Over a decade ago, I met a man who had influenced my life in ways I could never really begin to properly describe. When you’re young and looking for the point of it all, sometimes you’ll read something or see something that makes a path forward appear. For me, that was gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson.
He changed journalism. He made the journalist a part of the story, and it’s that breaking of the rules that I have focused my writing life on. When I write about a company, I’m not unbiased. I’m not going to give you both sides of the story. I’m going to take a stand, fight for the little guy, offend those for whom offense is freely accepted, and hopefully make you laugh a bit.
I was just reading through an old piece I wrote from back when Thompson took his own life and, though I needed to tidy a lot of it up (I was a sloppy boy before spellcheck came along), I figured it would be a good time to re-post it such as it explains why, and how, I write.
It’s a long one, so if you’re really busting for a quick game of Candy Crush before bed, probably give it a miss, but it describes the night that myself and a car full of friends spent the night in Hunter S. Thompson’s kitchen. It was the highlight of my career and will always be.
So hey, Throwback Thursday time. Here’s ‘The Real Hunter S. Thompson.’
A literary genius died today, his life taken by his own hand. To many, this news is no more than a distant tragedy, the kind of event where you say, ‘Shit, really? That sucks’, and go on with your life as before. To others, it will be an opportunity to say something hollow about drugs and alcohol, hard living and all the other self-righteous bullshit that pours forth from people who don’t like to admit what they themselves did when they were younger.
But to a select few people, those who actually somehow managed to meet Hunter S. Thompson in person, there will never be a time when the news of his passing doesn’t feel like a missing limb, still itching and aching long after it’s gone.
To me, Hunter Thompson was more than a writer. He was a thinker, a kingmaker, a rebel, a shit-stirrer, a common man with a head full of demons who had the wherewithal to use those demons to make art and news and change.
Hunter Thompson was more than a funny guy with a penchant for words, he was the reason I became a writer. In fact, it was the book of his he despised most, The Rum Diary, that convinced me to ‘go Puerto Rican’, to quit my job and fly to the other side of the world and be a hack for hire.
When I told Thompson that, in a chance meeting in 2003, his response was typical of a man who shunned applause and cut through the bullshit.
‘Jesus, man,’ he said, ‘Don’t blame me for your bad life choices.’
Hunter S. Thompson was born on July 18, 1939, in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of an insurance agent. He was busted by the law for a robbery he took part in with two other friends, both of whom were from families wealthy enough to get their kid off the hook. Thompson didn’t enjoy the same privilege, and was instead ‘forcibly assigned’ to the armed forces. His stint didn’t last long, but it was long enough for him to become sports editor for the camp newsletter, and pick up a little work covering the sports beat for an off-base Florida newspaper, before being honourably discharged when an officer claimed his ‘disregard for military dress and authority’ was having a bad influence on the other airmen.
Thompson rolled to New Jersey and continued his movement in the journalism world for a while, at least until an incident with a friend’s car resulted in him having to flee to New York, where he worked as copy boy for the New York Times. None of these gigs stuck, and with a restless impatience and as one not exactly prone to accept authority, Thompson was soon on a plane to Puerto Rico where he worked for Sportivo, a bowling magazine. He soon picked up work for the New York Herald and the San Juan Star.
It was there that Thompson wrote The Rum Diary, a novel he has never claimed a whole lot of love for (though I suspect he enjoyed underplaying what he really thought of it), and which subsequently sat in a cellar in his home until the late 90’s when it was dug up, polished off, and published. The story of a journalist looking for a place in the world, who finds himself in San Juan working for mad Americans at an English language newspaper, didn’t exactly light up the best seller lists, but it sure as shit lit something inside me.
At the time, Thompson wrote of his book, “I couldn’t tell you much about it, except that it’s a very inept, very honest tale of very young ‘vagrant journalists.’ The first 100 pages are worthless, the characters lack the essential kind of major/minor focus that a good story needs to stay on its feet but, every now and then, there are scenes that I’d match against anything in The Graduate.”
Sitting back home in Sydney Australia, I couldn’t put the book down. It wasn’t that it was the greatest book I’d ever read, but my life was exactly where Thompson’s had been when he penned the story, way back when I was lost in mediocrity, looking for something that meant something.
Thankfully, those with nowhere to go often find themselves drifting to the hottest part of the kitchen, and that’s where Thompson invariably headed as he lurched from twisted adventure to utter success. He was beaten severely by the Hells Angels in the mid-60’s, while researching a book on the bike gang that would eventually become a massive hit. The success of the tome was based partly on the fact that Thompson didn’t just investigate the Angels, he essentially became one. His tendency to make himself part of the story was something radical at the time; journalists simply didn’t allow themselves to ‘infect’ the subject of their pieces back then – it just wasn’t done. But Thompson realized that by turning himself into a ‘character’ in the book, he got closer to the topic, allowing the audience to do likewise, and creating one hell of a look at a group of people usually bound by secrecy.
Beatings, rapes, corruption, drinking binges, drug frenzies, it was all there on the page, and it made Hells Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang, an overnight success. This was Thompson’s big break, and it set him on a course that few of his contemporaries could follow, and fewer still could stomach.
In June 1968, Thompson saw there was trouble brewing in Chicago, and so of course he jumped in the middle of it. After being beaten by Police at the Chicago Democratic Convention riots, Thompson wrote some of the finest anti-establishment journalism of the time ‘ and backed it up with more than words when he ran for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, under the Freak Power ticket.
His platform consisted of the following promises:
He would rename Aspen as “Fat City, Colorado”, in an effort to make it less attractive to real estate developers.
He would tear up the downtown streets and replace them with sodded bike paths.
He would decriminalize drug possession.
He would decriminalize the sale of drugs, as long as the price was fair.
He would reintroduce the stocks as punishment for any drug dealer working at a profit.
He would reassign most of the deputies in his department to maintain the community bicycle fleet.
Noticing that the Sheriff sported a crew cut hairstyle, Thompson shaved his head clean and called the incumbent, ‘my long-haired opponent.’ It nearly worked too – despite a campaign of voter harassment, campaign rule breaking and intimidation at the ballot box from his Conservative opposition, Thompson caused a freak turnout that nearly took control of one of the soon-to-be richest parts of North America. By literally a handful of votes, the establishment won the battle, but they would never truly win the war.
Thompson had begun writing for a magazine that was little known at the time – Rolling Stone – and with his words ripping through the pages each month, it rapidly became one of the most influential publications in America. Reaching a youth audience unlike any magazine had before it, Rolling Stone revelled in being the anti-Time, mixing strong journalism in with harsh anti-establishment rhetoric and gut-bursting comedy. Thompson would break through walls that were normally the domain of the established press, getting a one-on-one with Richard Nixon on Air Force One, hanging with Mohammed Ali as he lost his title to the unknown Leon Spinks, covering the Kentucky Derby with English artist Ralph Steadman in a piece that rocked the high society world, and then taking a weekend trip to Vegas in a drug-fuelled frenzy, the retelling of which would eventually become known as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
This is the work that Thompson is best known for, but it is by no means his most important project. To me, the words that made Thompson legend were not his own – they were words written by, and spoken by, then-Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter on Law Day, to a room full of the state’s most powerful lawyers and politicians. You’ll find the entire speech here, and I recommend reading every darn word to see what sort of man Jimmy Carter truly was.
A few choice excerpts:
‘The first speech I ever made in the Georgia Senate, representing the most conservative district in Georgia, was concerning the abolition of 30 questions that we had so proudly evolved as a subterfuge to keep black citizens from voting, and which we used with a great deal of smirking and pride for decades or generations ever since the War Between the States – questions that nobody could answer in this room, but which were applied to every black citizen that came to the Sumter County Courthouse or Webster County Courthouse and said, “I want to vote.” I spoke in that chamber, fearful of the news media reporting it back home, but overwhelmed with a commitment to the abolition of that artificial barrier to the rights of an American citizen. I remember the thing that I used in my speech, that a black pencil salesman on the outer door of the Sumter County Courthouse could make a better judgment about who ought to be sheriff than two highly educated professors at Georgia Southwestern College. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was perhaps despised by many in this room because he shook up our social structure that benefited us, and demanded simply that black citizens be treated the same as white citizens, wasn’t greeted with approbation and accolades by the Georgia Bar Association or the Alabama Bar Association. He was greeted with horror. Still, once that change was made, a very simple but difficult change, no one in his right mind would want to go back to circumstances prior to that juncture in the development of our nation’s society.’
‘I was in the governor’s mansion for 2 years, enjoying the services of a very fine cook, who was a prisoner – a woman. One day she came to me, after she got over her 2 years of timidity, and said, “Governor, I would like to borrow $250 from you.” I said, “I’m not sure that a lawyer would be worth that much.” She said, ” I don’t want to hire a lawyer. I want to pay the judge.” I thought it was a ridiculous statement for her; I felt that she was ignorant. But I found out she wasn’t. She had been sentenced by a superior court judge in the state, who still serves, to 7 years or $750. She had raised, early in her prison career, $500. I didn’t lend her the money, but I had Bill Harper, my legal aide, look into it. He found the circumstances were true. She was quickly released under a recent court ruling that had come down in the past few years.’
‘You can go to the prisons of Georgia, and I don’t know, it may be that poor people are the only ones who commit crimes, but I do know that they are the only ones who serve prison sentences. When Ellis MacDougall first went to Reidsville, he found people that had been in solitary confinement for 10 years. We now have 500 misdemeanants in the Georgia prison system.’
‘We had an ethics bill in the state legislature this year. Half of it passed – to require an accounting for contributions during a campaign – but the part that applied to people after the campaign failed. We couldn’t get through the requirement for revelation of payments to officeholders after they are in office. The largest force against that ethics bill was the lawyers. Some of you here tried to get a consumer protection package passed without success. The regulatory agencies in Washington are made up, not of people to regulate industries, but of representatives of the industries that are regulated. Is that fair and right an equitable? I don’t think so. I’m only going to serve 4 years as governor, as you know. I think that’s enough. I enjoy it, but I think I’ve done all I can in the governor’s office.’
Clarity, honesty, frankness, intellect, passion: all rare things in today’s political scene, but even rarer when they were spoken. So why are these words important to Thompson’s legacy? Because he was there with a tape recorder, listening to it all, and was so struck with the words that he went home and dubbed copies – hundreds of them.
Thompson spread that speech, every darn word of it, to anyone who would listen – reporters, friends, strangers, his readers ‘ and before long, Carter’s name went from being associated with Hicksville peanut farming to being mentioned as a possible Presidential contender.
Thompson, using Rolling Stone as a pulpit, pounded Carter’s name long and hard as the best man for a new America, and people listened. They read the speech (which Thompson reprinted), they listened to his copies, they heard pieces from friends and in second-hand conversations in barbershop chairs, they took early morning phone calls from a drunken HST who would read them long passages until they agreed Carter was the man.
And when all was said and done, Carter, an unknown political figure to most, was soon the President of the United States of America. Right the way through the campaign and election, Hunter S. Thompson was there as an unofficial advisor.
But Thompson would never crow about any of that. He’d never call himself a kingmaker, though that’s exactly what he was. He, just one man, had turned the tide, just a little at a time, and it soon became a raging torrent. History had been altered. America had kicked out the killers and the corrupt, and they had chosen Thompson’s man to lead the free world. One man pushed hard enough to make a difference. It was Gonzo journalism’s finest hour.
Now, we can all pontificate with hindsight as to whether Carter was a great man or not, whether his Presidency was effective or not, and even whether Thompson got lucky and caught a freak wave just as it was breaking, but the fact remains that when the 70’s were happening, Hunter S. Thompson had the ear of Presidents, had a permanent seat on the White House Press Corps, had books on bestseller lists, created political movements at the local level, turned stereotypes around, and righted wrongs wherever he could find them. He didn’t just write the news, he was the news. He infected the news with honesty and bravery, and at times insanity. He was, for all intents and purposes, the world’s first ‘blogger’.
When Presidential hopeful John Kerry met with Thompson during the 2004 election campaign, Hunter wrote the following:
“Back in June, when John Kerry was beginning to feel like a winner, I had a quick little rendezvous with him on a rain-soaked runway in Aspen, Colorado, where he was scheduled to meet with a harem of wealthy campaign contributors. As we rode to the event, I told him that Bush’s vicious goons in the White House are perfectly capable of assassinating Nader and blaming it on him. His staff laughed, but the Secret Service men didn’t. Kerry quickly suggested that I might make a good running mate, and we reminisced about trying to end the Vietnam War in 1972. That was the year I first met him, at a riot on that elegant little street in front of the White House. He was yelling into a bullhorn and I was trying to throw a dead, bleeding rat over a black-spike fence and onto the president’s lawn. We were angry and righteous in those days, and there were millions of us. We kicked two chief executives out of the White House because they were stupid warmongers. We conquered Lyndon Johnson and we stomped on Richard Nixon — which wise people said was impossible, but so what? It was fun. We were warriors then, and our tribe was strong like a river. That river is still running. All we have to do is get out and vote, while it’s still legal, and we will wash those crooked warmongers out of the White House.”
Mark my words: they’ll call him a druggie, or a junkie. They’ll say he was mad or criminally insane or that he’d ‘lost it’ in later years. They’ll pour scorn on him for not conforming, or for being ‘trouble’. But “they” don’t know Hunter S. Thompson. They don’t understand Hunter S. Thompson.
Me? I’m one of the few who were lucky enough to sit at his knee, even just for one evening, and talk to him plainly. I would never profess to know more about him than any in his family, or those among his group of close personal friends who would gather on Monday night and gamble thousands on the outcome of a football game. I’d never try to convince anyone that I had him down, for, truth be told, he scared the shit out of me.
But I know he was more than the easy labels would suggest he was. I know he was someone who we will never see the likes of again. I know what we lost. So let me tell you how I know.
It was September 2003 and I had been asked to go to the Starz Denver Film Festival. I accepted, mostly because the festival organizers were plumping for a hotel, and some buddies would be in town at just the right time to hook up and wail on kegs.
‘Sure,’ I thought, ‘I’ll go on a boondoggle.’
So I signed up, but part of my end of the bargain was that I would have to introduce a few films. No drama.
“So what film would you like to introduce?”, they asked. I scanned down the list of films and couldn’t believe what jumped out at me. Breakfast With Hunter; a documentary about my hero! That would definitely be my pick.
So I intro’ed the film and hung out with the director, a guy named Wayne Ewing, who it turned out had been great friends with Thompson for a long time. So long, in fact, that Thompson, a recluse if there ever was one, allowed his buddy to film his day-to-day life.
Ewing had done a lot of TV work previously, so hanging about with a video camera was no big stretch since he was already losing thousands to Thompson’s football expertise each Monday night. Ewing entertained the festival audiences with stories of walking into Thompson’s home and finding himself at the wrong end of a shotgun, Hunter standing naked, dripping wet, and grinning on the business end. He talked of the eardrum that had been damaged when Hunter shot out the doorframe beside his head. He mentioned how Thompson stood there and waited for a reaction, and how Ewing didn’t call the cops, and instead walked up and hugged the lunatic with the weaponry still smoking in his hand.
“There’s no other way to deal with a situation like that when it comes to Hunter,’ he said. ‘I could go two ways – I could call 9/11 and never talk to him again, or I could accept his ‘joke’ as what it was… a ‘hug from Hunter’.”
The audience sat, rapt on every word. They’d come to see and hear about HST, but they hadn’t expected war stories from the Owl Farm fortified compound. They hadn’t expected to hear about Thompson shooting an assistant in the buttocks in the mistaken belief she was a bear. They hadn’t expected to hear anything but ‘he takes a lot of drugs’ – which is all you ever hear when people who have never met Thompson talk about Thompson.
I’d noticed that everyone who was anyone introduced themselves to Ewing over the following days, and also that he was a genuinely great guy. We got on like a house on fire and drank heavily into the wee hours – an activity that the Denver Fest readily encourages (bless ’em). But every few minutes, Ewing would be tapped on the shoulder with another introduction request, which he always politely laughed off.
Everyone wanted to be Ewing’s friend, but they all wanted an invite to Owl Farm as part of the bargain. TV news anchors, actors, strangers – they all wanted to know, how would you get up to meet the Doc? Ewing’s answer was always the same, and always spoken with a smile.
“You don’t. He’s a private guy. And don’t even think of appearing at the gate, because he’s well armed and likes to shoot.”
I didn’t ask for an introduction, because it just didn’t seem like something that could ever seriously happen. I mean, you don’t meet your heroes, especially when your heroes have fortified themselves in the Rockies with shotguns, rifles, Uzis and the occasional landmine or stick of dynamite. These are the heroes you back away from slowly, and be damned if I thought for one second that I should bother Wayne about it.
Which is probably why he asked my buddies and I if we wanted to go up.
But first we had to make a ‘show of faith’ to prove to Thompson that we were legitimately prepared to speak the truth about him in print, and that we didn’t have an agenda. We did so by printing the following extract on [my old] website, which he’d sent forward for me to read aloud during my festival introductions:
Politics is the Art of Controlling Your Environment, by Hunter S. Thompson.
That is one of the key things I learned in these years, and I learned it the hard way. Anybody who thinks that “it doesn’t matter who’s President” has never been Drafted and sent off to fight and die in a vicious, stupid War on the other side of the World — or been beaten and gassed by Police for trespassing on public property — or been hounded by the IRS for purely political reasons — or locked up in the Cook County Jail with a broken nose and no phone access and twelve perverts wanting to stomp your ass in the shower. That is when it matters who is President or Governor or Police Chief. That is when you will wish you had voted.
HST, October 4th 2003.
Our show of faith was acceptable, so the next morning we were in transit up the mountain; myself, Paul Zimmerman (a fellow entertainment journalist, working at Femme Fatales magazine), my buddy Sean (a chocolate salesman who had no idea who Thompson was, but knows a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when he sees one), and two female employees of the film festival (Lindsay Mangat and Jenny Chikes), which Ewing explained was ‘to even out the testosterone level’ once we got there.
Translated: Hunter deals with pretty girls better than he does journalists.
Hey, who doesn’t? It certainly made the drive up more enjoyable, and by the end of the weekend, we were all good friends.
We arrived at Owl Farm at sunset, which was not a good thing to be doing. Wayne had called ahead to alert HST of our impending arrival, fearing a potential bullet-time situation, so it was expected that Thompson would be prepared for us. Alas, the house was empty.
“This isn’t good,” Wayne uttered, before telling us to stay close to the car while he went inside to ‘check out the situation.’ We felt like the Scooby Doo gang huddling around the Mystery Machine, waiting for the dreaded ghost of the haunted house to show up and chase us away.
Before long, Wayne was back. No sign of Hunter or his wife, though the door was open. So he walked us inside and sat us down in Thompson’s living room.
What struck me first was not the human skeleton hanging in the front door, nor the line of about fifty bowie knives on the coffee table, all gifts from previous visitors. It wasn’t even the cage of peacocks outside, or the “Do not call 9/11 – ever – this means you, Bub” sign stuck to the fridge. No, it was that this was a really small house for a guy who, by rights, should have earned a spot in a palace.
Thompson liked to work on an IBM Selectric typewriter, situated on the kitchen counter, with the back of his chair to the stove. How Anita, his wife, ever kept him fed in this position is beyond me, but it was clear from the page sitting in the Selectric, the handgun by its side, and the massive whiteboard with random thoughts written across it that took up an entire wall, that this was Thompson Central.
“He’s bought maybe half a dozen computers over the years,” said Wayne, “but they were always on their way back to Dell within a day or so. He just doesn’t like the things.”
Everyone was really quiet, because we were all thinking the same thing – “I’m about to lose an eardrum.”
I can’t tell you what it feels like to be in that situation, especially with Thompson nowhere to be seen, the TV running, and all that weaponry just lying around, because I honestly don’t know how it felt myself – and I was there. All I can tell you is that pages of his writings jumped out at me from all corners of the room. Pieces of information I’d learned about the man, little trivialities, were everywhere. The cloth sunhat he liked to wear (which Johnny Depp lived in during the film production of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) was sitting on one side of the whiteboard, seemingly unaware of its deserved place at the Smithsonian. Items on the wall reminded me of stories long ago read, while bits and pieces around the kitchen probed my head for their origin ‘ the first fifty pages from Great Shark Hunt, or a letter to a housewife reprinted in Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist.
I was in Hunter S. Thompson’s living room, but where the fuck was Hunter? And would he be armed when he showed up?
Ewing took us out back to see the peacocks, and we were all glad to do so, even if only to get a little further removed from potential trouble, when I heard a loud “Who the hell are you?!” come from behind us.
I turned to see one of our pack had straggled. Sean was reading the White Board when Thompson had lurched out from a side room, fresh out of bed (at 6pm), and more than a little wired.
Sean stammered some words, none of which would ever truly form a sentence, no matter what order you put them in, and Ewing sailed across the room like a character from The Copacabana to make the rescue.
Introduced as journalists who liked the movie, Thompson’s ire wasn’t sated. ‘What do you want, what’s the deal, what’s the score?’ he said, leaving everyone in the room wondering, ‘Yeah. Actually, what DO we want?’
I jumped to my mental feet and said something along the lines of, “Well Doc, I know you’re a political guy, and I know there’s an election coming up and you’re not real happy with the guys in charge. So I figured you would likely have something planned, or something you wanted to say, or something you wanted to do, so I’m here to get the word out. If you want me to. If I can.”
He thought this through and it seemed to sate his paranoia, which was, understandably, immense. If unknown journalists show up in your living room, you’re going to freak out, even if you’re not partial to quasi-legal chemicals. Before he could answer me, I went to my bag (slowly) and said, “We also know that you’re a southern gentleman, and the tradition is that when you enter a southern gentleman’s home, you bring gifts. So that’s what we have for you.”
An employee of the festival had warned us ahead of time that we should bring a gift, and had even gone to the effort of finding the perfect one for us: I handed Thompson a large red and white flag – “The Swiss flag to symbolize our neutrality,” I explained.
He smiled. This was a good thing. I could hear Sean start breathing again. He tied it around his neck like a Superman cape and we were all good.
A handful of other baubles followed – a nice new Zippo lighter, which refused to work and was soon tossed against a wall, as well as other assorted bits and pieces, but the flag was key.
Thompson had been set up by reporters before, who had always agreed they wouldn’t do a piece about his drug habits, and always opened with exactly that topic once they’d been allowed in the door. I could talk for hours about the substances I saw, the things he took, the things I took with him – joints flying about the room, talk of acid and swimming pools, 2 litre bottles of Chivas Regal… but fuck you, that’s not the story I’m telling here.
Any schlub can take drugs, and any empty-headed douchebag can get loaded, but you have to understand that the true greats of creativity over the last three hundred years didn’t just take drugs – they USED drugs. They used them to open their minds, filter through dozens of ideas fighting for the best cranial position, and find a creativity level that isn’t usually available to people using only the standard mental 10%.
Yes, Thompson indulged his vices – many of them – but I’ll say this; the longer the night wore on, the more he did to his body, the more his brain grew. Hunter S. Thompson was one of the smartest, wisest, most astute thinkers I’ve ever had the pleasure of feeling inferior to, to an extent that shocks me even today, and he got more brilliant the more he tweaked his brain with the tools in his spice carousel.
The man was *brilliant*. Fuck Einstein, fuck Freud, fuck Lincoln; if they ever ask you which historical figure you’d invite over for dinner, you say “Hunter S. Thompson,” and you make sure there’s plenty of Chivas when he gets there.
We talked politics for at least an hour, even at one point calling Howard Dean so that Hunter could find out ‘how he works’ and whether he was worthy of Doctor Gonzo’s blessing.
We talked about the Democratic nominees, one of whom Thompson memorably called a ‘yellow dog dixiecrat.’
He read from an article he was doing for Playboy’s 50th anniversary, in which he compared the Democrats to the House of David, the all-white basketball team that the Harlem Globetrotters used to bring along on their tours with the sole task of making the Globetrotters look good while they got their asses handed to them.
It was the kind of comparison that only those thinking on a different level could make. As he read his words, he typed out more, making changes out loud and asking for suggestions as he did so.
“What’s another word for ‘imaginary’,” he’d ask, as all in the room would scour through our mental dictionaries for a solution. ‘Hypothetical?’ I answered, prompting a ‘YES!’, followed by fevered keystrokes on the Selectric.
Oh my God, I thought, I just contributed a word to a Hunter S. Thompson Playboy piece.
It felt like I’d said to Hemingway, “You know what would be a great title for this story? How about The Old Man and The Sea?” But it felt more than that, because Thompson, who I honestly have no place comparing myself to professionally, was treating me as an equal. If just for a moment. A confidante. A contemporary.
No, I don’t think he would have edited a screenplay for me, or asked me for a book liner quote, but he wasn’t kicking me out, wasn’t threatening me with a shotgun, wasn’t saying, ‘Hypothetical? What the hell is wrong with you?’ He was having fun, listening to ideas, feeding off the energy in the room, writing great stuff, running it by us, and even asking us to read it out loud so he could get a sense of the rhythm of the piece.
Of course, it wasn’t all roses and handjobs. He lost his temper a few times. More than a few in fact, because he had a lot of house rules. No sudden moves (that one earned Paul a ferocious yell of ‘you make one more god damned move and you’re out, bubba!’), no ‘you don’t understand what I’m saying’ talk (that one got Sean the dreaded warning), and no reading aloud with anything resembling an accent (that one got me kicked out of the reading hot seat, quick smart.)
Film festival employee Lindsay lasted longest in the hot seat, reading Thompson’s words back to him with a shaky panic in her voice, which he seemed to really enjoy. She kept apologizing, missing words, and shivering so hard she couldn’t read the page, but Lindsay is ridiculously cute, very blonde, and totally sweet, which made her a better reader in Thompson’s eyes than James Earl Jones could ever have been. In fact, he offered her a job at the end of the evening, which I’m sure would have entailed nothing more than reading for him.
Okay, maybe a little target practice once in a while as well, but that’s it.
We talked conspiracy theories, world affairs, we talked about George W. Bush, who apparently showed up with one of Thompson’s cocaine dealers in a Houston hotel room in 1973, and promptly proceeded to go through most of what Thompson had bought before passing out in the bathroom. Thompson was alleged to have locked up the room with Bush still asleep inside, before leaving with the dealer, the hotel bill unpaid.
No, I couldn’t tell you if it really happened, but that’s kind of the point of gonzo journalism… it’s not about the proof, it’s about the allegation bringing an undeniable truth to the fore.
We talked about Thompson’s past, but only for a while, and out of three hours of the greatest time in my life, I only have twelve measly seconds of it on tape. Thompson, being a sneaky bastard, had ‘rearranged’ my tape recorder and clicked it off in the process. When I went to change tapes, he said ‘why are you recording this anyway?’ and pushed the recorder aside. I was upset at this when I got home, wanting to play the tape for anyone who would care so I could prove where I was, but, in hindsight, I get it. See, what we shared wasn’t an interview. It was an evening. And an evening isn’t for the front page, nor is it for the history books. It’s just eight people sitting around talking shit.
Hunter S. Thompson talked shit with me. And that fact alone got me laid at least five times in the eighteen months since. The gift that keeps on giving, you might say, from a man who had given me more than most any other, even before we’d met.
The drugs? You don’t wanna know. You don’t need to know. But I will say that I’d always told my friends, as a teenager, whenever they offered me weed, that I was “okay with beer.” I’d said at least a dozen times, “If I ever do touch the stuff, it’ll be with Hunter S. Thompson. Not you fuckers.”
And wouldn’t you just know it… it was.
Thompson’s habits were often used against him by those with a grudge or an agenda. He was permanently paranoid that he would be raided by the feds and thrown into the joint, where he’d be ‘stomped in the shower’ for his views on the world (even though the local Sheriff was a regular Monday Night Football visitor). Any outside noise caused him to jump. Any change in room atmosphere caused panic. But the mind – the mind never stopped working.
When we’d talk of politics, Paul and I, being excited just to be there, would occasionally go off on wild tangents, but Thompson would reel us in. “Forget all that, we’re talking about XYZ,” Thompson would say, bringing us back to the central point and laying some serious wisdom on our asses that would cause Paul to pour another triple Chivas and me to catch another flying joint in the forehead.
We talked about how we might some day set up a third political party, and who could possibly run for President under that third party banner. A lot of names were brought up – Johnny Depp, who remained a solid friend of the Doc since the day they met, and Sean Penn, who was another recent but solid acquaintance, and would no doubt draw from his celebrity appeal if he could ever be convinced to run.
‘How about your son, Juan?’ said Paul, prompting the greatest reaction from Hunter all night long. “YES! YES!” he yelled, “He’d be perfect! He’s smart as all heck, he looks the part, he’d be great!”
“Does Oscar Acosta have any kids?” I asked, causing Thompson a moment of reflection. Acosta was the ‘Samoan attorney’ made famous in Fear and Loathing, but in actuality a Mexican ‘Brown Power’ activist from LA who went missing some years ago and is assumed dead as a result of a deal gone wrong. And yes, he did indeed have a child.
“Well, there it is, Thompson and Acosta, back together again, Presidential nominee and his trusty VP.”
HST loved this idea, but no sooner had he revelled in the possibility than the realities kicked in.
“Juan could never win with me in the picture,” he said, pointing out the ease with which the right wing could bring up old misadventures and taint his boy with the father’s well-worn brush. “It’s a great idea, I wish we could do it. But I don’t know if he’d go for it. He’s probably too smart to do anything like that.”
And then it was over. Hunter was ready to go swimming, then have some breakfast, and we didn’t want to overstay our welcome. Besides, it was 9pm and we had a long drive ahead of us. We’d got what we came for – an insight into one of the greatest literary minds of our time, who will be remembered, over time, for all the right reasons.
He did lay a task on me before I left the Farm, one that I readily accepted then and am proud to repeat today, because regardless of whether Hunter is alive or not, he had one overriding passion that drove him in his last years: that passion was the fate of one Lisl Auman.
Lisl Auman was a Denver woman who was in an awful domestic situation. She wanted out of her relationship, and a friend suggested she knew someone who could help her drive to her boyfriend’s apartment and get her things, while he wasn’t there. She took up the offer and met the individual, who subsequently brought two friends along, including one Matthaeus Jaehnig, who she had never met before.
Jaehnig was driving a stolen car, had guns with him, and was a wanted man.
When the flashing blue lights showed up in the rear vision mirror and Jaehnig pulled out an assault rifle, Lisl was petrified. When the car was pulled over and Jaehnig ran, Auman stayed where she was, surrendering to police, being handcuffed and placed in the back of a police cruiser, then driven a short distance away from the scene for her own safety, where she told police all she knew – that Jaehnig had a rifle and was wearing a black jacket.
Jaehnig did not surrender. He shot and killed a police officer as Lisl sat in the back of the Police Cruiser, before he was fatally shot himself. A few weeks later, Lisl was charged with felony murder.
Sentenced to life in prison for aiding, abetting, advising, and encouraging Jaehnig in his crime, even though she was cuffed and in custody at the time of his crime, Lisl Auman sits in prison to this very day. Why? God knows. But she wrote a letter to Thompson once telling him how his books had helped her pass the time, and they began a correspondence. He was outraged when he learned about her case. We should all be.
NOTE: Auman took a plea deal when her original case was thrown out due to bad jury instructions. Rather than be re-tried, she copped a plea to spend six months in a halfway house and 20 years in a community corrections program. HST’s influence was no small part of why she’s out of prison – his final act of civil disorder bringing order to incivility.
On the flight back to Vancouver from Denver, I sat and thought about what had just gone down. It took some time to all sink in, and I think Sean said maybe three words the whole way back. It was as if we’d been to the fountain of youth, and were sure nobody would believe us when we showed them the map. We just sat and considered how lucky we’d been.
Though, I did a little more than that. I started writing notes for a political and literary festival, to be known as GonzoFest, that would be held every four years just before election time, somewhere in Nevada, with the intention of gathering the freaks, the independents, the great unwashed – anyone who felt the big two didn’t voice their concerns in the seats of power.
We would gather them together, inspire them, unite them, teach them the game of political machinations, and then we would crown our nominee. The Democrats would come to us on bended knee and beg us to bestow out votes upon them, and we would make them work for it. And if they didn’t, we’d choose someone else, or name our own candidate. We would make change. It would be Carter all over again. We’d ride the tide to glory.
I sent the proposal off to Thompson and he sent it back, passages he liked underlined, ideas he thought were worth pursuing ticked, with the words at the end, ‘Chris, this is big. Very actionable. Let’s do it. HST‘
His wife, Anita, followed that up with a phone call, telling me Hunter loved my passion and that he was serious about making this thing work. For a while, GonzoFest consumed my every waking hour.
In the end, we never did ‘do it’. The details just couldn’t be worked out in time to affect the election, and that was really the point of it all. The goal might not have been attainable, but the proposal, marked up as if the world’s most intense English teacher had been going at it with a red marker, now sits framed on my wall, where it reminds me every day that I can do more.
I can always do more.
I don’t know why Hunter pointed a shotgun at his own head and pulled the trigger. I suspect we’ll never know, but I do know that when Ernest Hemingway committed suicide back on July 2, 1961, it took a terrible toll on the young Thompson.
Maybe his body wasn’t handling the daily routine so much anymore at an age 67. Maybe he couldn’t take another four years of the Neocons in the White House. Maybe he was just having a bad day. Maybe he just had nothing left to say, but I suspect the truth is a little more romantic.
In 1964, he wrote of Ernest Hemingway in the National Observer, “Perhaps he found what he came here for, but the odds are huge that he didn’t. He was an old, sick, and very troubled man, and the illusion of peace and contentment was not enough for him–not even when his friends came up from Cuba and played bullfight with him in the Tram. So finally, and for what he must have thought the best of reasons, he ended it with a shotgun.”
I don’t know if that tells you what went down. But I do know that a great man died this day. A foul, cocky, son of a bitch who gave me the greatest two gifts a writer can ever give someone who reads his words’ his time and inspiration.
He once wrote, “Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality. Weird heroes and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of ”the rat race” is not yet final.”
He also wrote, in Hells Angels, “The Edge… there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others — the living — are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later. But the edge is still Out there. Or maybe it’s In.”
I’ll miss you, HST. And I swear to you I’ll always remember the last words you ever spoke to me – “I did my part. Now it’s your turn.”
The Hunter S. Thompson Foundation
P.O. Box 220
Woody Creek, CO 81656
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