Dr. Gonzo and Mr. Bil
Track One: Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas
Life away from Winchester High School from 1984 to 1987 had a definite Jekyll/Hyde quality to it, particularly over the weekends. And it was there that another formative text reared its (Ugly? Crazy? Insane?) head. If you have never read Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1971)I highly recommend it. As a piece of literature, it is unique and groundbreaking. As a blueprint for a lifestyle, it is borderline criminal/suicidal! Thompson was part of the “new journalism” literary movement that began in the mid/late 1960s, featuring Tom Wolfe (the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Trip) and Norman Mailer(Armies of the Night, Why Are We in Vietnam?). As an undergraduate Literature “concentrator,” I was taken with not only the pure energy of the writing but also the fine subjective/objective line the authors tight-roped. Fear and Loathing grabbed me from its opening sentence: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive . . . “ (p.3) The entire book reads like a novel and it is hard to distinguish what’s real/true and what is the product of Thompson’s (admitted) drug/alcohol addled imagination. At the heart of it, though, was this: “we’re on our way to Las Vegas to find the American Dream.” (p.6) The book is uniquely American and, as a product of the 1960s “drug culture,” there was a level of visceral, careening muscularity to its prose.
While I was not much of a drug user in college (to this day, marijuana repulses me….the aroma is gross & its effects on me were always negative --- muscle aches, paranoia, etc.) I did “experiment” with LSD enough to appreciate Thompson’s imagery and colorful descriptions in Fear and Loathing. Living in Boston my “experimental” tastes shifted to alcohol (Scotch & champagne) and Peruvian Marching Powder (as Jay McInerney labeled it in Bright Lights, Big City) ---but only from Friday night to Sunday night! All the discipline I had formerly used in sports and academics was now applied to my emulation of Thompson and Dr. Gonzo during my weekends in Beantown.
Track Two: Annie B’s & Catering with Kayo
Those weekends, bartending at Annie B’s on Boylston St. primarily, are a bit hazy as I look back now. One interesting aspect to the job was that I was the only straight man on the staff --- a new experience for me --- but one that certainly expanded my view of the world (for the better!). Two other experiences that I do remember clearly are meeting Jim Koch (pronounced Kuk), the founder of the Sam Adams Brewery and working with Brazilian chef Kayo (pronounced Kye-Oh) D’Olivero. In Koch’s case, it was 1984 and he had just started his brewery, reviving a family business. He was actually walking from bar-to-bar all across Boston, trying to convince bars/restaurants to stock his new beer. Showing great foresight, our restaurant manager agreed to feature the new brew (thinking it might bring in business) and I actually still have a lovely ceramic stein that Koch gave to all our bartenders marking the first anniversary of the brewery.
Kayo D’Olivero was a wiry, bearded, energetic chef --- a magician in the kitchen. A quiet, kind soul, we hit it off from Day One. While he often feuded with the owners of the restaurant (they were control freaks) he loved working with (and feeding) the staff. In short order, Kayo began a catering business and, once it became popular in Boston, he left Annie B’s. Before leaving, though, while still the head chef at the restaurant, he hired me as his bartender on catering jobs and it was some of the most fun I had in those years. We catered small parties on sumptuous boats in Boston Harbor and huge wedding and birthday parties for Russian Orthodox Jews in Brookline (where I was simply a “server,” because we put a half dozen bottles of alcohol on each table). Sometimes it was just the two of us, sometimes we’d recruit a waitress from the restaurant to work with us, but it was always fun --- and profitable (something I needed to support my growing alcohol/substance abuse problem). Flashing back to “Dr.” Thompson, I think Kayo and I saw what we were doing as:
A classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in
the national character. It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic
possibilities of life in this country --- but only for those with true grit.
And we were chock full of that. (p.18, Fear and Loathing)
Track Three: The Beantown Music Scene
In the 1980s Boston and Cambridge had a thriving music scene. Growing up in the Sixties, music was integral to our lives. The British invasion, started by the Beatles, of course, built on the rich Motown sounds we were already addicted to. The Ed Sullivan Show became “must-see-t.v.” on Sunday nights as band after band made appearances. I went to my first “big” concert in February 26, 1966 at the Island Garden in Hempstead, New York to see Bob Dylan (backed by the future The Band musicians in the second half of the show). My brother and I (and three friends) drove upstate on a Wednesday to attend Woodstock (which started on Friday!) in August 1969. By 1984, I was playing the guitar a lot and had recently picked up plunking around on the piano (Winchester had a “faculty room” that was used as storage space for the Music Department, so I had access to an upright piano and an upright, acoustic double bass during my free periods). One of my apartment neighbors on Commonwealth Avenue was in a rock/punk band that played the local clubs and the Boston Phoenix newspaper and radio station provided all the music news anyone needed. As noted by Peter Vigneron in the November 27, 2012 Boston Magazine:
Thirty years ago, the Phoenix was the essential paper for a new generation of readers: those interested in a smart, countercultural alternative to the offerings of the mainstream press. Its writers and editors, many of whom are now among the most distinguished in American journalism, surveyed the landscape here in the city and created an enduring body of work in culture, the arts, politics, even sports. Its music section was read nationally, exerting—along with the Village Voice and Rolling Stone—a powerful influence on early rock criticism. The Phoenix helped develop an entire genre of writing, media criticism, that is now a staple in most papers and magazines.
There were jazz and rock clubs all over Boston and Cambridge. Landsdowne Street had the Avalon and Axis, Harvard Ave. in Allston featured Bunratty’s, and there was great jazz at Paul’s Mall right on Boylston Street in Back Bay. ManRay in Central Square, Cambridge (easily accessible on the “T”) was another great venue. There were also great concerts on the Boston Common in the summer, where I saw Don Henley, the Eurhythmics, and Howard Jones. Rock “luminaries” of the time like Peter Wolf (of the J.Geils Band) and Dan Fogelberg were “quasi-regulars” at Annie B’s and once, again, “Dr.” Thompson captures the feeling of that era in Fear and Loathing. “Turn up the radio. Turn up the tape machine. Look into the sunset ahead. Roll the windows down for a better taste of the cool desert wind(or cool Harbor breeze, in my case). Ah, yes. That’s what it’s all about. . . Tooling around the Main Drag on a Saturday Night.”
I don’t think I’m alone, as a Sixties Survivor, who recalls much of his past by evoking a “soundtrack” from a particular era. My mid-Eighties life in Boston is remembered with music from McCoy Tyner, Michael (as well as Joe )Jackson, Tears for Fears, Peter Gabriel, Dire Straits --- and probably hundreds more (remember MTV was a media phenomenon at the time!). There’s lots of music you have time for when you’re burning the candle at both ends from Friday night to Sunday night!
Track Four: Beantown Sports
It was tough being a New York sports fan living in Boston. The Red Sox had one good season when I lived there but, happily, lost to the New York Mets in the 1986 World Series (I attended one game in NY and one in Boston --- the Mets lost both. So, when offered a ticket to Game Seven in NY, I turned it down, thereby winning the World Series for the New York team!). The Celtics, on the other hand, were dominant in the NBA (the Knicks sucked!) and, aside from seeing them practice at Hellenic, one of my Social Studies colleagues got tickets to the old Boston Garden, so I saw several games over those years. Bird, Parrish, McHale --- one helluva team, for sure. The Patriots were in the Super Bowl my first year in Boston and I gleefully watched their dismantling against the Bears. The Mets win was big but the New York Football Giants winning the Super Bowl on January 25, 1987 was my sports highlight during my “exile” in Boston, 1984-1987.
Track Five: Writing
Throughout my years in Boston I never lost my desire to become a writer. I cranked out short stories (which I shared with my students) and I attended workshops. One of the first I went to was a two-day screenwriting clinic led by Syd Field whose book, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting was considered a “classic.” Two other participants at that workshop were Steven Wright, the comedian who went on to win a 1989 Oscar in the “Best Short Film, Live Action” category and Craig Lambert, a Deputy Editor of Harvard Magazine. Despite loving Wright’s comedy, I never even struck up a conversation with him (he didn’t seem “approachable”) but Dr. Lambert and I hit it off famously and began a friendship that encompasses writing, sports, and cultural criticism to this day. Craig, aside from being a fine journalist (Sports Illustrated, Town & Country, New York Times) and writer/editor for Harvard, has published two books (Mind Over Water and Shadow Work). He has always been a reliable sounding board on a range of topics, even beyond writing.
As a result of our writing workshops I managed to write two screenplays and one stage play (finished after leaving Boston, in an NYU workshop in the summer of 1988). All of that work presently sits in a file drawer (along with the 415-page novel) in our upstairs office --- waiting to be discovered posthumously, as I see it.
Track Six: Coda
My life in Boston was a raucous roller-coaster of a time and, looking back, my non-Winchester life echoes with sounds of Thompson’s Fear and Loathing. As such, it is his summary (of a different place and time) that best reflects my own feelings of Boston, 1984-1987.
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 (Boston in the
middle Eighties) 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
you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever
it meant. . . ( pp. 66-67)