What remains of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson slouched into Max's on Broadway last night for two cracked cabaret performances. The man who led New Journalism on its most extreme, drug and alcohol-enhanced expeditions into the American landscape, has struck upon a new medium for his rambling dialogue with the dark side of life in this country.
In between stints at colleges and universities, Thompson has been picking up change on the club circuit, playing Phil Donahue run amok, taking questions from lubricated audiences and using props more appropriate to the Gong Show than to his legendary gonzo journalism.
The 8 p.m. show at Max's sold out at $10 a ticket, and the crowd was a colorful melange of renegade '60s holdouts, college kids, young professionals and fringe folks who defy any pigeon hole.
No one knew what to expect before Thompson, 51, took the plastic orange upholstered chair on the tiny stage. Not even Max's owner, Ron Furman. "We have no idea how this is going to work. We didn't even ask. We don't want to know," Furman told the waiting audience, as Thompson, true to form, was running late.
Meanwhile, Hunter's perch, already littered with someone else's dead cigarettes, was stocked with a large bottle of Chivas Regal and ice. The crowd got impatient, chanting, "gonzo, gonzo!" By 8:20 p.m., he had arrived, but first, Hunter's fans were forced to listen to the ramblings of his latest book, "Songs of the Doomed," on audio tape.
Twenty minutes later, the Doctor, himself, appeared, carrying an umbrella, a Bible, a "National Examiner" tabloid newspaper and a trick ball peen hammer that resounded with the sound of shattering china every time he knocked it against the coffee table.
Fidgety, darting like a caged big cat, Thompson took awhile to get comfortable. The audience roared approvingly at his every move. "This is the first time I can say honestly I'm glad I'm late," Thompson muttered and bashed his hammer on the microphone several more times.
He wore white sneakers, khaki pants, tinted glasses, a small flashlight around his neck, a cap that announced the "71st Street Anglers Trolling and Drinking Club," and what appeared to be a Pat Buchanan for president button.
"This is bizarre," said Lena Godin, 28, a fan.
Thompson poured a tall glass of Chivas, which he alternated with a beer, and trained a large floor fan on the audience. "Is that your biggest fan?" someone shouted.
The questioning rarely got more sophisticated than that.
To guard against the bright lights, Thompson opened his little red parasol. "Are there any Scuds coming?" asked a politically aware fellow.
"It wouldn't really matter too much," Thompson replied.
The Persian Gulf war was a constant theme, and somehow Thompson linked his scorn for George Bush with the tragic tale of an Arabian princess who married an infidel, the female soldier captured by the Iraqis, CNN and Armageddon. Though Thompson's logic was lost in his mumbling account, he seemed once again to be on the trail of something frightening and true, as he was in his "Fear and Loathing" works.
"I believe the end is upon you. It has to come some time, you know that," said Thompson, who then read from Revelations, punctuating its finality with his hammer.
Two microphones were passed among the audience, and questioners, mostly men, shouted hoarsely into them. "Do you think the bureaucratic scum in Washington will ever change or do you think we're doomed to this terrible hell?" asked one.
"I think we're doomed to this terrible hell," Thompson said.
Some questions fell flat: "So what do you think about the rise of nationalism?" "What do you think about John Sununu?" "What about the Orioles?"
Others piqued his interest: "In 1987, you predicted that by '88 George Bush would be living in New Jersey? . . . What happened?"
Thompson lambasted Michael Dukakis for handing the presidential race to Bush and said of the president, "I've never seen a weaker, more beatable candidate. I thought any Democrat [could beat him]."
Other questions and long, indecipherable answers were aimed at Hunter's latest quest to sue the government for $22 million for its violation of the Fourth Amendment, after charges against him of sexual assault, drugs and explosives possession were dropped in Colorado last year.
"He was surprisingly coherent," said one young man when the show was over.
But out on the street, a young woman said this to her two friends: "I'm sorry. I had a hard time thinking that was completely enjoyable."