As a retired police detective trying to produce crime fiction, I found myself under obligation to write stories that were true to police procedure. The problem was, I wasn’t having fun, and I wasn’t getting published. All the characters I was writing about were bound by procedure. That can be a bit boring.
I had this character in my head for a few years. Frank Marr. He was a narcotics detective who was quietly forced into early retirement because of a cocaine habit. That’s all I had to start with. The character without a story. He was a character totally outside of my experience. I loved him. The stuff I’d been writing before was all a bit too autobiographical. Life experience is great, and I couldn’t have written my novels the Second Girl or Crime Song without it. But Frank Marr allowed me to go back further. It wasn’t just him, though; there was another man essential to the writing of both books:
Hunter S. Thompson.
From around 1983 to 1989 I was a concert promoter in Long Beach, CA. Mostly college alternative and punk rock. I worked two venues, Fender’s Ballroom and Bogart’s Nightclub. I eventually worked at Bogart’s full-time and had seven nights a week to fill with concerts. For some reason, Wednesday evening was always a tough night to book.
I came up with an idea that I thought might attract a different crowd. I called it An Evening of Conversation. We started with a lot of great people: John Waters, Roger Corman, Jim Carroll… The evenings were a success so I thought I’d get a little more adventurous. Timothy Leary came to mind. He was local. That’s how I met Bill Stankey. Bill was the agent who managed speaking engagements for Timothy Leary. I later found out he also handled several others, including Hunter S. Thompson.
After a few great shows booked through Bill, I got the crazy idea to bring Hunter to a nightclub/bar setting. I called Bill. There was silence for a moment, then he said, “You sure you want to go through with this?”
At the time, I didn’t understand what he meant. A few days later, Hunter agreed, but Bill told me there’d be a big chance that he might not show.
What about the advance?
The first show was scheduled for a Tuesday evening, April 6, 1989. I know this because of an LA Times article by Randy Lewis who covered the show. It quickly sold out.
I assigned myself the job of picking Hunter up at the airport. Based on everything Bill warned me about, I didn’t want to risk putting anyone else in an awkward position. I even talked Bogart’s into letting me rent a red convertible.
I got to the terminal. The plane landed. Several people exited the plane, but not Hunter. The passengers thinned out, and I started thinking this would be a no-show. But then a tall, lanky man appeared, wearing a New York Yankees ball cap and aviator sunglasses, smoking a cigarette wedged in a cigarette holder. I said hello and he said something I couldn’t understand. In fact, at the time, I couldn’t understand much of anything he said. Something with the word “bar” in it. I wanted to get him out of the airport first.
He talked to me, mumbling, and slurring incoherent words all the way to the car. I simply nodded my head, smiling or saying, “Yeah, yeah.” He looked at me a couple of times, confused, because I’m sure some of what he said required more of a response than “Yeah, yeah.”
So we’re driving south on 405, top down, Hunter smoking another cigarette. He became more coherent: he wanted to go to a sports bar, catch a basketball game. I checked my watch, figured if I took him straight to Bogart’s after, instead of his hotel, we’d have a bit of time for a drink.
That was a big mistake.
He pointed to a beach town exit. Redondo Beach? We drove around for a while until he said, “There, there!” It was a dive sports bar. Neon beer sign flickering through the front window. Sketchy cars parked in the lot. I was worried, but too proud to show it.
Next thing I know we’re sitting in a smoke-filled bar watching a basketball game on a small television screen. For the life of me I can’t remember what we talked about. I don’t know how many drinks we had either. I do remember him having to go to the bathroom several times. After too many drinks—as far as punctuality was concerned—I prodded him to leave. “We’re late. The show is sold out. They want to see you.” He insisted on a couple more drinks, told me not to worry.
Two or three hours later, we’re finally leaving. When we got to Bogart’s, Hunter forced me to introduce him, something I was never comfortable doing. He took center stage, sat on a wooden chair with the bottle of Chivas I gave him. There was a little table beside the chair with a glass, and a bucket of ice.
And there on stage sat a brilliant man I’d come to admire, in a setting where he was most comfortable: a bar.
Joints, and what looked like pills, were thrown on the stage. Hunter picked up several of the joints, lit one, pocketed the rest. He picked up something else, looked at it briefly and then said something like “Through the wormhole,” and downed it dry. I was afraid we were going to get raided and closed down or he would OD. I can’t imagine what Richard, the owner was thinking, other than “Swinson, what the hell did you get me into.”
There were only a few drunken hecklers in the crowd, clueless Hunter fans who only knew him as Gonzo and the image he so skillfully portrayed or rather played, for almost three hours on that stage. I don’t believe one person got up and left.
Two days later, I read the LA Times article by Randy Lewis, “GONZO REVIEW: Hunter Thompson Holds Forth.”
As the time neared 11 p.m.—three hours after the doors opened—the likelihood that Thompson was either in a Mexican jail or taking night target practice at an unidentified shooting range seemed closer to 8-to-1 for, odds that Thompson described as a magic number once he did arrive.
An ecstatic cheer went up when he finally took the stage, wearing a New York Yankees cap and a loose-fitting, blue silk shirt with long sleeves rolled up to the elbows and tails hanging out over his khaki slacks. In a matter of moments, he was taking drags off a cigarette in his signature cigarette holder, alternately munching grapes and sipping drinks poured over ice from a bottle of Chivas Regal brought with him.
It was because of that show that Abbie Hoffman agreed to appear. After it was announced, I learned of Abbie’s death. April 12, 1989, just a few days after Hunter’s show.
I talked to Bill Stankey recently. We’re still friends after all these years. Bill told me, “The day Abbie Hoffman died I was with Hunter at the Somerville Theater in Boston doing a show. Hunter was depressed about Abbie and actually thought it might have been the CIA that got to him.”
That’s why Bill called me at Bogart’s after Abbie died, and said Hunter wanted to do another show. Bill talked about somehow making the event a tribute to Abbie Hoffman, and from there we came up with the idea for Sound Bites from the Counter Culture, a spoken word album. Hunter agreed, and I set up another show at Bogart’s, where we would record him for the album.
When the show came around, I remember talking to Hunter in the hospitality suite before he took the stage. He was doing a lot of coke, drinking a lot of Chivas, and consuming several grapefruits. He told me that it’s the grapefruit that keeps his body intact. It was a weird detail, and one that would stay with me. When I finally found my renegade hero and heavy drug-user protagonist, I had to put the grapefruits to use. Frank Marr loves his grapefruit too.
Hunter seemed depressed, though. Friends of his like Grace Slick and Paul Kantner, who would later introduce him on stage, were waiting to see him. Before they came into the hospitality room, Hunter said something like, “I don’t push my lifestyle on anyone. That’s why I don’t offer you anything.” “I just like to drink,” I told him. He looked at me like I’d messed up his thinking. I felt stupid. He’d meant something more. I know that now. Or maybe I want to believe he meant something more.
Over the next couple of years there would be other shows with Hunter, including one that became a lost weekend. To this day, the only thing I remember is that Hunter was going to appear at The Strand in Redondo Beach and do a couple of events after the show. By that time, I also knew better, and so for the show at The Strand, I solicited the help of a dear friend of mine, Elizabeth Perikli, who worked at Bogart’s. She was sweet, pretty, and tough. I had a feeling she could handle Hunter, and get him where we needed to go. Like Stankey, we’re still friends all these years later.
I had to call her to help refresh my memory about the show at The Strand, and what happened after.
Elizabeth said we had plans to play pool on the day I called her, but when she learned that I wanted her to go to the airport with me to pick up Hunter S. Thompson, all she could say was, “Yes!”
So I rented another red convertible, and the two of us were off to pick him up.
Elizabeth said “that Hunter was traveling with a young, innocent looking assistant or intern by the name of Cat, and that the first thing he wanted to do when they got off the plane was find a sports bar.”
Here we go again, is probably what I thought.
Elizabeth told me that Hunter took shotgun, and that she sat in the back with Cat. She remembered Hunter pulled out an electric shaver to groom himself. And that she could smell a mist of cocaine coming from the front seat. We found ourselves at a sports bar listening to Hunter rattle off stories about his living situation, party anecdotes, and most of all, according to Elizabeth, the damn peacocks he had been battling at his home.
We got to The Strand very late and the crowd was angry. They weren’t cheering like at Bogart’s. Elizabeth told me that Hunter was angry too (maybe fueled by the crowd), because Mojo Nixon wanted to MC for him that night. Hunter refused for reasons having to do with “stealing his thunder” or something like that. He pulled Elizabeth up to the stage instead. Forced her to MC. She said she was relieved when it was all over, and that later that night, we all drove him to The Beverly Hills Hotel, and got him safely to his room.
Why don’t I remember? Maybe I drank too much.
In a way, Hunter’s copious creativity, charm and drug use is why Frankie Marr uses cocaine. I know that cocaine is a drug that is easier for a user to hide, with respect to long-term usage. Crack, meth, and heroin not so much. But of course, cocaine can also take its toll on the body and mind. As tragic as it is, Hunter S. Thompson is proof of that. And so, as an author and someone who knows, I can only take Frank Marr so far before he’s found out or hits the wall.
I remember the one other thing Hunter told me while in the hospitality room at Bogart’s the night before the recording. Something I will never forget:
“My lifestyle was an accident. It’s now something that is expected of me.”
David Swinson’s latest Frank Marr book is Crime Song, available from Mulholland.