Master of Words

In many cases they specifically catered to Dr. Thompson’s madness. Oscar Zeta Acosta, better known to us as Dr. Gonzo, and the variety of unsavory characters that appear in Thompson’s body of work were all part of these bizarre controlled experiments’dreamed up in the trepidatious’imagination of the good doctor.

Most of them were willing participants because in his madness there was brilliance, fueled by an insatiable thirst for the truth at the heart of all things. Thompson was unafraid to expose us all as brutal animals and propagandized sheep. Stabbing at out selfish natures with his razor sharp pen, effectively cutting out the bleeding heart of our comfortable reality, Thompson said it all, whether we wanted to hear it or not. So many people are turned off by Thompson’s ideas in journalism, write off his ’gonzo’ style as drug-fueled nonsense, and miss the point entirely.

Life is full of nonsense’why remove the emotional bias when it is our own opinions, ideas and pre-conceived notions that make our experiences unique. He was not insane. He pursued life and the death of the American Dream fearlessly, with a tenacity few possess. He was not unpredictable, he was just capable of anything, and a complete mystery to some of his most avid fans.’


For weeks I have slept, breathed and lived Hunter S. Thompson, and I still have no clue who the man really was. It is obvious after watching years of compiled footage of the man what drugs, and possibly pre-existing dementia (though I have nothing to confirm that theory as of yet) did to him in the long run.

A friend of mine’gave me a pair of Thompson-esque sun glasses in the spirit of this whole adventure. I’ve been watching the world through these oversized amber lenses while trying to understand someone often deemed a madman. If I saw the world like this all the time, I, also, would probably do a lot of drugs and end up blowing my brains out.

I’m not trying to be insensitive, but in a world fueled by ’uppers, downers, laughers, zingers, poppers . . . ’ along with a plethora of psychedelics, a king’s ransom in whiskey and the disturbed mind of Raoul Duke occupying half his brain (if not all of it by the end of things), I don’t see how anyone else but Thompson could survive that life.

For someone who is one of the most influential voices for a new generation of’writers and journalists, he doesn’t say much. In a rare coherent interview produced by the BBC, Hunter himself talks about how difficult it is for his audience to perceive him as a father, husband or son.

’I have a theory that the truth is never told in the nine-to-five hours,’ Thompson once said.

So what was it about late-night hours that invigorated the doctor to do his best work? Perhaps it’s that eerie calm that overcomes the world, the silence that strikes us all at the end of a long day of trying to be clever and witty and brilliant, that 2 a.m. takeover of the brain by the mind. Sometimes, though, that takeover is hostile and requires sedation. That would explain the whiskey. There’s something in the way alcohol can slow thoughts to a transcribeable speed. Maybe it was an early start on keeping late nights that got him into so much trouble in his rural hometown of Louisville, Ky. He actually graduated from a jail cell while serving a six-week sentence for burglary.

In 1956, as a condition of his parole, Hunter enlisted in the Air Force. Stationed at Eglin Air Proving Ground in Pensacola, Fla., he began his journalism career for the base paper as well as moonlighting for a competing paper under the pseudonym Thorne Stockton.

Though he showed no affinity for the military, he was quite a talented writer.’In 1957 he received what was disputedly an honorable or dishonorable discharge from the Air Force and went off in search of work in a better climate. Ultimately he settled in San Juan in 1960 to write for El Sportiva, a failing sports paper where Thompson’s paychecks often bounced.

So much of Thompson’s career was spent in search of a better climate. Though he settled at his homestead in Woody Creek, Colo., in 1963, that hardly meant the man was stationary.

November of that year, the Kennedy assassination woke something from deep within the good doctor’s troubled mind. In correspondence with Paul Semonin, a hitchhiking buddy that traveled west with Thompson from San Juan after the completion of The Rum Diary, Hunter wrote, ’This savage killing, this monstrous stupidity has guaranteed that my children and yours will be born in a shitrain.’

The tragic event transformed this self-confessed political junkie into a snarling raging activist who was not only willing, but looking, to start a fight.’

After the violent displays of authority at the Democratic National Convention of ’68 Thompson made the decision to ’beat the fuckers at their own game.’ Anyone who doubts his genuine contributions to politics should take a closer looks at the evolution of liberal policy in the past thirty years. In 1969, during the Aspen mayoral election, Thompson and his friends ran a campaign called the Freak Power ticket to elect Joe Edwards, a 29-year-old biker into the mayor’s seat.

Though the rag-tag campaign only ran the last three weeks of the election, Edwards won the actual vote by six, but lost the absentee ballot by seven, losing the election by only one vote.

The Freak Power ticket, based on Thompson’s theory that the 18 to 25 voting bracket could change the outcome of an election, would reemerge in Kansas, Berkley and Los Angeles as well as in Thompson’s own attempt to run for Aspen’s sheriff’s office in 1970. Raoul Duke, an alter ego that had previously surfaced in some of Thompson’s correspondence, would make his public debut in 1971 in two issues of Rolling Stone. The now infamous essay ’Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ can be blamed for the birth of a whole new generation of madmen.

1974 in Elko, Nevada, Thompson, along with Jann Wenner (then and still publisher of Rolling Stone) ex-RFK campaign veterans and McGovern strategists held a political summit to define a liberal strategy for a post-Nixon America.

Amidst the uproar of ’74, Acosta disappeared without a trace. Some surmise that he simply went underground, while others believe he was murdered by drug runners. To this day his whereabouts are unknown.

Despite Hunter’s increasingly unpredictable behavior, as Raoul Duke became less of a pseudonym and more of a way of life, Jimmy Carter thought Thompson had the right idea. In 1976 Hunter became not only a friend and prot’ge’, but Carter’s unofficial political adviser.

In a note to Thompson, after rumors surfaced that Thompson himself would run for president, Carter remarked that he would drop out in support of the good doctor. Even now it is widely believed that without his relationship with Thompson, Jimmy Carter never would have become president.

The 1980s brought the birth of a whole new era of decadence and depravity for Thompson to expose. In 1980 he and Sandy Conklin (originally’his common-law wife in San Juan) divorced and Hunter turned’his pent up frustration into what is now know as the Gonzo Papers and three successive novels, The Great Shark Hunt, Generation of Swine and Songs of Doom, all subtitled Tales of Shame and Degradation.

The term Gonzo, first coined by Bill Cardosa, Thompson’s’former editor, has multiple origins. In interviews Cardosa has changed the meaning several times’from Gonzagas, Italian for absurdities, to gonzaux, French Canadian for shining path (no record of that word exists) and many more colorful versions that have developed over the years. Thompson himself referred to his style as ’impressionistic journalism.’ Other terms include outlaw journalism, literary cubism, and new journalism, after the New Journalism movement of the ’60s (think Tom Wolfe, Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary).

In a way Gonzo journalism gave birth to Raoul Duke, the drugged-out, raving lunatic we all have come to admire. In the grips of the Gonzo Papers we see Thompson/Duke at their worst. Blowing fog horns in crowded restaurants, delivering an elk’s heart to Jack Nicholson’s doorstep, and even getting arrested for shooting a guy in the face with a fire extinguisher.

He and Colorado musician and filmmaker Steve Saylor formed a punk band named Dr. Sadistic and the Silverking Crybabies. Their original recordings It’s’Alive: The Hideous And Incidious Recorded Legacy are now available through Flying Dog Records.

In the same decade as joining NORML’s board of advisers, Thompson also received The Best of Aspen’s Junior Achievement Award. In his later years, Hunter describes first creating Raoul Duke as a way to free himself to say what he wanted to, and over the course of his career he became more like an appendage of Duke than a real human being.

We also see the earliest manifestations of his hatred of the Bush family. He did some of his best work trying to expose every vile thing that happened each time they bought the country for four years or so.

’Better than Sex, Confessions of a Political Junkie’ was met with the typical acclaim. Rumors began to circulate that he had truly gone off his rocker this time. Sporadic late-night television interviews showed a weathered, tired man. A master of words struggling to put his thoughts together or just outright refusing to. His magazine submissions tapered off and the doctor began spending more time at his secluded Owl Farm in Woody Springs, often complaining of back pain.

1998 brought Thompson’s largest grossing success: the film ’Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.’ The doctor’s patented gangly, exaggerated walk featured in this film (imitated at so many Halloween parties) was actually because he was 6’2’ and one leg was shorter than the other one. and he did a lot of ether.

Thompson has always displayed a knack for predicting the future of politics and I have to admit his predictions of the world to come terrify me. But he was never afraid to tell a secret or expose a lie, what keeps most journalists quiet is fear of the repercussions. Once something is in print its permanent. It can never be un-written.

Even with the extensive research I did, I still don’t know anything about Thompson, not really. He had a brilliant mind that spent nearly half a century ripping him to pieces.

I know he was shameless, hell, half of him didn’t exist, half of him only lived in ink. He had no boundaries, no laws of physics, moving only full-speed-ahead, no looking back, no time to worry about consequences.

I know that he was fearless’how else would he have survived as long as he did? I believe that he believed in the truth.

We all know what happened. He shot himself, was cremated and then shot out of a 150 foot cannon. How does that not go down in history? I think that was the point.

Writers as gifted as Thompson make the edge look very appealing, not to mention a hell of a lot of fun. We are never going to beat things like time and circumstance, why not run all the way to the end. What is there to be afraid of?


About the Author

The Murfreesboro Pulse: Middle Tennessee’s Source for Art, Entertainment and Culture News.

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