“We were angry and righteous in those days, and there were millions of us. We kicked two chief executives out of the White House because they were stupid warmongers. We conquered Lyndon Johnson and we stomped on Richard Nixon – which wise people said was impossible, but so what? It was fun. We were warriors then, and our tribe was strong like a river.”
– “Fear and Loathing, Campaign 2004”, Hunter Thompson’s last published article in Rolling Stone
“Between the idea and the reality … falls the shadow.”
Hunter Thompson’s favorite T S Eliot quote
“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?'”
Picture yourself in the early 1970s, languishing among tangerine trees and marmalade skies but simultaneously filled with righteous anger and a burning, yearning desire to change the world. Then one day you stumble into these swooping and screeching huge bats concocted by a former middle-class Kentucky hillbilly turned Byronesque “mad, bad and dangerous to know” chronicler, always living – and writing – beyond the edge. Better yet: the bats seemed to be real. For many a dreamer, this was the way to go: to live like this; to write like this; to embrace life like this. “Just another freak in a freak kingdom.” That’s the kind of effect Dr Gonzo provoked in people.
Hell’s Angels, his first book (1966), was not about the infamous hardcore bikers: it was Castrol-drenched life from the perspective of an Angel (some chose to reward Dr Gonzo with a beating). Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972) was a lysergic quest for the American Dream. Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 was arguably the best political reportage ever, with Richard “I’m not a crook” Nixon portrayed as “America’s answer to the monstrous Mr Hyde. He speaks for the werewolf in us.”
The fearless good doctor will be forever credited in history with the invention of Gonzo journalism – his branded, exceptional take on New Journalism, or journalism as literature, as practiced by Terry Southern, Gay Talese or Tom Wolfe. But who – or what – the hell is Gonzo? In American slang, “gonzo” means something wild or bizarre. But there has always been a method to Dr Gonzo’s perceived madness. Like a parallel take on Timothy Leary’s mantra, it would be something like, “Tune in, turn on, drop a (literary) bomb.” Gonzo journalism is a lethal weapon composed of fabulous reporting and great literature. When Hunter, in his own words, discovered that he should stop trying to write “like the New York Times”, he said it was like “falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool full of mermaids”. Who needs to write like the New York Times when you’re in the heart of every story on a mission to uncover a hidden truth?
Dr Gonzo may have biked with – and got beaten up by – the Angels; may have gotten to the heart of the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention; may have amalgamated more substances to his system than any man alive; may have fired more guns than tank commanders in Vietnam and Iraq. But he always kept his extreme conceptual coherence – even in his final days, when he described himself as “an elderly dope fiend living out in the wilderness” – the compound in Wood Creek, Colorado, where he was found dead this Sunday, at 67. He had found “you can deal with the system a lot easier if you use their rules”. But he always kept his certitude that power cannot, could never be trusted. And lately, sadly, the self-described proud patriot had also realized that a great deal of the American people could not be trusted as well: most “seemed to prefer a tyranny”.
Years before Bush Jr, the United States, for Dr Gonzo, had already turned into “a nation of 200 million used-car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable”. In Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century, published in 2003, his full-tilt anger targeted the Bush White House: “Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads? … They are the racists and hate-mongers among us – they are the Ku Klux Klan. I piss down the throats of these Nazis.”
You can be mad as hell but no one will listen if you don’t sketch yourself an inimitable persona. In the 1970s, David Bowie may have switched so many personas that he eventually lost himself. Not the bourbon-swilling, acid-dropping Dr Gonzo, with his trademark fishing hats, aviator glasses, cigarette holders and non-stop mumbling. The genuine article, larger than life, all the way. This was a man who knew the exact location of every ice machine at every motel in San Francisco – to accommodate his rotating night supply of bottles. This was a man who never used computers, filing humongous stories, plus Byzantine revisions, by fax, page by page. This was a man who was not in love with American rock ‘n’ roll – “a long plastic hallway where pimps and thieves run free and good men die like dogs. There is also a negative side.”
Dr Gonzo was Hemingway all the way, hardboiled and moving – not to mention the everlasting love affair with all those guns. The “system” may have pinned him down as a counterculture icon, but Dr Gonzo was above all counterpunch and counterspin, copywrong instead of copyright. In a recent interview to Salon, he was adamant: “The stuff I wrote in the ’60s and ’70s was astonishingly accurate. I may have been a little rough on Nixon, but he was rough.” He remains the best American political journalist post-H L Mencken – especially because of his intuition of politics as a blood sport: it all started with Dr Gonzo riding in a limo with Nixon during the 1968 presidential campaign and tricking Tricky Dick that they would discuss only football.
In the early 1970s he affirmed the primacy of fear and loathing. In the early 21st century his intuition told him that fear is just another word for ignorance. He remained a “road man for the lords of karma”, who “had more than nine lives. I counted them up once and there were 13 times that. I almost and maybe should have died”. So why suicide? Maybe it was Ernest Hemingway all over again – you feel your words are thinner, your anger is thinner, your blood is thinner. Although at the end of Fear and Loathing he had seemed to give up on the American Dream – “a lame fuck around, a waste of time” – the absolutely fearless doctor was still searching. He’ll always be. Those huge bats will never harm him: when you’re “a man on the move, and just sick enough to be totally confident”, the trip goes on forever.