Written by LDS, Dec 2014
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005)
Something was missing; I struggled to truly put my finger on it until casually passing a pop-up bookshop one afternoon. I soon realised that the depth and colour so many of the recent authors I was reading attempted to create just failed to fulfil my needs. There was a recent lack of excitement, a break at the synapses, no real connection with me on a level that TRULY brought pleasure to my face with the turning of each page. Going through the motions, I scanned these meagre shelves of opportunity, flicking through well-thumbed classic after the next with nothing biting until I eye-balled a name that jolted me from my literary coma. Hidden in the top corner, the furthest nook of the shelves, a small but mint condition bundle of Hunter S. Thompson works were placed almost entirely from view as if perhaps these were not for public consumption, a controlled substance, though more likely a jewel that wouldn’t be sold to just any passing punter.
Noting the anxiety in the bookkeepers eye and with a sense of guilt (but internal overwhelming pleasure) I snatched the lot, lock stock and barrel for these were not just copies of some of my past favourites ‘Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas’ or ‘Kingdom of Fear’ but lesser known and available copies of some of the Doctor’s Gonzo publishings that I didn’t even know about. I had a very good feeling about this.
So who is HST? What is Gonzo Journalism and why must every human being with any ounce of reasonable doubt poke their head inside his world, if only long enough to broaden the spectrum of the human mind? Well let us take it from the top…
Photograph: Annie Leibovitz: California, 1972.
Hunter S Thompson (AKA Raoul Duke), in many people’s opinion was one of the most talented writers of the modern era. He was an outlaw, a revolutionary, a loose character who was said to be permanently intoxicated, though a classic story teller and famed as the original ‘Gonzo’ journalist. Many people have tried to describe the meaning of ‘Gonzo’ which at the time came completely from left-field. For me it is best described as a highly subjective flair of reporting in which the journalist is fundamentally enmeshed within the action (rather than being a passive observer). HST thus instead of reporting unbiased, was narrating his own twisted tale, the whole journey, via alias names and sometimes via more than one character to expand the possibility of dialogue. This was an interesting time to live in, these were decades of extreme cultural shift and revolution; a particularly uncertain time in American history. HST pulls on the drama of the Sixties and Seventies and documents each story with such colour and vivid imagination, and with such intelligence and detail that you struggle to believe any of it could possibly be exaggerated though physically you automatically contemplate how he ever made it past the age of 40?! In the words of Andy Kershaw “…That he is still alive, and at large, defies medical and legal beliefs…” (1990).
So briefly, back to the beginning… HST was born in the USA in 1937 and in his own head a distinguished writer by the age of 10 pushing out sports reports. His first professional gig came during the 1950’s on his National Service stint in the USAF as sports editor for the base paper (this was a jail vs National Service ultimatum). Upon honourable discharge he took several gigs for local papers along the East coast (“…stupid dailies with big white margins, tiny type and no pictures…”). In ‘Songs of The Doomed‘ (1990) you feel his early passion for pushing a new format and perfectionism in journalism “… That’s how I got into taking pictures, I was so dissatisfied with the photographs that I was getting … that I began to take them myself …” However with ideas beyond his years of experience these old school editors wouldn’t allow Hunter exposure to the ‘real’ stories, ultimately holding back his potential and stirring an early resentment of the mechanics of society. Through a number of head clashes and comic misfortunes HST virtually quit writing on a payroll and went entirely free-lance landing a gig south of the border. Hunter spent around 5 years between the Caribbean and South America (enter the ‘Rum Diaries’ a one-off novel which until recently went unpublished for some 35 years).
SIDE-NOTE: Whilst a perhaps inherent laziness may exist and you may think ‘bollocks, I COULD read the books but I’ll just watch the films (Where The Buffalo Roam/Fear & Loathing/The Rum Diaries) and save a heap of time, besides, I love Johnny Depp. Please take our advice and pick up any of HST’s books, for the pleasure will last far longer! For all the credit we can pay the crew and cast on the movie adaptations [inclusive of both Bill Murray and Johnny Depp living in HST’s basement for an extended period so as to absorb his true character – life altering experiences] SO much is lost as it cannot be translated to moving picture in its same and absolute attention to detail/graphicness portrayed by Hunter.
Where were we?… oh yes…. The tipping point….. Eventually HST was commissioned to write an article on the emergent biker community in the USA and went on to secure a book contract; writing ‘Hells Angels’ (1966). In studying for the book HST moved back to the States to immerse himself into this unknown ‘lock up your daughters’ type of community that had been getting quite a bad reputation. However finally with some recognition for his writing prowess his social network expanded ten-fold. Specifically, the next chapter for Hunter was to be had in San Francisco, California during the early rise of psychedelics and with all the rumblings that followed the Free Speech Movement. Here he became close friends with Ken Kesey another writer (‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’) but better known as the LSD king of California amongst a number of other influential people including bands (Jefferson Airplane, Joan Baez etc), beat poets (Allen Ginsberg), hippies and of course his subject; the Hells Angels. In strange times HST was the perfect conduit at the crossroads of society and was heavily involved in a counter-culture movement during the increasing pressure of cold war politics. In 1967 he moved to a 100 acre ranch in Woody Creek (Aspen), Colorado which would become his life-long home. Becoming increasingly interested in politics and to make a stand against the state of politics at the time, HST convinced a local man to run against the unopposed candidate for Mayor of Aspen just to stir things up. Despite having the bodies to win this campaign on the day, they lost by 6 votes largely due to the apolitical vibe of Aspen, a town “…full of refugees from California and real drop outs from everything…” where people just didn’t register to vote. HST saw that this had to change and put ink to paper writing “The Battle of Aspen” to specifically target and catch the interest of the hippies via their choice journal; Rolling Stone Magazine who picked it up. Unsurprisingly the vote tripled in a year following the publication and this became the starting point in HST’s long career with RS Magazine where he was National Affairs Editor until 1999. In 1970, Thompson went as far as running for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado which naturally scared a good deal of ordinary folk.
Photograph: Cover – Songs of the Doomed (Gonzo Papers Vol.3), Aspen, Colorado.
What was meant to be a report on the annual Mint 400 desert race being held in Las Vegas for Sports Illustrated, doubled with the National District Attorneys Association’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs report for Rolling Stone Magazine became neither. HST instead framed himself as the main character giving a personal account of a twisted, drug fuelled adventure through America’s playground, calling it ‘Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas’ (1971). This is HST’s seminal piece, an ode to the Sixties spoken in part fact, part fiction and part fantasy form; the book opening with “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold”. The story instead of being a report on current affairs became a feverish insight into the dark soul of American society at the end of (and summarising) a WHOLE decade. It spills the soul of HST who’s thoughts cascade at 100mph, in a mixed but strangely empathising merit and dimension “…We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fuelled the 60’s. That was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him seriously…”. Originally printed as a two part in Rolling Stone Magazine, it was shortly after published into a book. It pulls you through the adventure like a fly on the wall, jerking you to laugh-out-loud like a loon but it also carries a sobering realisation that a whole generation had officially been played out, the freedom and spirit of the Sixties succumbing to a new era of anxiety and uncertainty; the ‘Death of the American Dream’.…. and the need to escape it at all costs! The surrealist graphic illustration provided by Ralph Steadman helps set the tone of the ‘trip’ portraying the anxious and mutated faces of ‘Raoul Duke’ and his Attorney driving in a Cadillac at speeds befitting the escape of a colony of frenzied bats (of course imaginary). In an interview with Douglas Brinkley HST recalls “…I learned at the Kentucky Derby that it was extremely useful to have a straight man with me, someone to bounce reactions off of. I was fascinated by Ralph Steadman because he was so horrified by most of what he saw in this country. Ugly cops and cowboys and things he’d never seen in England…”. Regardless of your political stance, loyalties or even if you were born with a stick up your arse; switch your mind blank and digest the prose and tempo of ‘Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas‘ rightly regarded as literal work of art.
Following the success of F&L and the growing interest in politics, HST embarked on his next project ‘Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail’ (1972) where he was sent to sit in as a reporter on the 1972 presidential election campaign; current President Nixon (Republican) vs underdog and rank outsider George McGovern (Democrats). McGovern ran an anti-war campaign but was handicapped by his outsider status, limited support from his own party and the perception of being a left-wing extremist. Naturally HST knew where he would set up camp. He arrived looking like no other journalist in shorts and tennis shoes always with a drink in his hand and a smoke on the go. McGovern’s campaign manager Frank Mankiewicz, referred to the book as “…the least factual, most accurate account…” of the election and it has been acclaimed as Hunter’s most intellectual writing. Shortly, following the defeat of McGovern and Hunter still brimming with political fire in his belly, he embarked for Saigon, Vietnam for one month to provide copy on the war. He stated to Brinkley in an interview that “…the war had been part of my life for so long. For more than ten years I’d been beaten and gassed. I wanted to see the end of it. In a way I felt I was paying off a debt…”. This period further steeled Hunter’s character as combat journalist friends were killed in action and he gained first hand exposure to the huge opium smoking culture amongst the US and Viet-Cong troops. HST famously wrote to the leader of the Viet-Cong requesting that he ride atop a tank on its way into the fallen city of Saigon but sadly had his request denied.
Photograph: Annie Leibovitz: Thompson & McGovern, 1972.
In future years HST was known to drive editors out of the business altogether with his wild ways and poor judgement in completing a story by the necessary deadlines. It is said that quite often a collection of hand-written notes on various medium were collected from around him, made sense of and written up back in the office via phone hook up with Hunter a couple of hours prior to print.
Sadly in 2005 after a series of health problems HST was found dead in his kitchen at Owl Farm, Woody Creek with a gun shot wound to the head sparking a natural conspiracy considering the number of people he rubbed up the wrong way though son Juan states “I never had any doubt that at some point he was going to commit suicide,” as sadly his mind out-lived the harsh realities of age and a lifetime of action. As quirky as his life works, HST once mentioned to a reporter that he saw his funeral being rounded off with his ashes being shot over the valley in a giant cannon. In 2005, 6 months after his passing, close friend Johnny Depp paid for the cannon and in-front of a hoard of people his ashes were blown into the sky over Aspen, Colorado and exploded over the valley. FOREVER WEIRD….
Video: The late HST with Conan O’Brien at Woody Creek
Video: HST Funeral Talk
Video: Looking back on HST with Johnny Depp
References: Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas – HST / Songs of the Doomed – HST / Kingdom of Fear – HST / The Proud Highway (Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman 1955-1967) – Douglas Brinkley / Photographs 1970–1990 – Annie Liebovitz.
LDS – Jan 15