Just Above Sunset
March 6, 2005 - Hunter Thompson Reconsidered

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Last week’s Book Wrangler column in Just Above Sunset considered the legacy of Hunter S. Thompson, as does in this week’s column, from a slightly different angle.


This week the Just Above Sunset online salon (the editor’s email group) argued over that whole business.


Being a trouble-maker, the editor sent this group this from Fred Reed, author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well” – one the better book titles you’ll ever come across –


On Hunter Thompson 

Then it was over. Everybody went into I-banking or something equally odious. We gave up drugs as boring.


You can see why he ate his gun. Everything he hated has returned. Nixon is back in the White House, Rumsnamara risen from the dead, bombs falling on other peoples’ suburbs. The Pentagon is lying again and democracy stalks yet another helpless country. This time the young are already dead and there will be no joyous anarchy. The press, housebroken, pees where it is told. But he gave it a hell of a try. 

Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, was having none of it -


Oh, for chrissakes, somehow this picture of Hunter S. Thompson dying of a broken heart just doesn't work for me.


Now I guess I have to look up some of Thompson's writings, just to make sure he really wasn't such the cartoon, much like the image of the baguette-toting Frenchman with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.  I'm not sure what Thompson stood for, assuming it was anything, but I don't think this Reed guy did either. (Although I must admit I like the title of his book.)


The Book Wrangler, Bob Patterson, tries to add perspective -


Rick you should read his 1968 book Hell’s Angels and look at it as a war correspondent gathering facts for a non-fiction book.


Then read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and remember that it is a fictional satire of journalism and reporting.


Hunter did a lot of writing.  His output was phenomenal.  Could the druggie role have been an act?  (Dean Martin often used apple juice to look like he was swigging whisky.)


I saw Hunter one night at the Viper Room.  He drank brown liquid from a whisky bottle for three hours but he did not show one of the three symptoms of intoxication that a motorcycle cop looks for:


         Impaired speech

         Incoherence in though process

         Physically uncoordinated.


Was it whisky or an "act?"


I've seen a lot of stuff since he died.  One says he ripped pages out of his notebook and sent them off to the typesetter.  It makes a good story.

Later I read he is sweating over Fear and Loathing.  Doing re-writes and cleaning it up.


What's the real scoop?


Next.  The coward's way out?


The week before he died I was thinking of sending him a get-well card.  He had some back troubles.  A year ago a friend pointed out to me that when he appeared on a talk show they introduced him and then cut to him sitting in the guest chair.  They did not show him walking out and greeting the host.

A few weeks ago he broke a leg.


I do not think a free spirit like him wants to think about being in a hospital where they will decide what he eats and which drugs (meds) he gets.


I think he decided to go out on his terms, which was just about his attitude in everything.


He was a founding father of gonzo journalism.


He changed journalism single handedly.


(He stayed behind in Saigon when the last helicopter took the Americans out.  [Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" was the signal on the Armed Forces radio, to head for the Embassy and the helicopters.])


Wouldn't it be funny if a hard working guy fooled all his colleagues into thinking he could write circles around them while he was stoned out of his mind when in all actuality he worked just as hard as the next guy?


I think Hunter Thompson was a giant in journalism.  (I did a Book Wrangler column about Hell's Angels the week before he died.)


Read Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing.   Then form an opinion.


Rick’s friend Phillip chimes in –


I got a lot of insight into Hunter by reading a collection of his letters in "Proud Highway."  When he ate his gun I didn't shed a tear, even feel sad.  There was no particular book I admired, though a few I enjoyed.  Even though suicide is called a cowards way out, it was his courage in the writing I admired.  He wrote that he tried a shit load of hallucinogens, which is never a thing a sensible or timid person would do, write about it, that is.  In fact a sensible or timid person wouldn't have tried a shit load of hallucinogens anymore than they would try skydiving.  It was in his letters to friends that you saw the voraciousness of his writing, which has to represent the passionate approach to his life.  One of my favorite quotes from him is "I got off on writing more than any drug." 


Rick, have you ever tripped?  Seen the walls melt away and become only what is in your mind?  My guess is no, you preferred to play it straight, play it safe, get high on life, walk right past the doors of perception, so to speak. 

When I dangled my foot out of the plane that flew me for my one and only parachute jump, every cell in my body screaming get back in, don't look down, I answered calmly - I'll try it for it a rush, and I'll probably be all right.

There are some people who are cut out for putting their heads in a lion's mouth, a few anyway.  Even fewer who will try it to write about it.  A lot of his experiences were undertaken just so he could write about them, and how he wrote about them showed he wasn't a coward, about life, about writing. 


There's a sublime peace and confidence generated in risk.  The enthusiastic record of Thompson's work is an insight that won't be left by very many writers, like taking a scaffold tower apart and living to write the tale. 


But from his (mostly) drunken letters describing his constipation at sitting so long and writing, so he'd take a break and write a friend, how it felt to get a book rejected by publishers time after time, his hopes and schemes to travel broke and survive, is a great insight into courage.  Even if you don't like his sense of metaphor, you can sense his style of sentence length opposed to subject, his craft at self-editing, his willingness to stick his neck out to work.  Not bad for a bald runt.  He deserves my respect and study, cartoon image and all.


Rick shoots back -


Geez, Phillip, what the hell was that all about?


The cartoon I was referring to wasn't the actual Hunter Thompson so much as the shadow of him found projected against the inside of the skulls of all those whacked-out dope-heads from the early seventies who were delusional enough to think that Thompson really truly actually cared who the hell was in the White House.


Is there some evil genius sitting giggling somewhere in an industrial park just off some interstate who thinks up all these oddball ideas, such as that suicide is somehow a "cowardly act," or that it takes some kind of "courage" to be "a writer," or that imbibing dangerous drugs is somehow part of a wonderful "journey of adventure" comparable to skydiving or having an earring installed in your tongue?


You do have a point - for all we know, Hunter shot himself just so he'd have something to write about. It's just the sort of twisted logic I remember hearing from all those folks from my youth, and some more recently, who swore that drugs weren't bad for you, and that I was just buying into the propaganda.  Some of those people have since died, and some of those who haven't wish they had and are now just living from one disability check to another - and that includes [redacted] who always argued in opposition to government assistance, and for all I know, still does, that being a prime example of the kind of thing the combination of alcohol and drugs does to one's brain.


But when I said I should try to get hold of some of Hunter Thompson's writing, I meant that I hope to learn that his writing is not so trite as to be just a pile of drug-induced bullshit.  I'll let you know what I find out.


Our Wall Street Attorney chimes in -


Phillip, you say, "My guess is no, you preferred to play it straight, play it safe, get high on life, walk right past the doors of perception, so to speak."  Strangely, this is a good description of me, until the "walk right past the doors of perception" part.  I'm not sure I follow the connection.  [See the footnote for the connection. – AMP]

In any event, I never tried any substance not provided under a doctor's care. 


Of course some would say that driving through the Holland Tunnel is a walk on the wild side.  It is curious that those who have tried drugs seem to think that those of us who have not and will not are somehow missing something.

As the editor can tell you, I was definitely one of those high on life students back in his class back in 1975.


(Good God, that seems soooo long ago!!)


Phillip –


If you've never tripped heavily, then you are missing something, in the same way that if you never heard a symphony live, from on stage, then you are missing something, compared to music played on a stereo.  People concerned with control usually don't venture out to such things, but it does change your perspective on possible realities.  The reference to walking past the doors of perception was allusion to Aldous Huxley's book of describing the effects of his use of peyote consumption.  You wouldn't get someone who is attracted to tripping to make the trains run on time, or perform a surgery, but conceptual art, or an ambient music composition, could use a different point of view other than a paint-by-numbers kind of living.  Please believe me, I'm not suggesting anybody in this group try hallucinogens for the first time.   You're all too old and have too many responsibilities.  The assumption that it ruins your mind just isn't true. 


Some people can't get high and be productive.  A few can.  Hunter was real productive, and good at what he produced.  It blows a hole in the argument that all drugs are bad for all people, which is a fascist perspective.  Some people can get high and live a good life, others can't handle it at all, and really should play it straight.  Jerry Garcia did a pile of drugs, but was a great musician, to the point that he must have had the discipline to keep his chops up even when he was wasted.  What concerns me is that if you choose to imbibe in illegal drugs that it can trivialize what you produce to some people.  I wouldn't have the courage to live with Hell's Angles, or publish the illegal drugs I've done.  It is a good note that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was fiction, almost a parody on journalism.


And from a cruise ship in the South China Sea (really!) this came in -


It is indeed a leap into the great void to "trip heavily" as my friend Phillip says.  At times in the experience one feels as if they are trapped in an abyss of mental instability of which they will never be set free.  At times it is so clear what the real thing is, and it is certainly not Coca-Cola.

As I write this on a luxury cruise ship full of wealthy mostly Republicans, preparing to entertain them tomorrow evening with cobbled together ventrioquial humor, I think how much easier my gig would be if they could all experience a serious trip tomorrow night.  They will have just toured Danang, Vietnam and I will joke away about they world around us.  Tripping heavily would be a Godsend for these guests!


Yes, the email group is indeed diverse.  And this from Phillip -


Sounds like we went to the same high school - oops we did.  A friend gave me some free tickets to Author Murray dance studio.  After we "worked" with instructors, Kathy and I tangoed and then waltzed. She never quit smiling, so neither did I.  Old ladies danced with gigolos with mustaches and suede bottom shoes.  Finally a retired couple sat down with us.  He was wearing a comical rug and her hair was at least a foot high.  He said how if we really, really wanted to learn to dance we could pay up to $10,000.  The whole time the mirrored ball was turning and music was playing.  I spoke aside to my wife and asked, "Why did I quit tripping?"  Thanks for chiming in, comrade.


Then Joseph weighed in from Paris – our expatriate American friend who used to work out here in “the industry” (movies)


I actually have read some of Thompson's work, and I'm afraid that most of it is just what you suspect – drug and alcohol induced bullshit.  I didn't think so when I was sicteen, but I do now.


Don't get me wrong - it can be damned funny.  But in my view, Thompson was one of those counter-culture idiots who thrived more on pointless defiance than on pointed rebellion.


Let's not forget that Thompson himself cultivated that cartoon image, and like some burned out renegade who fell for his own hype - a living, breathing Che Guevara tee-shirt - finally disappeared up his own asshole, barely rating a shrug.


If anything even vaguely political made him pull the trigger (which I doubt), it would be that the defiant act has passed into insignificance in American culture, that pointless defiance has come to appear what it always was: sad and ridiculous.


Ah, some of us like pointless defiance, no matter how insignificant it is these days.  It’s an acquired taste.



Editor’s Note:




In 'Gonzo Gone, Rather Going, Watergate Still Here' Frank Rich writes that Hunter S. Thompson's 1972 "diagnosis of journalistic dysfunction hasn't aged a day," and George McGovern finally concedes that he picked the wrong running mate.


The second link takes you to a Los Angeles Times item by George McGovern containing this -


… I have always been pleased that among the precious few who thought I would have made the better president [than Richard Nixon] was Hunter S. Thompson, who went to his untimely grave saying that I was "the best of a lousy lot."


And this –


It's true, as many have noted in recent days, that Hunter did not devote his energy and talent to the pursuit of factual accuracy. But accuracy isn't everything.


There is some disagreement on that.






That Doors of Perception business explained –


In 1937 Aldous Huxley relocated to California with After Many Summers Dies the Swan (1939) set in Los Angeles.  Other novels during this period include Time Must Have a Stop (1944), Ape and Essence (1948) and The Genius and The Goddess (1955).  Around this time Huxley began to experiment with altered states of consciousness and his novel The Island (1962) reflects his search for a wider spirituality.  His choice of drug was mescalin, described in The Doors of Perception (1954) and its sequel, Heaven and Hell (1956).  Other works include The Devils of Loudin (1952) and numerous essays in Collected Essays, (1959).  He also wrote two travel books; Jesting Pilate (1926) and Beyond The Mexique Bay (1934) and edited The Letters of D.H. Lawrence (1932).  He died in Los Angeles, November 22, 1963. 


Jim Morrison – Claremont High School out here then UCLA – named his group The Doors after Huxley’s book, but Huxley himself was referring to William Blake (1757-1827) – the Brit poet-artist-engraver-strange-guy –


“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite. This I shall do by printing in the infernal method by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.” - William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1798)


For further discussion of Huxley and this area see: November 9, 2003 Opinion - In Defense of Los Angeles: Steven Hawking, Jacques Derrida, Aldous Huxley and the Rand Corporation




Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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