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Death by Gonzo

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All of this had taken 45 minutes to unspool, and when Thompson broke to go for a whiz, Wenner turned to me, his eyes like pinwheels: “I know I’m supposed to be the spokesman for American Youth Culture and all, but what the hell was that?”

But Wenner eventually realized its value. Thompson soon published “Freak Power in the Rockies,” the first of a two-part series on Aquarian Age political awakening; then Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail… and history scooped him up and he ascended to—Elaine’s!

Gonzo was genius, but it was a kind of sellout, too. Rolling Stone and a number of publishers successfully packaged Hunter’s Dr. Gonzo image for a few decades. Douglas Brinkley became his literary executor. And while pulling no punches about Thompson’s ultimate place in writing—“You’re no Mark Twain but you’re a kind of Ambrose Bierce”—he began shepherding collections of his early prose and letters into what he called “The Gonzo Papers,” issued regularly, so that Thompson realized a hefty six-figure annual income from his work during the eighties and nineties, augmented by impressive fees from appearances before fascinated and stoned frat boys at colleges all over the country.

Thompson knew what had happened to him at Rolling Stone. He asked to have his name taken off the masthead, and Wenner fought it for as long as he could, finally settling for “Raoul Duke,” Hunter’s pseudonym, as “sports editor.” They’d quarreled about content and style, with Hunter saying privately that “Jann has reduced RS to a Gap catalogue.”

In one of our last 3 A.M. conversations, Thompson recited from memory the opening of Nelson Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm, and told me that “real narrative is done” in this country, that he and Ken Kesey had been among its last practitioners, but he was careful to cite only Hell’s Angels and his earlier work—which he had people read aloud to him: “To prove I’m still here.”

Gibney’s Gonzo makes the point that by the time of his greatest fame, Thompson was already washed up. Even Hunter knew it. Overtaken by his own scary-but-fun Gonzo image, he’d told one would-be director (of the Fear and Loathing movie) that “I’m superfluous, now, aren’t I? Actually in the way? Be better off if I were dead …

“Probably sell more tickets,” he admitted.


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