(This is the 40th anniversary of Dr. Thompson’s epic work: Fear and Loathing on the campaign trail, 1972.)
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008)
Thompson is credited with introducing the concept of participatory journalism in the late 60s & early 70s. Fueled by copious amounts of Wild Turkey and superhuman doses of LSD, Thompson was a true “free lance reporter”, describing the world with a vocabulary never dreamed of by anyone else. Most of his work was done in one sitting and it’s said he didn’t get on a roll until 48 hours and several bottles of Wild Turkey had passed.
Thompson was a counterculture icon at the height of the Watergate era, carrying an encyclopedic loathing of Richard M. Nixon, the horse he rode in on and the ground the horse trod. Arguably his most important work was “Fear & Loathing on the Campaign trail, 1972”. Frank Mankiewicz, George McGovern’s campaign manager, would often say in later years that the book represented the “the least factual, most accurate account” of the election.
Many burned out 60s hippies remember HST as the National Affairs Desk of Rolling Stone, where he sent in stories from a prototype fax he dubbed the “mojo wire”. In his prime he was brilliant, insightful, quirky and unpredictable. At his worst, he was a wretched miscreant. All the things that make a great writer. In his prime he absorbed, then described the world he perceived effortlessly and spontaneously. As he aged and the effects of a lifetime of drugs and alcohol took its toll, he simply ran out of capacity. Spontaneity was replaced by expectations he didn’t know how to fulfill, replacing insight and lyricism with pyrotechnics on demand.
Thompson was found dead of a self inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 67 in 2005 after a long history of poorly resolved medical issues. HST didn’t consider suicide to be a dishonorable act. He considered his life to be a perfection that simply ran its course, inevitably degenerating into an unacceptable charade much like Papa Hemmingway. In his prime, he viewed history and he made history. As he and the world matured, life just wasn’t fun anymore.
Failure and mediocrity were unacceptable and his basic nature would not allow evolution to emeritus status. He chose to exit before he reached the bottom. It was the self-fulfilling prophesy of his life.
Some collected quotes that give insight to his writing process:
From “Hell’s Angels”:
“They were a bunch of overgrown adolescents, stuck in their religious mind-set as a way of life. They defined themselves by their opposition to any and everything. The strength of their antagonism was the source of their faith, and like all holy wars, their greatest enemies and their greatest source of bloodshed was from within, battles against rival factions competing for bottom of the barrel status”.
From “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas”:
“We will not be that lucky. The end will not come quickly, like it says in Revelation 22:7. First will come the shit-rain, then the sheep dip, and after that the terrible night of the whore-hopper, which might last for 1000 years.”
From “Fear & Loathing on the campaign trail, 1972”:
(On Nixon): He was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad. The Nixon I remembered was absolutely humorless; I couldn’t imagine him laughing at anything except maybe a paraplegic who wanted to vote Democratic but couldn’t quite reach the lever on the voting machine.”
You cannot understand the early 70s without reading HST. Must read volumes written at his peak are:
Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (1966). A first hand account of riding with the Hells Angels for a year, capturing insights no one else was equipped to do.
“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” is an autobiographical novel illustrated by Ralph Steadman. A vivid commentary of a soul-less city Thompson considered the end of the American Dream.
“Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72”. A collection of articles covering the 1972 presidential campaign, illustrated by Ralph Steadman. The articles were first serialized in Rolling Stone magazine throughout 1972 and later released as a book in early 1973.
“Gonzo Papers, Vol. 1: The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time”, a collection of HST’s essays from 1956 to the end of the 1970s,
I give the film four fedoras out of five, and a plastic cigarette holder.