American media took another hit to the groin this week with the tragic passing of Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson, the often despised, often revered, pioneer of "gonzo journalism," was found dead in his home near Aspen, apparently killed by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. While Thompson's best days of writing were most certainly behind him, his impact on Western journalism over the last half century cannot be understated.
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like "I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…"
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
If this sounds like the beginnings of a strange story from a strange person, in a place and a time you are unlikely to visit, then it would be impossible for you to appreciate the hysterics of Thompson's genius. Indeed, had one never watched a companion's face melt off his head while on liquid LSD, or consumed whiskey and cocaine for breakfast, or even been overwhelmed by the violent manner in which mescaline can overpower one's brain to react in ways previously thought unimaginable, then one has yet to even begin to walk in Thompson's shoes.
Yet the man was not driven by the narcotics. He was driven by the stories often surrounding them. And to get the story – the right way – was to become engulfed by it. It would be na/ve, Thompson believed, to drop in on a subject and report it to the public without first becoming engrossed in it. How, Thompson wondered, does one accurately report on the Hells Angels before ever spending significant time with the group. Thompson watched them ride in and overwhelm towns, whip each other with chains, gang-bang women at parties, over-consume amphetamines, and eventually turn their aggression on him. Only then would he come back and tell us what he has seen.
If you read his words, and you had been where he had been, then you knew the man spoke from the heart. The more abstract and unbelievable the world he relayed to us seemed, the more I believed.
The best Thompson story I have ever heard or read is written by another late author; the great George Plimpton. Let me set the stage for you: Thompson has a speaking engagement booked at the ultra-conservative Duke University in North Carolina. Upon being picked up at the airport by a school representative, the guest speaker decides to kill some time at the hotel with some hashish and Wild Turkey. When Thompson eventually shows up for his engagement, he is 45 minutes late and primed with bourbon (only someone from Kentucky would choose the Turkey to start a day). To further antagonize the crowd, Thompson begins his lecture, "I am very happy to be here at the alma matter of Richard Nixon." From there things only get better, or worse, depending on your perspective.
In Plimpton's words:
"That did not exactly put them in my pocket,"Thompson told me. "(Nixon) went to the law school there, which they were either trying to forget or were proud of, and my telling them of that truly stiffened them up. The questions began. They asked me if I thought Terry Sanford was going to run for the presidency in 1976. I said that he had been a party to the stop McGovern movement and that he was a worthless pigf—-r. I didn't realize he was the president at Duke. Not long after I was given the 'hook.'"
The "hook" had been a small blond girl sent out by the head of the lecture committee; when Thompson saw her coming, he tossed the Wild Turkey, along with the ice cubes, high in the air, a fountain of resignation, and he walked off with her. He said that the booze had fetched up against the velvet curtain behind his head and left a noticeable stain that he hoped was still there … to backdrop future speakers as they leaned solemnly against the lectern…
You can almost smell the bourbon. Mahalo, good doctor, may you rest in peace.
JP Eichmiller is a senior technical journalism major. His column runs every Wednesday in the Collegian.