BY GORDON WITTICK
It was in my bed, sometime Tuesday morning that the realization began to take hold. The last great honest voice of the ’60s has left. On February 20th, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson took his life with a gunshot to the head at his fortified compound in Woody Creek, Colorado.
Harvard Law School needs to have a class about the life of Hunter S. Thompson. Our classes mention liberty, but they never tell us what it is. Dr. Thompson’s life was a specimen of liberty in its most extreme form. He showed us the way and wondered why we never followed him through the door into the great freedom freak-fest.
Thompson was the one and only “gonzo journalist,” a style of journalism that discards the notion of bias, making the journalist the central character of his stories. As his own biographer, he couldn’t have asked for a more fascinating subject. He wrote about fast motorcycles ridden to the edge of sanity, hard drugs in every conceivable combination, big guns, politics, and sports.
Thompson’s first bestseller covered the Hells Angels, a reclusive group that had captured the nation’s imagination and were almost impossible to interview. Thompson spent eight months with them; maybe for the story, or maybe because he loved the feeling of speed, and they were the only bastards crazier than he was.
Only Thompson could turn a hedonistic hotel-trashing into a culture defining event. His stories stroked the egos of the drug culture, the minds of the intelligentsia, and the voyeuristic tendencies of suburban America. We disbelieved the things he claimed to do, but wanted so desperately to believe in men who did them.
To be fair, there is almost as much to hate about Thompson’s impact, as there is to love. He is responsible for more bad writing than anyone in the late 20th century, most of it in college newspapers; the result of imitating an original. He made journalists want to be rock stars, stressing titillation over substance. There’s good evidence that parts or all of his best-known works are entirely fiction. His largest claim to fame is that he did more drugs than anyone alive in the 1970s. He probably continued to use drugs, including cocaine, right up until he pulled the trigger.
But try to remember the world he left behind. Dr. Thompson lived in San Francisco in the sixties, a time when people could walk into unlocked houses and grab a few hits of acid that were free to all. He ran for sheriff of Aspen in 1970 under the Freak Power ticket, a youth-movement party whose symbol was two red fists holding a mescaline tablet. He would have won, but in every district where a freak party candidate ran, one of the two major parties dropped out of the race.
Thompson continued to cover politics, following the Nixon campaign and the Watergate scandal. When Nixon died, Thompson wrote his most famous obituary in which he called Nixon “a beast that fights best on its back: rolling under the throat of the enemy and seizing it by the head with all four claws.”
Twenty years before Michael Moore accepted the Palm D’Or, Thompson wrote that Bush and his Haliburton gang made Nixon look like “a flaming liberal.” His 2003 book, Kingdom of Fear was one of the first to warn of the War on Terror’s continual need to instill useless fear in the citizenry in order to make them confused and obedient.
Thompson will probably be best remembered as a hero of the acid culture, who somehow made sense of the era standing in the eye of the storm. His most famous work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is a loving eulogy for the drug movement. In it, he criticized Tim Leary for selling the joys of consciousness expansion, “without ever giving a thought to the grim meathook realities that were lying in wait for all those people who took him seriously.” The problem with the drug movement wasn’t the drugs, it was the belief in a savior that would somehow take the problems of reality away. Thompson accepted both the drugs and the meathook realities, and never looked back.
If you have a chance to read any of his works, do it. You will thank yourself. His prose will draw you in like quicksand and hit you with the strength of a daisy cutter. Some of his books, like his collections of letters, are too strong to be read cover to cover. They are best read like the Bible; in the dark, around a campfire, coming down from a daylong mushroom trip.
If you disagree with him, I would ask you why. Why shouldn’t a man be free to enjoy his time on God’s earth harming no one, doing as he pleases? Why doesn’t freedom of conscience also mean freedom of consciousness? If you disagree with his methods, then I ask you to have an open mind. Thompson may not have always written facts, but every word he wrote was pure, uncut, truth. If you disagree with his ideas, then I will do as he would have done: call you a pigfucker and leave it at that.