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Thoughts On Hunter

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I have spent half my life trying to get away from journalism, but I am still mired in it – a low trade and a habit worse than heroin, a strange seedy world full of misfits and drunkards and failures.
— Hunter S. Thompson

Part of my weekend ritual involves reading “The Economist” back to front. I start at the back because my favorite feature is the Obituary, always about someone interesting, always smart, always crafted in a masterly way that I admire, and its always in the back. And I always look there first in part to see who among the notable deaths of the preceding week has been selected.

There was no doubt in my mind that this week the selection would be Hunter S. Thompson. I have loathed the simplistic, trite and hackneyed obituaries written about him since he pulled the trigger on his .45 Caliber with the barrel pointed squarely into his mouth last Sunday. They are written mostly by people who know maybe a fraction of the writer’s work. Thompson, to them is the drug-fueled fiend of “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas,” and perhaps the rampaging, Nixon-despising head case of a correspondent in “Fear and Loathing: On The Campaign Trail, 1972.” Most obituary writers have found little depth beyond that, leaving most people unfamiliar with Thompson’s oeuvre the image of a two-dimensional, drug-addled, freaky nut job with a serious jones for firearms.


“We had two bags of grass….”

I met Frank Mankiewicz in 1997. Today he’s vice chairman of Hill and Knowlton’s Washington D.C. office, but in 1972 he was a campaign manager for George McGovern, and as such did battle with Thompson on a regular basis. I met Mankiewicz as part of a class visit to Washington D.C. during my year at Columbia. I took the opportunity to ask him about Thompson, and about how Thompson portrayed him in the book. He uttered, what I now know is a standard line he uses about it being “the most accurate and the least factual” book about the 1972 presidential campaign. It’s been quoted in many of the obituaries, including in “The Economist.”

Mankiewicz then went on to say that he and Thompson remained friends through the decades. “He still comes to stay with us once in awhile,” he said. “I usually know that he’s on his way when I start getting his mail.” He said Thompson at the time was “still in good shape,” and healthy.

Another friend, Lew Koch, a journalist out of Chicago known for being one of the founders of the Chicago Journalism Review related this story.

During a period when he was director of a journalism fellowship program at the University of Chicago, Koch arranged to have Thompson come and deliver a lecture. Koch met him at O’Hare where he “walked off the plane carrying an open bottle of Wild Turkey and a closed canister of nitrous oxide.”

The lecture was, as Thompson’s college lectures often were, a disaster. The plan called for a closed-door session with the program’s fellows and then a university-wide lecture that would include a Q and A. Koch described the scene:

“Thompson met with all Fellows for a couple of hours, offering one-sentence responses to questions, followed by a swig or sniff; he had a few bites of food at a closed dinner with the Fellows and a few faculty members and mumbled responses to questions put to him. Thompson’s University-wide lecture was a disaster. He went on stage with another bottle of Wild Turkey and the canister of nitrous oxide, alternating between swigging and sniffing. The students were not amused. The ‘lecture’ ended after about 30 minutes.”

“Afterwards Thompson was in a mood to continue drinking so I took him to Ricardo’s, the journalists bar in Chicago where I had previously spent significant amounts of time with other journos rehashing the events of the day….

“But there we were at the bar — Hunter Thompson and me — and I thought it was time to ask about “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” a copy of which I had in my hand. For some reason he switched to a very serious mood, shaking his head, dismayed that his readers, including other journalists, haven’t figured out that there was no way in hell that he or anyone else, could write a book like that while indulging in huge quantities of alcohol and narcotics. They just don’t get it, he complained, it’s a put-on. We drank for a while and talked about nothing in particular. Before we parted I asked him to inscribe his book and this is what he wrote: ‘I. O. U nine Ballantine ales — send the bill to Random House. HST Chicago’s Ricardo’s 8/4/72.’”

My own stories about Hunter S. Thompson are much more humble. I had been aware of his work since high school. “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was a book that the stoner kids I knew passed around with a laugh, all of them assuming incorrectly that they were in on the joke.

But in 1991, about the time that Operation Desert Storm was still running very hot and very heavy, I was a student at the University of Oregon. And Hunter S. Thompson was on his way to deliver one of his infamous college lectures at the downtown Hilton in Eugene.

It was to the uninitiated, which at this point I still was, an organizational mess. Thompson was late as always, by something like an hour. One of the program’s organizers said Thompson was had been last seen drinking at the hotel bar, but then disappeared, and was nowhere to be found. Ken Kesey (1935-2001) and Ken Babbs took the stage to try and keep the crowd sated for a few minutes by telling allegedly funny Hunter stories. It didn’t work. Some worthless pain in the ass stood up and screamed that he had paid to see Hunter, and not Kesey, who was at the time a somewhat overexposed local celebrity. Kesey was offended. “Somebody give that guy $20 and get him the hell out of here.” Kesey then reached for his own wallet, pulled out a twenty and handed it to him. The jerk stormed out holding the bill up high over his head like it was captured booty.

The one story Kesey related about Thompson which I remember was one in which he and Thompson were guests at some swanky party given by a publisher in New York. It was the kind of pretentious affair where pseudo-intellectuals try to act smart in front of writers and famous people, while they sip fashionable drinks and make small talk about how they’re spending their money. As I remember Kesey telling it, Thompson showed up late as usual, and didn’t say a word to anyone after arriving. He surveyed the scene, and left. Shortly thereafter a delivery arrived courtesy of Thompson: Cheese sandwiches and a case of Heineken. He did not return.

Thompson finally did show up at the Eugene Hilton, and did give a rambling talk about the war, about the president, about his adventures covering the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada, and the usual thing, and at one point recited the trademark quote of these types of talks: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”

I attended the proceedings with some old friends from my days at Linn-Benton Community College. They were all people I had befriended on the staff of The Commuter the weekly student newspaper there.

They had brought with them a rather sizable stash of pot (not my idea) which they intended to smoke afterward. But during the speech, one of them – we called him Paco – seized the dope, quietly walked up to the stage and tossed it directly into Thompson’s lap.

The talk got better after that. Thompson was on stage sitting at a table, sipping what was either Wild Turkey or Chivas Regal out of a yellow plastic cup. More on that cup presently. Audience members started shouting questions getting answers. When the topic turned to the war he said: “I have the tape machine running back home, recording the whole thing.” More shouted questions. I joined in with my own asking: “Should we go in and get Saddam?” Answer: “I don’t see what difference that would make.”

Later a few other far-sketchier characters handed him what I think was a few sheets of LSD, but I wasn’t sure. Thompson later asked for an envelope, placed Paco’s bag of dope and the other mysterious object inside, and addressed it to himself at his home in Colorado.

The other notable weirdness of the evening came when one of the local street people, a woman I had seen skulking around the UO gym a few times — she was wearing a weightlifters belt — stormed the stage and started ranting about something that was terribly important, to her. It had already been a pretty weird evening and Thompson was no stranger to weirdness. He approached her and tried to shake her hand. At the time Thompson was wearing a wrist brace on his right arm. She wouldn’t shake what she called “the hand with the tendonitis in it.”

She tried to rant a little more but couldn’t quite figure out what it was she wanted to say. “If you could point a laser beam at my brain, you might be able to understand,” she croaked. Thompson, still amused, reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a laser sight, the kind used on a handgun, and pointed it at her, just as she had described. She didn’t seem to like that and was off the stage in seconds.

I don’t remember much more about the talk he gave. His words by themselves weren’t the part that was meant to be memorable. What was memorable was the spectacle or weirdness that accompanied the entire scene. When he decided he was done talking, some two hours after he had started, the audience rushed the stage. I did too. Everyone wanted some personal contact, a book signed, a ticket signed, a hand shaken tendonitis and all. One guy in the huddle next to me reached through the mob and snatched Thompson’s yellow cup, Chivas and all. He wanted it as a memento.

I looked over and said: “You can keep the cup, but I’ll drain it for you.” He handed it to me and I downed about six ounces of whatever liquor it was as though it were apple juice. True to my word I handed it back to him. As far as I knew he kept the cup, and that was the last thing I knew about it.

Outside the hotel, I noticed this multicolored old bus was parked out front. I was only 20 years old, and so I didn’t yet know my cultural history all that well, but I knew enough to realize that was Kesey’s infamous bus – or rather the copy of of the infamous bus – from his Merry Prankster days.

What happened next is where my part in the story really ends, because I wasn’t there though I wish I had been. Zane Kesey was, and recounts it here in his own “Hunter story”. (Zane has since removed the story, but it’s preserved here though you’ll have to scroll a tad. -Ed.)
I went on to read “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and immediately followed it up with “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail, 1972”. Within a year, half my friends had read “Las Vegas” at my suggestion. We called it “the work” and would read aloud from it at parties. We quoted from it in strange, tense and indefinable social situations, referring to “rude murmurs of dissent” and after a few too many drinks would mockingingly claim to see giant flying bats. Upon a sudden realization one might exclaim “God Hell, I’m beginning to see the pattern!” One friend I hung out with all the time became “My Attorney” – even though he wasn’t in on the joke and didn’t like those times I insisted that he wasn’t really Hawaiian but was in fact Samoan. Occasionally I’d even demand that local bar bands play “White Rabbit” at top volume. Like those stoner kids in high school, I thought I was in on the joke too.

Still I knew there had to be more to Thompson than this. “Campaign Trail” proved it. Where Las Vegas was a strange farce more fiction than fact, “Campaign Trail” delivered some brutally honest truths about our political system that are proven over and over every time this republic elects another chief executive. Nobody dumb or shallow could write these truths. That book I rarely recommended to others. I kept it to myself.

My second Hunter story takes place in New York in 1999 on Halloween. Having just published “The Rum Diary” — the novel he wrote in his 20s, but which remained unpublished until his early 60s — Thompson appeared at the Union Squarer Barnes and Noble. Thompson was to read, but because he was so hard to understand when he spoke, he tapped Ed Bradley of “60 Minutes” to do the reading for him. I remember that Ed, who appears every bit the smart and educated guy on the screen, had a problem with the pronunciation of the word “chancres” as he read.

Other notables I met that night were Steven Levy of Newsweek and Douglas Brinkley, director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies in New Orleans who is also editor of Thompson’s collections of letters. Volume I of that collection “The Proud Highway” had been out for about a year and I got after Brinkley to get on with it already and publish Volume II. He finally did: “Fear and Loathing In America” Volume III is still as yet forthcoming, but given Brinkley’s opportunistic bent toward the deaths of notable Americans – whenever a President dies you can find him commenting on numerous cable gabfests – it won’t be long. He’s even been named an executor of Thompson’s estate. However I digress.

The weirdness quotient was much lower that night. But the crowd was just as eager. Bradley did his readings, Thompson, wearing an orange boa and accompanied by Benicio Del Toro, who had played “My Attorney” aka “Dr. Gonzo” in the film adaptation of “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas” (Trailers here, Courtesy The New York Times) did what Thompson did best. He showed up and basked in the strange bubble of admiration that followed him everywhere he went.

I stood in line for more than an hour, shook his hand, told him the story about swiping his cup of Chivas in Eugene eight years before, and got a polite refusal when I asked him to sign my copy of “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas” — the rare Modern Library Edition without the movie tie-in cover. It would take too much time if he were to sign everyone’s book, someone said. Still he admired the book and said he didn’t have his own copy of that particular edition.

So I went around the line again, told him I had gone around twice, and that given that he should sign it. At this he acquiesced, and signed the title page. He then asked “Were you lying?” About what? “Were you lying about going around twice?” I assured him I hadn’t lied told him again the story about how I had helped steal his cup of Chivas. He laughed and said “I remember you, you prick.”

Being “Hunter S. Thompson” must have been terribly difficult at some level for Hunter S. Thompson. His fame created what looks to me like a strange cocktail of veneration and vexation, which made it difficult for him to ever give a straight answer about anything personal or intimate.

The most telling moment I think about this comes in “Hunter,” a biography of the writer by E. Jean Carroll, excerpted here. In an interview she asks Thompson about his father:

— Tell me about your father.

— (Silence)

— You never talk about him.

— Well, read what I’ve written!

— I’ve read everything you’ve written. You never mention him.

— (Silence)

— Tell me about him.

— He had a great outlook on life.


Oh, Mama, can this really be the end?

The legend Hunter Thompson had so deftly crafted about himself was one in which the alter ego clearly overwrote the identity of the original person. Or did it? The legend of Thompson’s strange rise to prominence is well known. The 60-day jail sentence. The time in the Air Force. The firings from newspapers. The kicked in candy machine, the freelance magazine assignments, notably “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved”, all leading up to “Hells Angels” in 1966, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” in 1971, and the “Campaign Trail” in 1973, which is my personal favorite. Chaos, madness, rage against convention, a reckless disregard for rules and societal structures and even human endurance are erupt and swirl into an intense and colorful tornado emanating from a window built into his skull. These are the hallmarks of his early work.

From there, the trajectory spirals steadily downward. Later works feel as though they came from the hand of a writer trapped within the expectation of what editors and the public thought a Hunter Thompson book should be like. There’s the collection of magazine pieces “The Great Shark Hunt” much of it containing pre-“Las Vegas” work is exceptional. Aside from the “Kentucky Derby” piece it contains the strangely prescient “What Drew Hemingway To Ketchum?” in which Thompson, for the National Obsever in 1964 explores Ernest Hemingway’s final home and resting place, Ketchum, Idaho, scene of a similarly spectacular literary exit:

“It is not just a writer’s crisis, but they are the most obvious victims because the function of art is supposedly to bring order out of chaos, a tall order even when the chaos is static, and a superhuman task when chaos is multiplying…So finally, and for what he must have thought the best of reasons, he ended it with a shotgun.”

Later collections “Generation of Swine” (1988) and “Songs of the Doomed” (1990) are notable for how forgettable they are. They are Thompson at his most formulaic, seemingly living on the inertia of being Hunter Thompson.

I wish in these later years that Thompson had found a way to speak through the strange madness that gripped his machine-gun mind and to give his admirers like myself a clearer picture of not necessarily who and what he was — that much I got — but why he was, straight from his own gut.

It seems to me incongruous that so self-involved a writer as Thompson never truly engaged in any serious self-examination, never revealed the moments rare as they may have been when the legend necessarily gave way to the man, when the applause, and the drinking and the shooting paused. There were great regions of unexplored territory in the psyche of Hunter Thompson which remained utterly untouched: The self-doubt that grips all good writers with terrors unknown to mere mortals; The pain of the personal losses he experienced in his life, and which he seemed determined to deny; the creative struggle to remain original when so little actually is original in a world that values the mediocre and the banal and shrugs at the extraordinary.

These are sectors of the inner cranium of Hunter Thompson to which only the writer himself held the keys. Now that he’s pulled the trigger and literally destroyed it, he has locked us all out forever. I fear we’ll never know what really drove the madness that forced the world to notice him.


The Doctor Speaks


Some more Thompson links:

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February 26th, 2005 at 6:12 pm

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Why I Went to Dallas

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So I really didn’t say much about why I went to Dallas two weeks ago. This should explain it all: “Diary of a Demo”.

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February 15th, 2005 at 8:37 am

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Signed in from Scottsdale

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Got to Scottsdale despite the unseasonable rain Friday night. The weather is better today and Maggie got some time by the pool, but I have a nasty head cold and so can’t quite enjoy being outside. The in-room Internet isn’t working, so I’m typing from a the lobby bar where the Wi-Fi is working. Otherwise all is well. I’m at the Westin Kierland to cover the Demo Conference and all indications are that it will be as interesting as it was last year, which was my first time attending. Went to a party last night honoring Demo’s Executive producer Chris Shipley hosted by Jan Ziff and Alan Davidson which was enjoyable. I especially enjoyed their two dogs. Hoping to find some excellent Mexican food tonight, and to get an early start before Demo starts in earnest tomorrow morning.

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February 13th, 2005 at 2:49 pm

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A Musical Mystery Solved, But Not Really

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Tonight marks the end of a mystery that has bugged me for about a year. For it was about this time last year that I happened to hear an intriguing jazz piece on the radio. It was played during a Sunday afternoon broadcast of the show “Jazz Profiles” on WKCR radio, up at Columbia University. The show is generally an in-depth look at the work of a particular artist, and on this particular day it focused on the work of pianist McCoy Tyner. The show was playing in the background during a birthday party, but what I heard was nothing less than tantalizing. It was one of those long jazz epics that ususally grab me when I hear them mid-way. This once happened at the HMV record store on 86th St. and Lexington Ave. (now sadly gone) when I walked into the lower-level jazz section about six or seven minutes into the 11-minute saga “The Gigolo”. It was an auspicious introduction. I bought it and one other of Lee Morgan record that day “The Sidewinder” for which Morgan was actually better known, and became a Morgan admirer for life.

And so back to this curious McCoy Tyner piece. As always happens when you really want to hear the name of the song, the radio announcer is less than completely helpful. She rattled off a long list of tunes she had played in the set, and from the best I could determine, the piece that got my interested was one in which Tyner was playing with none other than John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard. The title wasn’t apparent, just the fact that the set was Tyner, Coltrane live at the Vanguard in 1961.

I wrote to WKCR by email, asking what it was, and naturally got no response. At this I let the mystery lie figuring it was another of those jazz tunes I would never track down for lack of information.

Fast forward to July, when I heard what I think was the same tune once again, and again as a fragment on a radio program. This time it was “Sounds Eclectic” on KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif. which I happen to record occasionally online. If you listen to the July 25, 2004 show and fast-forward to about the 55th minute, you’ll hear what I think was my elusive Coltrane-Tyner tune, but only briefly, as a background while Nic Harcourt is talking between segments. He did not ID the tune.

Again I write the radio station, but get no info.

I let the mystery lie again, but then intermittenly search through iTunes for hints as to what the tune may be. I finally remember the Village Vanguard connection, and come to arrive at the conclusion that the elusive tune was indeed “India” as it sounds like the kind of long, complicated epic, with a bit of a Middle-Eastern or south Asian flair worked into it.

So the puzzle is this: Which is the original mystery tune from February? Is it “India” or is it the unnamed tune from “Sounds Eclectic”? The unnamed tune sounds closer to what I remember hearing in passing, but “India” more closely resembles the notes I took from the radio announcer that day.

More searching takes place over the months that follow. At this writing I don’t quite remember how I came to discover that the unnamed tune was actually “Olé” a powerful 18-minute slugfest from “Olé Coltrane,” which was Coltrane’s final album for Atlantic Records in 1961. But now the unnamed tune has a name. And yes, it turns out that McCoy Tyner is indeed the pianist on “Olé.” So now both “India” and “Olé” are candidates.

Well my copy of “Olé” arrived today, and I recently bought a live version of “India” from the 1961 Coltrane album “Impressions” from iTunes, and I’m still convinced that either one could be the original mystery tune. Both are brilliant, long, complex and fascinating, and as it happens, were recorded during the same year: 1961. Yet I may never know which it was I that so intrigued me that Sunday afternoon a year ago.

Below is an audio sample of “Olé”

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Here’s a sample of “India”

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Now how could I possibly mistake one for the other or vice versa? Listen to them both in their entirety, and I think you’ll hear subtle similarities that underlie their obvious differences. In Ole we have two chords underneath everything else. In India only one. From a certain detached and distracted distance, I think the mistake isn’t hard to make.

One side of me says “India,” the other “Olé”. Maybe both were strung together in the playlist and formed what I remember as a cohesive whole, where one bled into the other. The mystery is at once both solved, because I now know it had to be one, and yet not, because I know not which.

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February 7th, 2005 at 10:26 pm

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Fly to Dallas, Buy A Computer

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POSTING FROM DALLAS — So I get to Dallas and my PowerBook conks out. Bad. I start combing the Yellow Pages for someone to help.

This has happened before. During my Jan. 2004 trip to San Francisco, the original hard drive on this same PowerBook decided it was only going to show up for work when it wanted to, not when I wanted it to. So I scrambled around and ultimately used my connections at Apple Computer to score a loaner machine for the duration of the trip, which was all of a few days.

Not so lucky this time. I get into the hotel room around 4:45 p.m. and realize that the machine is acting up again. When it does start up it freezes after a few minutes. Upon restart it might emit a few strange and frightening electronic tones, but not start up. This was not what I needed on a trip during which I need to write. So I call the only Mac repair shop with a display ad in the Yellow Pages. I get its proprietor on the phone,and she says she has already closed up the shop for the day. But she suggests that I take the machine to the Dallas Apple Store on Knox Street.

Of course when I get it there none of the problems I experienced take place. Adding to the embarassment, all checks by the tech’s diagnostic tools show that the machine is in good health. Well even after all this, I decided that I can’t risk having an unreliable laptop any long. It gave me problems in San Francisco, which I thought I had fixed by replacing the hard drive. Its battery had aged to a point where it was holding only an hour’s worth of charge at a time, so I replaced that. And during the Vegas trip earlier this year it started to act up by freezing up while I was working, which is rare for a Mac running OS X.

As it happens, Apple announced new upgrades to its PowerBook lines just this week. I had already resolved to get a new one, but hadn’t really decided when to do it. Today’s problems forced me into action. I am now the proud owner of a brand-spanking new 15-inch PowerBook G4, with a 1.67 GHz PowerPC processor, a SuperDrive, 80-gigabyte hard drive, 512-megabytes of DDR SDRAM. And get this, when the ambient light starts to darken, the keyboard lights up.

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February 1st, 2005 at 10:18 pm

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