Tribute to the Gonzo Journalist who trailed the Nixon campaign and hung out with Hell’s Angels.
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold…”
So Hunter Thompson began his crowning work “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, a road journey proving that fiction can be far truer than fact. Thompson pioneered the notion of subjective reporting, a style that came to be known as Gonzo journalism and which has earned him his status as one of America’s great modern writers.
Found dead on February 20th, 2005 at his ranch in Aspen, Colorado, Hunter Thompson went out with a bang as he applied a shotgun to his own head. Known for sitting around on his porch with a bottle of whiskey and passing the evenings by shooting the odd lizard, Thompson was in death as he was in life, a man left to his own devices.
He first hit fame back in 1966 with his fascinating anthropological study of the Hell’s Angels. Instead of merely interviewing a few bikers he went to live among them, buying his own bike and getting outrageously drunk with some of the most violent men in the country.
The Angels were at the time one of the hysterical media’s favourite moral panic stories and Hunter Thompson did much to dispel the urban myths surrounding the group and explain much of their character and motivation. He hurled himself to the centre of the storm and was accepted by the bikers. For a while.
Eventually, it seems they decided he was exploiting them and several of them closed in to give him one of the worst beatings of his life. Hunter held no regrets or grudges though:
“You swim with sharks, you’re going to get bit once in a while. I wasn’t surprised by that. In fact, I thought it was long overdue by the time it happened.”
The ground-breaking book elevated him to becoming one of the important figures of the 60’s counter-culture. This reputation was further cemented for posterity with “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” which followed a few years later and made him a celebrity with the stoners.
The novel was loosely based on events from personal experience and is a goofy tale of dangerous amounts of psychedelics taken right in the heart of the American Dream. It was later filmed with Johnny Depp and Benicio de Torro, the former playing Thompson and the underground classic was finally broadcast to a mainstream audience. Not all of whom could quite identify with stumbling around a casino with a head full of mescalin, wondering why everyone had turned into a lizard.
Hunter Thompson was also a fierce political writer though and he found meaning in his life hounding his nemesis, Richard Nixon.
“Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism—which is true, but they miss the point…You had to get subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.”
Hunter Thompson had developed his own voice to such an extent that he was unable to tone it down for anyone. But by the 70’s he had become so popular that he didn’t need to and his idiosyncratic style became the trademark that brought readers back time and time again. For years he wrote for Rolling Stone and never did he miss an opportunity to put the boot into Nixon. When the corrupt president died Hunter Thompson was quick to write an obituary entitled ‘He was a crook.’
“If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles.”
Not many will feel that way about the passing of Hunter Thompson. His ability to pound out on his typewriter a writing style purely on his own terms still inspires writers today. Gonzo journalism is now a standard of offbeat reporting and Thompson’s life was a shining example of his own interpretation of the American Dream; rising to fame in the 60’s he blew his mind with drugs without ever pandering to the peace and love generation. Arriving in San Francisco, he was less likely to wear a flower in his hair than wrapped up in the American flag and swigging a bottle of whiskey.
For all the persona of wild exuberance and self-destruction he cultivated around himself, though, he was a respected political commentator who was nearly as savage in his tirades against the Bush dynasty as he had been with Nixon. A ground-breaking writer and a force of nature, Hunter Thompson was also serious journalist who almost succeeded in giving the business a good name.