His demons were never far away.
When external devils were temporarily vanquished the personal would rise. Fear and loathing.
The Edge… There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others- the living-are those who pushed their luck as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later.
—Hells Angels, 1967
Some writers strive to become the ultimate observer, the fly on the wall, the goal is to become as transparent as possible so a true picture will emerge.
Hunter S. Thompson did not come from that school. His approach was total immersion in stories, riding with the Hells Angels and writing from a fully formed point of view.
So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here — not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.
—Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72
The point of view could change depending on the ingestion of drugs, alcohol or sleep deprivation.
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”
—Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
His writing was profane, prophetic, memorable, energetic, warped and as honest as he could craft it. Paired with illustrations by artist Ralph Steadman he offered a unique view of the presidential race between George McGovern and Richard Nixon.
Anything that gets the adrenalin moving like a 440 volt blast in a copper bathtub is good for the reflexes and keeps the veins free of cholesterol… but too many adrenaline rushes in any given time span has the same effect on the nervous system as too many electro-shock treatments are said to have on the brain: after a while you start burning out the circuits. When a jackrabbit gets addicted to road-running, its only a matter of time before he gets smashed — and when a journalist turns into a politics junkie he will sooner or later start raving and babbling in print about things that only a person who has Been There can possibly understand.
—Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72
For much of his life he found a way to make his demons work for him. Writing in a style he called Gonzo Journalism for national magazines like Rolling Stone. When I was a student he came to Chumash auditorium at Cal Poly. He gave a reading from a manuscript he was writing on Roxanne and Herbert (Peter) Pulitzer’s long and publicized divorce trial. Most of the evening was taken up in questions and answers from the audience.
The exchange I remember:
Q: What is the best cheap high?
A: Acid and gasoline. Drop a few tabs, rent a convertible and head to Big Sur.
After the audience had left a group of student journalists tried to ask questions for a class assignment but they clearly weren’t as entertaining as the audience questions and soon he was huddled in the wings of the stage with the Telegram-Tribune reporter wrapped in the curtain to keep external stimulation at bay.
He died February 20, 2005 of a self inflicted gunshot at the age of 67 and his ashes were fired from a 153 foot cannon. Thompson’s Gonzo spirit lives on in a recurring Doonesbury comic character, Duke.
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
—Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl, 1974 Rolling Stone article
This story was published January 17, 1983 in the then Telegram-Tribune
Poly goes ‘gonzo’ with Hunter S. Thompson
By S.E Seager
They filled a-900 seat auditorium to capacity Saturday night at Cal Poly, Some of them college kids, some of them parents, some of them stoned.
They came in the hopes of getting some laughs out of the crazy, self-styled “gonzo” journalist, Hunter S. Thompson.
They thought he’d act like Uncle Duke, the unscrupulous drug runner in Garry Trudeau’s comic strip, “Doonesbury.”
Or like Raoul Duke, the drug-crazed adventurer created by Thompson 10 years ago in his book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
They yelled “Duke!” and “acid!”
But if the man who finally walked onstage 45 minutes late looked like a Doonesbury character — wearing tinted glasses, white Converse tennis shoes, chain-smoking from a cigarette holder, drinking Scotch, mumbling, rambling and cursing politicians — he did not talk like him.
He talked instead like a 44-year-old man who has some dark and serious fears about “the American dream gone amuck.”
“The joke’s over with Duke,” said the author of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, Hells Angels and The Great Shark Hunt, a collection of articles previously published in magazines.
“I’m tired of playing that kind of game with people.”
Thompson talked instead about the story he is writing for Rolling Stone about the divorce trial of Palm Beach socialites and millionaire heirs, Roxanne and Peter Pulitzer.
“I hope I’m getting serious now with what I’m writing,” the Louisville native said.
Thompson made his reputation in the 1960s and ’70s writing for the National Observer, The New York Times and Rolling Stone about the Hell’s Angels, and the Super Bowl, the last Muhammed Ali-Leon Spinks fight and the 1972 presidential campaign.
He is the founder of “gonzo” journalism in which ‘the writer must be a participant” — and usually as outrageous and ornery as a participant as possible.
He made his mark on the Central Coast in 1978 when he came to speak at Cal Poly and was later cited for possession of marijuana and disturbing the peace at his Pismo Beach hotel. He pleaded no contest and paid a $130 fine.
But Thompson was not interested this time in telling tales of breaking the law while on acid.
Although he pleaded a few times for some humorous and “twisted” questions, his weighty Pulitzer story set the tone for the evening. He couldn’t shake his notion that the Pulitzer trial represented a more widespread ‘living doom” for “the finest flowers of the American dream.”
“There was no shame,” he said of the well publicized courtroom accusations of sex orgies. “It literally stripped the flesh off you to go in and listen to this stuff.”
After he finished reading the first chapter of his article, Thompson wanted to know what the audience thought of it.
One young man called it “pretty serious” and lamented that it was not “in the same vein” as Thompson’s earlier works. He wanted to know if “the era of outlaw journalism” was over for Thompson.
“Yeah, I think it’s over,” the writer replied. “I think it would be a little silly for me to continue what I was doing.”
Thompson aimed a lot of abuse at President Reagan, and warned students that the nation’s leader is a “senile, childish dingbat” who is intent on “selling the ranch.”
“That’s where you’re stuck —it’s your ranch.”
He didn’t offer any solutions to what he sees as a dangerous world. “I don’t think anybody can cure it all,” he said. “But let’s get rid of these bastards and get somebody who believes in the future.”
Thompson said he was pleased to read about the blockade at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant 16 months ago, but said he is worried “America’s quest for fitness has taken over people’s minds in the place of protest, or politics, or whatever liberals used to do.”
“The liberals are retreating into personal salvation instead of dealing with the outside world.”
One woman wanted to know what Thompson thought about the current status of the media. “The fun seems to have gone out of it,” he said. “The Watergate mentality, that two young bright reporters could bring down a president, is gone…There’s no sense of possibility now.”
When asked what he fears the most, Thompson replied: “How would you feel if you felt everything you did was useless, that the demons will win after all, that (President Richard) Nixon and Reagan were right. …The horror of being right and still being doomed.”
When asked what would he like to be most remembered for, Thompson said, “I would like to think that I was a good person, and that I did the right thing, and not just a swine and an asshole.”
Thompson seemed uneasy with his cult status as an unruly iconoclast. “I’m supposed to be the craziest person in the country and the sanest at the same time, I’m supposed to know who should be president.”
He’s also a bit paranoid. “To be a public figure in these times requires about 28 hours a day,” he said. “And if you go to sleep, it’s dangerous.”
“It seems to me like I’ve been on the run, against the wall, drunk, crazy, sleepless and fighting everybody for 20 years now. It seems like all my life.”
The long evening closed on a humorous note when Thompson offered his explanation for why “something that went wrong at the start of the American dream.”
“Maybe the Mayflower was not full of people who were fleeing religious persecution, not full of political idealists, but full of lawyers and not their wives, but their secretaries, and that is the reason for all our problems.”
The other possible cause is that “women are not from the same race at all … women came here on a spaceship.
“The Mayflower was full of lawyers and women came from another planet,” he concluded.
“I’m not sure what will happen next.”
The Los Angeles Times has a new photography blog Framework that showcases current and past photography. There is a permanent link in the right column.