Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Birthday: “For every moment of triumph, for every instance of beauty, many souls must be trampled.”


Dr. Hunter Stockton Thompson (1937-2005)
Journalist, author, activist

Today would have been Hunter Thompson’s 80th birthday, had the bastard not offed himself. Matt Taibbi carries the National Affairs beat for Rolling Stone now, but with only occasional flashes of the original: it’s heat lightning in the distance, vaguely menacing, but never actually showing up to cut the power, strip the shingles, and crash trees into bedrooms.

On his worst days, which were more often than not, Thompson’s articles had the acrid smell of a hotel hangover, but a strange energy surged in the room, always coiled, ready to unleash some comment- some whip-smart metaphor- that had been trapped down in his amygdala, liberated only by the exact mix of alcohol and drugs that held the key to the cell in which that thought languished.

We can only mourn the dispatches we could have have had from Thompson today, installed in a suite at the Trump International DC, trashing the rooms daily and claiming the damages as a tax deduction.

Hunter Thompson had seven really good years in journalism, from 1967 to 1974. A stringer for a variety of papers and magazines after he managed, improbably, an honorable discharge from the Air Force (which he got into to straighten up after a fraught high school career cut short after he shot all the boats in a marina below the waterline; he had a thing for boats, about which more anon).

His time in the service suggested he had learned everything and nothing: “In summary, this airman, although talented, will not be guided by policy. Sometimes his rebel and superior attitude seems to rub off on other airmen and staff members.”

He spent a year riding with the Hells Angels; he got tight with them- both ways. When they found out he was writing a book, like the sailors in John Collier’s “Bottle Party”- who bought a bottle that didn’t hold a genie, just a schlub called Franklin Fletcher, “their disappointment knew no bounds, and they used him with the utmost barbarity.”

They demanded a cut of the royalties, too. They also beat him within an inch of his life, after he told a wife-beater, “Only a punk beats his wife.”

The Hells Angels book- they don’ need no f***ing apostrophes, man- put Thompson on the map as the inventor of gonzo journalism, a reporter who put himself, often disastrously, at the center of the action he was covering.

The Writer’s Almanac described Thompson’s next big break as purely accidental:

In 1970, he found himself back in Kentucky to write an article about the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s Monthly magazine, but he was too high to focus on writing. He later said; “I’d blown my mind, couldn’t work. So finally I just started jerking pages out of my notebook and numbering them and sending them to the printer. I was sure it was the last article I was ever going to do for anybody.” The resulting article, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” was a huge success, even though it never mentioned the race or the winner. Thompson’s use of the first person, and his manic reportage, a blend of fact and fantasy, inspired an editor at the Boston Globe to write: “This is it, this is pure. Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling.” Thompson loved the term “Gonzo” to describe his style of reporting and in his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he wrote: “Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now. Pure Gonzo journalism.”

He followed it with 1971’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, and then 1972’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, a counterculture counterpoint to Theodore H. White’s “The Making of the President” series.

By then Thompson was The National Affairs Desk at Rolling Stone, serializing his books and raising hell with both deadlines and publisher Jann Wenner’s blood pressure. He’d also become such a celebrity it was harder to get inside his subjects’ circles the way true gonzo required, and had an expense account so epic it was possible to stay high as a satellite pretty much 24/7. His work suffered; in 1974 he not only missed his deadline for Ali’s Africa fight but the fight itself.

He ran for sheriff of Pitkin County Colorado, in 1970, on the Freak Power ticket.  A frantic Aspen establishment cut a deal: the Republican candidate for sheriff withdrew; so did a Democrat running for county commissioner. Votes were stacked, honor was satisfied, the anti-freak vote coalesced. Thompson lost with 44% of the vote.

Thompson spent the next quarter century as a character, freelancing for publications that found places for his increasingly dated view of the world. Garry Trudeau satirized for years as Uncle Duke in Doonesbury; Thompson said if he ever met Trudeau, he’d set him on fire.


Early on, during his breakthrough years at a short lived magazine called Scanlan’s, he was sent, with artist-collaborator Ralph Steadman, to cover the America’s Cup Race in Newport. He published a hilarious account that was less about the race and more about what he considered the hubris of the Australian team, and how he and Steadman stole a rubber dinghy to row out and paint “F*** the Pope” just above the waterline.

The shaking ball in the paint can gave them away; a chaotic escape followed; and it was days before Thompson found Steadman, barefoot, cursing under his breath, pacing in the lobby of a New York hotel. Now 81, Steadman has enjoyed a distinguished, if still occasionally subversive career as an author and illustrate (“He also designed the labels for Flying Dog beer and Cardinal "Spiced" Zin' wine, which was banned in Ohio for Steadman's "disturbing" interpretation of a Catholic cardinal on its label,” Wikipedia reports). After Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner talked Steadman into selling his Fear and Loathing illustrations for $75, he swore never to sell any more, and says to this day that anyone claiming to own an original Steadman stole it.

Thompson ended his career as a sports columnist for ESPN. Frustrated by chronic health problems and who knows what the hell else, Thompson committed suicide in 2005. He was 67.

His funeral was staged by his friend, the actor Johnny Depp; the mourners of this ultimate anti establishment character included a raft of celebrities; two past presidential nominees, and two correspondents from Sixty Minutes. His ashes were packed into a cannon atop a tower designed by Steadman (when HST was shown designs showing one thumb on a peyote bud at the tower’s peak, he demanded two thumbs, “Right now!”), and blown into a very, very low earth orbit. Depp, who appeared in the 1998 Fear and Loathing movie as Thompson, spent $3 million on the tower, scaled down to 43 feet- from 150- but with a two-thumbed fist as per specs).

“When the going gets weird,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “the weird turn pro.” Another time, he said, “I hate to advocate for drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone … but they’ve always worked for me.”

Thompson’s other great loathing in life was Richard Nixon, and when the disgraced ex-president died in 1994, Thompson published a savagely cathartic obituary that began,

"And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird."
---Revelation 18:2

Richard Nixon is gone now, and I am poorer for it. He was the real thing -- a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. He lied to his friends and betrayed the trust of his family. Not even Gerald Ford, the unhappy ex-president who pardoned Nixon and kept him out of prison, was immune to the evil fallout. Ford, who believes strongly in Heaven and Hell, has told more than one of his celebrity golf partners that "I know I will go to hell, because I pardoned Richard Nixon."

I have had my own bloody relationship with Nixon for many years, but I am not worried about it landing me in hell with him. I have already been there with that bastard, and I am a better person for it. Nixon had the unique ability to make his enemies seem honorable, and we developed a keen sense of fraternity. Some of my best friends have hated Nixon all their lives. My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together.

Nixon laughed when I told him this. "Don't worry," he said, "I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you."

It was Richard Nixon who got me into politics, and now that he's gone, I feel lonely. He was a giant in his way. As long as Nixon was politically alive -- and he was, all the way to the end -- we could always be sure of finding the enemy on the Low Road. There was no need to look anywhere else for the evil bastard. He had the fighting instincts of a badger trapped by hounds. The badger will roll over on its back and emit a smell of death, which confuses the dogs and lures them in for the traditional ripping and tearing action. But it is usually the badger who does the ripping and tearing. It is a beast that fights best on its back: rolling under the throat of the enemy and seizing it by the head with all four claws.

That was Nixon's style -- and if you forgot, he would kill you as a lesson to the others. Badgers don't fight fair, bubba. That's why God made dachshunds.

In a birthday coincidence, Public Policy Polling issued survey results today showing,
Trump does win on one question in our poll- asked whether they think he or Richard Nixon is more corrupt, Trump wins out 42/35. 

Related sites:

Rolling Stone, The Hunter S. Thompson Archive
HST obituary of Richard Nixon, “He was a crook,” The Atlantic, July, 1994
Matthew Hahn, “Writing on the Wall: An Interview With Hunter S. Thompson,” The Atlantic, August 26, 1997
“The Art of Journalism, No. 1”, Paris Review, No. 156, Fall, 2000

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