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Nothing is Sacred: Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo Journalist

by Jonah Raskin

I. Hunter

Call him Hunter. His buddies at High Times, Rolling Stone and Esquire did during his heyday as the king of gonzo writers. In Washington, D.C. at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), Keith Stroup explained to me the other day that he called him Hunter or just plain “Doc.” They met in 1972 at the Democratic National Convention in Miami, and they were buddies until Hunter’s death in 2005. Stroup – who founded NORML, was its executive director for decades and is now the organization’s legal counsel - visited him often at his home in Aspen, Colorado. He saw the king of gonzo up close. “Doc had a joint burning all the time,” Stroup told me. “He was a big supporter of NORML, he was in favor of the legalization of marijuana, and he spoke at a great many NORML conferences. Doc was easily the most entertaining and interesting friend I ever had. I’d go to bed at 2 AM and he’d start to write.”

Hunter S. Thompson was the byline he attached to almost everything he wrote, from his fledgling articles in the 1960s to the reports he churned out at the start of the 21st century. Of course, he originally published Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas under the penname Raoul Duke. Duke is also the protagonist in and the narrator of the book. Garry Trudeau based his Doonesbury character “Uncle Duke” on Thompson, and helped to make him internationally famous. With his shaved head, sunglasses, and cigarette holder, Hunter was a ready-made caricature of himself. These days he is even more of an icon, and more widely read than ever before because Johnny Depp played him in the 1998 movie version of Fear and Loathing.

Depp also plays the gonzo king again in a movie based on Hunter’s 1998 autobiographical novel The Rum Diaries, which he struggled over for years. Rice University Professor Douglas Brinkley will soon publish The Mutineer, the third volume of Hunter’s confessional letters. Warren Hinckle, who was the king of gonzo editors at Ramparts and Scanlan’s, and who helped to make Hunter into a gonzo writer, is poised to launch a book entitled Who Killed Hunter Thompson that’s guaranteed to inflate the already inflated legend of one of America’s craziest newspapermen.

Who Killed Hunter Thompson is a gonzo title,” Hinckle said when I interviewed him at his apartment in San Francisco - the city where he first met and befriended Hunter. Hinckle also explained that Hunter needed Ralph Steadman, the British artist who did the drawings for Fear and Loathing, and for a slew of magazines articles Hunter wrote. “Steadman was the gonzo artist who made gonzo journalism possible,” he said. “Hunter couldn’t have created gonzo without Ralph.”

II. Gonzo

Doug Brinkley and Warren Hinckle are at the thick of the debate about gonzo inside and outside academia. “Gonzo is all about exaggeration,” Brinkley said when I interviewed him on the phone. “Hunter grew up with frontier tales about larger than life figures such as Mike Fink, Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed, and those tales inspired him.” When I asked Brinkley about gonzo’s forefathers he mentioned Terry Southern, author of The Magic Christian (1959), Norman Mailer’s essay “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” (1960) and Paul Krassner’s scandalous piece in The Realist about President Johnson and the dead body of John F. Kennedy.

Warren Hinckle still resents the fact that Hunter moved from Scanlan’s to Rolling Stone, and that Jann Wenner inherited him. “The lucky prick,” he said. According to Hinckle, gonzo requires “the extreme personal involvement of the writer in the story itself.” Hunter over-wrote, he said. His stories had to be cut severely, and they had fights about what to cut and not to cut. Battling editors became Hunter’s way of being in the world.

For A. Craig Copetas, a former High Times editor and now a writer with the Bloomberg Report - as well as the author of Bear Hunting with the Polit Bureau - the essential gonzo aspect is to create a persona. “Gonzo means that the writer become a character in his own story,” he said. He added, “The lesson to writers today from Hunter is you have to make your reader your sidekick so that he or she is with you all the way, participating in the story.”

Hunter, Uncle Duke, Thompson, Dr. Gonzo, or Doc - no matter what names his friends and enemies called him – he was always over-the-top. He was also probably the weirdest and freakiest reporter ever to hit newsrooms from New York to Puerto Rico and California. “I’m a word freak,” he said; indeed he loved words more than he loved anything or anybody, including himself; he had a swollen ego, and needed it to go head to head with President Richard Nixon, whom he loathed, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and the newspaper publishers he detested. Sometimes he got the story – the 1972 Presidential campaign for example - and scooped the pack of reporters, and sometimes the story – the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 - slipped away and irked him no end.

He also made the news as when he ran for sheriff in Aspen, Colorado as the candidate of the freaks and pot smokers, and the foe of the rich, and when he killed himself at 5:42 PM on February, 20, 2005 by putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger. His son, Juan, found him on the floor, dead. A suicide note read, in part, “67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted.” He couldn’t have written a more dramatic last act if he had tried. Depp paid for his extravagant funeral; Senator John Kerry and Presidential candidate George McGovern attended, as did Sean Penn, Benicio Del Torro, and Jack Nicholson.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - the strange, hybrid book that mixed fiction with factual reporting – gave birth to gonzo journalism at the precise moment when American journalists aimed to redeem themselves after decades of lies and lying about the Vietnam War, corruption in Washington, D.C. and injustice in the halls of justice. Published 34 years before his death, in 1971, and when he was at the peak of his powers, Fear and Loathing turned journalism upside down and inside out, rejecting false notions of objective reporting, and putting the writer at the heart of the narrative. Hunter Thompson, AKA Raoul Duke, was stoned and tripping, hallucinating and outrageous. "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” the book famously begins.

All the details that reporters were taught to cut from stories – like the soap, and the towels in the hotel – Hunter put into the foreground, while the big headline news – about Vietnam he pushed to the background. The effect was to show the aimlessness and mindlessness that had taken hold of America, and to wake readers to the shocking reality that the America dream had turned into a nightmare. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas freed a host of writers, almost all of them men who didn’t give a fuck about authority and authorities, and who carved out their own gonzo territory. Hunter made “fear and loathing” into an industry; after the Las Vegas book, he wrote “Fear and Loathing in Saigon,” “Fear and Loathing in the Bunker,” “Fear and Loathing in the Doldrums,” “Fear and Loathing in Sacramento,” and “Fear and Loathing in Washington.” He knew how to milk a theme and he beat it to death. When “fear and loathing” didn’t inspire him, “shame,” “degradation” and “doom” did.

Don’t let the 1971 date of publication for Fear and Loathing fool you. The book is about the end not the beginning of an era. It’s pure 1960s: a culminating literary masterpiece that reflects the weird decade-long journey that plunged Thompson and a generation into the subterranean world of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and homegrown cultural revolution. Hunter was there, all the way through the 1960s as observer and participant, a sociologist, a hipster, beat, hippie, and biker who raced his chopper in the middle of the night. He was also an old fashioned Liberal with a capital L. Hell, Hunter belonged to the American Civil Liberties Union and wrote for The Nation.

He dedicated Fear and Loathing to Bob Geiger, the Glen Ellen, California doctor who provided him with encouragement and drugs while he was writing his first book, Hell’s Angels in which he won the confidence of the motorcycle gang, and then depicted its members as incipient American fascists. Like many a Liberal he tended to see fascism everywhere on the horizon and in the White House, too. Hunter also dedicated Fear and Loathing to Bob Dylan “for Mister Tambourine Man,” which was his all-time favorite 1960s song: “the hippie national anthem,” he called it, and the perfect accompaniment for a trip on LSD, the drug that freed him from much of his own past as a mom-and-apple-pie, white Southern boy.

III. Lawyers, Guns, Money

Hunter would blast Dylan’s music while he sat and wrote at his typewriter trying to put down on paper the crazy images that exploded inside his own drug-addled head. He identified with Dylan as a fellow artist, anarchist, outlaw, visionary and voyager who reinvented himself again and again. Almost all of the phrases he used to describe Dylan could be aptly applied to Hunter himself: “folk-whimsy,” “weird humor,” ”eloquent despair” and “personal anarchism.” Dylan was as close to a living hero as any Hunter had, and despite the fact that he was cynical about heroes. (Muhammad Ali was another hero.) Of course, deep down he wanted heroes, much as he wanted good to win over evil, though he often pretended that he didn’t care, that he was detached. In fact, he might have cared too much. Like Ernest Hemingway, another of his tough-guy heroes who committed suicide, he could be sentimental and soft on the inside.

Mr. Tambourine Man hit Hunter hard, but the song that comes to mind most often when biographers write about Hunter is “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” by Warren Zevon who was a friend on the same psychic wavelength, and another excitable boy. “Send lawyers, guns and money,” Zevon sang; those words were Hunter’s near constant refrain. Like almost all outlaws, he needed lawyers – a long string of them - and he called on lawyers repeatedly to rescue him from the legal troubles he deliberately sought. He couldn’t help but be sued for libel. Even when he wasn’t sued there were hostilities. Oscar Acosta, the Chicano lawyer, accompanied him on his doomed quest for the American Dream, and appears in Fear and Loathing as his sidekick, though the author turned him into a Samoan, a change in ethnicity he did not appreciate.

Along with lawyers, Hunter needed heaps of money, because he couldn’t stop spending it on guns, drugs, cars, hotels, houses, booze, and women. He needed women as much as he needed drugs, and though he was married as a young man – to Sandra Dawn Conklin - he was rarely a faithful husband. William McKeen, a Professor of Journalism at the University of Gainesville in Florida, describes in his biography Outlaw Journalist, the women – Deborah Fuller and Laila Nabulsi - who were indispensable to him in the last decades of his life. They showed up in Aspen, helped him finish articles, stroked his ego, and vanished as quickly as they arrived. The macho man devolved into a kind of needy, overgrown adolescent, and his writing devolved into a series of clichés.

From the start, gonzo wasn’t simply a writing style. It was a way of living, and it took a toll on body and soul. I don’t envy him his fame and fortune, though for a time I was a Hunter wanna-be.

“There’s nothing worse than a Hunter imitator,” McKeen told me, though he also added that he once tied and that his students also try to go for the gonzo style. “Their attempts are always failures,” he said. “Only one guy could write like that.”

When I wrote for underground papers 30 years ago, I used a pseudonym, wrote about drugs and druggies while on drugs, and described my own drug experiences. But I was never really a gonzo journalist. Hunter made things up, and while I occasionally fudged and exaggerated, I never told outright fictions and even lies, as Hunter told. I didn’t use obscenities, didn’t hurl them about freely, and didn’t end sentences with three dots. Moreover, for all my political protest, I was never as fearless or as angry as Hunter year after year.

That anger is apparent in his 1970 article for Scanlan’s, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” that all of his buddies agree, marked the birth of gonzo. To write it, Hunter drew on the deep-seated anger that he’d known as a boy growing up in Louisville in a family that didn’t live in the hills, didn’t have horses and money, and didn’t belong to what he called the “whiskey gentry.” Surprisingly, the climactic moment in “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” doesn’t take place at the track or the winner’s circle, as one might imagine, but in a hotel bathroom. Hunter looks at the mirror and is shocked by the reflection of his own “horrible, horrible” face. Shelby Sadler - Hunter’s editor for 19 years - explained in a phone interview - that he had the ability to see himself clearly and that “in gonzo journalism, nothing is sacred, not even the writer himself.”

For a brief time in the 1960s, Hunter lived in Sonoma County, a short distance from my home. He moved to Sonoma because he couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco, and because Jack London had lived there, and Jack was another of his heroes. I searched for Sonoma County residents who knew Hunter then, and didn’t find a single person. But I did find something perhaps just as good, thanks to Anne Coffelt – a real child of the 1960s - who lives in Sonoma, and who is a Hunter fan. Yes, women do appreciate his work. Coffelt unearthed an article by Hunter entitled “Nights at the Rustic” that he wrote for Cavalier in the 1960s, and that prompted a libel law suit against him. Before he became famous he was already infamous.

“Nights at the Rustic” is about the phony rustic veneer of the Rustic, a local bar, and about the phoniness of places everywhere that pretend to be something they are not. From his earliest days as a writer, Hunter had a sharp eye for sham, hypocrisy and hoaxes, and yet, of course, he liked to create hoaxes and practice playful deceits, as when he called himself Dr. Thompson, and insisted that he was a real doctor.

I am sorry I never had the chance to have a drink with him at the Rustic, and ask him about gonzo. But perhaps he already said all he might have said on the subject. “Gonzo is just a word I picked up because I liked the sound of it,” he explained. He added, “I like to get right in the middle of whatever I’m writing about – as personally involved as possible.”


© 2012 Jonah Raskin