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October 14, 2005

The Man Never Beat Hunter S. Thompson

After I posted yesterday's ode to obituaries, I started thinking about another obit my friend, Rob Mortellaro wrote for Hunter S. Thompson. I tried in vain, but could not find it. Evidently, the internets ate it. They do get hungry sometimes you know. I just wish they wouldn't prey on obituaries for great men.

So, I know it's not particulary timely, but this needs to be out there. So without further ado, here it is....

The Man Never Beat Hunter S. Thompson
by Robert Mortellaro

Hunter S. Thompson is dead and we’re all the poorer for it, not because he was ever going to write anything to match his best work, which peaked with the publication of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, but because when the brightest light in a big room goes dark it’s that much harder for all the other bulbs to hold the shadows at bay. And right now in Amerika, 2005 it should be clear to anyone who isn’t brainwashed, evil, or just plain stupid that this country, and caught up with it the rest of the world, is turning into one giant, hellish, careening snowball that’s building speed towards a looming Dark Age, a combination of McCarthyism, the Great Depression, the Holocaust and the last Ice Age, that even now we may be unable to stop.

continue reading...Part journalist, part rock star and part Old Testament prophet, Thompson kicked against every prick he ever came across, whether it was Richard Nixon or Jean Claude Killy. He could recognize a phony or a huckster on sight and, through his writing, helped us to see through the web of propaganda and marketing that always prop up the hollow men who vie for our allegiance and lust after our money. He was the first writer with a true mass following to embody the Beat ethos, which looked with a jaundiced, skeptical eye at consensus reality. While the media machine was busy supporting the false simulacrum that turned liars and whores into leaders and heroes, Thompson used exaggeration, first-person narrative and journeys into Burroughs-esque surrealism—what became known as “gonzo” journalism--to get to a deeper, more profound truth than straight journalism was equipped, or motivated, to reveal. It’s not that individual writers didn’t recognize most politicians as corrupt, Thompson himself says that most of his “peers” despised the men they wrote about, it’s that they couldn’t dare say what they believed and still have a job. And has much changed?

If you ever talk to a writer who denigrates Thompson as a mere personality or raconteur, you can bet that he’s one of the worker-bees whose job is to prop up the web of deception that make up our Truman Show reality. Hunter Thompson’s approach will always be a threat both to those principals who deserve to be skewered, and to all the lackeys whose jobs depend on continuing and promulgating the Big Lie. Those who don’t “get” Thompson (or perhaps who get him too well) are for the most part cardboard-souled, flat, one-dimensional weasels with a pursed-lipped prose style who are put off by the fact that his writing, even when it approaches self-parody, is infinitely more interesting and insightful than their meticulous, balanced, hive-produced product.

I started reading Hunter over twenty years ago as a freshman in junior college. I was talking to my anthropology professor one day as we passed a joint between us during lunch, and he asked me if I’d ever read Hunter S. Thompson. I told him all I ever read was science fiction, Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, guys like that.

“Hunter is … way better than … science fiction,” he managed to gasp in between sharp intakes of air that drove the smoke deep into his lungs. He gave me his copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the next day, which I still have, and which I read in a day. Both Thompson’s style and ideas hit me hard. There was a certain visceral resonance that occurred. The same thing happened shortly after when I first read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature and wound up outlining seventy-five percent of the essay and scribbling voluminous illegible notes in the margins, rendering it largely unreadable. Hunter was a Big Soul, an iconoclast who said “Yes!” to existence. I was hooked. Hunter, along with Lester Bangs, were writers who made me want to write. They were cosmic clowns who abandoned themselves to chaos, a risky way to live, but who (almost) always landed on their feet.

Of course, Lester Bangs died in 1981, due largely to drugs … a huge waste. And Hunter was busted in the early ‘90s for possession of weapons and drugs, although he beat that rap due to excellent, pro bono legal representation provided by the ACLU, shooting off a large-caliber handgun as he drove away from the courthouse in his red convertible, surrounded on all sides by scantily clad women who knew him from the days he worked in the sex industry and who had come to Aspen to give him, at the least, moral support. The Man never beat Hunter Thompson.

You can always submerge yourself too deeply in your influences, of course, and I’m as guilty of that as most. In college I used to hang around a guy I’ll call KB, a good poet who won a few of the local slams and who turned me onto another linchpin counter-culture writer, the late Charles Bukowski. That was our trinity: Thompson, Bangs, Bukowski. We would careen around campus and local bars drinking like our heroes and, when sober, doing our best to write like them. On some days we’d even adopt their vocal patterns and mannerisms, spouting snippets of their prose to each other and to people around us. If that sounds sycophantic, you’re right. But consider this observation about Patti Smith from the punk chronicle, Please Kill Me: “Patty wanted to look like Keith Richards, smoke like Jeanne Moreau, walk like Bob Dylan, and write like Arthur Rimbaud. She had this incredible pantheon of icons that she was patterning herself on. She really had a romantic vision of herself.” And so did my friend and I. We must have felt that by copying them, we could somehow become them, a flawed logic on its face.

KB went on become a raging alcoholic, doing things like begging me to mace the inside of my windshield so he could lick it and find out how it feels to be pepper-sprayed (Hunter, of course, always carried mace in the event that words were not enough to manage the weirdoes and hangers-on he found himself surrounded by). After one swipe, he started to thrash around on the passenger side, moaning for water as tears ran down his cheeks and snot poured out of his nose.

“Goddamn it, K____ , what the fuck is wrong with you,” I screamed, jerking the wheel hard and pointing the nose of my white, ’76 Cutlass coupe into the parking lot of a convenience store, hoping to borrow a bucket or some other large container from the clerk.

“My friend has had an accident,” I explained cryptically, “I need water!”

When I got outside, the passenger door of my car was open and K____ was sprawled on his back hanging halfway out of the car, his face bright red and his head tilted back so that it almost touched the curb. I pulled back the bucket and let him have it, pissed-off that this fine evening of drinking, driving and listening to the new Iggy Pop album was in danger of coming to an end.

“Ahhh, God….more … more …it’s burning!” he pleaded, forcing me to bully the clerk into refilling the bucket five or six more times. Finally, K____ sat upright, drenched from the waist up (along with the entire passenger side of my car), and looked at me through two tiny, moist slits.

“Jesus Christ,” he muttered, “I’m thirsty as fuck … let’s go get a couple of pitchers at the Copper Top.”

And what was I saying about getting too close too your influences?

My friend eventually moved back to South Florida. The last I heard he was working at a chain bookstore.

Booze and insanity: 1.

Talent: 0.

As for me, I set my own karma back at least a lifetime or two and am in the process of trying to play catch-up. If I work at it, maybe I can get one of those lifetimes back. For every Hunter Thompson there are a million train wrecks, which, of course, is not his fault.

In a recent poll, it was revealed that about half of all high-school seniors believe that the government should have prior approval over stories published in newspapers, and that around 20% think that people should not be allowed to say things that are unpopular. Maybe the simplest explanation for his suicide is that Hunter saw something in the future, something that he wanted no part of.

In his essay, “Kids Say the Darndest and Most Stalinist Things,” Bill Maher, commenting on the poll, quipped, “I thought kids were supposed to rage against the machine, not for it …” Well, Hunter S. Thompson raged against the fascist, dehumanizing tendencies in our culture for over thirty-five years, and for that we owe him a deep debt of gratitude. Because even after his writing declined, blunted by fame and over-exposure, perhaps, as many post-mortems have pointed out, or because, after Nixon went down, there was no opponent worthy enough to inspire in him the Dylan-esque heights of outrage and poetry that fueled his very best writing, we were better off with Hunter in the fray, pointing his cigarette holder at the men behind the curtain. Like Dylan did in the ‘60s, he knew the answer was once again blowing in the wind, except that this time around it’s blowing in the opposite direction, and is whispering things very few of us are willing to hear. When a prophet finds himself preaching to the converted, maybe it’s time to find a new congregation. From the introduction of Kingdom Of Fear, published in 2003:

Coming of age in a fascist police state will not be a barrel of fun for anybody, much less for people like me, who are not inclined to suffer Nazis gladly and feel only contempt for the cowardly flag-suckers who would gladly give up their outdated freedom to live for the mess of pottage they have been conned into believing will be freedom from fear …

My life has been the polar opposite of safe, but I am proud of it and so is my son, and that is good enough for me. I would do it all over again without changing the beat, although I have never recommended it to others. That would be cruel and irresponsible and wrong, I think, and I am none of those things.

Whoops, that’s it, folks. We are out of time. Sorry. Mahalo.

Mahalo to you, Hunter, Mahalo to you.


  • At October 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Cookie, thanks for this post - excellent insight and a refreshing breeze of truth in the face of the billowing rancid black smoke eminating from DC



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