Long before Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote, P.J. O’Rourke or any other number of writers were doing what we now call “New Journalism,” there was Terry Southern. Fact is, according to Tom Wolfe, Terry invented “New Journalism” back in 1962 with an Esquire piece called “Twirling at Ole Miss” – just as he basically invented the whole counter-culture of the 1960’s with movies like Dr. Strangelove, Barbarella and Easy Rider (yes, contrary to what you have heard over the years from people like Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, Easy Rider was not some stream-of-conscience ramble but a real, old-fashioned screenplay written by Terry – for peanuts).
Who, you may be saying? Well Terry’s the cool-looking dude in the shades on the cover of Sgt. Pepper. Terry’s the guy who blasted “polite society” back in the late ’50s with the sexcentric book Candy, mocked God and death in the movie The Loved One and reviled consumerism with the book The Magic Christian (also a film starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr). Terry was an odd bird who straddled the Generation Gap like a seasoned bull-rider does an angry steer (appropriate since he was a Texan). Terry was the last of the Beats and the first of the Hippies. He was equally comfortable hanging with Big Band leader, and pal , Artie Shaw as much as he was The Rolling Stones (in fact, he chronicled their epic 1972 sex/drugs/RNR tour beautifully in Rolling Stone Magazine and plays a pivotal role in the underground cult film of said tour called Cocksucker Blues).
Terry was, in many ways, THE epitome of the 1960’s. He lived large, he wrote even larger and was the first “writer as rock ‘n’ roll star” (take that Hunter!). Of course, as these thing usually go, it eventually had to come to a messy and embarrassing conclusion. Towards the end of his life Terry became a victim of his own success, got caught in the trap of writing schlock for schlock money (The Telephone, anyone?) just to keep the lights on, and ended-up dying in 1995, days after collapsing unceremoniously on the steps of Dodge Hall at Columbia where he was teaching writing (again, for peanuts).
You probably don’t even realize it, but so many of the movies that you see, the books that you read, have been influenced by Terry. Like Bird, Monk, Beefheart – you name ’em – the man was taking giant steps when the rest of the world crawled.
May 1st, is the man’s birthday (May Day, how appropriate). It’s too late now to say happy birthday, it’s too late to thank him personally, but maybe you could do some sort of Guy Grand-ish mischief anyway on his behalf. Even better, if you don’t know his books or films, buy them or rent them. It’s the least you can do, after all, the man did eat your brain.
(c) 2010 Jim Yoakum
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