Understanding "Where Thieves and Pimps Run Free"

From the Urban Legends Mailbag

Hunter S. Thompson Dies At Age 67
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Dear Urban Legends:

There is a famous quote attributed to Hunter S. Thompson that goes something like this:

"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."

I have seen this quote changed to describe many businesses from TV to film to corporate America in general. Do you guys have any idea where this quote came from or toward what business it was originally aimed? You are my only hope.

Thanks.

Dear Reader:

Fascinating, isn't it, how sardonically true those words ring in all the different contexts you mentioned? And they reek of Hunter S. Thompson, the man touted as the father of Gonzo Journalism, the man who described sports writers (whose ranks he rejoined late in life as an online columnist for ESPN) as "a rude & brainless subculture of fascist drunks," and who once said of Bill Clinton, "He may be a swine, but he's our swine."

Arguably, Thompson wasn't really a journalist — he denied it off and on himself — so much as a profane, lyrical, hyperactive critic of American culture. The New Journalism of the early '60s tipped the sacred cow of objective reporting on its ear; Gonzo Journalism — by that I mean Hunter S. Thompson — slaughtered it and tossed it on the barbie.

So, I began my research under the supposition that Thompson probably did author this bitter indictment of the music industry, a good match in both style and substance to other witticisms credited to him.

When I Googled the passage I found it everywhere — usually, though not always, attributed to Thompson. However — and here's a lesson in the pitfalls of online research — out of literally hundreds of instances where the quotation was cited, only a couple of them named a published source, and those were the hardest to find.

Not to mention there are at least half a dozen variants, to wit:

  • "The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."
  • "The TV business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."
  • "The radio business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."
  • "The corporate communications world is a cruel and shallow money trench. A long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs."
  • "Show business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long dark plastic hallway where thieves, pimps, and whores run free and most good or weak men die like dogs!"

Whatever the original words and whoever may have authored them, people have clearly seen fit to freely adapt the passage for their own purposes, and others have repeated those adaptations without questioning their authenticity. The tagline, "There's also a negative side," was sometimes included, sometimes not.

Other writers were occasionally cited as the author.

Still, it seemed a safe bet that Thompson was the guilty party, but where and when did he say it? I was beginning to despair I'd have to pore through Thompson's entire oeuvre page by page when I received a response to one of the queries I'd sent out to webmasters asking if they could cite a source. It pointed me to Hunter S. Thompson's book called Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s (New York: Summit Books, 1988). There, toward the bottom of page 43, I hit paydirt:

The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.

Which is more or less true. For the most part, they are dirty little animals with huge brains and no pulse.

Exact quote. The full piece, clearly lambasting the business of TV journalism, was originally published as a bylined column in the San Francisco Examiner on November 4, 1985. It was not about radio, it was not about the music industry, it was not about show business in general nor about the corporate communications industry (though for all we know Thompson might well have agreed that the characterization fits equally well in every case). It was about television. Period.

As for the phantom tagline, "There's also a negative side," it's nowhere to be found in the original article. Nice joke, but Thompson didn't write it.

I am duty-bound to state the obvious one more time: Don't believe everything you read on the Internet. Hunter Thompson didn't; neither should you.

"I don't know the percentage of the Internet that's valid, do you? Jesus, it's scary." — Hunter S. Thompson ( Atlantic Monthly interview, 1997)