Mick Duncan examines the life and times of Hunter s Thompson, who killed himself on 20 February.
Hunter S Thompson — journalist, novelist, juvenile delinquent, drugs and guns fiend, and abuser of Richard Milhous Nixon — left a note on a typewriter next to his body at his Aspen ranch. It read “counsellor” (sic). Who knows what that might mean? And is there anyone out there who does understand enough to evaluate Thompson? I guess we will just have to guess and muddle through.
Thompson started writing in the 1950s, and wrote The Rum Diaries by the end of the decade. However, he didn’t publish that book until the 1990s, and it remains his only published novel. His attempt at the Great American Novel, he was never fully happy with it.
But the Hunter S Thompson we came to know was formed in the America of the 1960s, and his outlook was shaped by that country’s demise.
He was a child of the West Coast “scene” which preached free love, lots of drugs, and a looming revolution that would do away with everything old and rotten in America.
But the enthusiasm of that decade dramatically collapsed as the US became entrenched in a bloody war in Vietnam and Nixon rode into the White House in 1968. Thompson responded to the new, darker mood.
Thompson’s first published book was Hell’s Angels, released in 1967. It was an account of his year spent getting to know, and getting beaten close to death by, the motorbike outlaws. The book established him. In fact he was to make hanging out with anti-social, brutal thieves and low lives something of his trademark.
Nineteen Seventy-Two was an election year and Thompson followed both the Democratic Primary and the Presidential race, describing George McGovern’s attempt to “get himself elected President… by dancing a muted whipsong on the corpse of the Democratic Party”.
Nixon, the man who beat McGovern by a landslide, was “a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad”.
Along with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, recently made into a film starring Johnny Depp, The Campaign Trail made Thompson into a journalist in demand.
He called his style Gonzo journalism — a style practised really only himself, but mimicked badly by any vacant hack ever to scribble for a lads’ mag.
He was associated with the New Journalists of the 1960s who attempted to take a more novelistic and personal approach to journalism. Thompson took this approach throughout his “career”.
His articles, including those for Rolling Stone magazine, are as much about his attempts to write the article, and his drink and drug-fuelled adventures along the way, as they are about the subject at hand.
The distinction between these articles (which were eventually published in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and his one published novel is that the articles are as blurred as his mind must have been when living his tales of mescaline-driven excess.
Thompson was also defined politically by the age in which he lived. He was a libertarian. He stood for sheriff of Aspen on a “Freak Power” ticket, taking on vested interests, launching vicious attacks on the speculators and ski-promoting yuppies that were taking over the town, and the network of good ol’ boys and Elks that had run the town for generations.
Thompson promised to legalise drugs, bring the police into line, and to “savagely harass all those involved in any kind of land-rape”.
He hated Nixon, loathed Reagan, despaired at Clinton and was horribly dismayed at the election and re-election of George W Bush.
But he was a political loner as well as a social recluse. He wanted to do away with the bullshit and corruption of American political life but never identified any force that could do it. He represented the very best and the very worst of the radical but lost generation that spawned him.
America has lost a loud and vicious opponent of its country’s political elite. His son Juan plans to fire his ashes from a cannon. May he take good aim.