The Morning Coke: I was Hunter S. Thompson’s assistant for two weeks
When the local cops of Aspen searched the house of Hunter S. Thompson in the end of February, 1990, the world of journalism went nuts. “HST” was charged with dynamite and drug possession, and suspected of sexual assault after a night fueled with drinks and drugs had deteriorated.
The editors of Rolling Stone saw an injustice: “HST”, the legendary father of gonzo journalism, their living legend who had been writing for the magazine for almost two decades, was the victim of some stubbornness by the police.
As Hunter S. Thompson was awaiting his trial, the magazine’s editors felt they had to send his most ardent defender to tell the truth.
Mike Sager, who had been covering drugs for Rolling Stone since the mid-80s and was in his early thirties at the time, flew to Aspen, Colorado, to spend two weeks with Hunter S. Thompson. In “The Trial of Hunter S. Thompson,” Sager celebrates the exuberant, sweet and affected man living by his motto, “Let the good times roll.”
For Ulyces, he remembers these two weeks — “or three? I don’t remember, the days were melting into each other.”
HST was arrested in late February, 1990. What did he represent for journalism at that time?
Hunter does come from the age when writers could be celebrities. The writers and journalists were the movie stars and TV producers of this era. And Hunter was their golden hero.
He had his own take on that, which descended from the tradition of the beat writers, and even before: going back to William Burroughs, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Paul Bowles, this chain of writers who were concerned with decadence.
So, Hunter Thompson comes out of that tradition, but also from the newspaper tradition, like Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese… They all started as newspaper writers. Then, they got into this golden age of magazine writing.
But Hunter was doing something different. Hunter would use his press card as a sort of ticket to live in another dimension, to make his life into a carnival. He lived in this giant glass ball that was full of smoke, and he could see out a little bit, but not that much. So as he went through life, he sort of interpreted what he saw to his own dramatic ends.
At the same time, he was able to emphatize a lot. He would want to feel what somebody feels. He soaked it all in and changed himself, and acted in it.
I think that this is how he became this character that was “louder, faster, funnier.”
How would you describe his style, beyond “gonzo journalism”?
What Hunter Thompson was doing was taking the tenants of literary journalism — taking the facts and applying literary principles to them, such as scenes, settings, characters, dialogues, descriptions — one step further. He made it into a first person drama.
To me, he was like a meat grinder: he takes all the shit in, churns it through himself, and the product he spewed out was like honorized.
At some point, Hunter S. Thompson became what he was pretending to be in a literary way. He created this mythical persona that he was unable to abandon, mostly because of how grandiose his reporting and literary style were.
Let’s come back to his trial, in 1990, and the piece you were assigned to write about him for Rolling Stone. What was it like?
When Hunter got arrested in late February of 1990 and was charged with five felonies and three misdemeanors, everybody got grandiose. The owner of the magazine, Jann Wenner, sent him a fax, “We’re sending you Mike Sager, he’s one of our best!”
What he was charged with was kind of ridiculous. Besides that, he was at his downswing, hard to deal with.…
I remember that the ski season was over in Aspen, so I probably went there in March. All I needed was an interview with him, and Rolling Stone gave me two weeks.
They were paying so much for this little, beautiful first-class hotel in Aspen. I had a rental car and of course, they flew me out. They didn’t mind spending money, that’s the least we can say.
But let’s add two things, very frankly: first, I was a biased reporter from the home office who was being sent out partially because the editor was helping Hunter, and partially because we had an inside track inside Hunter’s house. And Rolling Stone loved to fuck the police, you know? It was a few years after Ice Cube made this “Fuck tha police” song.
So I was a member of the press, but I was reporting on something that was going on with my colleague, who happened to be famous. If it were today, I would have been doing a podcast in the bathroom of his place! And sending back home videos… I would be reporting from inside the Owl Farm [Hunter S. Thompson’s house].
Second, reporting on Hunter was like visiting the Ghost of Christmas future for the young literary, ethological journalist, drug reporter that I was at Rolling Stone.
I wanted him to be himself, and I wanted me to be myself while reporting and spending time with him. Hunter made his living by being biased. He would think that his “WTF” attitude would lead to some sort of truth.
And what you get out of Hunter, as a journalist, is that energy. It was great for me. It was an assignment of very light pressure, and an amazing opportunity to go and hang out with this guy. I genuinely admired Hunter and his writing, and because of the trial and the things he was going through, I saw that I could be of help.
So, what a fucking great thing!
What was a typical day like?
Whatever he was doing, I was helping him while reporting: helping him do research, getting ready… Everything was jangled, with electricity in the air, a sense of movement, and discomfort, and excitement.
The days would melt into one another.
I remember that when I get to his place, all of his peacocks would be perched high in the trees around Hunter’s house. They have this really eerie bark. The sky was grey and cloudy…
I get in, the day begins, he’s waking up, he hands me a quarter ounce of coke.
This was in the old days, when coke was rocky, and crystalline. He had a blender that was kind of like a grinder you use today for marijuana. It would turn the rocks into powder, suitable for snorting. I would dump the entire quarter ounce into the grinder, and grind it all up until a snow drift would form on a mirror below. Then Hunter would take one of those old Bic Pens, a long plastic tube, and he’d remove the ink cartridge. It make a perfect straw. He’d bend over the snowdrift and do a huge snort…. And the day would begin.
So everyday would start with the morning coke?
Drugs were almost like a ritual. I was like, “yes, master?” and he would act like, “Here is the drug, do it for me.” Everything was louder, faster, funnier, totally grandiose, in a drama.
The day would go in 36 hours. I’d leave his place at 3 am and would get there the next day at noon.
The days would usual last about 36 hours — coking and smoking and drinking and rolling joints the whole time. Oh, and getting work done. Typing, faxing, making crazy phone calls. Every night ended differently. One night he’d shoot his gun up into the ceiling of his living room to make everyone clear out. The next night he’d calmly ask if I could leave early because a woman was coming to visit. “Sometimes you just need a hug,” he told me, showing me his soft insides. From that moment on, I loved him.
At that time, he was writing a column for the San Francisco Examiner. Because he had no assistant — she had quit after the arrest, fearful of being involved — I volunteered to become his new, temporary assistant. By day I would make copies and find files and fetch more beer or tequila, or roll joints or call out for pizza…. By night, when it was time for me to leave, he’d give me a pile of notes and half written ideas and a gram of coke and send me back to my room to reassemble/retype/edit his columns. The next day, we’d submit by fax to his editors. I think we got three done over the time I was there. I can’t remember for the life of me what they were about.
But coming back to my piece, we never exactly sat down and had a formal interview. He would get up, make breakfast, start eating something and start answering faxes, and people would start coming up, and more food would be served… He would take the salmon croquettes out of the freezer, start a couple of other things, would be done with one thing and would start another one, and then he’d need a knife but the knife was dull so he would start sharpening it, and then he’d cut himself and we’d have to stop the blood, and then he’d want to start a fire in his huge fireplace and something else would happen… onetime I was starting the fire and gashed my bald head on a huge rusty nail. It bled like hell. But I felt like I was part of the jangled drama.
The days would melt into one another.
Also, he would drink to knock coke down. We would have beers and then he would decide to make margaritas, and the game would be on, then he’d be sending faxes again… I remember, one night he was sending this huge fax to his mother. He’s using these different colors, like pens, but it’s black and white, and his mother is like, “stop sending me faxes, you’re using all my paper.” He was so naughty and crazy, and people would stop by, we were just partying all day long.
We’d have adventures, we’d go shoot something in the yard. He liked guns, so we’d go out and take target practice. There were cars in the back and we’d shoot at them. He would also decide that some books had to be shot up, for whatever reason.
Some days, we’d go down to the Woody Creek tavern for lunch. It was cold but he insisted on driving his convertible. He’d order everything on the menu, and we would have a million drinks and people would join us.
Did he have a lot of friends in Aspen?
When I was there, it was more one of those shows, where people come to the bar to say hi. He was definitely the exuberant guy. He would enter the room and brought a whole world in with him. He didn’t travel alone, so by lunch time, some friends would stop by, people would call people and people would come… He was just a party on the roll. Everywhere he went, he was Bacchus, the God of partying.
How do you remember this time with him, more than 25 years later?
The time I spent with Hunter was totally surreal. I was swept into this grandiose thing. It’s life+ when you’re with him.
Good journalism has that louder, faster, funnier quality. And Hunter made sure he added this to it. He was paid to be the party boy, to be louder, faster funnier, drunker, fucked up. Everybody wanted to be like him. That’s why he has a cultish following, which remains strong after his death.
He was smart, he was fun to be around, but he was also so sweet. He would allow himself to go beyond where most responsible people go. And he got paid for it. His life became his work and his work was his. Everything was a story.
This is why, during that period, I allowed myself to experience that same sort of life. You get sleep-deprived on a 36-hour schedule, you’re kind of jet-lagged, everything is melting between spring and winter, cemented, frozen in time. The peacocks are screaming, the sky is grey, Hunter is rolling around the room, doing all his things, and you’re just trying to get over. While doing drugs.
Without losing myself, but losing the self that is normally me everyday.
But I feel empathetic with the way Hunter S. Thompson must have felt. Because everything was sort of a blur. He perceived everything in the fog of his own mad genius.
So, one thing I learned from Hunter S. Thompson is that I don’t work on hard drugs. I’m definitely not Hunter S. Thompson! I’m not going to stand on the edge of the cliff, I want to live. I’d rather crawl up to the ledge, look over, see what’s going on. I don’t have a death wish. Just a quest for knowledge.
How was Rolling Stone at that time?
We are in 1990. Hunter is 52, I am 34. I had my first story for them in 1984 and I started to work there under contract around 87.
The offices were in New York, 745 5th Avenue, on one corner of Central Park. All the walls had the legendary rock and roll photos by famous photographers like Annie Liebovitz; I always remember seeing the famous shot of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, with John naked…
The first time I went there, around 1983, the editor was David Rosenthal. On his window was a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and some sort of a bird, a parrot I think? That was my first contact with Rolling Stone.
Downstairs were the printing and all the trade associated with producing the magazine. There were also rumors that there were connections to get various substances at various different times. I was never really allowed to go there, because I was just a contributor and not an in-house person.
I was always attracted to the stories about drugs and the ghetto, and stuff that is fun to write about. I had studied Hunter Thompson as a writer. I was particularly influenced by his non fiction book Hells Angels.
How were the editors dealing with him?
He and I had the same editor at Rolling Stone, Bob Love.
As I said, they didn’t mind spending money on editorial or on travel at that time… But when Hunter went travelling, his expenses were exorbitant. He was a travelling roadshow.
And the editing process for Hunter was a very long thing. I used to stay with Bob Love in his apartment on Upper West Side and we’d be staying up late at night, drinking, partying, while he’d be editing Hunter S. Thompson… Hunter liked to communicate by faxes, and he would fax you and you’d fax him back…
Bob would then have to cut and paste… Hunter didn’t really like to write his stories from top to bottom. So between him, Bob Love and Hunter’s assistant, there was a lot of back and forth.
This goes back to the fact that Hunter wasn’t really capable of living by himself. He was sweet and fucked up and he was a drug-addict… And all the time I was there, I did a lot of coke too.
How bad was he with cocaine?
Hunter Thompson was a drug addict, but don’t get me wrong, he was a man with an amazing heart, a very sweet person.
I remember that a couple of years after my story in Rolling Stone, Esquire hired Hunter to do some stories. They wanted to resurrect his brand.
He would say that he didn’t care whether he’d live or die.
Once, they put Hunter in a hotel in New York for a story, and I happen to be there for a story I am working on for Rolling Stone, “The Pope of Pot.” That guy had the first delivery service, with bicycle messengers, double plans…
And one day I get this call at 4 in the morning, it’s this editor at Esquire, he’s got an emergency: Hunter Thompson has lost his ball of hash. And they need marijuana.
I’d call the Pope of Pot and within an hour, there’s a bicycle messenger at Hunter’s hotel.
In your piece, you describe him as being in a good shape, doing pretty well.
Yeah, he seemed to be in a pretty good shape. He was 52 when I was there and didn’t seem ill. His nose was fine. People would usually snort a lot or blow their nose a lot. Not him.
You told me earlier, “I’m definitely not Hunter S. Thompson! I’m not going to stand on the edge of the cliff, I want to live.” Would you say Thompson wasn’t willing to live longer?
Who knows? I can’t say. Hunter would say that he didn’t care whether he’d live or die. He got tired of living with certain things that he tried to cover up, maybe? Plus, the brain damage…
Right before he died, there was a party for Hunter in New Orleans, where his literary editor lives. He was down there, and the bar for Hunter’s party had stairs.
Hunter S. Thompson was in a wheelchair and he couldn’t go to his fucking own party.
After he came back home, he killed himself. The way he killed himself, too… with this kids and grandkids in the house. That shows a lack of insight, having himself found splat by his kid… It’s deeply, sympathetically, narcissistic.
Hunter had surrendered to his inner child, he was living in a dream world where everything he did was in this movie that he was part of. It made for great copy, and in the end, it ate him up.
What would make Hunter S. Thompson unique today if he were still a journalist?
Hunter’s willingness to go balls out and participate was unique. He made his living by being biased, by having an opinion.
He was like Jon Stewart in TV today. It’s the news, but it’s not exactly the news. It’s like, the schmews. It’s infotainment.
How do you compare today’s infotainment with the infotainment of that time?
You know what, the word ‘infotainment’ became a bad brand. It means shitty TV. What Hunter Thompson did was infotainment too… It’s got a bad brand, that’s all.
It was very tricky to judge Hunter’s story because sometimes you couldn’t say whether it was true or made up. And a lot of his stories were about Hunter going to places.
Today’s journalism isn’t as fanciful as Hunter’s, but it’s as narcissistic as Hunter’s. So much is done through the lens of the writer. It’s the culture of blogging, where all the stories start with an ‘I.”
So where would you see him today? At VICE or some place like that?
No, when the guys at VICE hear a gunshot, they flinch though. That’s the difference. Hunter S. Thompson would never flinch. Hunter S. Thompson would stupidly get out of the trenches and walk across the battlefield.
Many thanks to Mike Sager for his time and his kindness.
A version of this interview has been published in French at Ulyces.co, a web magazine of epic journalism.