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Death by Gonzo

No one was more ambivalent about his own legend than Hunter Thompson.


Hunter Thompson, whom I knew off and on for 33 years and introduced to Rolling Stone, would have laughed that summer ’08 is turning out to be his season. There’s Bill McKeen’s new biography, Outlaw Journalist, which benignly covers his rise and fall in the sixties and seventies and then his slow crash, beginning in the eighties. There’s Jann Wenner’s Gonzo, an “oral biography” without narrative, which dumps a surprising amount of shmutz on his old star, despite its professions of brotherly love. And there’s Alex Gibney’s Gonzo, a documentary with narrative by Johnny Depp, which restricts itself to the nascent legend, before Thompson found, then lost himself.

When I first met him, there hadn’t yet been much “gonzo”—mad, self-referential spontaneity—about him. He’d had a best seller in 1966, Hell’s Angels—a group he’d followed around for a year in his old Volvo, just like a regular reporter. The book was controlled, even “sociological.” He’d been working for Dow Jones as a stringer in South America, was married, had a son, and, for financial reasons, needed a magazine base between books.

The gonzo stuff started partly out of frustration—at Warren Hinckle’s Scanlan’s magazine the year before he came to Rolling Stone. There was a piece called “The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy,” about the French ski champ being groomed as a TV pitchman. It had originally been done for Playboy but was rejected—Killy was so boring Thompson said he’d had to mock him “to get the story up on its legs.” The full flowering, though, came with “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent & Depraved,” in which Hunter ignored the race entirely to concentrate on those in the box seats, his old class enemies from Louisville, where he’d grown up. In an admittedly drunken and speed-driven screed, he excoriated them.

He didn’t think much of either piece. He hadn’t even wanted to turn the second one in: “It’s just gibberish,” he’d told the wicked, one-eyed Hinckle. “When gonzo first happened, Hunter’s reaction was terrible guilt,” Sandy Conklin, his first, long-suffering wife, says in Wenner’s Gonzo. “They didn’t get it. They said it was great, but Hunter knew it wasn’t.” But later, she told McKeen, he’d perceived that an “avenue” had opened up for him, that he’d found something people liked, and would pay for.

It was a thrilling but dangerous path. Thompson was an aspiring novelist, and looked on even the best New Journalism—Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote—as a kind of trick. As a kid in the Highlands Library, he’d check out The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises, then type out long passages, so that he could, he told me in 3 A.M. calls from Owl Farm, his home in Woody Creek, Colorado, “feel their rhythms,” the velocity of Fitzgerald’s and Hemingway’s intent. Hunter thought great writers were marked by their “feeling of their time,” as musicians were—unlike journalists, New or old, who clumped along in serviceable slogs. “Reductionists!” he’d sometimes yell. “Simplifiers!”

He needed money, though, and so when Scanlan’s collapsed, he approached me with the idea of doing a story about his run for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado, a notion inspired by Norman Mailer’s race for mayor of New York. He came in on a Saturday to see Jann, who was annoyed to break up his weekend to hear a pitch. The persona was almost formed. Hunter was wearing dirty combat pants, a woman’s cheap, gray Dynel wig perched sideways on his head, like Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He clenched an FDR cigarette holder in his teeth, sipped manically from a can of beer, had a six-pack in a brown paper bag clasped under one arm and some manuscripts under the other.

As always, (and as I remember it) he began in the middle of his story: “Crazybastard dope lawyer [Oscar Zeta Acosta, his Sancho Panza from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas], hadda get outta California, drying out in Aspen, looked at all the greedheads and fucksticks, real-estate scum, resort developers, movie stars, S&M swingers, weird, misbegotten animal perverts, talent agents—the worst!—accountants, politicians … saw they were ruining the town, wanted me to run for sheriff! The idea? We’d get all the freaks, hippies, bohos, beatniks, ganja smokers, flower kids, righteous trust-funders, bikers, character actors, dishwashers, you know? … We’d get the blacks that worked in the kitchens! We’d register the Indians, the goddamned rock-band musicians who hadda play shit music in the big hotel lounges and show up stoned just to be able to plug in … A lotta pissed-off people out there, Jann! AWOL GIs, don’t wanna go ta Vietnam! Young kids, don’t wanna end up like their mothers and fathers—bags for bellies, hairy tits, cancer, ringworm—you know, Rolling Stone readers!”

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