
A night on the town ... confrontation at the Desert Inn ... drug frenzy at the Circus-Circus
Saturday midnight ... Memories of this night are extremely hazy. All I have, for guide-pegs, is a pocketfull of keno cards and cocktail napkins, all covered with scribbled notes. Here is one: "Get the Ford man, demand a Bronco for race-observation purposes ... photos? ... Lacerda/call ... why not a helicopter? ... Get on the phone, lean on the fuckers ... heavy yelling."
Another says: "Sign on Paradise Boulevard – 'Stopless and Topless' ... bush-league sex compared to L.A., pasties here – total naked public humping in L.A. ... Las Vegas is a society of armed masturbators/gambling is the kicker here/sex is extra/weird trip for high rollers ... house-whores for winners, hand jobs for the bad luck crowd."
* * *
A long time ago when I lived in Big Sur down the road from Lionel Olay I had a friend who liked to go to Reno for the crap-shooting. He owned a sporting-goods store in Carmel. And one month he drove his Mercedes highway-cruiser to Reno on three consecutive weekends – winning heavily each time. After three trips he was something like $15,000 ahead, so he decided to skip the fourth weekend and take some friends to dinner at Nepenthe. "Always quit winners," he explained. "And besides, it's a long drive."
On Monday morning he got a phone call from Reno – from the general manager of the casino he'd been working out on. "We missed you this weekend," said the GM. "The pit-men were bored."
"Shucks," said my friend.
So the next weekend he flew up to Reno in a private plane, with a friend and two girls – all "special guests" of the GM. Nothing too good for high rollers. ...
And on Monday morning the same plane – the casino's plane – flew him back to the Monterey airport. The pilot lent him a dime to call a friend for a ride to Carmel. He was $30,000 in debt, and two months later he was looking down the barrel of one of the world's heaviest collection agencies.
So he sold his store, but that didn't make the nut. They could wait for the rest, he said – but then he got stomped, which convinced him that maybe he'd be better off borrowing enough money to pay the whole wad.
Mainline gambling is a very heavy business – and Las Vegas makes Reno seem like your friendly neighborhood grocery store. For a loser, Las Vegas is the meanest town on earth. Until about a year ago, there was a giant billboard on the outskirts of Las Vegas, saying:
Don't Gamble with Marijuana!
In Nevada: Possession – 20 years
Sale – Life!
I was not entirely at ease drifting around the casinos on this Saturday night with a car full of marijuana and head full of acid. We had several narrow escapes: at one point I tried to drive the Great Red Shark into the laundry room of the Landmark Hotel – but the door was too narrow, and the people inside seemed dangerously excited.
* * *
We drove over to the Desert Inn, to catch the Debbie Reynolds/Harry James show. "I don't know about you," I told my attorney, "but in my line of business it's important to be Hep."
"Mine too," he said. "But as your attorney I advise you to drive over to the Tropicana and pick up on Guy Lombardo. He's in the Blue Room with his Royal Canadians."
"Why?" I asked.
"Why should I pay out my hard-earned dollars to watch a fucking corpse?"
"Look," he said. "Why are we out here? To entertain ourselves, or to do the job?"
"The job, of course," I replied. We were driving around in circles, weaving through the parking lot of a place I thought was the Dunes, but it turned out to be the Thunderbird ... or maybe it was the Hacienda.
My attorney was scanning The Vegas Visitor, looking for hints of action. "How about "'Nickle Nik's Slot Arcade?'" he said. "'Hot Slots,' that sounds heavy ... 29c hotdogs ..."
Suddenly people were screaming at us. We were in trouble. Two thugs wearing red/gold military overcoats were looming over the hood: "What the hell are you doing?" one screamed. "You can't park here!"
"Why not?" I said. It seemed like a reasonable place to park, plenty of space. I'd been looking for a parking spot for what seemed like a very long time. Too long. I was about ready to abandon the car and call a taxi ... but then, yes, we found this space.
Which turned out to be the sidewalk in front of the main entrance to the Desert Inn. I had run over so many curbs by this time, that I hadn't even noticed this last one. But now we found ourselves in a position that was hard to explain ... blocking the entrance, thugs yelling at us, bad confusion. ...
My attorney was out of the car in a flash, waving a five dollar bill. "We want this car parked! I'm old friend of Debbie's. I used to romp with her."
For a moment I thought he had blown it ... then one of the doormen reached out for the bill, saying: "Ok, Ok. I'll take care of it, sir." And he tore off a parking stub.
"Holy shit!" I said, as we hurried through the lobby. "They almost had us there. That was quick thinking."
"What do you expect?" he said. "I'm your attorney ... and you owe me five bucks. I want it now."
I shrugged and gave him a bill. This garish, deep-orlon carpeted lobby of the Desert Inn seemed an inappropriate place to be haggling about nickel/dime bribes for the parking lot attendant. This was Bob Hope's turf. Frank Sinatra's. Spiro Agnew's. The lobby fairly reeked of high-grade formica and plastic palm trees – it was clearly a high-class refuge for Big Spenders.
We approached the grand ballroom full of confidence, but they refused to let us in. We were too late, said a man in a wine-colored tuxedo; the house was already full – no seats left, at any price.
"Fuck seats," said my attorney. "We're old friends of Debbie's. We drove all the way from L.A. for this show, and we're goddamn well going in."
The tux-man began jabbering about "fire regulations," but my attorney refused to listen. Finally, after a lot of bad noise, he let us in for nothing – provided we would stand quietly in back and not smoke.
We promised, but the moment we got inside we lost control. The tension had been too great. Debbie Reynolds was yukking across the stage in a shiny black Afro wig ... to the tune of "Sergeant Pepper," from the golden trumpet of Harry James.
"Jesus creeping shit!" said my attorney. "We've wandered into a time capsule!"
Heavy hands grabbed our shoulders. I jammed the hash pipe back into my pocket just in time. We were dragged across the lobby and held against the front door by goons until our car was fetched up. "Ok, get lost," said the wine-tux-man. "We're giving you a break. If Debbie has friends like you guys, she's in worse trouble than I thought."
"We'll see about this!" my attorney shouted as we drove away. "You paranoid scum!"
I drove around to the Circus-Circus Casino and parked near the back door. "This is the place," I said. "They'll never fuck with us here."
"Where's the ether?" said my attorney. "This mescaline isn't working."
I gave him the key to the trunk while I lit up the hash pipe. He came back with the ether-bottle, un-capped it, then poured some into a kleenex and mashed it under his nose, breathing heavily. I soaked another kleenex and fouled my own nose. The smell was overwhelming, even with the top down. Soon we were staggering up the stairs towards the entrance, laughing stupidly and dragging each other along, like drunks.
This is the main advantage of ether: it makes you behave like the village drunkard in some early Irish novel ... total loss of all basic motor skills: blurred vision, no balance, numb tongue – severence of all connection between the body and the brain. Which is interesting, because the brain continues to function more or less normally ... you can actually watch yourself behaving in this terrible way, but you can't control it.
You approach the turnstiles leading into the Circus-Circus and you know that when you get there, you have to give the man two dollars or he won't let you inside ... but when you get there, everything goes wrong: you misjudge the distance to the turnstile and slam against it, bounce off and grab hold of an old woman to keep from falling, some angry Rotarian shoves you and you think: What's happening here? What's going on? Then you hear yourself mumbling: "Dogs fucked the Pope, no fault of mine. Watch out! ... Why money? My name is Brinks; I was born ... born? Get sheep over side ... women and children to armored car ... orders from Captain Zeep."
Ah, devil ether – a total body drug. The mind recoils in horror, unable to communicate with the spinal column. The hands flap crazily, unable to get money out of the pocket ... garbled laughter and hissing from the mouth ... always smiling.
Ether is the perfect drug for Las Vegas. In this town they love a drunk. Fresh meat. So they put us through the turnstiles and turned us loose inside.
* * *
The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the Sixth Reich. The ground floor is full of gambling tables, like all the other casinos ... but the place is about four stories high, in the style of a circus tent, and all manner of strange County-Fair/Polish Carnival madness is going on up in this space. Right above the gambling tables the Forty Flying Carazito Brothers are doing a high-wire trapeze act, along with four muzzled Wolverines and the Six Nymphet Sisters from San Diego ... so you're down on the main floor playing blackjack, and the stakes are getting high when suddenly you chance to look up, and there, right smack above your head is a half-naked 14-year-old girl being chased through the air by a snarling wolverine, which is suddenly locked in a death battle with two silver-painted Polacks who come swinging down from opposite balconies and meet in mid-air on the wolverine's neck ... both Polacks seize the animal as they fall straight down towards the crap tables – but they bounce off the net; they separate and spring back up towards the roof in three different directions, and just as they're about to fall again they are grabbed out of the air by three Korean Kittens and trapezed off to one of the balconies.
This madness goes on and on, but nobody seems to notice. The gambling action runs 24 hours a day on the main floor, and the circus never ends. Meanwhile, on all the upstairs balconies, the customers are being hustled by every conceivable kind of bizarre shuck. All kinds of funhouse-type booths. Shoot the pasties off the nipples of a ten-foot bull-dyke and win a cotton-candy goat. Stand in front of this fantastic machine, my friend, and for just 99¢ your likeness will appear, 200 feet tall, on a screen above downtown Las Vegas. Niney-nine cents more for a voice message. "Say whatever you want, fella. They'll hear you, don't worry about that. Remember you'll be 200 feet tall."
Jesus Christ. I could see myself lying in bed in the Mint Hotel, half-asleep and staring idly out the window, when suddenly a vicious nazi drunkard appears 200 feet tall in the midnight sky, screaming gibberish at the world: "Woodstock Uber Alles."
We will close the drapes tonight. A thing like that could send a drug person careening around the room like a ping-pong ball. Hallucinations are bad enough. But after a while you learn to cope with things like seeing your dead grandmother crawling up your leg with a knife in her teeth. Most acid fanciers can handle this sort of thing.
But nobody can handle that other trip – the possibility that any freak with $1.98 can walk into the Circus-Circus and suddenly appear in the sky over downtown Las Vegas 12 times the size of God, howling anything that comes into his head. No, this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted.
* * *
Good mescaline comes on slow. The first hour is all waiting, then about halfway through the second hour you start cursing the creep who burned you, because nothing is happening ... and then ZANG! Fiendish intensity, strange glow and vibrations ... a very heavy gig in a place like the Circus-Circus.
"I hate to say this," said my attorney as we sat down at the Merry-Go-Round Bar on the second balcony, "but this place is getting to me. I think I'm getting the Fear."
"Nonsense," I said. "We came out here to find the American Dream, and how that we're right in the vortex you want to quit." I grabbed his bicep and squeezed. "You must realize," I said, "that we've found the main nerve."
"I know," he said. "That's what gives me the Fear."
The ether was wearing off, the acid was long gone, but the mescaline was running strong. We were sitting at a small round gold formica table, moving in orbit around the bartender.
"Look over there," I said. "Two women fucking a polar bear."
"Please," he said. "Don't tell me those things. Not now." He signaled the waitress for two more Wild Turkeys. "This is my last drink," he said. "How much money can you lend me?"
"Not much," I said. "Why?"
"I have to go," he said.
"Yes. Leave the country. Tonight."
"Calm down," I said. "You'll be straight in a few hours."
"No," he said. "This is serious."
"George Metesky was serious," I said. "And you see what they did to him."
"Don't fuck around!" he shouted. "One more hour in this town and I'll kill somebody!"
I could see he was on the edge. That fearful intensity that comes at the peak of a mescaline seizure. "Ok," I said. "I'll lend you some money. Let's go outside and see how much we have left."
"Can we make it?" he said.
"Well ... that depends on how many people we fuck with between here and the door. You want to leave quietly?
"I want to leave fast," he said.
"Ok. Let's pay this bill and get up very slowly. We're both out of our heads. This is going to be a long walk." I shouted at the waitress for a bill. She came over, looking bored, and my attorney stood up.
"Do they pay you to screw that bear?" he asked her.
"He's just kidding," I said, stepping between them. "Come on, Doc – let's go down and gamble." I got him as far as the edge of the bar, the rim of the merry-go-round, but he refused to get off until it stopped turning.
"It won't stop," I said. "It's not ever going to stop." I stepped off and turned around to wait for him, but he wouldn't move ... and before I could reach out and pull him off, he was carried away. "Don't move," I shouted. "You'll come around!" His eyes were staring blindly ahead, squinting with fear and confusion. But he didn't move a muscle until he'd made the whole circle.
I waited until he was almost in front of me, then I reached out to grab him – but he jumped back and went around the circle again. This made me very nervous. I felt on the verge of a freak-out. The bartender seemed to be watching us.
Carson City, I thought. Twenty years.
* * *
I stepped on the merry-go-round and hurried around the bar, approaching my attorney on his blind side – and when we came to the right spot I pushed him off. He staggered into the aisle and uttered a hellish scream as he lost his balance and went down, thrashing into the crowd ... rolling like a log, then up again in a flash, fists clenched, looking for somebody to hit.
I approached him with my hands in the air, trying to smile. "You fell," I said. "Let's go."
By this time people were watching us. But the fool wouldn't move, and I knew what would happen if I grabbed him. "Ok," I said. "You stay here and go to jail. I'm leaving." I started walking fast towards the stairs, ignoring him.
This moved him.
"Did you see that?" he said as he caught up with me. "Some sonofabitch kicked me in the back!"
"Probably the bartender," I said. "He wanted to stomp you for what you said to the waitress."
"Good god! Let's get out of here. Where's the elevator?"
"Don't go near that elevator," I said. "That's just what they want us to do ... trap us in a steel box and take us down to the basement." I looked over my shoulder, but nobody was following.
"Don't run," I said. "They'd like an excuse to shoot us." He nodded, seeming to understand. We walked fast along the big indoor midway – shooting galleries, tattoo parlors, money-changers and cotton-candy booths – then out through a bank of glass doors and across the grass downhill to a parking lot where the Red Shark waited.
"You drive," he said. "I think there's something wrong with me."
Paranoid terror ... and the awful specter of sodomy ... a flashing of knives and green water
When we got to the Mint I parked on the street in front of the casino, around a corner from the parking lot. No point risking a scene in the lobby, I thought. Neither one of us could pass for drunk. We were both hyper-tense. Extremely menacing vibrations all around us. We hurried through the casino and up the rear escalator.
We made it to the room without meeting anybody – but the key wouldn't open the door. My attorney was struggling desperately with it. "Those bastards have changed the lock on us," he groaned. "They probably searched the room. Jesus, we're finished."
Suddenly the door swung open. We hesitated, then hurried inside. No sign of trouble. "Bolt everything," said my attorney. "Use all chains." He was staring at two Mint Hotel Room keys in his hand. "Where did this one come from?" he said, holding up a key with number 1221 on it.
"That's Lacerda's room," I said.
He smiled. "Yeah, that's right. I thought we might need it."
"Let's go up there and blast him out of bed with the fire hose," he said.
"No," I said. "We should leave the poor bastard alone, I get the feeling he's avoiding us for some reason."
"Don't kid yourself," he said. "That Portuguese son of bitch is dangerous. He's watching us like a hawk." He squinted at me. "Have you made a deal with him?"
"I talked with him on the phone," I said, "while you were out getting the car washed. He said he was turning in early, so he can get out there to the starting line at dawn."
My attorney was not listening. He uttered an anguished cry and smacked the wall with both hands. "That dirty bastard!" he shouted. "I knew it! He got hold of my woman!"
I laughed. "That little blonde groupie with the film crew? You think he sodomized her?"
"That's right – laugh about it!" he yelled. "You goddamn honkies are all the same." By this time he'd opened a new bottle of tequila and was quaffing it down. Then he grabbed a grapefruit and sliced it in half with a Gerber Mini-Magnum – a stainless-steel hunting knife with a blade like a fresh-honed straight razor.
"Where'd you get that knife?" I asked.
"Room service sent it up," he said. "I wanted something to cut the limes."
"They didn't have any," he said. "They don't grow out here in the desert." He sliced the grapefruit into quarters ... then into eighths ... then 16ths ... then he began slashing aimlessly at the residue. "That dirty toad bastard," he groaned. "I knew I should have taken him out when I had the chance. Now he has her."
I remembered the girl. We'd had a problem with her on the elevator a few hours earlier: my attorney had made a fool of himself.
"You must be a rider," she'd said. "What class are you in?"
"Class?" he snapped. "What the fuck do you mean?"
"What do you ride?" she asked with a quick smile. "We're filming the race for a TV series – maybe we can use you."
Mother of God, I thought. Here it comes. The elevator was crowded with race people: it was taking a long time to get from floor to floor. By the time we'd stopped at Three, he was trembling badly. Five more to go. ...
"I ride the big ones!" he shouted suddenly. "The really big fuckers!"
I laughed, trying to de-fuse the scene. "The Vincent Black Shadow," I said. "We're with the factory team."
This brought a murmur of rude dissent from the crowd. "Bullshit," somebody behind me muttered.
"Wait a minute!" my attorney shouted ... and then to the girl: "Pardon me, lady, but I think there's some kind of ignorant chicken-sucker in this car who needs his face cut open." He plunged his hand into the pocket of his black plastic jacket and turned to face the people crowded into the rear of the elevator. "You cheap honky faggots," he snarled. "Which one of you wants to get cut?"
I was watching the overhead floor-indicator. The door opened at Seven, but nobody moved. Dead silence. The door closed. Up to eight ... then open again. Still no sound or movement in the crowded car. Just as the door began to close I stepped off and grabbed his arm, jerking him out just in time. The doors slid shut and the elevator light dinged Nine.
"Quick! Into the room," I said. "Those bastards will have the pigs on us!" We ran around the corner to the room. My attorney was laughing wildly. "Spooked!" he shouted. "Did you see that? They were spooked. Like rats in a death-cage!" Then, as we bolted the door behind us, he stopped laughing. "God damn," he said. "It's serious now. That girl understood. She fell in love with me."
* * *
Now many hours later, he was convinced that Lacerda – the so-called photographer had somehow got his hands on the girl. "Let's go up there and castrate that fucker," he said, waving his new knife around in quick circles in front of his teeth. "Did you put him onto her?"
"Look," I said, "you'd better put that goddamn blade away and get your head straight. I have to put the car in the lot." I was backing slowly towards the door. One of the things you learn, after years of dealing with drug people, is that everything is serious. You can turn your back on a person, but never turn your back on a drug – especially when it's waving a razor-sharp hunting knife in your eyes.
"Take a shower," I said. "I'll be back in 20 minutes." I left quickly, locking the door behind me and taking the key to Lacerda's room – the one my attorney had stolen earlier. That poor geek, I thought, as I hurried down the escalator. They sent him out here on this perfectly reasonable assignment – just a few photos of motorcycles and dune buggies racing around the desert – and now he was plunged, without realizing it, into the maw of some world beyond his ken. There was no way he could possibly understand what was happening.
* * *
What were we doing out here? What was the meaning of this trip? Did I actually have a big red convertible out there on the street? Was I just roaming around these Mint Hotel escalators in a drug frenzy of some kind or had I really come out here to Las Vegas to work on a story?
I reached in my pocket for the room key; "1850," it said. At least that much was real. So my immediate task was to deal with the car and get back to that room ... and then hopefully get straight enough to cope with whatever might happen at dawn.
Now off the escalator and into the casino, big crowds still tight around the crap tables. Who are these people? These faces! Where do they come from? They look like caricatures of used-car dealers from Dallas. But they're real. And, sweet Jesus, there are a hell of a lot of them – still screaming around these desert-city crap tables at 4:30 on a Sunday morning. Still humping the American Dream, that vision of the Big Winner somehow emerging from the last-minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas casino.
Big strike in Silver City. Beat the dealer and go home rich. Why not? I stopped at the Money Wheel and dropped a dollar on Thomas Jefferson – a $2 bill, the straight Freak ticket, thinking as always that some idle instinct bet might carry the whole thing off.
But no. Just another two bucks down the tube. You bastards!
No. Calm down. Learn to enjoy losing. The important thing is to cover this story on its own terms; leave the other stuff to Life and Look – at least for now. On the way down the escalator I saw the Life man twisted feverishly into the telegraph booth, chanting his wisdom into the ear of some horny robot in a cubicle on that other coast. Indeed: "Las Vegas at Dawn – The racers are still asleep, the dust is still on the desert, $50,000 in prize money slumbers darkly in the office safe at Del Webb's fabulous Mint Hotel in the bright heart of Casino Center. Extreme tension. And our Life team is here (as always, with a sturdy police escort. ...)." Pause. "Yes, operator, that word was police. What else? This is, after all, a Life Special. ..."
The Red Shark was out on Fremont where I'd left it. I drove around to the garage and checked it in – Dr. Gonzo's car, no problem, and if any of your men fall idle we can use a total wax job before morning. Yes, of course – just bill the room.
* * *
My attorney was in the bathtub when I returned. Submerged in green water – the oily product of some Japanese bath salts he'd picked up in the hotel gift shop, along with a new AM/FM radio plugged into the electric razor socket. Top volume. Some gibberish by a thing called "Three Dog Night," about a frog named Jeremiah who wanted "Joy to the World."
First Lennon, now this, I thought. Next we'll have Glenn Campbell screaming "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
Where indeed? No flowers in this town. Only carnivorous plants. I turned the volume down and noticed a hunk of chewed-up white paper beside the radio. My attorney seemed not to notice the sound-change. He was lost in a fog of green steam; only half his head was visible above the water line.
"You ate this?" I asked, holding up the white pad.
He ignored me. But I knew. He would be very difficult to reach for the next six hours. The whole blotter was chewed up.
"You evil son of a bitch," I said. "You better hope there's some thorazine in that bag, because if there's not you're in bad trouble tomorrow."
"Music!" he snarled. "Turn it up. Put that tape on."
"The new one. It's right there."
I picked up the radio and noticed that it was also a tape recorder – one of those things with a cassette-unit built in. And the tape, Surrealistic Pillow, needed only to be flipped over. He had already gone through side one – at a volume that must have been audible in every room within a radius of 100 yards, walls and all.
"'White Rabbit,'" he said. "I want a rising sound."
"You're doomed," I said. "I'm leaving here in two hours – and then they're going to come up here and beat the mortal shit out of you with big saps. Right there in the tub."
"I dig my own graves," he said. "Green water and the White Rabbit ... put it on; don't make me use this." His arm lashed out of the water, the hunting knife gripped in his fist.
"Jesus," I muttered. And at that point I figured he was beyond help – lying there in the tub with a head full of acid and the sharpest knife I'd ever seen, totally incapable of reason, demanding the White Rabbit. This is it, I thought. I've gone as far as I can with this waterhead. This time it's a suicide trip. This time he wants it. He's ready. ...
"Ok," I said, turning the tape over and pushing the "play" button. "But do me one last favor, will you? Can you give me two hours? That's all I ask – just two hours to sleep before tomorrow. I suspect it's going to be a very difficult day."
"Of course," he said. "I'm your attorney. I'll give you all the time you need, at my normal rates: $45 an hour – but you'll be wanting a cushion, so why don't you just lay one of those $100 bills down there beside the radio, and fuck off?"
"How about a check?" I said. "On the Sawtooth National Bank. You won't need any ID to cash it there. They know me."
"Whatever's right," he said, beginning to jerk with the music. The bathroom was like the inside of a huge defective woofer. Heinous vibrations, overwhelming sound. The floor was full of water. I moved the radio as far from the tub as it would go, then I left and closed the door behind me.
The room was very quiet. I walked over to the TV set and turned it on to a dead channel – white noise at maximum decibels, a fine sound for sleeping, a powerful continuous hiss to drown out everything strange.
"Genius 'round the world stands hand in hand, and one stock of recognition runs the whole circle round" – Art Linkletter
I live in a quiet place, where any sound at night means something is about to happen: You come awake fast – thinking, what does that mean?
Usually nothing. But sometimes ... it's hard to adjust to a city gig where the night is full of sounds, all of them comfortably routine. Cars, horns, footsteps ... no way to relax; so drown it all out with the fine white drone of a cross-eyed TV set. Jam the bugger between channels and doze off nicely. ...
Ignore that nightmare in the bathroom. Just another ugly refugee from the Love Generation, some doom-struck gimp who couldn't handle the pressure. My attorney is not a candidate for the Master Game.
And neither am I, for that matter. I once lived down the hill from Dr. Robert DeRopp on Sonoma Mountain Road, and one fine afternoon in the first rising curl of what would soon become the Great San Francisco Acid Wave I stopped by the Good Doctor's house with the idea of asking him (since he was even then a known drug authority) what sort of advice he might have for a neighbor with a healthy curiosity about LSD.
I parked on the road and lumbered up his gravel driveway, pausing enroute to wave pleasantly at his wife, who was working in the garden under the brim of a huge seeding hat ... a good scene, I thought: The old man is inside brewing up one of his fantastic drug-stews, and here we see his woman out in the garden, pruning carrots, or whatever ... humming while she works, some tune I failed to recognize.
Humming. Yes ... but it would be nearly ten years before I would recognize that sound for what it was: Like Ginsberg far gone in the Om, DeRopp was trying to humm me off. He was playing the Master Game. That was no old lady out there in that garden; it was the good doctor himself – and his humming was a frantic attempt to block me out of his higher consciousness. But he hadn't written The Master Game yet, so I had no way of knowing. ...
I made several attempts to make myself clear – just a neighbor come to call and ask the doctor's advice about gobbling some LSD in my shack just down the hill from his house. I did, after all, have weapons. And I liked to shoot them – especially at night, when the great blue flame would leap out, along with all that noise ... and, yes, the bullets, too. We couldn't ignore that. Big balls of lead/alloy flying around the valley at speeds up to 3700 ft. per second. ...
But I always fired into the nearest hill or, failing that, into blackness. I meant no harm; I just liked the explosions. And I was careful never to kill more than I could eat.
"Kill?" I realized I could never properly explain that word to this creature in DeRopp's garden. Had it ever eaten meat? Could it conjugate the verb "hunt?" Did it understand hunger? Or grasp the awful fact that my income averaged around $32 a week that year?
No ... no hope of communication in this place. I recognized that – but not soon enough to keep the drug doctor from humming me all the way down his driveway and into my car and down the mountain road. Forget LSD, I thought. Look what it's done to that poor bastard.
So I stuck with hash and rum for another six months or so, until I moved into San Francisco and found myself one night in a place called "The Fillmore Auditorium." And that was that. One grey lump of sugar and Boom. In my mind I was right back there in DeRopp's garden. Not on the surface, but underneath – poking up through that finely cultivated earth like some kind of mutant mushroom. A victim of the Drug Explosion. A natural street freak, just eating whatever came by. I recall one night in the Matrix, when a road-person came in with a big pack on his back, shouting: "Anybody want some L ... S ... D ...? I got all the makin's right here. All I need is a place to cook."
Ray Anderson was on him at once, mumbling, "Cool it, cool it, come on back to the office." I never saw him after that night, but before he was taken away, the road-person distributed his samples. Huge white spansules. I went into the men's room to eat mine. But only half at first, I thought. Good thinking, but a hard thing to accomplish under the circumstances. I ate the first half, but spilled the rest on the sleeve of my red Pendleton shirt ... And then, wondering what to do with it, I saw the bartender come in. "What's the trouble," he said.
"Well," I said. "All this white stuff on my sleeve is LSD."
He said nothing: Merely grabbed my arm and began sucking on it. A very gross tableau. I wondered what would happen if some Kingston Trio/young stockbroker type might wander in and catch us in the act. Fuck him, I thought. With a bit of luck, it'll ruin his life – forever thinking that just behind some narrow door in all his favorite bars, men in red Pendleton shirts are getting incredible kicks from things he'll never know. Would he dare to suck a sleeve? Probably not. Play it safe. Pretend you never saw it. ...
* * *
Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era – the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle Sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run ... but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. ...
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of "history" it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time – and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights – or very early mornings – when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at 100 miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder's jacket ... booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change) ... but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that. ...
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. ... You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. ...
And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. ...
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
No sympathy for the Devil ... newsmen tortured? ... flight into madness
The decision to flee came suddenly. Or maybe not. Maybe I'd planned it all along – subconsciously waiting for the right moment. The bill was a factor, I think. Because I had no money to pay it. And no more of these devilish credit-card/reimbursement deals. Not after dealing with Sidney Zion. They seized my American Express card after that one, and now the bastards are suing me – along with the Diner's Club and the IRS. ...
And besides, the magazine is legally responsible. My attorney saw to that. We signed nothing. Except those room service tabs. We never knew the total, but – just before we left – my attorney figured we were running somewhere between $29 and $36 per hour, for 48 consecutive hours.
"Incredible," I said. "How could it happen?"
But by the time I asked this question, there was nobody around to answer. My attorney was gone.
He must have sensed trouble. On Monday evening he ordered up a set of fine cowhide luggage from room service, then told me he had reservations on the next plane for L.A. We would have to hurry, he said, and on the way to the airport he borrowed $25 for the plane ticket.
I saw him off, then I went back to the airport souvenir counter and spent all the rest of my cash on garbage – complete shit, souvenirs of Las Vegas, plastic fake-Zippo-lighters with a built-in roulette wheel for $6.95, JFK half-dollar money clips for $5 each, tin apes that shook dice for $7.50 ... I loaded up on this crap, then carried it out to the Great Red Shark and dumped it all in the back seat ... and then I stepped into the driver's seat in a very dignified way (the white top was rolled back, as always) and I sat there and turned the radio on and began thinking.
How would Horatio Alger handle this situation?
One toke over the line, sweet Jesus ... one toke over the line.
Panic. It crept up my spine like the first rising vibes of an acid frenzy. All these horrible realities began to dawn on me: Here I was all alone in Las Vegas with this goddamn incredibly expensive car, completely twisted on drugs, no attorney, no cash, no story for the magazine – and on top of everything else I had a gigantic goddamn hotel bill to deal with. We had ordered everything into that room that human hands could carry – including about 600 bars of translucent Neutrogena soap.
The whole car was full of it – all over the floors, the seats, the glove compartment. My attorney had worked out some kind of arrangement with the mestizo maids on our floor to have this soap delivered to us – 600 bars of this weird, transparent shit – and now it was all mine.
Along with this plastic briefcase that I suddenly noticed right beside me on the front seat. I lifted the fucker and knew immediately what was inside. No Samoan attorney in his right mind is going to stomp through the metal-detector gates of a commercial airline with a fat black .357 Magnum on his person. ...
So he had left it with me, for delivery – if I made it back to L.A. Otherwise ... well, I could almost hear myself talking to the California Highway Patrol:
What? This weapon? This loaded, unregistered, concealed and maybe hot .357 Magnum? What am I doing with it? Well, you see, officer, I pulled off the road near Mescal Springs – on the advice of my attorney, who subsequently disappeared – and all of a sudden while I was just sort of walking around that deserted waterhole by myself for no reason at all when this little fella with a beard came up to me, out of nowhere, and he had this horrible linoleum knife in one hand and this huge black pistol in the other hand ... and he offered to carve a big X on my forehead, in memory of Lt. Calley ... but when I told him I was a doctor of journalism his whole attitude changed. Yes, you probably won't believe this, officer, but he suddenly hurled that knife into the brackish mescal waters near our feet, and then he gave me this revolver. Right, he just shoved it into my hands, butt-first, and then he ran off into the darkness.
So that's why I have this weapon, officer. Can you believe that?
But I wasn't about to throw the bastard away, either. A good .357 is a hard thing to get, these days.
So I figured, well, just get this bugger back to Malibu, and it's mine. My risk – my gun: it made perfect sense. And if that Samoan pig wanted to argue, if he wanted to come yelling around the house, give him a taste of the bugger about midway up the femur. Indeed. 158 grains of half-jacketed lead/alloy, traveling 1500 feet per second, equals about 40 pounds of Samoan hamburger, mixed up with bone splinters. Why not?
* * *
Madness, madness ... and meanwhile all alone with the Great Red Shark in the parking lot of the Las Vegas airport. To hell with this panic. Get a grip. Maintain. For the next 24 hours this matter of personal control will be critical. Here I am sitting out here alone on this fucking desert, in this nest of armed loonies, with a very dangerous carload of hazards, horrors and liabilities that I must get back to L.A. Because if they nail me out here, I'm doomed. Completely fucked. No question about that. No future for a doctor of journalism editing the state pen weekly. Better to get the hell out of this atavistic state at high speed. Right. But, first – back to the Mint Hotel and cash a $50 check, then up to the room and call down for two club sandwiches, two quarts of milk, a pot of coffee and a fifth of Bacardi Anejo.
Rum will be absolutely necessary to get through this night – to polish these notes, this shameful diary ... keep the tape machine screaming all night long at top volume: "Allow me to introduce myself ... I'm a man of wealth and taste."
Not for me. No mercy for a criminal freak in Las Vegas. This place is like the Army: the shark ethic prevails – eat the wounded. In a closed society where everybody's guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity.
It is a weird feeling to sit in a Las Vegas hotel at four in the morning – hunkered down with a notebook and a tape recorder in a $35 a day suite and a fantastic room service bill, run up in 48 hours of total madness – knowing that just as soon as dawn comes up you are going to flee without paying a fucking penny ... go stomping out through the lobby and call your red convertible down from the garage and stand there waiting for it with a suitcase full of marijuana and illegal weapons ... trying to look casual, scanning the first morning edition of the Las Vegas Sun.
This was the final step. I had taken all the grapefruit and other luggage out to the car a few hours earlier.
Now it was only a matter of slipping the noose: Yes, extremely casual behavior, wild eyes hidden behind these Saigon-mirror sun glasses ... waiting for the Shark to roll up. Where is it? I gave that evil pimp of a carboy $5, a prime investment right now.
Stay calm, keep reading the paper. The lead story was a screaming blue headline across the top of the page:
in beauty's death
"An overdose of heroin was listed as the official cause of death for pretty Diane Hamby, 19, whose body was found stuffed in a refrigerator last week, according to the Clark County Coroner's office. Investigators of the sheriff's homicide team who went to arrest the suspects said that one, a 24-year-old woman, attempted to fling herself through the glass doors of her trailer before being stopped by deputies. Officers said she was apparently hysterical and shouted, 'You'll never take me alive.' But officers handcuffed the woman and she apparently was not injured. ..."
Gi Drug Deaths Claimed
"Washington (AP) – A House Subcommittee report says illegal drugs killed 160 American GI's last year – 40 of them in Vietnam ... Drugs were suspected, it said, in another 56 military deaths in Asia and the Pacific Command ... It said the heroin problem in Vietnam is increasing in seriousness, primarily because of processing laboratories in Laos, Thailand and Hong Kong. 'Drug suppression in Vietnam is almost completely ineffective,' the report said, 'partially because of an ineffective local police force and partially because some presently unknown corrupt officials in public office are involved in the drug traffic'"
To the left of that grim notice was a four-column center-page photo of Washington, D.C., cops fighting with "young anti-war demonstrators who staged a sit-in and blocked the entrance to Selective Service Headquarters."
And next to the photo was a large black headline: Torture tales told in war hearings.
"Washington – Volunteer witnesses told an informal congressional panel yesterday that while serving as military interrogators they routinely used electrical telephone hookups and helicopter drops to torture and kill Vietnamese prisoners. One Army intelligence specialist said the pistol slaying of his Chinese interpreter was defended by a superior who said, 'She was just a slope, anyway,' meaning she was an Asiatic. ..."
Right underneath that story was a headline saying: Five wounded near NYC Tenement ... by an unidentified gunman who fired from the roof of a building, for no apparent reason. This item appeared just above a headline that said: Pharmacy owner arrested in probe ... "a result," the article explained, "of a preliminary investigation (of a Las Vegas pharmacy) showing a shortage of over 100,000 pills considered dangerous drugs. ..."
Reading the front page made me feel a lot better. Against that heinous background, my crimes were pale and meaningless. I was a relatively respectable citizen – a multiple felon, perhaps, but certainly not dangerous. And when the Great Scorer came to write against my name, that would surely make a difference.
Or would it? I turned to the sports page and saw a small item about Muhammad Ali; his case was before the Supreme Court, the final appeal. He'd been sentenced to five years in prison for refusing to kill "slopes."
"I ain't got nothin' against them Viet Congs," he said.
Western Union intervenes: A warning from ... Mr. Heem ... a new assignment from the Sports Desk and a savage invitation from the police
Suddenly I felt guilty again. The Shark! Where was it? I tossed the paper aside and began to pace. Losing control. I felt my whole act slipping ... and then I saw the car, swooping down a ramp in the next-door garage.
Deliverance! I grasped my leather satchel and moved forward to meet my wheels.
The voice came from over my shoulder.
"Mister Duke! We've been looking for you!"
I almost collapsed on the curb. Every cell in my brain and body sagged. No! I thought. I must be hallucinating. There's nobody back there, nobody calling ... it's a paranoid delusion, amphetamine psychosis ... just keep walking towards the car, always smiling. ...
"Mister Duke! Wait!"
Well ... why not? Many fine books have been written in prison. And it's not like I'll be a total stranger up there in Carson City. The warden will recognize me; and the Con Boss – I once interviewed them for the New York Times. Along with a lot of other cons, guards, cops and assorted hustlers who got ugly, by mail, when the article never appeared.
Why not? They asked. They wanted their stories told. And it was hard to explain; in those circles, that everything they told me went into the wastebasket or at least the dead-end file because the lead paragraphs I wrote for that article didn't satisfy some editor 3000 miles away – some nervous drone behind a grey formica desk in the bowels of a journalistic bureauracracy that no cob in Nevada will ever understand – and that the article finally died on the vine, as it were, because I refused to rewrite the lead. For reasons of my own ...
None of which would make much sense in The Yard. But what the hell? Why worry about details? I turned to face my accuser, a small young clerk with a big smile on his face and a yellow envelope in his hand. "I've been calling your room," he said. "Then I saw you standing outside."
I nodded, too tired to resist. By now the Shark was beside me, but I saw no point in even tossing my bag into it. The game was up. They had me.
The clerk was still smiling. "This telegram just came for you," he said. "But actually it isn't for you. It's for somebody named Thompson, but it says 'care of Raoul Duke'; does that make sense?"
I felt dizzy. It was too much to absorb all at once. From freedom, to prison, and then, back to freedom again – all in 30 seconds. I staggered backwards and leaned on the car, feeling the white folds of the canvas top beneath my trembling hand. The clerk, still smiling, was poking the telegram at me.
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
MUSIC 9 Classic Devo Videos
OLYMPICS 18 Epic Opening Ceremonies