“History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit…”
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing IN Las Vegas
What more do we need to now about the Good Doctor Hunter S. Thompson that he hasn’t already told us in his writing? That he had a huge appetite for drugs? His predilection for driving hard and fast? That he had a fetish for lipstick?
Maybe the Good Doctor wasn’t quite as forthcoming about that last item as those quoted in Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, an oral biography compiled by Rolling Stone founder Jann S. Wenner and Rolling Stone writer and editor Corey Seymour. But his work didn’t neglect lipstick either. After all, “gonzo” journalism is defined by its writer’s first-person involvement. In Thompson case, his presence was usually bigger than the stories he covered. The result, through his eyes, was a glimpse into the nightmare known as the American dream.
Gonzo brings together memories of HST, including his habit of smearing lipstick on himself and others whenever he felt like it, from over 100 of Thompson’s friends and colleagues. Largely, the book confirms what we already knew. But there are more than a few revelations: Thompson was more a gentleman than we might have imagined. He feared for his safety during the fall of Saigon. And he was an incurable romantic.
Thompson frequently took small stories and made them his own fiction, whether it was the Mint 400 desert motorcycle race that framed Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas or, in the extreme, his rant on Clarence Thomas in the piece “Fear and Loathing In Elko.” As the fear and loathing banner implies, Thompson’s vision was one of paranoia and anger. If readers didn’t quite pick up the fact that he was also a gentleman through all the drink-and-drug addled narcissism, well the good Doctor had a reputation to protect. And that is one of the questions raised by those quoted: after creating his weird and wild personae, did Thompson then feel obliged to live up to it? The idea is implicit in his frequently cited motto, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
We know the paranoia wasn’t a put on; it makes sense of someone who consumed and transported so many drugs. But paranoia has its price. In one of the better anecdotes here, one that shows both the paranoiac and the gentleman, a bar manager tells how he and Thompson responded with sudden fists when two guys who’d been eyeing them walk up. After the brawl, all four go to the hospital for stitches. Finding out the two were only interested in autographs, Thompson takes them back to the bar and buys round after round of drinks.
Oral histories, like gonzo journalism itself, are always suspect and this one’s no exception. Gonzo is the Rolling Stone view of its subject and the holes in the history come during the times Thompson was either alienated from the rag or finding work elsewhere. Wenner’s deadline and expense account battles with Thompson at Rolling Stone are well-known. The Good Doctor accused his boss of squirreling away thousands of first editions of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas to later sell at a profit (he accused the publishers of Hells Angels of the same thing). Here, Wenner presents himself as a lifelong friend even in the face of disagreement. His comments, all too conveniently, often appear just in time to save the consistent flow of the narrative.
Everyone wanted to be Thompson’s friend and he kept them to a small circle. He had a sign posted out front his Woody Creek home near Aspen that said “Guests of guests are not welcome.” Still, after reading some of these accounts, you have to wonder why anyone would put up with his shit. Witness the story of one neighbor who was greeted by the barrel of a shotgun which Thompson discharged in his face. The gun was loaded with confetti.
Thompson, because of his Aspen home and Hollywood connections, had a host of celebrity friends and the likes of Jack Nicholson, Angelica Huston, Sean Penn, Ed Bradley, Jimmy Buffett, even Marilyn Manson take star turns here. Johnny Depp, who plays Hunter in the movie Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas (still cinema’s best depiction of an acid trip) writes an appropriately awe-struck introduction. The best stories of Thompson’s ability to sow mayhem come from the less-than- famous. The exception is Nicholson and Huston’s tale of Thompson assaulting their home with shot gun blasts and tape recordings of screaming animals, then placing an elk heart on their door step which promptly leaks blood into the house. Frightened, Nicholson gathers the children and heads to the basement where he calls 911.
Despite the high jinks, Thompson comes off as something of a tragic figure and not just because of his addictions and suicide. The writer William Kennedy says that Thompson saw himself as a sort of Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unrequited, new-money romantic. That’s the best part of Gonzo. Its sources reveal sides of the Good Doctor that even many of them never had a chance to recognize.—Cabbage Rabbit
Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, an oral biography by Jann S. Wenner & Corey Seymour; Little Brown, hardback, 467 pages, $28.99
A version of this review first appeared in the Inland Empire Weekly