‘It never got weird enough for me’

A decade after he killed himself, what should we make of Hunter S. Thompson’s legacy?


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.
- from Hells’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga

IN 1964, when he was around 27 and still a struggling and unknown freelance journalist trying to scratch a living wherever he could, Hunter S. Thompson made a pilgrimage to the final resting place of one of his literary heroes, Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway had ended his life in 1961 with a shotgun in Ketchum, Idaho, a little village deep in a rugged and isolated part of America’s endless midwest.

Intrigued by why arguably America’s most acclaimed writer of the first half of the 20th century chose such a non-descript place to spend his final days, Thompson interviewed locals and visited Hemingway’s stomping grounds for a piece that was published in the National Observer in May of that year.

Even at that young age, it is as if Thompson foretold his own death in that of Hemingway, a man who he admired not only for his writing — echoes of which can be found in Thompson’s own work — but for the way he lived as an adventurer, a libertarian and a rabble-rouser.

But by the time of his death, Hemingway was a diminished and ageing national treasure, whose best writing was some years behind him.

As Thompson wrote for National Observer:

“He was an old, sick, and very troubled man, and the illusion of peace and contentment was not enough for him … So, finally, and for what he must have thought the best of reasons, he ended it with a shotgun.”

Four decades after he wrote those words, on 20 February 2005, Thompson ended his own life with a gun at his own secluded property near the small town of Woody Creek, Colorado, and it is tempting to imagine he was thinking of Hemingway when he wrote his own, less eloquent death note:

No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt.

Like Hemingway, by the time Thompson had reached the age of 67, his body was betraying him, he was plagued by depression, his best writing was many years in the past, and his literary significance had become overshadowed by a caricature of his own making.

For someone who lived his life like a series of walking explosions — and had a gun fetish — it seemed totally apt that he should end it with a bang. It was anathema for him to just fade away.

But, for all his outward sense of chaos and craziness, Thompson was also someone who liked order, and his suicide — and the funeral that followed it — had all the hallmarks of careful planning, as if he had always been building up to that moment to end it all.

So in a sense, his suicide was no surprise. Yet, it was still unsettling to think that a man who had once stomped the earth with no fears should in the end give up on life.

His life was commemorated at a private funeral six months after his suicide, on 20 August 2005 by having his ashes fired into the sky with fireworks by a 47-metre cannon topped by the double-thumb Gonzo fist symbol.

Thousands of acolytes venture to Woody Creek each year to pay their respects, although there is no permanent shrine to Hunter S. Thompson. Most get no further than the gates of Owl Farm, stopping for a quick selfie by the signs warning that trespassers will be prosecuted.

Even in death, the minders of Hunter’s legacy are careful to preserve his privacy.

“Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits — a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.”
- from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: a Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream

TEN years after his death, how should we judge Hunter S. Thompson?

One of America’s greatest writers of the 20th century, a towering counter-cultural icon who single-handedly invented a new style of immersive and spontaneous first person non-fiction called Gonzo journalism?

Or a walking mockery of the selfish decadence of the drug generation, firing guns into the air and causing hell everywhere he went, whose caricature has eclipsed any serious work he ever produced?

Does his work stand the test of time, or is it a nostalgic throwback to the most tumultuous era of the second half of the last century?

A decade later, these debates are as fierce as they were in his lifetime, when Thompson himself struggled to avoid the shadow cast by his crazed Raoul Duke alter-ego (or Trudeau’s cartoon version).

But any proper assessment has to start and end with his writing.

There can be no argument that when Thompson took his own life, his career as a writer had been in decline for years.

The world knew it and he knew it.

But is it fair to judge an artist on their later output, or should it be on the work they produced in their prime? Should the measure of achievement be over a long lifetime, or the shortlived peaks of creative genius?

Or, to take an example from another field of the arts, does the travesty of the Rolling Stones’ recorded output of the last 20 years in any way diminish the cultural significance of the albums they made between 1968 and 1972?

Hunter S. Thompson had peaked in the early-1970s, setting a new benchmark for incendiary political satire which combined graphic hallucinatory prose with a revolutionary political outlook and smart, incisive analysis.

His chronicling of the rise and fall of the late-60s counter-cultural revolution and the death of the American Dream through Vietnam, Watergate, Kent State and dozens of other events, was required reading for anyone who wanted to understand that era.

Of all the “new journalists” who emerged from the 1960s, it was Thompson whose star shone brightest. A purple patch began with Hell’s Angels in 1966, and continued through his landmark ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’ to his classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and his coverage of the 1972 presidential election campaign for Rolling Stone until the departure of Richard Nixon after Watergate.

But it is easy to forget that he spent close to a decade prior to the release of Hell’s Angels honing his craft as a lowly freelancer, living in near-poverty as he explored the endless road like a latter-day Sal Paradise.

Hunter S. Thompson at work at Owl Farm.

After his 1972 campaign trail reports, Thompson became the first rock star journalist. But from the late-70s onwards, his output was less prolific, his rare appearances in Rolling Stone often incomprehensible but never failing to boost that edition’s circulation by many thousands of copies.

His books still sold by the truckload each year and he was still held in high esteem for the work he produced in his heyday, but he spent more of his time holed up in the kitchen/writing room of Owl Farm, receiving visitors like some kind of twisted monarch-in-exile, occasionally making the news for some new outrage or childish prank.

Many blamed the drugs and the booze for his decline.

“Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave … So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
- from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

THE only other ‘new journalist’ of the ‘60s who held a candle to Thompson was Tom Wolfe, but unlike Thompson, Wolfe had made a successful transition as a novelist in the 1980s.

While he could still produce the occasional moment of brilliance — Exhibit One: his obituary in Rolling Stone for Richard Nixon in 1994 — Thompson was frustrated at his own failure to produce the great American novel. For years he laboured on a book called Polo is My Life, but it has never seen the light of day.

It is telling that his 1964 article about Hemingway referred to the struggles of writers like Norman Mailer to create the Great American Novel — something Thompson aspired towards. But he always blamed journalism — which he frequently cursed and despised — for getting in the way because of the necessity to pay the bills.

What stands out most of all about Hunter S. Thompson the writer is his originality, not just the subjects he explored but how he wrote about them.

Many writers struggle their whole life to find a voice, but to Thompson it came naturally: over-the-top hyperbole, obscene profanity and invective, long poetic tangents off subject that miraculously found their way back home, satire and self-mockery, sharp analysis, and always, a wistful longing for a better America.

In fact, trying to describe Thompson’s writing can never do it justice; it defies description. The best advice is just read him.

Thompson was a perfectionist who spent years learning his craft and studying the great writers he admired — even transcribing The Great Gatsby word-by-word on his typewriter to absorb the rhythms — but he was also a natural.

Read his collected letters, and on every page there are pieces of casual brilliance as good as any of his published works. And these were just letters to friends or acquaintances or total strangers.

Thompson’s greatest early passage of writing is ‘The Edge’ epilogue at the end of Hell’s Angels, when he literally takes you aboard as a passenger on a hallucinatory late night motorcycle ride around San Francisco.

Thompson was a political junkie, and the high-stakes politics of the the late-60s and early-70s brought out the best of his writing, allowing him to combine his radical worldview with penetrating satire, corrosive personal abuse and surreal flights of fantasy, never more so than when writing about his love/hate relationship with his “football buddy”, Richard M. Nixon.

Thompson on the Campaign Trail in ‘72. Photo by Annie Leibovitz for Rolling Stone.

He also wrote with incredible frankness and honesty, sparing nothing to tell the truth and point out that the emperor was wearing no clothes.

This was most clearly the method behind his ‘nothing is off the record’ approach to his amphetamine-fuelled reporting of the ’72 Presidential election, but it was a common vein through everything he wrote.

He was never more honest than when writing about himself and his generation — their foibles and failures and weaknesses. He believed in being as true and honest about yourself — even to the cost of your dignity — as you were about others. Anything else would be hypocrisy.

That honesty is strongest in his most poignant and elegant — and most quoted — piece: ‘The Wave’, the couple of pages which provide the centrepiece of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a book which is both a side-splittingly surreal exploration by two hippie drug casualties into the glitzy heart of modern day America under Richard Nixon, and a eulogy for the fucked-up dreams and doomed failure of the sixties counter-culture to turn the nation in a different direction.

‘The Wave’ chapter captures both the exhilaration and ultimately the burnt out disappointment of the entire counter-cultural experiment in just a couple of pages which alternate from hilarious to ecstatic to nostalgic within sentences.

For him, San Francisco in the mid-60s was Utopia. Because at his core — behind the angry and violent facade — Thompson was a romantic. Even more so, he was a patriot. He loved America, not for what it was, but for the promise of what it could be. And much of the anger and violence in his writing stemmed from how the American Dream he himself believed in had been so corrupted by those who held power: economic power, military power, cultural power and, most of all, political power. At its zenith was Richard M. Nixon.

Being so deeply immersed in the sixties counter-culture — he was at Ground Zero in San Francisco in the mid-60s and was part of the same circle that included Ken Kesey and Grace Slick, and found himself again and again at the centre of seminal events like the Democrats convention at Chicago in ’68 — Hunter was perfectly placed to be the chronicler of the age.

But he wasn’t just a distant observer; he was an active participant.

His doomed bid to become Sheriff of Aspen, on a progressive platform that today looks quite mainstream, showed that Hunter was willing to put his balls on the line to fight for the kind of world he imagined in his writing.

The preservation of modern day Aspen from the land rapers alongside its liberal and tolerant spirit and lifestyle is in part due to his visionary campaigning then.

But if the 60s and early-70s were his times, a period when young people stood up and questioned the direction their society had been taken and had a go at creating a new one, then the ‘80s and onwards he found himself increasingly out of step with the contemporary mood and there were many lost years as he went AWOL.

In some ways, both his persona and his writing remained trapped in a time warp, and he never really adapted even when the times again cried out for a bit of the old Gonzo magic.

His last great piece was his 1994 obituary for Nixon, an article he had been waiting 20 years to write. His reaction to 9–11 is memorable, but not even the War on Terror was able to truly rouse him from his latter day slumber.

Vegas, 1971.
“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”

OF COURSE, you cannot write about Hunter S. Thompson without mentioning drugs.

Great though his writing was, what really made Hunter stand out among his fellow new journalists — and why he will always be compulsory reading after his contemporaries are long forgotten — was his outrageous, self-destructive and misanthropic personality.

By all accounts, the real Hunter was shy, humble and polite in a Southern gentleman way.

But publicly, he wrote openly about his prodigious drug use in a way no-one had before, like Charles Bukowski and William Burroughs cranked up to 11.

Again, he was a product of his times, emerging as a writer in San Francisco at the same time as the city’s psychedelic music leapt to the national stage, and the influence of that lifestyle and attitude imbues everything he wrote.

Clearly, at an early stage, Thompson had also decided he needed to stand out from a crowd, and merged his heavy-drinking lifestyle into his highly-personalised writing style.

It’s the reason why people still buy Hunter S. Thompson books almost 50 years after they were written, but have forgotten John Sack or Michael Herr.

It was integral to Gonzo journalism that Thompson had to thrust himself into the story, and to generate drama, it helped if he was loaded.

But what began with a bit of dope, speed and acid for recreational and creative purposes in the ‘60s had spiralled into a full-time reliance on heavy drugs, particularly cocaine, by the late-70s.

Thompson is said to have had an incredible tolerance for heavy drugs and drinking, but here can be no doubt that later in life, his excessive appetite for uppers, downers, benders and screamers took its toll. Even if he took half the drugs he claimed to, it was enough to cause some serious damage.

The decline in his writing from the late-70s must have been mainly due to the impact of his drug taking and drinking, which would begin with a line of coke for breakfast.

Raoul Duke had begun as a literary device — a hyper-exaggerated version of the author himself — but rapidly overtook Hunter S. Thompson to become his public persona: the drug-addled, fire-breathing wild man journalist in a Hawaiian shirt, bottle of whiskey in one hand and a Magnum .45 in the other, always on the verge of nervous collapse or a bout of incredible violence.

But Duke was to become a loathed albatross around Thompson’s neck that continues to this day to undermine his critical standing as one of the greats of American literature.

After all, who could take seriously a man who was portrayed in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury strip as an immoral and rat-cunning shyster who was invariably under the influence of some extremely dangerous mind-bending drugs?

Thompson frequently cursed how the Raoul/Uncle Duke caricature had come to overshadow his work, how in his public appearances he would find himself forced by jeering audiences to play the part and could never be taken seriously.

“The silly little fart [Trudeau], made his career out of skimming my material,” Thompson told one of his may biographers, E. Jean Caroll.

“People think it’s a joke — like I get paid for it or something. You know, me and Garry must be big buddies. Well, fuck that. I’ve never seen the little bastard.

“All this stuff avoids coming to the point that matters, which is what I turn out. Funny, I almost never get questioned about writing.”

Doonesbury strip from 8 March, 2005 pays tribute to the death of HST.

Hunter S. Thompson was a walking mass of contradictions: a man who emerged from the peace and love culture of mid-60s San Francisco and never stopped espousing the values of that time and place; yet someone who also believed strongly in the Second Amendment — the right to bear and arms — and enjoyed using and talking about guns as a recreational outlet for the savagely violent side of his personality.

As time wore on, the line became increasingly blurred between the real Hunter S. Thompson and Duke. Thompson felt trapped by his adoring public’s expectations that he play the part.

Sadly, for most people the caricature is all they know of Hunter S. Thompson, especially since Johnny Depp’s portrayal of him in the film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

It angers me that such a complex character who stands out as one of the truly significant American writers of the twentieth century should be reduced to such a simplistic caricature. But if it angers me, it must have really infuriated him.

Still, he really only had himself to blame.

The iconic Ralph Steadman caricature of Thompson from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

MY friend Murray has just returned from his own pilgrimage to Aspen, where he made it as far as the front gates of Owl Farm and shared a drink with Thompson’s good friend, Sheriff Bob Braudis.

It was his second visit there, and the first time, about a dozen years ago, Hunter was still alive, and Murray was determined to track him down.

He met a barman who purported to be Hunter’s godson, and who promised he could arrange a late night meeting at Murray’s hotel.

Murray spent the night in his room, nervously waiting for the sound of Thompson’s footsteps lumbering down the hallway and a knock on his door. But, of course, he never came.

Waiting for Hunter . . . can there be any more fearful feeling than the expectation that any moment Hunter Thompson could burst into your room? What kind of mood would he be in? Would he get violent? Would you be able to understand what he was saying?

Would he be drunk or on drugs? What if he offered you drugs — or worse, what if he expected you to have drugs and your supplies weren’t up to scratch? What if you were unable to keep pace? Would you survive?

And most fearful of all: what if he found you … inadequate?

Because, let’s face it, most of us live modest and monotonous lives of timidity and boredom and small failures every day. If we are lucky, there may be an element of creativity or danger or adventure in what we do, but for most of us, the most daring thing we will do is drink a cup of black coffee after three in the afternoon. But rarely do we venture outside of our comfort zones.

That’s why we have heroes.

And that’s also why Hunter S. Thompson was so important: through his books and his adventures, we could vicariously enjoy a life we often fantasised about but would never have the chutzpah to embark on ourselves. Even though we may profess to carry a torch for the Gonzo lifestyle, it takes a certain and very rare type to actually live it.

And that’s the other thing about Hunter … he had some ineffable quality … was it courage?

It must have been courage — the courage of your convictions to set your own rules and forge your own path outside of the codes and niceties of conventional society which brainwashes you from day one to conform, follow the rules, don’t step out line, get an education, get a good job, consume, breed, obey and 70 years later, die with nothing to show for it.

It takes courage to dance to the beat of a different drum, and so does writing so personally and fucking honestly, literally shedding blood and sweat — maybe even a few tears — onto every page, and putting sanity on the line in pursuit of your art.

“I’ve always considered writing the most hateful kind of work. I suspect it’s a bit like fucking, which is only fun for amateurs. Old whores don’t do much giggling”.
- from The Great Shark Hunt

HUNTER Thompson may have eerily predicted his own death in his 1964 article about Hemingway, but I also think he may have written his own obituary in a November 1967 tribute to his friend, the writer and journalist Lionel Olay, published in the long-forgotten Distant Drummer magazine and reprinted in the Great Shark Hunt as ‘The Ultimate Free Lancer’.

Like much of Thompson’s writing, it contains some absolute zingers that stand on their own, but really needs to be read in one sitting to capture the mood and spirit of its true meaning.

He writes of “… the ethic that Lionel had always lived but never talked about … the dead end loneliness of a man who makes his own rules” and of a man who “died without making much of a dent. I don’t even know where he’s buried, but what the hell? The important thing is where he lived.”

And a few paragraphs later, he sums it all up like this:

“Lionel was one of the original anarchist-head-beatnik-freelancers of the 1950s … a bruised fore-runner of Leary’s would-be ‘drop-out generation’ of the 1960s. The head generation … a loud, cannibalistic gig where the best are fucked for the worst of reasons, and the worst make a pile by feeding off the best. Promoters, hustlers, narks, con men — all selling the new scene to Time magazine and the Elks Club. The handlers get rich while the animals either get busted or screwed to the floor with bad contracts”.

Although he achieved a level of infamy and fortune that was well beyond Lionel Olay, that sense of an outsider at war with the machine was kind of how Thompson saw his place in the world as well.

But if that was all Hunter S. Thompson saw of himself, he was selling himself short.

“Maybe there is no Heaven. Or maybe this is all pure gibberish — a product of the demented imagination of a lazy drunken hillbilly with a heart full of hate who has found a way to live out where the real winds blow — to sleep late, have fun, get wild, drink whisky, and drive fast on empty streets with nothing in mind except falling in love and not getting arrested . . . Res ipsa loquitur. Let the good times roll.”
― from Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ‘80s

OVER the past week, journalists around the world have been remembering the singular talent and generous spirit of David Carr, the New York Times media reporter and columnist who dropped dead in the middle of the newsroom floor, aged 58. Carr was the journalists’ journalist, the gruff wise old man at the centre of the enthralling documentary Page One and a tireless champion for both journalism’s traditions and its future. He was the journalist we all aspired to be.

And what a way to go … death in the newsroom!

Like Hunter Thompson, David Carr had also grappled with addiction for much of his adult life, both the booze and drugs. But he had successfully rehabilitated himself and was in his prime when he suffered his untimely death from lung cancer.

Hunter S. Thompson was nine years older than David Carr when he died, and he’d be 77 if he was still alive today. Far too far gone for rehabilitation, but it’s still a nice game to play to speculate what he’d be doing today.

He lived long enough to turn his anger towards the perpetrators of the 9–11 atrocity and to accurately predict the futility of the War on Terror and the winding back of civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism.

But could he have imagined a world where governments routinely lie and snoop on our every email, text message and tweet; where al-Qaeda has been replaced by ISIS and even cartoonists in a low-circulation French satirical magazine are no longer safe?

Where the near-death experience of the Global Financial Crisis has only resulted in a widening of economic inequality in the developed world; and where the race divide in the United States seems as broad as ever.

And where our rapacious greed to consume is rapidly driving the planet we live on towards extinction.

This is a rotten era, and one which demands a response from its artists, journalists and political activists just as strong and radical as the sixties.

In people like Naomi Klein, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Nick Davies and Glenn Greenwald we know there are journalists and activists still prepared to take risks, challenge conventions and bring dark and unpleasant secrets to light.

But they broke the mould when they made Hunter S. Thompson, a man for whom the word iconoclast might as well have been coined.

So, for now, at least we have his books and the hundreds of thousands of words he wrote in his lifetime.

That is the legacy of a literary and journalistic giant, who stomped this earth like Godzilla and whose star shone brighter than any other.

To paraphrase the great man himself, it doesn’t really matter how his time on this earth ended, the important thing is how he lived.