The famed and flawed journalist Hunter S. Thompson shot himself to death Feb. 21, 2005 -- bringing to a brutal end a life that had always been lived just short of too far over The Edge. Nine years before, I spent two midnight sessions speaking with the author of Fear in Loathing in Las Vegas for what had been planned as a long Q&A about his life as a writer, which had begun as a teenager in Louisville's Highlands neighborhood. I was chief political writer of his hometown's alt weekly and had only recently begun the diffifcult but necessary task of working my way out from under his towering influence on my writing.
The first interview, deep on a Sunday night about midnight mountain time, had ended well. "This is fine. Call me tomorrow night and we'll finish up," he had said, with perfect southern courtesy.
That would be cutting things close, as my deadline would be the following morning at 10 a.m., but I figured what the hell.
About 15 minutes into the second interview, past 1 a.m. Louisville time, he suddenly asked me: "Why are you wasting your time asking me all these questions? Don't you have a deadline?" I did, it was in about eight hours. "I am asking, because I want to know what you think about the questions," I replied.
"You're the one writing the piece. Write it," he said, irritated now. "But I'm not as interested in what I think. I want to know what you think."
"Everyone wants to know that," he snarled, angry now. "Fuck you!"
And the line went dead.
I remember I was sitting at the kitchen table in the little two bedroom apartment my roommate Grant and I had over an antiques shop on the now-fashionable (but not then) Market Street district just east of downtown. He was sleeping, and the place was eerily quiet, no surprise since we were the only residential unit in a block or two. On my laptop was maybe enough answers for half the long-form Q&A my editor and I had planned, if best. Spilled out across the table was a mound of books by and about Thompson I had been reading (mostly re-reading) furiously since managing editor Joseph Grove had called with the assignment two days before. It was 2 a.m., and my deadline for up to 4,000 words -- and I was paid by the word -- was at 10 a.m.
I did the only thing I knew to do. I went to bed and set the alarm for six o'clock.
In the morning, I groggily realized Thompson was right. What the story needed was an organizing intelligence, and for better or worse, it was going to have to be me who provided it.
My first goal was to convey to readers why Thompson, who was coming to Louisville to receive the key to the city later that week, mattered in the first place. It certainly wasn't because of the antics that by then he had become equally famous for. It was because of his writing. And I wanted to explore the idea of a second act. Clearly he was past his prime, and it seemed to me that to sidestep that reality would be a disservice to the brilliant early work.
You will find, I suspect, distracting some of the my authorial intrusions into the piece below. There are a few lines I wish I could take back. But the piece, written in a blaze of caffeine and fear and eventually a kind of high 17 years ago, stands up as an honest look at what made HST worth reading then, and now.
What made me ask him if he wished he had jumped? I am not sure I gave it a lot of thought. Maybe I was charmed by the eloquence of the words he had used to decribe those temptations of suicide. Maybe I suspected it was half showmanship and wanted to call his bluff? In any case, he had worried aloud that his Second Act would be dimmer than his first -- and he had been right.
When, nine years later, he actually did kill himself, I had forgotten that conversation at first. Only going back to read this piece, in service of a book review for one of the posthumous biographies, did I recall the conversation. I wish he had hung on. Some of his latter work, as historian Douglas Brinkley told me back then, had every mark of the once-routine brilliance. For my money his obituary of Richard Nixon, written two years prior to our interview, is one of the best written pieces of journalism from the 1990s.
But it wasn't to be the case. Thompson's note to his wife and son was brutal and brief:
*"No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won't hurt."
Hunter S. Thompson's homecoming: Twenty-five years after Thompson wrote "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," a group of Louisvillians is preparing to honor the city's most famous literary son
By Michael A. Lindenberger
Louisville Eccentric Observer
Dec. 4. 1996
It's been 42 years since a 17-year-old Hunter S. Thompson sat in the Jefferson County jail, contemplating his future. Anyone who has spent even a night locked up can tell you that jail has a way of working on your self-confidence, so his prospects might not have exactly glittered with promise from where he sat then. "I really had no choice," Thompson said in a telephone interview this week from his Woody Creek, Colo., ranch. "After getting out of Jefferson County jail, I really had no place to go but up."
At age 59, Thompson has remained at the pinnacle of American literary fame for 25 years, and will be back in his hometown Dec. 12 to be honored as, in
the words of the historian Douglas Brinkley, "a true American original." This year marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," his seminal work examining the corruption of the American Dream by the forces of evil emanating from the Nixon Era.
Thompson has explained his book as an honest but failed attempt to record as directly as possible -- with no editing, no revisions, just straight camera-like
reporting -- what happened during a strange, twisted trip to Las Vegas during a bleak and humorless period of American history.
"So now, six months later, the ugly bastard is finished," Thompson said in the jacket copy for the book. "And I like it -- despite the fact that I failed at what I was trying to do. As true Gonzo Journalism, this doesn't work at all -- and even if it did, I couldn't possibly admit it. Only a goddamn lunatic would write a thing like this and then claim it was true."
True or not -- and by whose definition, Jack? -- his failure has been the dream, the model and the example of excellence for just about every budding
journalist since. "One thing people lose sight of, he's a natural writer," said Brinkley, who is the editor of the forthcoming four-volume collection of Thompson's letters, and who replaced Stephen Ambrose as director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies. "I mean it comes through. Wait until you see the letters he wrote when he was 18 years old. I mean, you and I wish we could write one today like that. He has a talent, as an athlete might, that is very rare."
That talent led him to write two other book-length masterpieces: "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail: '72," a collection of his dead-eye reporting and for-strong-stomachs-only commentaries for Rolling Stone during the 1972 presidential campaign, and his first book, Hell's Angels.
But he had more than just awesome writing ability.
Early in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," a book Thompson said he "worked as hard as I could to beat ... in terms of economy, and I didn't come
close," the narrator says that, "Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I
have ever known."
I asked Thompson whether he suspected himself of any particular virtues.
"I am not going to claim -- you know Nick Carraway was fictional ... I could claim that in another voice ... But it is easier to be honest. ... I'm lazy and lying requires all kinds of work, you know when you start making constructs of a ... Reality, I found, is just about as weird as you could want it, as you could handle it.
"I have a story right here (in front of him) out of Beloit, Wis. Try this: Story out of Beloit -- `Man who chewed off ear ordered to trial: A Beloit man, charged with mayhem, for allegedly chewing off a man's ear because the man shot him in the penis, was ordered Thursday to stand trial.' It's hard to make up things weirder than that."
But he also said his wildly successful campaign book -- hailed even by The New York Times as the best of its genre -- boiled down to simply writing what he saw, and doing it honestly.
"It is also where you put yourself as a journalist," he said. "What you see depends on your point of view. A lot of people have said, Clare Booth Luce said, `All history is gossip'. Every once in a while you get in the position to see, you know, the reality of it.
"In the campaign book, I actually saw the reality of a presidential campaign. And the first time out it was a revelation to me. I thought I had covered
campaigns before but I had never really been in the belly of the beast, and I just wrote some of that. And, yeah, I was honest.
"Uh, my judgments proved out to be pretty accurate. Nixon, you know, Watergate ... I am wandering here. I am off your question, but it's a hard question
Thompson is an admitted politics junkie, a vice he often accused Richard Nixon of sharing, but he says his enthusiasm for national politics has been severely dampened. "I am embarrassed that I endorsed (Bill Clinton in 1992). If you read that (article) I didn't really endorse him. I made the mistake of thinking about the lesser-of-two-evils argument again. It was like Nazi or neo-Nazi. That's not the local situation, but that lesser-of-two-evils argument, I have found to be, uh, it turns hell on you later. I am proud that I voted for Ralph Nader (in 1996), and I wouldn't be proud if I had voted for Clinton. Or Dole."
He said there is a widening difference between local and national politics.
"I have come to see that politics is the art of controlling your environment. Locally, that's where you can have that effect. And the presidential campaigns
no longer offer that sense of participation. How's anybody going to think that a choice between Clinton and Dole (will affect their environment)? Or Ralph Nader for that matter.
"No, I have taken a temporary holiday from national politics. It may be permanent, I don't know."
On the local front, however, it's war as usual. A year ago last month, Thompson was arrested on a lesser DUI charge (driving while impaired) and he has been fighting since the arrest, which he says was politically motivated and planned by local rightwing yahoos.
"They're definitely after me ... they got me right at the city limits because the cop saw me coming, and he had been chasing me all night and he was about to lose his jurisdiction. He was panicked."
According to the Aspen Times, lawyers for Thompson brutally worked over the arresting officer at a hearing earlier this year and, Thompson said, exposed him as a liar and a fraud.
"The cop lied in court repeatedly," he said.
"Well, it's coming up again for trial in March, and we're going to go all the way through to trial. There'll be no deal, no talking about it. There's at least one crooked cop on this force. ... It's politics. We're going to break this loop. It'll be a lot of fun. You'll hear about it."
We will all hear about it, for while Thompson is coming home next week for recognition as a premier American writer (and the best this city has ever produced), that recognition comes long after many people have formed impressions of him as just a drunken outlaw journalist, a dangerous drug fiend with keen political perception.
Until P.J. O'Rourke interviewed him last month in Rolling Stone, it was nearly impossible to read about Thompson without muddling through once again the details of, as Brinkley puts it, a life of flamboyance and excess.
O'Rourke's interview, Brinkley said, was so good because it focused on Thompson as a writer, which is after all what he has been all along, and not as a "drug icon or cartoon character."
"That's what we're doing here," Brinkley said. "It's the 25th anniversary of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and that's why we're doing this event in Louisville. It's time people recognized Hunter as a great American original.
Brinkley said he didn't fully recognize Thompson's genius until he began working with his letters. "I was just blown away. I have always enjoyed Hunter but also, I didn't take him as seriously. Jesus God, man, he writes letters. You're talking about a man who writes these compositions, three a day every day of his life."
Brinkley is right, of course. With Thompson, it is his writing that makes him matter -- something the Modern Library recognized when it included Las Vegas on its classics list, putting Thompson right between Tolstoy and Thackeray. It is also the writing, as any intelligent reading of his works will tell you, that has always mattered to Thompson.
It's hard to put that in perspective other than by just giving you a taste of the potion itself. So let's, as Thompson once said about Fitzgerald, "have a look at how the big boys write. Stand back.
Six months ago I was getting a daily rush out of watching the nightmare (of Watergate) unfold. There was a warm sense of poetic justice in seeing "fate" drive these moneychangers out of the temple they had worked so hard to steal from its rightful owners. The word "paranoia" was no longer mentioned, except as a joke or by yahoos, in serious conversations about national politics. The truth was turning out to be even worse than my "paranoid ravings” during that painful 1972 election.
But that high is beginning to fade, tailing down to a vague sense of angst. Whatever happens to Richard Nixon when the wolves finally rip down his door seems almost beside the point, now. He has been down in his bunker for so long, that even his friends will feel nervous if he tries to re-emerge. All we can really ask of him, at this point, is a semblance of self-restraint until some way can be found to get rid of him gracefully.
This is not a cheerful prospect, for Mr. Nixon or for anyone else - but it would be a hell of a lot easier to cope with if we could pick up a glimmer of light at the end of this foul tunnel of a year that only mad dogs and milkmen can claim to have survived without serious brain damage.
Or maybe it's just me. It is ten below zero outside and the snow hasn't stopped for two days. The sun has apparently been sucked into orbit behind the comet Kohoutek. Is this really a new year? Are we bottoming out? Or are we into The Age of The Fear?
Has the temperature dropped? The raw words tend to make one shiver. That comes from the pages of The New York Times on New Year's Day, 1974. They make me glad I was only two then.
Before we move on, have another quick look at what Brinkley is talking about, this time from Thompson's introduction to "Generation of Swine":
Maybe there is no Heaven. Or maybe this is all pure gibberish - a product of the demented imagination of a lazy drunken hillbilly with a heart full of hate who has found out a way to live out there where the real winds blow - to sleep late, have fun, get wild, drink whiskey, and drive fast on empty streets with nothing in mind except falling in love and not getting arrested.
Those pieces are the kinds of things writers slobber for. And Thompson has been writing like that, and on a national scale, for at least 30 years.
It could have all turned out differently, though. When he was typing the introduction to "The Great Shark Hunt," the first volume of his Gonzo papers, in
December of 1977, Thompson considered jumping off the balcony of his publisher's New York City office and into the Plaza Fountain. As he put it then
I feel like I might as well be sitting up here carving the words for my own tombstone ... and when I finish, the only fitting exit will be right straight off this fucking terrace and into the Fountain, 28 stories below and at least 200 yards out in the air and across Fifth Avenue.
Nobody could follow that act. Not even me ... and in fact the only way I can deal with this eerie situation at all is to make a conscious decision that I have already lived and finished the life I planned to live - (13 years longer, in fact) - and everything from now on will be A New Life, a different thing, a gig that ends tonight and starts tomorrow morning. So if I decide to leap for The Fountain when I finish this memo, I want to make one thing perfectly clear - I would genuinely love to make that leap, and if I don't I will always consider it a mistake and a failed opportunity, one of the very few serious mistakes of my First Life that is now ending.
But what the hell? I probably won't do it (for all the wrong reasons), and I'll probably finish this table of contents and go home for Christmas and then have to live for 100 more years with all this gibberish I'm lashing together.
Thompson said this week that he had struggled since writing that with whether or not he should have jumped.
"Well, there's a part of me that thinks I should have jumped," he said. "But I would have missed a lot of fun. Dramatically, it would have been perfect had I jumped. Is that what you are asking me, whether I should have jumped?
"I wrestle with that. It's not the first time I had to wrestle with that. Yeah, I was up in New York again, a few weeks ago at press parties, I had a suite on top of the Four Seasons, with a huge terrace, that looked all over the city, and I could still see the Plaza Fountain."
Part of the difficulty of his not jumping is in the fact that his First Life has been a damned hard act for his second one to follow. As many letters as he has written, as many columns as he has faxed and as many headlines as he has made, it's hard to deny that what he wrote before 1977 was in a class all by itself.
But Brinkley says Thompson's second life has been enormously productive as well. "First off, not everybody writes three classic books -- "Hell's Angels," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail: '72" – those are books that are really going to be all-time classics. So we tend in this country, I feel sometimes, to be hard on our artists -- meaning, people say, `Oh, Christ, Bob Dylan sucks, his last album was no good.' My god, the guy's got 35 albums. Give him a break. I feel a little bit that way with Hunter. I mean, he's 60 years old.
"But in recent years, he's done things like Generation of Swine, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Some of his recent pieces, which have been uncollected, are some of the best things he's done. I think the "Fear and Loathing in Elko," dealing with Clarence Thomas, and the one on Palm Beach with Roxanne Pulitzer are just classic. The Roxanne Pulitzer piece that he wrote in 1983 is just one of the great things about the growth of celebrityhood. Read it -- it is the O.J. case before O.J. So, I think he has some great gems that have gone through there.
"And, the writing of his novel, "Polo is My Life," that he is doing now, is really, really good. I think when it comes it will be another major novel for him."
He said Thompson's been revitalized by, among other things, the recognition of just how "kick-ass" his letters book is going to be. His novel will be published sometime following next May's release of the first letters volume, "Hunter S. Thompson: The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman."
In addition, Thompson conceded that he is negotiating a deal to write a regular column for Rolling Stone beginning next year.
"Yeah, I am thinking about doing that," Thompson said. "I miss that immediacy of a daily, writing a story at night like you are doing and seeing it tomorrow. ... But I am going to try it, yeah. But they have a four-week lead time and I am not sure ... there's no presidential campaign, no war. ..."
Brinkley said the Rolling Stone column could begin as soon as next January, and would be in every issue. If that comes about, there'll be even more cause for Louisville to celebrate its famous son.
It's a strange world. Thompson admires Fitzgerald's work, and indeed there's a lot in "The Great Gatsby" that reminds one of Thompson. Neither writerwastes words, and both deal with the American Dream. Each seems to have hinted -- perhaps Fitzgerald did so more subtly -- that America is not what it should be. That something, somewhere, went wrong.
Fitzgerald ends his book by wondering how Gatsby's West Egg shoreline must have looked to the first Dutch settlers who long before saw it unblemished and representative of a whole world yet unspoiled by the excesses of Europe and of "civilization." He imagined it must have appeared as "a fresh green breast of the new world" and said that "for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity to wonder."
Thompson also spoke of unrealized potential when he described George McGovern in September of 1972 as "one of the very few men who have run for president of the United States in this century who really understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon."
Apparently, America, like Thompson, had a First Life full of splendor, and as we struggle through its second life now -- full of AIDS and fear and television whores and crooked cops -- we can't help but long for the glory and beauty of the First.
But Thompson is different from Fitzgerald. After all, he didn't jump. Fitzgerald died young from his excesses, while Thompson is still alive, despite all expectations to the contrary. He's alive and still producing, full of magic and necessary rage (even at reporters who ask ignorant questions).
Maybe Thompson's secret has to do with his honesty. "I am a writer and a journalist, and if people can't get it, (then) like Faulkner said, let `em read it again."
But my guess, for what it's worth, is that Thompson's edge begins with his hearing. He can hear the music in good writing, his own and others. That's why he likes Gatsby.
"That's the music in the writing. I'm a sucker for the music."