Now let us praise famous deadbeat-hipster-mongo-journo-master Bill Cardoso who died at 68 in 2006 of heart disease, a sad day indeed to many of the ink-stained-ilk who had been his friends during his long and colorful life. As a writer and editor he had a surprising amount of influence in the early days of so-called “new journalism” for someone who wasn’t terribly well known and whose work was sporadic and often appeared in out of the way or forgotten magazines and newspapers.
Cardoso’s writing was published in Rolling Stone, Harper’s Weekly (see what I mean about out of the way and forgotten?) Francis Ford Coppola’s CITY Magazine (again, huh?), New Times, Ramparts and other even more obscure publications. It should be noted that much of his best writing appeared in numerous and lengthy letters to friends over the years, many of which were so crazed and hilarious they ended up being copied and passed around hand-to-hand, samizdat-style. In 1984, Athenaeum published “The Maltese Sangweech and Other Heroes,” a collection of his pieces that is sadly out of print.
At his death, Cardoso was memorialized in numerous obituaries as the guy who coined “gonzo” to describe a 1968 article on Richard Nixon he had assigned Hunter Thompson to write for him when he edited the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. But I remember him for other reasons, which I will proceed to lay out for you here.
Until my dying day, I will never forget the story he wrote on the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire. In fact, I think I can still remember the lede, mainly because I was the person who typed it for Cardoso as he lay on the bed in a room in the Chelsea Hotel shortly after a tooth fell out of his head. He was complaining of being the victim of a spell that was put on him in Kinshasa by someone or something he referred to darkly as an “Ndoke” and he was incapable of typing, so I took over the task. It went something like this:
“From my window here in room 236 in the Membling Hotel in downtown Kinshasa, Zaire – the only hotel I have ever stayed in where your room may be 236, but your phone number is 628 – I can see the broad, bright green leaves of Giant Hyacinth plants floating in the brown waters of the River Zaire, nee Congo as it flows slowly, inexorably toward the sea. The international press is here, of course, but they are staying across town at the Intercontinental and they cannot see the Giant Hyacinth leaves floating down the river and they do not know what I know: that beneath each of those Giant Hyacinth leaves is a crocodile, lying in wait…”
Cardoso was covering the fight for New Times Magazine, which unbeknownst to him was hemorrhaging money and on its last legs. When Foreman cut his eyebrow in training and the fight was delayed for something like 70 days, the rest of the sporting press got on planes and went home, while Cardoso was stuck there by New Times, which was refusing to pay for another flight back to Zaire when the fight finally took place. Having already gone through his meager New Times expenses, Cardoso did what any enterprising Boston hipster would do: he started dealing Congo weed to the small American expatriate community in Kinshasa.
Two of Cardoso’s oldest friends were among those who returned for the fight two months later: Budd Schulberg, the famous screenwriter and author of “What Makes Sammy Run,” and Harold Conrad, who was the person on whom Schulberg based his script for “The Harder They Fall”, his classic fight film from the 50’s. Conrad was a former Brooklyn Eagle sports writer who once did “PR” for Meyer Lansky in Florida and later turned fight promoter – he promoted Ali’s first three fights, back when he was known as Cassius Clay, and it was Conrad who introduced Ali to Norman Mailer and George Plimpton and started him on his high-flying act amongst the New York intelligentsia.
Cardoso picked up Conrad and Schulberg at the Intercontinental and took them out for a night on the town in Kinshasa, which naturally included sampling some of his knock-out Congo weed. When they returned to the Membling, the three of them got on the hotel’s wire-cage elevator to go up to Cardoso’s room so he could send them back to their hotel with some Congo weed. As they got on the elevator, Schulberg was telling a Hollywood story and Conrad was chiming in with his usual sideways wise cracks and Cardoso was howling with laughter as the two older men fed each other lines. One story led to another and the three of them continued to crack each other up. Finally there was a pause in the merriment and someone – Cardoso thought it was Schulberg – commented on how slow the hotel’s aging elevator was. Cardoso looked through the old accordion door straight into the lobby and checked his watch. They had been standing in the elevator for 15 minutes, having forgotten to push the button for Cardoso’s floor. When he announced this fact to the others, Conrad stroked his pencil-thin mustache and smiled. That Congo weed is something, he said. It felt like we were going up the whole time.
Can I tell you the story about the time Cardoso stole Francis Ford Coppola’s CITY Magazine car? Cardoso was assigned to cover the world series back in 1974, right near the end of the time of Patty Hearst’s kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army, the SLA. He went on the road for the duration of the series, turned in three or four stories and returned to San Francisco, handing in an expense voucher for about $1700, which Coppola refused to pay. Cardoso promptly stole the CITY Magazine Honda and announced the formation of an outfit called the ZLA – the Zenger Liberation Army, named after John Peter Zenger, the only newspaperman in U.S. history jailed for sedition.
The city of San Francisco, not to mention the nation at large, had been consumed for months by the Patty Hearst/SLA story, and now came Bill calling himself in press releases the “Marshall Field” of the ZLA, which was holding the CITY Magazine Honda for ransom, demanding the immediate payment of $1700 or the car would be assassinated. Cardoso called me in New York and demanded that I fly immediately to San Francisco to take up my station as Chief of Staff of the ZLA. He had already appointed his roommate, the crazed war photographer Tim Page, Minister of Information. I did as he commanded and flew to San Francisco. We took a cab from Cardoso’s and Page’s grungy apartment to a somewhat less grungy garage in Daly City where he had stashed the car. Cardoso had a tape recorder and taped a “communique” from the ZLA in the style of dispatches from Patty Hearst that had been issued by the SLA. First we started the car’s engine, then I hit the horn with a couple of mournful beeps, and Cardoso proceeded to mimic Patty Hearst’s voice as that of the car: I am being held hostage by the ZLA and they won’t release me until Francis Ford Coppola pays Bill Cardoso’s CITY Magazine expenses! We took the tape over to Pacifica Radio and within hours, it was all over the Bay area and everyone was talking about it. Warren Hinckle ran a photo of a tourist with a Pelican sitting on his head in his column identifying him as Cardoso and wrote some hilarious gibberish about the kidnapping of Coppola’s car and counseled that any reader seeing “this man” should immediately call CITY, which would send a “keeper” for him.
Coppola was holding fast refusing to pay, but when the car’s ransom tape hit the airwaves, reporters and the TV news picked up the SLA anology and staked out his Pacific Heights mansion demanding answers and 24 hours later, he caved. I think Cardoso spent most of the $1700 on back rent and a week celebrating his victory, and then he was back where he had been before, cadging cocktails from his pals as he held forth at his local watering hole with a new stash of stories about the ZLA’s war against Coppola’s forces of darkness.
My fondest memories of Cardoso date back to when I would pick him up at the Burbank airport back in the early 1970’s when I was out in L.A. on magazine assignments. Cardoso was chronically short of cash, so I would buy him a ticket on the San Francisco-Burbank shuttle – about $25 in those days – and sit down and a couple of hours later, he would show up. Usually, we weren’t even out the door of the airport – Burbank was a small airport, so it wasn’t far to the door – when Cardoso would whisper to me gruffly out of the side of his mouth: Slip me fifty. The first time he said it, I thought I didn’t hear him right, so I asked him what he said. Slip me fifty, will ya? A man can’t walk around this town without something in his kick.
So I would slip him $50, put it on the magazine’s expense account as “research,” and as a gentleman, he would make it last until he got back on the shuttle to S.F. a few days later. We used to “hole up,” as he put it, in one of the somewhat less than luxurious suites at the Sunset Marquis Hotel in West Hollywood, which at the time cost a big $23.00 a night. I remember one time we had barely closed the door of our suite when there came a loud knock at the door. Bill was in the bathroom checking out his “coif” (that’s what he called his curly head of Portuguese hair…his “coif”), so I opened the door. A skinny, wiry guy with hooded, darting eyes rushed into the room right past me. Bob Neuwirth, he said, introducing himself. Truscott, right? I nodded. I had heard of him. He was Dylan’s road manager on his early tours and of late he had achieved something of a reputation himself as a singer and songwriter. I had seen him from across the room at a club and a couple of parties in New York. He was wired into every scene you could think of.
Neuwirth sat down on the suite’s tattered sofa and picked up the phone. You on assignment? He asked. I nodded. Who for? I think I said Penthouse or Oui Magazine…it was one of them or both of them, anyway. Great! Said Neuwirth. They pay good expenses. He dialed the phone and started barking out a lengthy order for liquor. Two quarts of Jack Daniels, three cases of Bud, a quart of Beefeaters. He paused, turning to me. You drink vodka? I nodded. Two bottles of Smirnoff. Just then Cardoso appeared. Two quarts of Dewars, he called loudly. Spying Cardoso, Neuwirth practically dropped the phone in shock. Two quarts of Dewars, he managed to add. Room 217. Later, a kid showed up pushing a hand cart carrying the liquor load.
Tapping an unfiltered cigarette out of his pack of Picayunes (I have an entire sub-section of stories on the lengths to which we went in order to find Picayunes in places like Twin Falls, Idaho) Cardoso slid across the room to Neuwirth. Got a light Bobby? he asked. Looking like he had seen a ghost, Neuwirth fumbled for matches and lit his cigarette. Cardoso sat down, crossed his legs and in a stentorian voice said, the last time I saw Bobby was in the alley behind the Club 57 in Boston. Hemway and I were huddled with the drummer from Thelonius Monk’s band smoking a joint and Bobby was jumping up and down around us in a little circle yelling, lemme have a toke, Bill! Al! Al! Lemme have a toke! Cardoso took a drag on his Picayune and gave Neuwirth a quick appraisal. Nice threads, Bobby. Looks like life’s treating you good. Why don’t you let us in on the scam on the phone.
Turned out that like everything else, Neuwirth had the Sunset Marquis wired. Somebody at the desk would notify him when a musician or magazine reporter or any other likely suspect would check in, and Neuwirth would head for the room. After checking to make sure a record label or magazine was picking up the tab, he would place a generous order with Turner’s Liquors, a notorious joint just up the street on the corner of Sunset Boulevard. At the Sunset Marquis, man, Neuwirth explained, you dial 411 for information, and 114 for Turner’s Liquors. They put the tab on your room bill. When I asked about the rather large size of the liquor order, Neuwirth shot me a what-planet-are-you-on look and explained that a lot of stuff would be happening tonight, tomorrow night, at the Sunset Marquis you never know. You don’t want us to run out, do you man? At the time, the logic seemed inescapable.
Neuwirth had been a disciple of Cardoso and the hipster crowd he ran with in Boston in the late 50’s and early 60’s – unsung Bohemian master craftsmen like Al Hemway and Larry Novick. Every time we hung out at the Sunset Marquis, we would take a drive down to Southgate to visit Al Hemway, and usually Neuwirth would come with us. Hemway lived with his mother in a bungalow in a neighborhood you practically had to shoot your way in and out of. In the corner of his room atop an old ironing board, Hemway had constructed what can only be described as an elaborate model of a futuristic city out of aluminum foil, plastic cups, string, tin cans, and other household trash. The thing was five feet long and had spires at least as high. It was incredible to behold. Hemway described it as a “receiving station” for brain waves that would come in to him occasionally from outer space. Cardoso claimed that Hemway was the first guy to import pot directly from Mexico to Boston, principally by driving down there in a car and picking it up and driving back. Completely deadpan one time he described Hemway to an outsider as one of the guys I worked with when I drove for Volvo. Drove for Volvo? Long story.
Looked at from a certain angle, guys like Cardoso and Neuwirth who studied at the feet of hipsters like Al Hemway and Larry Novick, legendary characters in Boston’s jazz and folk subculture carried forth into the culture a certain way of life…of looking at things and dealing, or refusing to deal with them. It occured to me that after Neuwirth moved to New York, he must have passed along to Bob Dylan, an innocent he had met from Minnestota, some of the bohemian wisdom he had picked up from his masters in Boston. When I broached the subject with him late one night in yet another hotel suite some years later, he gave me an indulgent look, like, if you don’t know the answer to that question already, you shouldn’t ask it. It was the art of cool, and Neuwirth had learned from some of its masters.
Late at night at the Sunset Marquis we would hang out in our suite and those of others with the likes of Kinky Friedman and Iggy Pop and Geoff Muldaur and Ben Keith, the long-time steel guitar player for Neil Young. One night we went over to Neuwirth’s and Donny Everly, Geoff Muldaur, Kinky Friedman and several other musicians were sitting around strumming and laughing and telling stories. When Cardoso entered, Neuwirth wordlessly signaled somebody to move over so Bill had a place to sit. Cardoso judged this, as he should have, as a sign of respect and took his sweet time sliding across the room, giving Ben Keith a nod as he passed. Cardoso bent at the waist and brushed away an imaginary crumb and took his seat. There was a pause in the music and Cardoso nodded to Benny Keith who was wearing a cowboy hat and said, nice sky. He motioned with his fingers around his head as if he were aligning the brim of a hat. I think I’ll look into getting myself one of those, he said, his fingers caressing the imaginary hat brim. What do you think? His words and the elegant little ballet of his fingers were so perfect, you could see the cowboy hat perched ridiculously atop his black curls. There was a brief moment of silence while everyone took this in, then they cracked up. Bill Cardoso was in the house.
I see that I’ve rambled on here, but I think there’s time for one last story about the two-plus months Cardoso spent in Africa, a time which haunted him for years and after which his appearances in print became fewer and farther between. It occurs to me that while Bill Cardoso may have named gonzo journalism, he never practiced it. Gonzo was a shorthand description of Thompson’s twisted take on politics and life, which included stuff he quite literally and hilariously made up. The scene of Ed Muskie’s collapse in the ’72 Democratic primaries, which Thompson blamed on Muskie having been addicted to an obscure South American drug called Ibogaine, was the example of gonzo cited most frequently after his death.
Bill’s best stuff was frantic, written like a man on the run. It had an edgy noir-ish paranoia to it. The motel clerk peering at him through thick bullet-proof glass looked like a biker who had just finished filing his teeth. Cardoso was convinced that the paper bath mat in his motel room had been put there purposefully to remind him of his place in the world.
But Cardoso didn’t make anything up. Everything he wrote was real, and while much of it was hilarious, a lot of it was as painful for him to write as it was for us to read. I finally concluded that’s why Cardoso’s Rumble in the Jungle piece was never published in New Times or anywhere else. His story about an American prize fight staged in Zaire under the dictator Mobutu Seze Seko had a raw, brutal feel that reflected the reality of life at that time at that place on the African continent as much as it did the scene surrounding the fight. He was spooked by Zaire, he was spooked by Africa, and although the piece was hilarious, it was also deeply disturbed.
When Cardoso first arrived in Zaire, he was amused by the sight of hundreds of nigh-watchers who were hired by home owners and businessmen to sit on their haunches outside doorways in Kinshasa where they kept tin can oil-fires going to ward off evil spirits. “Ndokes” were the zombie-spirits of dead relatives and enemies who came out at night to enter unprotected houses and sit at your bedside and cast a spell on you if you had the misfortune to awaken and see them. A month or so into his stay, Cardoso’s mild amusement had turned into fear. He swore to me that he woke up one night in his room at the Membling to find an Ndoke sitting in a chair watching him. He was terrified. When the tooth fell out of his head on the street outside the Chelsea Hotel the day he returned to the United States, he was convinced it was as a result of the spell put on him by the Ndoke in his room. When he wrote about it, it wasn’t gonzo, it was real.
Some of the best stuff Bill Cardoso wrote was never written down at all, but passed along to us over drinks, in a car, or late at night in a hotel suite and those of us among the ink-stained-ilk still tell Cardoso stories when we get together. He lived a life rich enough to fuel a half-dozen literary careers, and if I may take my liberties, Bill Cardoso was a national treasure. Hopefully one day there will be a Great Reckoning, and someone will add up what we lost when Bill Cardoso and Harold Conrad and Al Hemway took a cab.
Unless I miss my guess, somebody else paid the fare because none of them – not a one – would stoop so low as to dig into his own kick and pay for the privilege of going out with class.
So here’s fifty, Bill. We owe you at least that much.