Sunday marks the sixth anniversary of Hunter S. Thompson doing his best Ernest Hemingway impression. I’ve always had trouble writing about Thompson, or even expressing how much of an impact he has had on me (for reasons that I will get into later), but make no mistake about –
Hunter S. Thompson is my hero.
I mean that in more ways than one, and it’s been a hard road without him. Until 2005, he was one of the few heroes of mine that was still alive. Johnny Cash had died a year and a half before, and when Pope John Paul II died two months after Thompson, it seemed as if the world of the gods was caving in on me. It the pantheon of living heroes, the only person that quickly comes to mind is Harlan Ellison, and back in 2005 I had barely even read him (blasphemy, I know).
Over the years my memorials have taken different forms. Last year I got blasted and watched a few movies, posting my favorite Thompson quotes on Facebook. In 2005 I sat down with a VHS copy of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas and a twelve pack of Milwaukee’s Best. Somewhere around 2007 or 2008 I forgot completely. So it goes.
This year I figured I’d spend the whole week on a Thompson kick, posting various writings and diatribes on this blog, culminating with an orgy of alcohol over the weekend, a film fest at my house on either Friday or Saturday night (T.B.D.) and a 12-hour drinking binge in New York City on Sunday.
I begin with a story I wrote shortly after his death, published in the literary magazine of Marist College, Generator. I was a senior at the time, wrote it in about two hours, and for all of its grammatical faults, I have to say, six years later it (mostly) holds up. Although it spent years hanging on my wall, I don’t think I’ve actually read the thing in almost five years.
In digging through my archives in search of material to post this week, I came across the first draft of that essay, and there was a paragraph which seems fitting, especially this year:
As a tribute to the Godfather of New Journalism, I cannot help but write about him from a personal perspective – my own way of coping with loss. After all, the man was my hero, and like so many others in the Freak Kingdom, the model for my life and religion, the epitome of what was hep. I was tempted to write a normal news article, but that would just be a weak cop-out – the man has taught me too much to do that to him...
Yes, I will be writing about Thompson this week, I will be reading his work, but most importantly, I will be contemplating how he has affected my life – past, present, and future. Because ever since he took a last toke on his favorite .45, his influence on me has only grown. If you want proof, look no further than the photo hanging on my living room wall of me rolling around on Richard Nixon’s grave…
(Transcription after the photos)
In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Raoul Duke's companion was Doctor Gonzo, who was based on Hunter S. Thompson's real life friend Oscar Zeta Acosta. Acosta was a Chicano lawyer who disappeared and may or may not have died and/or been assassinated in 1974. The Brown Buffalo has been sighted every now and then in various places in Mexico, leading some to believe that his death was staged. In the same vein I find it difficult to believe that Thompson is dead, and cannot help but think that in a few years splintered reports will begin to filter in from various Mexican dive bars and shooting ranges about a schizophrenic old man and his cannonball of a Samoan counterpart, tear-assing around the country in a red convertible.
I can even see the people making the claims, still slurring their words from the shock of the scene, attempting to describe how the white man was waving around a long barreled .357 and muttering incoherent gibberish about Chivas and the Oakland Raiders while the brown man was sucking on an LSD-25 tab and quietly staring down at his round belly. Thompson can‘t be dead, because unlike the fad t-shirts promoted by useless frauds like Sean Combs, he was the American Dream. While Thompson spent so much time lamenting at its loss, he was in actuality living it, and if he is truly gone, then God help the dream and the rest of us still living. Thompson lived out his last few years with a beautiful wife and son in a secluded ranch stockpiled with firearms, alcohol, and narcotics, twisted for most of the day, raising game and writing whenever he felt like it. If that isn‘t the American Dream, then can it really be a tangible goal?
Like Thompson's life, his writing makes me yearn of a better time, when you could run a bum on a hotel without presenting a major credit card or smoke a cigarette on an airplane (both are now probably felonies), a time that Thompson remembered fondly. To him it was "20 sex-crazed years between the introduction of the birth control pill and the eruption of AIDS", a period that was "a wild and orgiastic time in America, and I loved it." Even Vegas is different: the glittering family resorts of today are a far cry from the old gambling town of the 70’s. With Thompson gone, the world might at first seem doomed.
But in reality it isn‘t, because Thompson's legacy is carried on the shoulders of the weird folk, who skirt around the fringes of a society that they really have no part in. These are the quiet folk, who get unmentionable pleasure from seeing a blue collared reaction to hard drugs and alcoholism, laughing all the way at the people who will never have a sense of what it feels like to truly live. They are the people that Thompson gave a voice to, and now that he has gone to the realm of the Great Magnet, there is nothing left to do but recede back into the underground cave of illegal pleasures and observations.
My definitive eulogy to Thompson was simple: the night after he died I watched the celluloid version of him with my roommate and his girlfriend, getting drunk on cheap beer and reciting lines from the film/book. I'm sure that this or something similar was typical across the land that night: thousands of followers remembering in silent tribute the man who had such a profound impact on their lives.
I used to watch the movie at least twice a week, from the first VHS copy I bought for six dollars at Best Buy through the DVD and the special edition two disc set, many of those times drinking whiskey or beer in the same fashion as that reflective night. I must've read the book four or five times and the movie some two hundred, and for a while this time around seemed no different.
It wasn't until about ten minutes into the film that I realized it was the first time was watching it in the post-Thompson era. It was a weird feeling to behold - a foreign sensation that I can't say I enjoyed and yet at the same time one that was unavoidable. I don‘t think the beast helped either.
I had found out about Thompson's demise about one o’clock in the morning the night before, and it hadn't really set in until the movie came on the next night. There are only a few freaks on the Marist campus who would sympathize, and it took me until the next day to get in contact with most of the ones that I knew. One said she was shocked; another asked me how I was doing with it (I suppose at that point I was melancholy but strangely content with it); still a third wished she could join in on my impromptu HST memorial service.
So we have entered the post-HST era, which will probably be a stranger time than when he was alive. But where do we go from here? What great message can we derive from Thompson's work to make us feel better about our lives?
Thompson left us words of wisdom that lit such a situation:
"The Edge... there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over."
It's the closest thing we have to "Carpe Diem", and in today's world, I can't help but feel that for fiends like me, the edge is getting closer by the day. Thompson means to tell us that if we don‘t grab life by the horns, that if we don‘t follow the American Dream out to weird places like Las Vegas in 1971 or Saigon (a city that no longer exists), then like the Good Doctor, the dream really is dead.
I was upset at Thompson's demise, but I don‘t feel bad for the man. He knew had been in pain for a while, and he chose to go out like Hemingway, with peace and dignity.
In the days after his death I read dozens of news articles about Thompson's death, and of all the headlines that sum up the man, the New York Post said it best. The headline read, "Shoot Me From Cannon: 'Gonzo' King's Last Request on Funeral." The accompanying picture was of Thompson in his trademark sunglasses and pointing a gun at the camera. What the article said didn't really matter, because the headline and photo summed the man up perfectly.
Thompson might be gone, but his spirit lives on in each and every twisted mind that still yearns to believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Mahalo, Doc...