Gonzo Goes On…and On

When four years ago Hunter S. Thompson put a bullet in the back of his throat and through his brain stem—“he couldn’t have placed it better” said the local coroner— he triggered a slow bleed of tributes, biographies and personal accounts that has yet to be stemmed. Since that exclamation point on a life full of wild declaration, certain neighbors, colleagues and even his widow have tried to do what Thompson did best: tell about his life. As Thompson himself might ask, haven’t we had enough?

Enough, indeed. For what have we learned from all this pen-to-paper in honor of the addled writer and social critic? Not a damn thing, really. Certainly nothing–or at least nothing we’re going to believe–that Thompson hadn’t already told us himself. Oh, sure there are anecdotes that didn’t appear in his work and speculation on his thinking that remains, well, speculation. But if you want to know about Hunter S. Thompson, the dean of Gonzo journalism, the king of fear and loathing, the prince of mayhem and prophet of an ugly and terrible doom, forget about the come-lately books we’re about to discuss here and instead read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (especially apt this past political season), read Hell’s Angels and The Rum Diaries, read The Curse of Lono and The Great Shark Hunt and the letters collected in Fear and Loathing in America and Proud Highway and even the later works, Generation of Swine and all the others that seemed so redundant—recycled Gonzo if you will—yes, read them all. And don’t forget Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. They’ll give you the picture, alright. But whatever you do, avoid all these after-the-fact tomes like a plague of flea-infested rats. Unless, of course, you’re like me; a rabid fan of the Good Doctor who can’t get enough of every drug-and-drink driven moment of his life. Then, by all means, read these books. And marvel at a man who accelerated into all twists and turns.

“Gonzo” is often cited as an actual form of journalism—Tom Wolfe is said to be another of its practitioners—but it was totally invented and practiced by our not-so-humble subject. It’s hardly journalism. Officially defined as reporting in which the reporter becomes a large part of the story, it’s more concisely described as “a variant of fiction…works of art” by Thompson’s long-time friend, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Kennedy. Doug Brinkley, the executor of Thompson’s literary estate, explains away the “falsehoods propagated by uniformed English professors and pot-smoking fans” about the origins of the word in the Jann Wenner’s oral biography Gonzo. Brinkley says it comes from a tune recorded by New Orleans jazz pianist James Booker and means “to play unhinged.” Thompson loved the tune and drove Boston Globe columnist Bill Cardoso crazy playing the song over and over when the two shared a room while covering the 1968 presidential primary in New Hampshire. Cardoso later complemented Thompson’s now famous piece on the Kentucky Derby as “pure Gonzo journalism!” Thompson quickly adopted the term as his own and Gonzo became the trademark not only of indulged storytelling but a lifestyle.

gonzoGonzo:The Life of Hunter S. Thompson is a narrative collection of memories from over 100 of the Good Doctor’s friends, lovers and associates. Assembled by Rolling Stone founder and publisher Wenner and editor Corey Seymour, it’s crowded with celebrities. Jack Nicholson, Angelica Huston, Norman Mailer, Jimmy Buffett and Sean Penn all make contributions; the introduction is written by Johnny Depp. It focuses on Thompson’s relationship to the long-in-the-tooth, once counter-culture RS. Thompson’s deadline and expense account battles with Wenner are well-known and Thompson claimed a falling out with Wenner who he accused of squirreling away thousands of first–edition copies of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas for later, more profitable sales. But Wenner glosses over all that here as if it were a joke. It may have been. Thompson had accused the publishers of Hell’s Angels of the same thing.

Thompson’s long-time illustrator Ralph Steadman—who declared “It’s about time” when he learned of HST’s suicide—calls his tribute The Joke’s Over. Despite the title there are still plenty of laughs: Thompson giving Steadman some psilocybin for sea sickness during their coverage of the America’s Cup (surprisingly the illustrator’s only experience with hallucinogens); the Good Doctor’s reaction upon first meeting Steadman: ““Ye Gods, Ralph! A matted-haired geek with string-warts! They told me you were weird, but not that weird.” Thompson urged Steadman not to write—“You’ll bring shame on your family,” he counseled. Steadman should have listened.

Steadman’s illustrations are splattered through Anita Thompson’s The Gonzo Way. As Thompson’s widow, you would guess Mrs. Thompson (nee Bejmuk) would have fresh insight. We almost threw away the thin little text when we read, “If you are one of those who loved the Hunter S. Thompson Show for its decadence, its crazy debauchery on ever level, mixed with Wild Turkey, Dunhills, and multitudes of uppers and downers and screamers and laughers…this book is not for you.” Well, of course we loved the Good Doctor for those very things, and his ability to function albeit crazily. Bejmuk’s attempt to recreate Thompson as some sort of Zen master, embodied by seven lessons of Gonzo (Lesson 2: “It’s wrong when it stops being fun”) somehow seems false despite the truth of these maxims. Rumors that Thompson and his wife were at odds just before his suicide, as confirmed by son Juan Thompson in Wenner’s Gonzo, make this book something of a guilty pleasure.

The most disturbing of these texts is the most recent. Friends Michael Cleverly and Bob Braudis (Braudis is the look-the-other way sheriff of Thompson’s Colorado county) spend a lot of time telling us insider stories in The Kitchen Readings. Fair enough, but they spend too much time gloating on their insider status and the subtitle claim of “Untold Stories” is a lie. Some of this stuff’s been told before. Maybe our criticism springs from jealousy at not being an insider ourselves. Still the stories, even if a number of them are second hand, are entertaining. We especially like the ones about Thompson’s pea fowls. And there’s a good accounting of the blasting of Thompson ashes over his beloved Woody Creek from a 150 foot tall cannon topped with the Gonzo fist. Read it and weep.

Thompson was a pack rat all the way back to his high school days and aren’t we Gonzo nuts glad he saved every letter, photo and rough draft. Gonzo, which bears his name as author, is an oversized scrapbook of photos and documents that highlight various periods of Thompson’s life. There’s little to read here—an occasional quote in large type breaks up the pages of photo collage and another introduction by Depp—but it’s a joy to see this handsome youth from Kentucky become the balding and ribald pessimist we all love. This book will make a great coffee table coaster for those sweating tumblers of Wild Turkey. As Hunter said, a phrase often repeated in all these books, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” Indeed.

Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, an oral biography by Jann S. Wenner & Corey Seymour; Little Brown, hardback, 467 pages, $28.99

The Joke’s Over: Bruised Memories: Gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson and Me by Ralph Steadman; Harvest Books, paperback, $15

The Gonzo Way by Anita Thompson; Fulcrum Press, hardback, 112 pages, $14.95

The Kitchen Readings: Untold Stories of Hunter S. Thompson by Michael Cleverly and Bob Braudis; Harper Perennial, paperback274 pages $13.95

Gonzo by Hunter S. Thompson; AMMO Books, hardback, 289 pages, $39.95

Gatsby Goes Gonzo

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?

“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

High On Hunter

Confession: we didn’t think much of Ralph Steadman’s bug-eyed illustrations for Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas when we first saw them. Maybe it was the drugs we were on. A friend explained it best: “Steadman’s acid trip isn’t my acid trip.”

Sure, Steadman’s drawings for Fear and Loathing, and other of Thompson’s books, had all the qualities of a bad acid trip: strange perspectives, exaggerated body parts, scoured expressions. They just didn’t resemble anything we’d seen when tripping. But, then, we’d made the wrong assumption.

Of course, sometime later…maybe when the acid wore off…we realized Steadman wasn’t even along for the paranoid road trip that became the book and later a Johnny Depp movie (which does have some wonderful hallucinogenic scenes, maybe the best faux-acid shots in film). When Rolling Stone published its 2005 post-suicide tribute to Hunter, we learned Steadman had done hallucinogens only once in his life; when Thompson slipped him some psilocybin for sea sickness during their coverage of the America’s Cup. Otherwise, Steadman’s hallucinations were his own.

How does one get into the bizarre world of Hunter Thompson without the aid of mind-bending drugs? Steadman tells us in his new memoir The Joke Is Over: Bruised Memories: Hunter S. Thompson And Me. Just jump in. And don’t forget the whiskey. “He stimulated my art,” Steadman has blandly explained elsewhere. And of course, it’s true. Steadman’s work for and of Thompson is more surreal than most of his other illustrations. And the surrealism of the rest of his art always recalls Thompson. Maybe that’s because we’ve always associated the two, ever since the writer introduced us to the illustrator. As Thompson fades, Steadman’s art grows stronger in our minds.

From the beginning, the artist and Gonzo journalist had a relationship based on rejection. Shortly after Thompson first picks Steadman out of a hotel crowd during the 1970 Kentucky Derby, he declares, “Ye Gods, Ralph! A matted-haired geek with string-warts! They told me you were weird, but not that weird.” Steadman, on hearing of Thompson’s suicide, is notorious for saying, “It’s about time!.” And the good Doctor’s opinion of Steadman’s work, recorded in his introduction to Gonzo: The Art, is not flattering: “Most of your art is rotten and looks like it was copied off subway walls at three or four in the morning,” he writes.

Indeed, it’s the unattractiveness of Steadman’s work that makes it so wonderful. He sketches flat, ugly caricatures that still manage a posture of nobility. His monstrous portraits are like something Goya might have drawn if he’d done psychedelics. Ink is splattered on the drawings like buckshot. He’s a master of faces that reflect confusion or resolve. Steadman’s many drawings of Thompson are always part Mad Hatter, part Cheshire cat. Not surprisingly, his celebrated illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland (begun three years before he met Thompson) are in large part fear and loathing.

Steadman is something of a writer as well as an artist, having penned tomes on wine, Freud, his cat and the notion of Gonzo. His books on viniculture and whiskey are much better written than anything here (see his section on South African wines in Untrodden Grapes). But then it has to be easier writing about good drink than writing of Thompson’s vinegar. Hunter’s own advice to Steadman, noted at the beginning of the book (there’s also a pithy forward from Kurt Vonnegut), is something Steadman never honored: “Don’t write, Ralph. You’ll bring shame on your family.”

Shame it is. The memoir reads like a poor excuse of a Hunter Thompson book. Anecdotes mix with Steadman’s journal entries and letters from both our heroes. Steadman casts a wide net for images but captures very few. He tries to hard to explain his friend as a rejected child who let loose “an all out scream into the blackness of a wounded creature that had no identity but his own.” He struggles to give us insights into Thompson’s decline: “Hunter was the lie [of American life] because the lie represented everybody. Every louse, every bestial schemer, every low-down scumbag, every sick wank-sack drove their nails into Hunter’s vulnerable skull and weakened that part of him that was his strength.”

Many of the incidents recorded here are better witnessed in Thompson’s writing and Steadman doesn’t bring much new to what we already know. He does dress out some of Thompson’s lesser known adventures—like the 1974 journey to Zaire to record the Ali-Forman fight—but what’s really pictured here is the illustrator. Steadman doesn’t avoid self-promotion and his embrace of the outrageous often seems out of character. But his fear of it is real. Fans of the late-great Hunter S. Thompson are going to revel in these memories. For admirers of Ralph Steadman’s art, this book is a revealing study.—Cabbage Rabbit


A version of this review first appeared in the Inland Empire Weekly