Death by Gonzo

Photo: Ernie Leyba/Polaris

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!”

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.

See Also
Q&A With Gonzo Director Alex Gibney on Thompson, Torture, and Sundance

Death by Gonzo