February 25, 2005
By Brian Bentley
Sunday afternoon, on the 20th of February, on the cusp of Pisces, Hunter S. Thompson, the most brilliant satirical writer of the 20th Century, was no match for the business end of a .45 handgun he used to scatter his brains like snowflakes across the Colorado winter.
Suicide seemed a fitting end for a writer who was the closest thing the Boomer generation had to Ernest Hemingway. Thompson was not going to shrink from the responsibility of determining his own destiny. You weren't going to find him tied to a hospital bed on the end of a tube, ready to meet his maker. There is only one way an old soldier goes out and that’s with his boots on. Don’t leave it to the pill pushers and bean counters and the do-gooders to decide what's best for you.
Hunter S. Thompson, the founder and Godfather of Gonzo Journalism, was 67 years old and had lived a half dozen different lifetimes when he died last week. Clearly his best work was behind him, even though he was still writing regularly and cashing paychecks from ESPN.com. There was nothing amiss with his mechanics; it was more like he had run out of subject matter, while the values he idealized in his writing, the ones that seemed precious enough to die for in the 1960’s, were compromised away by a world that had become too jaded to care anymore.
Despite the setbacks, Hunter always enjoyed himself. His last column for ESPN was about a sport he had just invented called, “Shotgun Golf,” in which the object of the game is to blow the opponents ball out of the air in mid-flight. It was the perfect metaphor for the Thompson literary ethos: to be high, to be moving at great velocity, to be blown to pieces like some doomed speed freak outlaw.
The amazing aspect of Thompson’s story is how he managed to live as long as he did. He had the kind of lifestyle habits that kill bulls. His daily drug regimen would have brought most men to their knees; with the exception of cats like Keith Richards, he had few peers still standing. But in the end, I suspect, it wasn’t the drugs or the physical ailments that did him in. It was the isolation. The world had forgotten about Thompson. He was suffering from irrelevancy. And to a man who had made such on impact on so many, to be ignored was a fate worse than death.
Hunter Thompson didn't start out to become an icon, which can be rare in the icon business. Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1937, he served two tumultuous years in the Air Force and by the early 60’s, was a struggling sportswriter. In 1965, Thompson unwittingly launched a revolutionary participatory literary style when he persuaded the Hells Angels to let him ride with their thug gang and write about the experience. Two years later, his diaries were optioned into the book, Hells Angels: a Strange and Terrible Saga and Thompson became a cultural star overnight.
Suddenly, the icons of New Journalism like Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and George Plimpton were lining up to sing his praises. With the 60’s providing the perfect canvas for Thompson's foot-to-the-floor, drug-laced narratives, he blazed with moral outrage and a manic, first person, subjective style of reporting that incinerated the lines between fact and fiction.
But fiction and embellishment were not to be confused with Thompson’s eternal quest for the TRUTH. There was often more truth in his eccentric ramblings, simply because he didn't conform to the conventional school of reporting. In his day, writers veered toward safety and mediocrity. Hunter never sold out. He challenged the process and the editors he worked with to keep up with him. There was no compromise, no quarter. Thompson's press credentials from Rolling Stone gave him the same priceless access as the guys from Newsweek and The Washington Post, yet he was covering stories with an underground zeal that lampooned the dreary realities of standard news coverage.
“One of the constant nightmares of traveling with politicians is the need to keep them in sight at all times. Every Presidential campaign has its horror stories about reporters who thought they had plenty of time to “run across the street for a quick beer” instead of hanging around in the rear of some grim auditorium, only to come back in 20 minutes to find no sign of the press bus, the candidate or anybody who can tell them where they went. The temperature is always below zero, there is usually a major blizzard to keep cabs off the street, and just as the victim remembers that he left his wallet on the press bus, his stomach erupts with a sudden attack of Ptomaine poisoning. And then, while crawling around on his knees in some ice-covered alley and racked with fits of projectile vomiting, he is grabbed by vicious cops and whipped on the shins with a night stick, then locked in the drunk tank of the local jail and buggered all night by winos.”
("Jimmy Carter and the Great Leap of Faith” from The Great Shark Hunt)
By the turn of the decade, Thompson was no longer content to just reference the other side. He was becoming the other side – a volatile, loose cannon who injected himself into his stories and made his very survival dependent on their outcomes. Part of it was obviously an act, a manipulation of reality, a form of the Living Theater that artists like Jim Morrison and Andy Kaufman made their own.
The breakthrough for Thompson came in 1971 when he took his act to Las Vegas. Sent by Rolling Stone uber-editor, Jann Wenner, to ostensibly cover the Mint 400 desert motorcycle race and a convention of drug enforcement officials, Thompson turned the fractured, psychedelic weekend into a tour de force account of drugs, destruction, imminent nervous breakdown and excessive room service bills. The book which rose from the ashes, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was a masterpiece of literature – part fact, part fiction and completely insane. Colonel Kurtz had taken a trip upriver, landed on The Strip and turned it into a towering inferno.
“Circus Circus (casino) is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazi’s had won the war. The place is about four stories high, in the style of a circus tent with all manners of strange county fair/Polish carnival madness going on in mid-air over the gambling tables. And for 99 cents, your likeness can appear, two hundred feet tall on a screen above downtown Las Vegas. We will close the hotel room drapes tonight. A thing like that could send a drug person careening around the room like a ping pong ball. Nobody can handle the possibility that any freak with a $1.98 can appear in the sky twelve times the size of God, howling at anything that comes into his head. No, this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted.”To writers and erstwhile social critics, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was our generation’s equivalent of Kerouac’s On the Road, or Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. It was a shotgun blast to the face of the establishment and changed pop literature the way Sergeant Pepper’s changed pop music. Part of the beauty was its inclusive counterculture charm and how effortlessly it brought the reader into Hunter’s road trip from hell, diving headlong from the sheer boredom of everyday life into a darkly hilarious world where you can get away with anything you’re crazy enough to try.
(Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)
Thompson’s partner in crime on the Vegas trip was his real life buddy, L.A. renegade attorney, Oscar Zeta Acosta. True life could be stranger than fiction and Acosta was certainly up for the task. He was Hunter’s greatest character and the complete embodiment of all things Gonzo – a borderline psychopath who was smart enough to be thoroughly dangerous.
“Oscar was not into serious street fighting, but he was hell on wheels in a bar brawl. Any combination of a 250-pound Mexican and LSD-25 is a potentially terminal menace for anything it can reach – but when the alleged Mexican is in fact a profoundly angry Chicano lawyer with no fear at all of anything that walks on less than three legs and a defacto suicidal conviction that he WILL die at the age of thirty-three – just like Jesus Christ – you have a serious piece of work on your hands. Specially if the bastard is ALREADY thirty-three and a half years old with a head full of Sandoz acid and a loaded .357 Magnum in his belt.”
(“The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat” from the Rolling Stone Tenth Anniversary issue)
Thompson and his attorney, Oscar Acosta (circa 1971)
On a major creative roll, Thompson was back on the road again, this time as the National Affairs editor for Rolling Stone. With the release of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, a collection of stories he’d filed on the looming re-election of Richard Nixon, Thompson took the hallucinatory stylings of FLLV and directed them downward, on a journey to the center of madness, the campaign to elect a President.
The book made him a superstar. A masterfully detailed primer on the grim realities, manipulations and sheer insanity of the political landscape, Campaign Trail '72 chronicles the further co-opting of the American dream as great careers are born and dissolved under the new-found power of media examination. By the book’s end, Thompson was flat on his back in a hotel room, suffering from an exhaustion-based nervous breakdown. Candidate Ed Muskie, once a front-runner, saw his candidacy go down in flames, assisted no doubt by Thompson’s published assertions that Big Ed’s slurred speeches were the result of a hopeless addiction to Ibogaine, a mind-altering drug that supposedly rendered its users tired, feeble and confused.
Hunter S. Thompson was at his best and brightest when he tackled his arch nemesis, Richard Nixon, a man he seemed to fear, loathe, respect and desperately need for satirical inspiration. In 1968, when Nixon was running for President, Thompson finagled a limousine interview, but with strict Nixon ground rules: only football would be discussed. While the average reporter would have declined, Thompson considered Nixon’s request to be a sporting proposal and an eminently reasonable, if not brilliant, idea.
Every great story has a frightening villain and Nixon was to Thompson what horror is to Stephen King. Hunter chronicled every chapter of Nixon’s scary rise and fall from power with profound observations that captured the heart of the man’s darkness.
“Innocence? It is even hard to type that word on the same page with Nixon’s name. Nixon's entire political career – and in fact his whole life – is a gloomy monument to the notion that not even pure schizophrenia or malignant psychosis can prevent a determined loser from rising to the top of the heap in this strange society we have built for ourselves in the name of “democracy and “free enterprise.” For most of his life, the mainspring of Richard Nixon’s energy and ambition seems to have been a deep and unrecognized need to overcome, at all costs, that sense of having been Born Guilty – not for crimes or transgressions Already committed, but for those he somehow sensed he was fated to commit as he grappled his way to the summit.”
(“Fear and Loathing in Limbo: The Scum Also Rises”)
Things were never quite the same after Nixon's premature exit from the White House. Thompson had sped to the summit in the fast lane and after ten crazy years, his career was running on empty. He continued to write magazine articles for Rolling Stone and released a steady stream of books that grew more strident and less impactful as the years wore on. Thompson’s legacy for excess, however, remained fully lit. When he wasn't holding court at the Woody Creek Tavern near his home, a few miles from Aspen, he could be often found firing tracer bullets over the local highway or hunting rogue bears on his property with tasers and shotguns.
When one stops to consider the best performance comics of modern times – the ones who flipped reality on its rear end – when you consider the Andy Kaufman's and the Dick Shawn's and the Ali G.'s – Hunter S. Thompson might well be considered the Cro-Magnon who started the entire evolution with one big bang.
As Tom Wolfe wrote last week, “You didn't have lunch or dinner with Hunter Thompson. You attended an event at mealtime.” Such was the case with his infamous college lecture tours, like the strange night I witnessed “An Evening with Hunter S. Thompson” on the UC Santa Barbara campus.
Over a thousand rabid fans of Doonesbury's, “Raoul Duke,” filed into the school gym, unaware of what lay in store for them. The mood was festive, like some kind of hippie rock concert lecture by the nuttiest professor of all. The opening act, a magician, was quickly booed off the stage beneath a shower of spent beer cups. The crowd was impatiently waiting for the man.
At one hour past the scheduled show time, a student body affairs geek announced that Thompson had been “unavoidably delayed,” and was in a bar “somewhere in Goleta.” The audience groaned. As the clock ticked, the stage announcements grew stranger. “Thompson has left the bar and just called from his mobile phone. He's lost. Wait, he's on the phone and just got directions, he's on his way.”
Random booing and the predictable early exits of the uninitiated continued for another half hour. Somewhere, stage right, a vicious fist fight broke out. The mood was sullen as so many of the faithful had mistimed their drugs and were coming down. Things were getting fairly ugly.
Suddenly, almost two hours beyond reason, Thompson's jug-eared, skinned-rabbit silhouette appeared in a dimly lit doorway to the left of the stage. The crowd erupted in a long, low volcanic howl, screaming insults, half in jest, half in real anger. Some in the audience were literally berserk with rage. I never saw a performer get that kind of reaction in my life.
Thompson promptly ran into the bowels of the building like a frightened rat. After some backstage huddling, the student speaker issued an apology. “Dr. Thompson says he's very sorry for being two hours late and would like to tell you from the bottom of his heart … that you can all kindly kiss his Ass.”
After several in the crowd rushed the stage and were ejected, Thompson finally sat down at the lectern with a bottle of booze and a large glass. But I never saw him drink from it. He began to field questions from the audience and because of the kind of technical problems one finds in school gymnasiums, barely any of these exchanges were audible. I do remember him plainly calling Hubert Humphrey a white slave trader who was running a concentration camp in the wilds of Minnesota. His mumbled monologue lasted about forty minutes and by the last question, there were only about 40 people still there.
Those who had come expecting Thompson to let them in on the joke didn't understand that the joke was on them. It was a dose of his pure anarchy, which is funny to read about, but not so funny to experience firsthand. Pay the admission and enjoy the show. Hunter was one of those prophets who considered expectation to be only premeditated disappointment. Besides the books were better anyway…
And now, he’s gone. I still don’t believe he’s dead and that a man like Thompson could be killed with a single gunshot. He was Superman. Bullets were supposed to just bounce off his animal-skin hide. In a world where cynicism and political apathy are the foregone conclusions of rigged Presidential elections, Thompson was the ultimate idealist and it cost him. No one will ever know how much John Kerry’s defeat, three months before Thompson's suicide, affected his will to go on. His final column in Rolling Stone in which he postulated that Kerry might win handily, seemed hopelessly naïve and wishful for better days. Too bad the country was no longer on the same page with him.
“All energy flows according to the Great Magnet. What a fool I was to defy him. He knew. He knew all along. I had run far enough, so He nailed me … closing off my escape routes … plunging me into fear and confusion. Never cross the Great Magnet. I understand this now … and with understanding came a sense of almost terminal relief.”
(Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)
“A generation of swine” is what Thompson called the shallow, me-first yuppies of the 80’s who now seem to own the world with their conspicuous consumption and self-important, yak-on-cell-phones-in-the-movie-theater mentality. In the irony of ironies, the social oppression of the 60’s – that twisted totalitarian way of thinking that seeks to control the free will of others was finally defeated – only to reappear in the late 80’s in the form of Political Correctness. But this time, the forces of oppression were no longer the other guys – the enemy we could plainly see. This time, the enemy was US, the progressive people who were supposed to have fought so hard for personal freedoms.
Thompson was sacrificed by the PC forces. They labeled him a misogynist, a minority hater, a drug-addled bad influence, a gun nut and then they turned their back on him like he was Jesus and nailed him to that old-hippie cross – too out of touch, an embarrassment to us all. His legacy was forever tarnished because a bunch of dummies took a lot of drugs to attempt piss poor imitations of him and then he got blamed for it, as if it was his obligation to be a role model instead of an artist. In the end, those he had fought for, judged him for everything and understood nothing.
So now, in the dead of winter, with the dark heavens above L.A. twisting ominously and the rain clouds spewing their venomous piss onto homes sliding into the Great Beyond beneath the local hills, the gods upstairs must have realized by now that a newly-minted, crazed soul just broke into St. Peter’s liquor cabinet and is creating an unholy shitstorm in the sky.
Down here, things just don't seem the same. Filmmakers like Michael Moore still stir things up, but they are too self-serving and well-balanced to see the demons at night. They are not one of us. Who is out there to inspire the rest to show courage in the face of political and cultural defeat? Thompson stood toe-to-toe against the forces of darkness – .44 Magnum in one hand and a bottle of Wild Turkey in the other and inspired everybody to drive stakes through the hearts of the liars and bloodsuckers. Hunter was the point man for all the loonies in the hall.
Bob Dylan wrote, “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” Hunter S. Thompson was an outlaw and a brute, an anarchist and a royal pain in the ass. As one of his Colorado drinking buddies put it, “He will be hard to replace and I'm not sure you'd want to.”
“Hunter Thompson's art is purer than that of Norman Mailer or Tom Wolfe. Thompson never preaches. He amuses; he frightens; he flirts with doom. His achievement is substantial.”
Thompson was really from the old school. His peers were newspapermen, and because he was so well grounded in his craft and because he was a consummate reporter with an infinite eye for detail, his flights of narrative fantasy carried true weight behind them. He combined his background in traditional journalism with the street aesthetics of a 60’s revolutionary. It was a lethal mix. Once he’d been initiated into The Hells Angels, Thompson had an epiphany, one of those crossroads moments so many people arrived at in the 60’s. It was almost as if someone had dosed anchorman Tom Brokaw with twenty sheets of blotter acid and he woke up the next day as Frank Zappa. The world had a smart, dangerous and dedicated threat to all that was sacred.
“Thompson elicits the same kind of admiration one would feel for a streaker at Queen Victoria's funeral.”
--William F. Buckley, Jr.
As an Agent Provocateur, Hunter S. Thompson established Gonzo Journalism as the literary equivalent of rock n’ roll revolution music – like The Who’s “My Generation” and the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” (as interpreted by Charles Manson). Gonzo was at first purely observational, but it quickly evolved into sheer disruption. Hunter was at his best when operating as a button-pusher, square in the center of the action, becoming the action, risking his life and limb to up the ante. He kept his wicked humor and his fearless style amidst the kind of desperate compulsive gambling only a high roller at the crap table understands.
“Few people understand the psychology of dealing with a highway traffic cop. Your normal speeder will panic and immediately pull over to the side when he sees the big red light behind him. This is wrong. It arouses contempt in the cop heart. The thing to do – when you're running along about a hundred or so and you suddenly find a red-flashing CHP-tracker on your trail – what you want to do then is ACCELERATE. Never pull over at the first siren howl. Mash it down and make the bastard chase you at speeds up to 120 m.p.h…”
(Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)
But as the world kept moving and the 80’s became the 90’s, Thompson pretty much stayed at home, freeze dried in the past, kind of like Cheech and Chong. He had begun his writing career as a distanced observer with an abundance of insight – rocketing skyward with warp-speed chronicles of American institutions like the Kentucky Derby and the Super Bowl – and by the early 90's, he'd de-evolved into an extremely biased professional who kept repeating himself over and over. Now, the “story” was only about what was going on inside his head.
Hunter might have been at the happiest point in his life in 1998, when the filmed adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, starring a perfectly cast Johnny Depp and directed by Terry Gilliam, hit the big screen. While the movie worked in plenty of ways and had a spectacular soundtrack, the net result of its cartoonish depictions was to pretty much cement Thompson's legacy as “that Nutty Guy on Drugs.” If you have a reputation for being crazy, staying at the top of your game requires a certain dedication to preserving that reputation. Loyalty’s a killer. The more Thompson partied and fed the myth, the hungrier his soul became. The cycle just got worse as time wore on. With his health failing and his body joints and spirit worn to a nub, he obviously preferred to be master of his own destiny. I don’t fault him at all. I’ll just miss him.
They say the souls of suicides wander the earth, haunting the night with their restless yearning. Not yet in Heaven and just removed from Hell, they exist in that In-Between where sinners and would-be saviors dwell in uneasy company. Here's to you, Hunter – Ruler of the Roost of the Damned – you were the Greatest.
And to anyone who has to ask what all the Thompson tribute and fuss is about, just read the Work – in fact, the Work speaks so much more eloquently as to why his viewpoint mattered. The thinking behind that inflamed logic simply doesn’t age. Start with the 1979 compilation of his best stories, The Great Shark Hunt, and go from there. You will find yourself less afraid as a result. Move confidently in their midst, like Thompson did, as he stripped away the bullshit of the world to move closer to simple basic truths, or what Neil Young likes to call, “The Source.”
Hunter S. Thompson started his career as a sportswriter and died working as one for ESPN.com. Sports provided everything his writing demanded: action, color, speed, violence. His favorite athlete of all time was not coincidentally, Muhammad Ali, a man who had suffered dearly at humanity’s hands for having the courage of his monstrous convictions.
“Muhammad Ali moved from the very beginning with the same instinct that drove The Great Gatsby – an endless fascination with the green light at the end of the pier. That was always the difference between Ali and the rest of us. He came, he saw and if he didn't entirely conquer – he came as close as anybody we are likely to see in the lifetime of this doomed generation.
Res Ipsa Loquitor”
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