Crazy or not, Thompson taught us lessons
Hunter S. Thompson truly didn’t care. He really wasn’t afraid of his subjects, editors or audience, and all of them were willing to put up with his immaturity and addictions to read the brilliant end result.
One suspects he was afraid of normal life as most of us know it and certainly of getting old and losing the gift, which was becoming clearer with each new book. I also think that something we’ll never know about drove him early on to the drugs and gonzo lifestyle that at times overshadowed his literary brilliance and likely caused him to take his own life Monday night.
His writing was hilarious, provocative, fresh, crazed and so far out there you could not believe it was in a magazine. But it was so well written, so compelling, that you could not put your Rolling Stone down until you had read the entire piece, and often, that would take near an hour.
For years, he yanked on the taut string of America’s cultural revolution, embracing its best while exposing the flaws. Hunter told us, after riding with them for the best part of a year, that the Hells Angels really weren’t cultural icons, just filthy thugs after all, like mom and dad said.
In the end, Thompson told us, Timothy Leary was not the messiah, but simply a wayward old man who had fried his brain with LSD and really didn’t have much to show for it.
That made me realize early on that Hunter was a reporter of the first notch, amply blessed with writing skills and insight Americans hadn’t read since Mark Twain. He was vile, but like Lenny Bruce, he used the words to keep the tension thick, to drive the point home.
His voice was never louder than when he went back to his hometown of Louisville to do a piece on the Kentucky Derby in 1970. Reeling from mint juleps and the basic reporter’s deadline angst, he figured he’d just as well write it straight from his own hip, which is why he used words like “mad” and “depraved” to describe a beloved American institution.
He realized the story wasn’t the horse race, it was the bonnets, seersucker suits, bets on straining animals and black semi-slaves servile to the white throng – fear and loathing indeed – a day in the sunshine tainted with the sheer hypocrisy of the South.
Mainstream journalists were actually jealous of his dispatches from the 1972 George McGovern presidential campaign because he could tell a new and strange truth, which evolved into “Fear and Loathing on The Campaign Trail.”
It was there he began fading in and out between fiction and reality to something called the “new journalism.” At one point he had you believing candidate Ed Muskie was on a South American hallucinogen when he made a campaign-killing speech in New Hampshire, instead of just tired and emotionally spent because of editorial attacks on his ill wife.
The year before, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was serialized in Rolling Stone and established Thompson as the self-proclaimed Doctor Gonzo. American journalism students should be forced to read this as the consummate lead paragraph from those articles he compiled into the book of the same name:
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
When you read something like that, you are instantly sucked in to find out what’s next, and then next and then next until you’ve finished the book in one sitting. Because you don’t read Thompson’s material, you ride it.
An old writer friend was living in Aspen in 1970 and was buddies with Thompson during his near-win race for Pitkin County sheriff. I once asked him if Hunter was as crazy as his writings and publicity indicated.
“Worse,” he said, “much worse.”
Which made me realize 25 years ago that unless you are a major leaguer, you cannot hit the line drive like Musial, or catch it like Mays. So I do not look to myself for Twain or Thompson’s gift, because I will never hit a 95 mph fastball on or off the page.
I just pay homage.
Dave Moller is senior staff writer for The Union. He can be reached at email@example.com or 477-4237. Next Saturday, the editor’s column will resume.
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