channel hunter

In summer 1992, between my Junior and Senior years of college, I was an intern in Rolling Stone’s editorial department assigned to work on the magazine’s 25th Anniversary issue. Memorable for many reasons, though not enough to warrant a memoir, the summer shot me human-cannonball style into the hyper-reality of a myth-making enterprise. The highlight of highlights came right around August, when via a series of flukes, I enjoyed(?) a 90 second phone conversation(?) with Hunter S. Thompson. He left me with a question I pose to myself, to this day, every so often, as I drift off.

Damn you, HT. RIP, HT

Dateline Providence, Rhode Island, January 1992. Junior year Spring semester at Brown University found me installed as the Editor-in-Chief of a magazine called Issues, at the time almost a “monthly,” 3 issues per semester, each with a 5000 copy run. Issues on my watch covered AIDS and sexuality, a police crackdown on financial aid protests and even went to Salem, MA, looking for witches. We spurred debate, schooled a few wannabes and proved that literate students both produce and crave literate commentary.

I wasn’t keen on written letters, though, and spent most of my time outside of class writing and performing music and also producing, directing and writing television shows for the campus TV station, BTV. Still, I had seen the impact that a well put-together magazine could have on communities (especially with the AIDS issue), and I thought maybe, maybe, a future lay in writing for and/or running a magazine.

Print was still king then, and Rolling Stone, one of few conduits to rock n’ roll in my cable-less teenage suburban New Jersey upbringing, was to me a king among kings. The magazine had a summer internship that was somewhat legendary among college magazine and newspaper editors. I am always a writer, no matter what I’m doing, so I thought what better way to try on a real-world editorial suit than at Rolling Stone, surrounded by people with passions for music and culture.

In April, after a couple trips from Providence to New York for interviews, I landed one of the four unpaid internships the magazine offered. Fortune spun my way like that a ton in my twenties. So all of a sudden I had an ID badge w/my photo and a magnet bar that opened the RS doors off the elevator; the same kind of badge as Anthony DeCurtis and David Fricke, Peter Travers and Jann Wenner himself. The badge had some sway on the street, too. Back in Providence at school later that Fall, I flashed it at the door of The Living Room to get into a sold out Emergency Broadcast Network show. Towards the end of the encore, they held up a contract they had signed that afternoon with TVT Records. The badge let me in on secrets.

21, about to be an Ivy League Senior, and “living the dream,” as my friend Laura Brown would’ve called it.

The Rolling Stone Editorial floor’s tech was just a shadow of 2day’s meganet, but there were QuarkXpress stations and amber-screen terminals that took in column submissions from writers around the world. So it’s not like it was that long ago. But it was long enough that the phone & fax (email’s tin cans & wire) were still the backbone of the operation and features were sent around the office on dot-matrix printouts.

My primary function was to man the lowest part of the backbone. That is, to answer phones and collect and distribute faxes and mail to the editorial department. I didn’t see it as drudgery, though. There were piles and stacks and walls of vinyl and cds, and every office and conference room was equipped with soundproofing and hi-fidelity equipment. I was as home as I was ever going to feel in midtown New York City.

Interns were to be effed with, of course, and every member of the RS editorial department was given free reign to duff off gruntage on freshlings. But I was okay for getting challenged. Where RS and great art intersect(ed) is in the work ethic of its practitioners.

Sometime in early June, I arrived at my mid floor desk to find Matthew Sweet in my chair with his feet kicked up on an open drawer, waiting to be interviewed by Amy Kaplan, one of two writers with whom I shared cubicle walls. I told Sweet I was “absolutely obsessed” with his guitar work on Girlfriend and he said, “You have to work to be great. I’m not there, yet. Maybe never.”

“Hey, Matthew!” came a voice from the other side of a low cubicle wall from my desk.

“Hey, Alan,” Sweet friended back. “What’s the word on the street?”

Writer Alan Light spent the summer cajoling us interns to see Hip Hop as the future. “It’s so much more than Run DMC and the Beastie Boys,” Alan told me early on. “It’s a freaking force of nature.” In ’92, Vibe was just a spark in Quincy Jones’s fancy. And Alan, steadfastly pushing RS to cover rap as a cultural phenomenon, was a full year away from leaving RS to become Vibe‘s first music editor. “Hip Hop’s as American as jazz and bluegrass,” Alan told me later in the Summer. “Maybe more so, because it’s the expression of a secret history.”

Across an aisle to my right as I sat at my desk, was David Fricke’s office. An essential rock critic, in my youthful lexicographic pantheon with Robert “The Dean” Christgau, Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus, Fricke filled his office with vinyl records, floor to ceiling, wall to wall. So much vinyl, in fact, that a glorious sweet waxy bouquet would wash over me every time he opened his office door.

“Made me happy there was a Replacements fan sitting outside my office,” were his parting words to me in August.

To the left of Fricke’s sat another member of my pantheon, Anthony DeCurtis. At the time, he ran the RS record review section and assigned the stars to the reviews. In an early exchange, we got into a small Come-Dancing-sisterhood row about Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque and Galaxie 500’s On Fire only getting 1 star, and he surprisingly relented (“Yeah, On Fire probably deserved three and a half.”).

“Yeah, On Fire probably deserved at least three stars,” he said in his erudite shut-it-down monotone. “And if I had a nickel for every time someone yelled at me about that Teenage Fanclub review… This isn’t fucking Star Search, you know. We’re not here to entertain — we’re here to provoke.”

DeCurtis was a most gracious high-echelon, and even kept in touch for a year or so after. Towards the end of my stint in August, he granted me an interview for Issues on the current state of the music business and MTV’s influence on culture. We spent a long lunch on the hill next to Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.

At one point in the conversation, I asked him “Who’s the best, most important music artist I’ve never heard of?”

Nick Drake,” DeCurtis responded on the beat. “Get Pink Moon first. I think Island just released it on CD, or it’s about to be. But just track it the fuck down. There’s a collection around called Fruit Tree, too, and also try to find Bryter Layter. Man… The Chime Of A City Clock, Clothes of Sand, Which Will… Magical stuff,” he said, with a catch in his voice, settled quiet. “Magic.”

“Is he still around?” I asked.

“Dead since Seventy-Four,” Anthony said. “Just listen to his stuff. His music will make you better person.”

A couple weeks into June, I found myself performing another typical gruntling task, sitting in for Jann Wenner’s secretary, who had called in sick. I was at the post not five minutes, under the desk outside Wenner’s office trying to find a plug for an electric pencil sharpener, when a pair of skinny-jeaned legs approached the desk from the editorial floor.

“I’m here,” a gravel-voiced man chipped up. I came out from under the desk and looked up to find Robbie Robertson smiling and shrugging his shoulders. I told him to take a seat, that Jann was not yet in the office, but surely on his way. “Either that,” I continued, “or he’s in the shower back there.” The bathroom suite in Jann Wenner’s office was a necessary luxury. Who knows what or whom or how much had gone down those drains?

Robertson laughed as he lowered his black leather and denim-clad self into the ante-office’s white leather sofa. “I am never the early one,” he said. “Except for interviews.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Critics, man,” he trailed off. “Even with the real writers, it’s good to try to throw them off. No one expects me early.”

“Expectation is a drag,” I said. “You’re never your own best critic, though. Only your loudest.” Robertson looked at me square.

“That’s deep, kid.” He paused, cocked an eyebrow and asked, “You a musician, too?”

“By ‘too,’ ” I schmuck-asked, “do you mean ‘a musician like you’ or ‘a musician as well as an intern here?’ ”

“Does it matter to your answer?” he asked back with his unwavered square look. I took a breath, rolled my eyes at myself for complicating his question.

“No,” I said. “I mean – Yes, sir. Songwriter, guitarist.”

“Do yourself a favor. Never stop playing.” he said. As I nodded slowly, Robertson trailed his gaze off over my shoulder, through the floor to ceiling office windows behind Wenner’s secretary’s desk, north up 6th Avenue. At that moment, Mr. Wenner glided into the space from the Editorial floor and embraced Robertson. They laughed and disappeared into Wenner’s office with a soft door shutclick.

Fast forward back, sometime in July. All the interns were assigned to work on the magazine’s 25th Anniversary Issue, slated for publication in October.

“Dave,” said Bob Love, the Managing Editor, all of a sudden hovering over my desk, “we need to find out where Hunter’s piece is for the 25th.”

Love was an editor centerfold, from his eternal crisp white shirt down to the round glinted wire-rim glasses. “Sure,” I said. “You know, funny you mention Hunter Thompson, because I had this idea for a piece-”

“Interns don’t write,” Love intoned. “Remember ‘Orientation?’ ”

Bob had a whip-crack memory that went back decades. Mine was shorter.

“Yeah, I do” I said. “ ‘Be here to help.’ ”

“So just get it done. I’m off to lunch. Hunter’s Colorado number’s on ‘the sheet.’ Top right drawer of my desk. Don’t take ‘the sheet’ out of my office; just memorize the number.”

“The sheet” contained all the (known) addresses and direct phone numbers of the rag’s canonical writers.

“By the way,” I back-talked, “am I really calling Hunter Thompson? Or is this another episode of ‘Prank The Intern’?”

“No it’s not a joke,” Love said. “Hunter’s pissed us off this week; Jann’s incommunicado until tomorrow and I figure sicking an intern on him – you know, the lowest of the low here – will send him a message.”

I shook my head. “Lowest of the low. Yeah.”

Love laughed. “As if he’ll even answer the phone. Just do it before I change my mind. And before I get back from lunch.” As he walked towards towards the elevator, he turned back and lowered his head, and also his voice. “And don’t tell anyone.”

Two more steps and he turned back again and upped his volume. “Oh, and Dave?”


“Don’t ever question a senior editor.”

I heard Alan Light’s quiet yet resonant laugh from behind our cubicle divider as I walked to Love’s office. I dug “the sheet” out of his drawer, found Hunter Thompson’s entry (in the “G”s, under “Gonzo”) and committed the Colorado number to my then way-more-elastic short-term memory. On Love’s desk was an array of photo proofs from a Mark Seliger shoot with Ice-T in a cop uniform for an upcoming cover. Full circle, Alan Light, I thought.

Back at my freshling desk piled high with unopened cassette and 7″ vinyl demos, amidst the incessant droning of the magazine’s main phone ringing on my second line, I dialed the number and, to my floored astonishment, Hunter S. Thompson picked up his Owl Farm phone on the 3rd ring.

About 45 minutes later, Love came back from his lunch. “Did you reach Hunter?”

“Yeah, I did.”

“Really? Shit. That’s not everyday. Did he say something?”

Smoking was still allowed in the RS‘s 6th Avenue offices in ’92, but only in conference room #1 – the one next to the framed white suit on the wall Steve Martin wore on his A Wild and Crazy Guy tour, complete with a fossilized arrow-through-the-head. All four of us interns smoked, so we spent a fair amount of time in that conference room. I had a few tasks for the 25th anniversary issue, and a major one was to sift through biographical submissions from readers on the impact of RS on their lives. Stories came from everywhere and every type of person. Turned out to be the best task I had there. Bill Maher, a comedian whose photo I recognized from the fledgling days of Comedy Central, wrote an eloquent treatise on his evolving politics that was not published but has stuck with me. And another came in from Kathy Millar, a fav DJ from my NJ home station, WDHA.

Twenty five hundred submissions needed evaluation and cataloging, so the long conference room table was the intern home throughout August. One day, Kelly Greene, a fellow intern, brilliant inked and eyelid-pierced from Seattle, threw a CD into the conference room’s stereo and pointed an index finger with a painted nail at me. “Geffen just released this on CD.”

“New Nirvana?” I asked, as a familiar crashing cascade of fury with a curious dose of sentiment filled the glass walled room along with the smoke.

“No, Lukaplakia. Nirvana’s Sub-Pop classic, Bleach,” Kelly said as Nana Asfour, another intern and the best writer among us, joined in.

“What the hell?” she pressed. “You’re a songwriter, a Replacements freak, too – you live under a rock?”

“Maybe,” I said. “Cobain stole Westerberg’s act, anyway, and sucked the fun out. I’m supposed to care, why? Because Kelly from Rolllling Stoannne says so?”

“East coast slackwuss,” Kelly said and we laughed our way to the end of Summer.

As Bob was respirating at my desk asking about Hunter, I dangled an unlit Camel Light from the corner of my mouth (why the eff I smoked Camel Lights for any of my former-smoker days, I don’t know). I picked up the phone receiver, put it to my ear and placed a stack of unsolicited demo cassettes on top of the switch-hook to keep the phone disengaged. Then the self-conscious Hunter-channeling chain-dragging shitwad I was (am) recreated the call.

“Is that you?” the voice on the call’s other end crackled.

“Hi, Mr. Thompson? Dave calling from Rolling Stone.”

“You should give yourself more credit.”

“Thanks, I guess.”

“By ‘Mr. Thompson,’ ” he continued without cutting me off, “do you mean me?”

“That’s you, isn’t it?” I offered.

“Yes. But it’s not my final me. Can I do something for you?”

“Bob told me to call you.”


“Love. The managing editor?”

“Oh, one of those. Why?”

“To find out when your piece for the 25th anniversary edition is coming.”


“Yes, what?”

“Goddamn it! I’m trying to be positive here! Just tell Bob I said ‘yes!’ ”

“Just yes?”

“Yes, you little {unintelligible}.”

“The question was when it’s coming, though. Not if –”

“How do you know what the real question was?”

“I’m just relating what Bob asked me to ask you.”

“Is that all you’re worth?”

I closed my eyes, shook my head and breathed in. HT confirmed all of my fears about the world in that moment, and I have spent the rest of my writing life equally cursing and exalting him for that question. Maybe, perhaps, he knew it was early enough in my life to serve me a warning. Maybe he conversed half in subconscious frequencies. Maybe there was nothing to this random 90 second exchange. Maybe he was talking to himself, suspended in a pharmaceutical haze, unaware he’d picked up the phone. Maybe he had one hand holding the phone and his other caressing a gun.

As I breathed out, he chuckled with a satisfied deviance.

“So what should I tell Bob?” I asked, acting non-plussed. His low laugh in my ear stopped.

“Tell him ‘Hunter said, yes.’ My guess is he’ll have Jann call me and I’d rather talk to Jann anyway. I don’t know you. But it’s been fun.”


“So just ‘yes’?” Bob asked me.

“Yes,” I said, removing the cig from my mouth and putting it behind my ear.

“Nothing else?”


Love shook his head and smiled. “Fucking Hunter.”

%d bloggers like this: