It’s with a sadness in my heart I type on the death of the famed journalist Hunter S Thompson.
True I am one of the legions who felt Thompson’s writing had been ‘going downhill’ in recent years. So disappointed in 2003’s Kingdom of Fear [I felt it covered a lot of the same ground as Songs of the Doomed; Hunter seemed to be stuck in the Gail Slater-Palmer trial], that I skipped Hey Rube, as just a collection of columns for ESPN Page 2, some of which were entertaining and caused a smile, but nothing that lit the world on fire. Thompson’s last great work, for my money, was 1994’s Better Than Sex, a good mix of Thompson’s political view and humor. Thompson’s scattered work since his firing from Rolling Stone in the mid-Seventies never equaled that time again. As America sank into the mellow sounds of the Eagles and Fleetwod Mac and Steely Dan, Thompson faded into a self induced sunset, popping up only occasionally for his short run at the San Francisco Examiner and the ESPN column and an rare special in Rolling Stone. His piece on the death of Richard Nixon may have been his finest work of his last years.
Thompson will always be best known for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and well he should. It is truly a first person masterpiece of exaggeration and braggadocio. It will be the On the Road for a generation. Hells Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga brought Thompson to the attention of mainstream America, not quite realizing that the journalist was about to spike its collective sugar cube the way the San Francisco bands were spiking the cube for rock and roll. Thompson said himself in Fear:
“San Francisco in the middle Sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch the sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant…”
But in finding his own voice, a voice of the ‘Counter-culture’ that read Rolling Stone magazine, Thompson became a legend for all the wrong reasons. He became a cartoon, almost literally, inspiring Gary Trudeau’s Uncle Duke in the Doonesbury [another voice of the ‘Counter-culture’], for which he was never given a cent. [And, in my humble belief, inspiring the bald, chain smoking, drug and booze ingesting, city hating, firearm loving, gonzo political journalist in Garth Ellis’ excellent Transmetropolitan comic book.] Thompson became famous for his massive intake of drugs and booze, which no doubt fueled his own madness. I fear that in finding his own voice, Thompson locked himself in his own box. Like Jim Morrison, he had a reputation that had to be lived up to that may have ultimately lead to his demise.
Thompson quipped “I do not advocate the use of dangerous drugs, wild amounts of alcohol and violence and weirdness – but they’ve always worked for me.” Did they finally all take a massive turn on the depleted body and mind of Thompson? In coming days we may know if his mind or body [or both] were found in recent months to be deteriorating from disease or abuse… my guess if this is so, Thompson would not want to be seen as an aging deteriorated shell of himself as Ronald Reagan was for his last decade. Thompson had all ready lived fast, but somehow managed to avoid dying young; perhaps he was leaving a good looking corpse and the memory of him still in his prime.
We may really never know. Like Lester Bangs, HST is now immortal in the literary world. His genius can no longer be called into question. He did inspire a generation to just write what they had to say and not worry about the rules of the English language we were taught in high schools and colleges across America. You can even make up your own word to describe your style, like Gonzo, which is now a term for any writer who seems to break ‘established rules,’ whatever that means.
We suspected Thompson couldn’t live forever, all evidence to the contrary. I loved his writing, I loved his style [or non-style], though I have learned in recent years not to put too much trust into heroes, as they are only mortal men like the rest of us. His sad and shocking decision to pull the plug himself will only be equaled by Papa Hemingway’s suicide and the brutal murders of John Lennon and Darrell Abbott just for making music. We really don’t know what demons HST was fighting up there in his compound, nor for how long. I suspect though that once the decision was made, it put the man at peace.
So long baby,SALEH, EXCELSIOR and Amen.