Hunter Stockton Thompson 1937-2005

Aquarian Weekly 3/2/05 REALITY CHECK


“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” – Hunter S. Thompson

Hunter S. ThompsonHunter Thompson is to me what Jesus Christ is to Born Again Christians. Period. Whether you go for that kind of thing or not, I think you get what I mean: Before him, darkness, afterwards, everything. Salvation. Enlightenment. Resurrection. If you think the comparison mad or inappropriate, perhaps try on John Lennon’s quote about Elvis Presley – “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”

Maybe those are not fitting enough analogies, but it’s the best I can come up with minutes after hearing of Thompson’s death, a suicide, like Hemingway, his hero – alone, at home, dead. Thompson once wrote about Hemingway’s fatal gun wound, brutally eloquent and without regret, like everything he would ever write. No compromise. No wavering.

“That power of conviction is a hard thing for a writer to sustain,” he wrote of Hemingway’s suicide in the spring of 1964 for the National Observer. “And especially so when he becomes conscious of it.”

My worship of Thompson’s work, and the man himself, dedicated to living the soul of his craft, wasn’t a gradual awakening for me. It was sudden, like a rubber mallet to the temple. No, it was more like a blow to the solar plexus. Remember when you were clocked so hard as a kid your lungs would cease to function for what seemed like an eternity? They used to call it “losing your wind.” Yeah, from the first line of the first piece I read by Hunter S. Thompson, I lost my wind.

Nothing was ever the same for me. Career, books, journalism; I owe a great deal of it to Hunter Thompson.

I have read better books by more accomplished authors, studied the work of finer satirists or social and political commentators, and followed the careers of more influential journalists. But not one of them, none had the concussive impact, the bone jarring, blood-rising, skin-tingling assault of the worst of Thompson’s work for me.

If you do not know of it, then you have missed out. Just know that authors inspire young writers, but scribes like Thompson, Twain or Mencken do not inspire, they abduct. Taken hostage, bound and gagged and beaten mercilessly from the first sentence. It is violent and disturbing, like all of life’s greatest gifts, not unlike an actual birth, with pain and screaming and blood everywhere.

Freedom. Danger. Humor. Anger. Honesty. Spite. Abuse. Fun.

Words as weapons; torrid, irrational, explicit, the literary equivalent of the frantic grappling of a drowning man. When nothing else can capture what kind of bizarre existence we endure, there are always the words. Strangling perception. Furious and unyielding. Funny as hell. Serious as a cardiac.

This kind of emotional sucker-punch will get you moving in the direction of your muse. Yes it will. You will write, motherfucker. You will not shy from the gory details, and you will not let the phony bastards have the last word. Not when the words can flow like a viscous, pounding flood; a storm of words lunging from the page. I didn’t read Hunter Thompson. I felt Hunter Thompson. I did not guess. I knew, intrinsically, like Saint Paul on the road to Damascus. Thrown to the ground from my steed. And when I got up, I could not help but write.

If you have the slightest tinge in your constitution to write, really write, without the net – to stand in the fire and take the ammo, tear out pieces of your id and juggle your ego, take strides on the wild and peer unblinking into the abyss, then you know about Hunter Thompson.

I knew about Twain and Mencken before Hunter Thompson. I knew about Kerouac and Kesey and Vonnegut. I stood in awe. I enjoyed. But when I read Thompson, I wrote.

If you have the slightest tinge in your constitution to write, really write, without the net – to stand in the fire and take the ammo, tear out pieces of your id and juggle your ego, take strides on the wild and peer unblinking into the abyss, then you know about Hunter Thompson. You know about the writer, because the real writer does not claim, he testifies, he does not loiter, he arrives, he does not parry, he plunges.

Praise the Lord.

Unfortunately or fortunately for Hunter Thompson, he plied his trade in the age of celebrated stupidity. By which I mean the age of non-readers, non-thinkers, voyeurs and reactors. I believe Thompson called it a Generation of Swine. Ironically, these are the same people who worshipped him as an icon of the drug culture, of the violence and despondence that comes from ignorance. They know him best for the beast and the clown that beats in the heart of the maverick. And he wore the cloak of outlaw well. He lived the art, as I mentioned above; the man as the craft. Not a fabricated, distilled version of the artist, and brethren to his poetic and musical partner in crime, Bob Dylan.

Another pretty fair satirist, Oscar Wilde once mused, “I use my talent for my work. I save my genius for my life.”

How do you explain Thompson’s finest work, his most historically revolutionary art, having been published in a rock n’ roll pop culture magazine? Long after Thompson had begun to invent things like “new journalism” and the word he coined that now appears in Webster’s and the modern encyclopedia, Gonzo, Rolling Stone magazine acted as the launching pad for one of the most prolific periods of journalistic fiction in modern times. Hunter Thompson as his generation’s acrobat.

That is where Thompson set his bazookas on politics. He survived Chicago in ’68, Saigon in the last days, hit the road with the McGovern ’72 campaign, ravaged Watergate and Nixon, and beyond. Way beyond; “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas” beyond. It was the book that cemented him as the 20th century Dante. “Pay the ticket, take the ride,” he wrote. Stare into the face of madness, bad craziness, regret and fury; that is what he came for, and now he goes back from wherever these brilliant creatures come from.

And I will miss him and pang at the thought that he will no longer write. Forget the booze and the drugs and the bombs and the sex and the rest. There will be no more missives from Hunter S. Thompson. I will miss his infrequent and badly handled visits to New York. I will miss my stolen chats with him, the contents and subjects of which I will take to the grave. I will miss the way he raised his eyebrows when he was thinking and that mischievous chuckle into his armpit whenever he was sure there would be trouble.

His friend and colleague, British artist, Ralph Steadman once wrote of Thompson, “He raged against the coming of the light, rather than the dying of the light.”

But I think the Good Doctor of Journalism said it best: “There is not much mental distance between a feeling of having been screwed and the ethic of total retaliation, or at least the kind of random revenge that comes with outraging the public decency.”


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