If there was ever a person for whom the phrase “larger than life” was invented it’s Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson blazed a trail of drugs and excess through his life, inventing a new style of journalism along the way. He once ran for Sheriff of Aspen on a platform of decriminalising drugs, turning streets into pedestrian malls, and renaming Aspen “Fat City” to try and keep investors away. Also, hilariously, Thompson shaved his head and referred to his opponent – who had a crew cut – as “my long-haired opponent”. In the end, Thompson narrowly lost the election.
But Hunter was also a serious journalist. In 1970, he wrote an article which would spawn a new type of journalism, one which he would become famous for: Gonzo Journalism. The article, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” was a result of a last minute deadline. Pressed for time, Thompson started sending the magazine pages ripped directly from his notebook that he hadn’t edited. The style which would become known as Gonzo involved the writer placing himself into the story (as opposed to the objective and invisible journalist).
The book that would make Thompson famous was written on a trip to Las Vegas, ostensibly to interview a Mexican-American attorney for an article Thompson was working on, as well as to write a short piece on the Mint 400 motorcycle race. The subsequent book – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – turned out to be a whole different animal altogether. This was evident from the opening paragraph:
“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 100 miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: ‘Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?’
Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. ‘What the hell are you yelling about,’ he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. ‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘It’s your turn to drive.’ I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.”
The contents of their trunk have gone down in literary history:
“The trunk of the car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab. We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-coloured uppers, downers, screamers, laughers and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls … Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.”
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas would be a rumination on the death of the American Dream and the failure of the 60s counter-culture. Hunter’s disgust at the death of the American Dream led him to become more interested in politics. He followed the candidates on the Campaign Trail for the 1972 Presidential election, which became the book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. Thompson saved some of his finest vitriol for Richard Nixon. He once described him as a man who “could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time” and said “[He] was an evil man – evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it.”
In the 1980s, Thompson became more reclusive and spent more time at his “fortified compound” in Woody Creek. He died there in 2005 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. His family believe it was not a sudden decision but something that Thompson had planned. He was in chronic pain due to a number of different medical problems. The note that Thompson left behind would seem to confirm this:
”No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your (old) age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”
His friend Ralph Steadman said, “He told me 25 years ago that he would feel real trapped if he didn’t know that he could commit suicide at any moment.”
Hunter once said, “I hate to advocate drugs or liquor, violence, insanity to anyone – but in my case it’s worked”.
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