Photo: Thierry Ehrmann
I was 14 when my mother gave me Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 Magnum Opus, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. I’d just come back from London. After discovering an enormous planet where people wore Docs, Mohawks, and offensive Clash T-shirts, cramming my blown mind back into a small town cage injected me with fear and loathing.
Maybe mom thought it would cheer me up.
Maybe she didn’t think that one through.
I immediately read the first line, “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
Jaw-dropping shock. Howling humor. Rendered so real, the story unraveled my suspension of disbelief like cables of the Golden Gate coming undone in an earthquake. I didn’t know what to make of it. Bats don’t dive at you out of the desert sky like manta rays, people don’t turn into reptiles bogged down in bloody red raunchy casinos. His Attorney didn’t really offer smack to squares on the Sunset Strip, beg to be electrocuted in the bathtub, or give him adrenachrome harvested from the adrenal gland of a living human body, but these gritty details were captured the way only a journalist could, and Thompson was first and foremost a journalist with the uncompromising factual accuracy he was respected for at least since 1966’s Hell’s Angels.
My 14-year-old self didn’t know everyone else was wrestling with the same question: what the hell was this? Fact? Fiction? Travel? Journalism? Even if it was exaggeration based on truth, the truth was too insane to believe. Fear and Loathing was real, unreal, and surreal, a no-net, high-wire walk of imagination that contributed to my mind’s synaptic circus and the tailspin of decadence, debauchery, and depravity that’s lasted for three decades. Like a lot of people. And not everyone survived. My high school roommate didn’t. George blew his head off. Hunter Thompson was his hero.
Hunter Thompson’s hero was Ernest Hemingway, arguably the finest travel writer who ever lived, at least stylistically (even if you don’t agree with his machismo or depictions of women). He’d blown his head off too, in 1961. Hunter went to look for clues in Hemingway’s last home, Ketchum, Idaho in 1964, the year his son Juan was born.
As Juan mentions in Stories, Hunter wasn’t there for birthdays, concerts, or graduations. The Future King of Fun, Father of Gonzo Journalism, and dad Juan would eventually fear and loath, had been on “The Proud Highway” as he called it at least since he got kicked out of Louisville, the Air Force, and Time magazine. He and Juan’s mother Sandy went to San Juan, Puerto Rico (thus Juan) where he daylighted as a journalist and moonlighted as a travel writer. Hunter wrote his genre-breaking first novel The Rum Diary there in 1959. In 1963, he’d be freelancing south of the border, hefting a typewriter and a massive reel-to-reel recorder.
In 1970, he began writing for Rolling Stone, covering his own run for sheriff of Pitkin County (Aspen) on the Freak Power ticket. As he said, Gonzo required a master journalist, the eye of an artist/photographer, and the balls of an actor. Plus it’s got to be fueled by ten kinds of drugs like the last good acid from the Sixties, enough Bud and Chivas Regal to float a flotilla, and a merry-go-round of freaks, friends like Jim Belushi, Jimmy Buffett, and Keith Richards.
Reading The Great Shark Hunt and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, my friend George and I learned Hunter had a wife. And a kid. We wondered what kind of kid could grow up with a father known for rising at dusk, pouring vodka into grapefruits for breakfast, consuming copious amounts of drugs, and shooting propane tanks for fun. A man who, in the middle of the night, could wake an entire hotel screaming out The Bible in the atrium on the campaign trail or crank The Doors in his cabin over custom-built speakers while standing on the beams to feel the music “come up through his femurs.”
Hunter shot himself with a .45 on February 20, 2005. It took Juan nine years to write Stories, which was published this January.
I met Juan when I was living in Colorado in 2006 at a reading he and Anita, Hunter’s widow, gave at the Denver Public Library. In our conversation afterward he said, “I didn’t know when my dad would commit suicide and certainly not that he would that weekend, but we were having a really nice family weekend so he did go out on a high point. He didn’t want to die in a hospital, and while it didn’t seem like he’d be dependent imminently, it was definitely a possibility.”
I asked him what it was like growing up with his dad and he said he really didn’t see him all that much. When he was getting up to go to school, his dad was usually going to bed, and waking up when he was going to bed. And if he woke his dad up, Juan writes in the book, “He would enter my room huge and terrible like a giant warrior from a Viking legend.”
He told me, “His father died when he was about 15 – and he really began pushing boundaries then. He was the kind of person that had to test all boundaries in every direction. Whatever it was, he had to test it. It eventually wore my mother out.”
I’d heard from my wife’s friend, a friend of Sandy’s who lived on a sprawling ranch near Owl Farm in Woody Creek, that Hunter “accidentally” shot a woman and got away with it. That he was “horrible to have around.” Driving by Owl Farm, you see a big gate and two massive black cast iron vultures that say, “Fuck off, this is a fortified compound.” You can catch a glimpse of the house, the candy apple red convertible, and the front porch which had the advantage of high ground, making you a sitting duck for Hunter’s high-power arsenal.
In 2006, Juan wasn’t ready to talk or write about other traumatic incidents he recounts in the book, such as having to protect his mother from his father once he was a little older, or having to call state troopers, and eventually having to leave Hunter with his mother for them to survive.
“He was the kind of person that needed drama and he created the drama in his life,” Juan explained. “Deadlines were extremely hard for him, but the pressure helped him create,” as every editor who has worked with him testifies to eventually breaking down in tears. I’d stayed in the room at the Seal Rock Inn in San Francisco where Jann Wenner locked him in to finish “Campaign Trail.” I interviewed the owner who said they brought Thompson food, booze, and cocaine, he made these immense messes, and he had the pages taped up all around the room – their system to figure out the book. And just as Hunter said, the seals barking nearby sound just like a dog pound.
“My father was a daily drinker,” Juan told me, “but he had a phenomenally high tolerance. He could drink a pint of whiskey and be clearer than five sober people standing around him.” Doctors purportedly put alcohol in his IV to help his withdrawals when he had surgery, such as the hip replacement he had not long before his death. I’d been to the Woody Creek Tavern and sat in his corner booth that glowed with his aura long after his death. The bartender told me you could tell when he hadn’t had his meds and there were a lot of nights Hunter left legless. So even though Juan said he had a high tolerance, and Anita told the L.A. Times he couldn’t stand a drunk and never seemed drunk, he apparently wasn’t absolutely impervious to alcohol.
Juan told me, “The alcohol ravaged his body. It really took its toll.”
Some say Hunter was in really bad shape when he died. He couldn’t write or walk much, and was incontinent. Others say he was healthy, wealthy, and happy. Some theorize Hunter was “suicided.” A Toronto journalist claims Thompson told him he’d be suiceded the day before he died. He knew too much about too many powerful people.
It is strange that Juan, his wife, and their son were there when Hunter did it. It’s strange that he was on the phone with Anita at the gym discussing working on an ESPN article later that evening and he killed himself mid-sentence with a clean shot that left practically no mess and some say no bullet case in the gun. It’s strange that one word was typed on the piece of paper in his iconic red Selectric IIE typewriter, “Counselor.” It’s also strange that what’s been accepted as his suicide note wasn’t found near him and was written four days earlier.
Titled “Football Season is Over” and published in Rolling Stone, it read, “No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your (old) age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”
Juan told me Hunter couldn’t believe Bush had been re-elected, let alone elected, and that deeply depressed him. He hated Bush even worse than he hated Nixon who was the bull’s eye of much of his finest vitriol. Hunter is also said to have been investigating the World Trade Center. Theories aside, in the preface to 1979’s Great Shark Hunt he wrote, “The only way I can deal with this eerie situation at all is to make the conscious decision that I have already lived and finished the life I planned to live – (13 years longer, in fact).”
Ralph Steadman, longtime friend and collaborator, said on his website the month after Hunter died, “He told me 25 years ago that he would feel real trapped if he didn’t know that he could commit suicide at any moment.”
The last thing Juan told me was, “He did hard drugs up until the very end.”