Gonzo journalism relied on serendipity, and so it is fitting that serendipity brought me a copy of the new Rolling Stone with a cover story on Hunter S. Thompson, “Growing up Gonzo.” It inexplicably appeared in my mailbox a few days ago, addressed to an alias I’d never actually used, initials J.T. Mindful of the Dr.’s own tuning-fork sensitivity to such cryptic weirdness, I slid the bills out from inside the bent “u” of glossy pages and shut the box without touching the magazine. In the event it was a trap set by agents of Scientology, an amateur counterterrorism expert I met in a chatroom, known to me only as der_hund234, suggested I test the pages for trace amounts of a variety of psychoactive pharmaceuticals, and mercury as well. The magazine came back clean. I grabbed it by Hunter’s face and fled in full retreat; no one from Pitchfork or Fader appearing that doomed day to stop me from reading the foul ink of that dead carcass, Rolling Stone Magazine.
Only two years after his death and Hunter is already fading into history. Gonzo is so much a part of our society that his brand of journalism no longer requires a modifier to separate it out from ordinary journalism. Hunter became famous writing for Rolling Stone, so they have a certain proprietary concern with keeping his legacy alive. It reminds readers that RS didn’t always spend all its time reporting on Paris Hilton, but occasionally asked real questions,- about race, politics, culture, etc,- with real sentences, not just extended captions. The authors are RS founder, Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour, a former RS staffer, so it is an in-house job. The article itself is actually the first chapter from their forthcoming book, “Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson.”
It functions less as an article than a collage of memories from various persons who knew Hunter throughout his life, from childhood friends to Hell’s Angels to writers to ex-wives, which explains the subtitle ‘oral history.’ Noticeably absent from the teaser are his celebrity friends, – Jack Nicholson, Johnny Depp, and Bill Murray, all who presumably appear in later chapters. As an introduction to Hunter, it is fascinating. Many of the interviewees are surprisingly candid and insightful about him, and speculate intelligently on the significance of his persona, his writing, and his place in history.
As an early childhood friend, Porter Bibb described him:
“I was always amazed at Hunter’s networking ability. He was solidly middle-class, yet he was hanging out with some multi-millionaire families. Hunter had friends in both high and low society…People gave him, when he was growing up, a huge amount of latitude…”
Hunter started his journalism career in the Air Force where he wrote press releases that showcase his early talent for embellishment and hyperbole. It may be here that he first repurposed reportage writing for viscerally powerful fictional works that both mimicked and mocked the voice of authority.
Gene McGarr: “The last thing he did, in November 1957, was to write up a press release describing a riot that took place at Elgin when the enlisted men attacked the women’s quarters and the officer’s mess — stole all the booze, got drunk as shit, attacked the women, beat up two officers. It was a very funny and colorful story — completely fictional, of course — and he sent a copy of it to the AP and to UPI, left a copy on his captain’s desk, then drove like a son of a bitch for the gate.”
Hunter was only interested in fiction in so far as he could blend it with truth; only interested in the two in so far as he could, like twins, dress them alike and confuse them with each other. He forced the reader to scrutinize their assumptions about “the facts,” until the line between fiction and truth, fact and lie, history and invention became so suspicious, so drunkenly blurred that abandoning the distinction altogether became the only reasonable way to live, the only responsible thing to do. A personal vice became a political tool and gave birth to a writing style, Gonzo Journalism.
William Kennedy calls Hunter’s writing, a “mutation of the fictional form (90).” It is also a mutation of the True Crime Novel genre, established by Truman Capote with In Cold Blood. Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing are the dark doubles, the Mr. Hydes, of the genre. Told from the outlaw’s perspective, the narratively tidy needs of procedural reconstruction and detached analysis give way to loose associative rebellion and war reporting from within an America he saw as at the brink of a second civil war.
One of the best passages from the article is his ex-wife’s account of a party Hunter organized with Ken Kesey to bring together the Hell’s Angels, the Merry Pranksters, and counterculture luminaries like Allen Ginsberg. It is the sort of truth that sounds much harder to swallow than the myth it hides behind. Thompson drove his wife and their infant son to the party. When they arrived, narcotics officers were hiding in the hills and there was a banner stretched across the road welcoming the Hell’s Angels:
Neal Cassady was there, and Allen Ginsberg. Kesey played this four-hour documentary about the Magic Bus… Kesey’s children, who were maybe five or seven, were there – they had taken acid too, though Hunter didn’t. At some point we jumped in a car with Ginsberg to go get some booze. We got stopped by the police, and they asked us who we were. All Ginsberg would say was, “I’m a poet…I’m a poet,” which Hunter and I thought was funny (89).
This incident is starkly contrasted with the revelation that the Angels had gangbanged a girl in a cabin next to Kesey’s home. She describes Hunter’s guilt because he felt, “at fault for bringing them all together, and he felt sick (89).”
Someday I will write a comparison of Kierkegaard and Hunter S. Thompson.
Politically, Hunter believed in leftist libertarian politics, but in his heart was too anarchic to belong to any sincere political movement, much less the Democratic Party. Hunter was somehow at once a unique individual and a cipher for all these heterogeneous voices that were mounting an insurgency against the dominant monoculture of the time. He wasn’t a socialist, or a redneck, despite getting along with them too, and he wasn’t a hippie or a biker, though he championed their causes. And though he hated and derided Nixon (calling him, “a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosomes that corrupt the possibilities of the American Dream; he was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad), he also held him in a strangely high regard. Hunter Thompson’s ambition was to swallow the whole era like a handful of pills. America had become a nation of outlaws and villains, he realized, – be they bikers, hippies, rednecks, or Nixon. To write about them, he engulfed their contradictions, and let them go to work on his insides, his brain, his liver, his heart, his guts.
President of the Oakland Hell’s Angels, Sonny Barger, said of Hunter: “He didn’t belittle us…He made us even more of a myth than we were at the time (89).”