In the 1970s, Hunter Thompson inspired a legion of young journalists to believe that the best way to cover a story was to get tanked to the gills on drugs and alcohol, present oneself in a state of near-psychotic meltdown at the scene of whatever one was covering, and record the affronted and sometimes violent reactions of the people one encountered. Concepts like "facts" and "objectivity" were to be regarded as quaint, if not entirely notional. The author became the story. This was "gonzo journalism."
What Thompson himself never felt the need to point out — although other practitioners of what at the time was called the New Journalism, like Tom Wolfe, were quick to note it — was that his gonzo style rested on a foundation of solid journalistic experience. (Although he hadn't actually graduated from high school, Hunter had studied journalism at Columbia University, and he later worked for such publications as Time and the New York Herald Tribune.) Getting loaded didn't make you a journalist; nor did it make you a talented writer (another key requirement of the style). Getting loaded, in the case of most of his many young admirers, simply made them loaded — a time-honored way of avoiding the annoying work of actually sitting down to write the story.
Hunter had immersed himself in the California biker culture to write a 1967 book called "Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs." (Still a good read today.) But his later gonzo style only began to emerge in a 1970 article for Scanlan's Monthly called "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved." Returning to his home town of Louisville to cover the annual horse race, Thompson had been teamed for the first time with Ralph Steadman, an English illustrator with a spattery, apocalyptic style. "Neither of us had brought any strange illegal drugs," Thompson wrote, "so we would have to get by on booze."
|MTV News correspondent Gideon Yago also weighs in on Hunter S. Thompson and his legacy ...|
Hunter was subsequently assigned by Sports Illustrated to go to Las Vegas and cover something called the Mint 400 motorcycle race. He took along an associate, Oscar Zeta Acosta, a 250-pound Chicano legal-aid lawyer. They rented a car for the trip, and used Hunter's expense money from the magazine to stock its trunk with, as he later wrote, "two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers ... and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls."
Sports Illustrated rejected the resulting story, but Hunter kept writing down his feral impressions of the Vegas trip ("Pterodactyls lumbering around the corridors in pools of fresh blood ..."), and he eventually took this material to Rolling Stone magazine — possibly the only outlet where such surreal ravings could have been published at the time. The editors loved what he'd written, and told him to keep going. Then, as he was finishing up the piece, they sent him back to Las Vegas to insert himself into a convocation on narcotics and dangerous drugs organized by the National District Attorneys Association. This seemed like a perfect Thompson event, and indeed it turned out to be.
Hunter's very long chronicle of his two Vegas trips — with Thompson billing himself as "Raoul Duke" and Acosta described as his "300-pound Samoan attorney" (much to his later irritation) — was published in two parts in Rolling Stone in November of 1971. It was titled "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream," and it was blazingly illustrated by Steadman in a raw and horrific manner reminiscent of the German expressionist painters George Grosz and Otto Dix. Thompson's writing was exhilaratingly warped and free-associational, and the tone of the piece was unforgettably set in its now-famous first sentence: "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold."
"Fear and Loathing" made Hunter Thompson a star. He went on to gonzify the 1972 presidential campaign for Rolling Stone in a series of dispatches called "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail." And then ... well ...
The melancholy fact is that Hunter pretty much peaked in the early '70s. The ensuing years — rife with drugs and alcohol, in quantities he never tried to hide (and may in fact have exaggerated a bit) — largely brought collections of his classic magazine pieces ("The Great Shark Hunt," 1975) and his later, somewhat desultory newspaper columns for the San Francisco Examiner ("Generation of Swine," 1988). But while the flair continued to glimmer in his work, and a lot of the self-revving hostility remained, his style congealed into tiresome bombast. At the end, his main outlet was the ESPN Web site, "Page 2."
What happened? Well, times change, of course; and it's hard to imagine a time less like the rampaging '70s than the one we now inhabit. Drugs must have played a part, too. (A friend of Thompson's once told me, sadly, "Cocaine turns your brain to cement.") But he was a unique and passionate American writer, and he opened up the practice of journalism to new experiences and new ways of seeing things. Unfortunately, he also opened it up to unenlightening self-dramatization on the part of younger writers who lacked his gifts. Nobody wrote the way Hunter did, but many were misguided into trying to do so by what he implied were his methods. "I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone," he once quipped, "but they've always worked for me."
For him, maybe. But Thompson also knew that his singular talent wasn't really a function of his vaunted dissipation. The way he actually cranked out the copy, as he said in a 1974 Playboy interview, was quite basic. "One day you just don't appear at the El Adobe bar anymore: You shut the door, paint the windows black, rent an electric typewriter and become the monster you always were — the writer."
(Hunter S. Thompson killed himself on Sunday; see "Hunter S. Thompson, 'Gonzo' Journalism Pioneer, Commits Suicide.")