[sixties-l] Still gonzo, after all these years

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: 01/08/01

  • Next message: radman: "[sixties-l] The radicalism of youth"

    Still gonzo, after all these years
    Found at Woody Creek, Hunter S. Thompson rollicks along on a new round of 
    lusty celebrity
    December 31, 2000
    By Jeff Kass
    Denver Rocky Mountain News Staff Writer
    Hunter S. Thompson is hot. Again.
    The gonzo journalist, who has called Aspen home for some 30 years, is 
    presiding over the publication of two books  Fear and Loathing in America:
    The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, the second volume in a planned 
    trilogy of his letters; and Screwjack, a rerelease of three short stories.
    He is on the cover of the latest Paris Review, the first living author to 
    earn that honor.
    The Dec. 10 New York Times Book Review made him a cover boy as well, 
    commissioning a drawing by Thompson's one-time book cohort, Ralph Steadman.
    And Vanity Fair excerpted several of his letters, along with the 
    observation from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam that 
    the world needs Thompson's kind of instinct-based journalism.
    All of this means a new round of attention is being heaped on Thompson, 
    whose literary legend started in 1966 with Hell's Angels and continued to 
    build with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing: On the 
    Campaign Trail '72.
    Along the way, he has written for Rolling Stone, run for sheriff of Pitkin 
    County, faced charges ranging from assault to driving while impaired, and 
    survived decades of drug-and-alcohol-soaked escapades.
    "I think that sometimes, when you're an American original, which Hunter is, 
    it takes a while to notice you," said presidential scholar Douglas 
    Brinkley, who has edited both of Thompson's letters compilations.
    Thompson is 63 now and a grandfather, heading into his fourth decade of 
    twisted celebrity. Age, however, hasn't softened him.
    His answer to published reports that he's given up drugs is off the record. 
    Draw your own conclusions.
    He canceled a round of high-profile New York interviews and parties, 
    including a dinner in his honor at the home of Paris Review editor George 
    Plimpton, because of a cold.
    And when the Denver Rocky Mountain News arranged to interview him at his 
    Woody Creek home, about 10 miles outside Aspen, the process turned into a 
    36-hour endurance test.
    While an appointment with Thompson may be helpful, it is not destiny. This 
    is two stories  one about the peculiar ritual required to meet with 
    Thompson, the other about the state of Hunter S. Thompson at the dawning of 
    2001, after all these years.
    Monday, Dec. 18, 11:30 a.m., Denver:
    I buy Thompson a bottle of Chivas Regal. In a commemorative tin.
    Hunter S. Thompson fires a shotgun at a propane canister, sending a huge 
    fireball arcing toward a poster of Ronald Reagan dressed as a cowboy.
    A large photo of this scene hangs on a far wall of Thompson's kitchen. It 
    is called "The Death Bomb" and it captures the concoction of violence, 
    humor and politics that is pure Thompson.
    "That is a risky mix that will sooner or later lead you to cross the wrong 
    wires and get shocked, or even burned to a cinder," he writes in Fear and 
    Loathing in America.
    Thompson has captured world events, from presidential elections to Super 
    Bowls, with a human flashbulb. But instead of relying on the photo to write 
    his story, he has used the negative. The resulting image is always filled 
    with silvery darkness and gross exaggeration.
    "That's the genius of Hunter," says Brinkley. "A gift of making his 
    exaggeration seem more realistic than cold truth."
    Thompson now has a 21/2-year-old grandson, Will, born to Thompson's son, 
    Juan, and his wife, Jennifer, who live in Denver. Will calls Thompson 
    "Ace," at Thompson's suggestion.
    What does he like to do with his grandson?
    "Drive heavy machinery," Thompson deadpans.
    He is proud of Will, touting his smarts. But he insists being a grandfather 
    has not changed him.
    Thompson surely is heavier and slower-moving than the younger man portrayed 
    on the cover of the letters book, but make no mistake. He remains a serial 
    whiskey-sipper able to jerk reporters around like marionettes, and enthrall 
    Noon Monday, somewhere in Golden, westbound on Interstate 70:
    I reach Thompson by cellphone. He invites me to watch Monday Night Football 
    with him at his Woody Creek home. But no photographs, he warns.  This is a 
    problem. Photographer Steven R. Nickerson is en route, carrying three 
    grapefruits from his 85-year-old aunt as a present to Thompson.
    Thompson is holding court in his kitchen. He sits at the counter with a 
    typewriter, a plate of oysters, and a large glass of Chivas on ice.
    Anita Bejmuk, his 28-year-old girlfriend, flits in and out, alternately 
    putting out a bowl of grapes and kissing Thompson on the top of his head. 
    He wears black and white batik-print cotton pants, after-ski boots and a 
    pink button-down. He will later don a black leather Indianapolis Colts 
    jacket (team owner Jim Irsay is a fan) to round out the ensemble before 
    heading out.
    The television is tuned to ESPN sports highlights, and when Thompson means 
    to turn up the volume and cannot instantly find the remote control, he lets 
    out a series of desperate squawks that sounds like a pack of hysterical 
    The kitchen is part office, part shrine to Thompson's career. It is a 
    salon, as The Paris Review notes, "where people from all walks of life 
    congregate in the wee hours for free exchanges about everything from 
    theoretical physics to local water rights."
    The ranch house and rustic property Thompson calls a "fortified compound" 
    is also worth $1.34 million, according to records.
    Copies of the drawing on the cover of the New York Times Book Review by 
    Steadman, who has collaborated with Thompson for years, hang throughout the 
    kitchen. Three whisks, a ceremonial gold key from his hometown of 
    Louisville, Ky., a pair of handcuffs, a stethoscope, a thick chain and a 
    dagger hang above the counter.
    Spectacles, a presidential tie clip, a photo of two lithe young women and a 
    "Made in India" tag are all somehow attached to a large white lampshade.
    The top of the refrigerator is a sea of booze bottles.
    And in case anyone has mistaken the court of gonzo for an artsy LoDo 
    coffehouse, a homemade sign above one doorway reads, "Polo is my life."
    6:30 p.m. Monday, down the road from Thompson's house at the Woody Creek 
    We had expected to meet Thompson at the Woody Creek Tavern before heading 
    to his house for the game. He is not here. So we decide to call and coyly 
    say  surprise  that we just happen to be at the Tavern. How about we come 
    up to the house for a chat? But a flurry of calls to his personal assistant 
    reveals that Hunter is "down," i.e., asleep. He keeps the hours of a vampire.
    Thompson describes his book of letters, which run from 1968 to 1976, as 
    historical documents that reflect on a whacky period in history.
    "The '70s, it was unbelievable and wild. That was rock 'n' roll," Thompson 
    says. "It would be hard to explain or even imagine now, because it was a 
    different time."
    That history provides a lesson for readers, he says.
    "I'd like them to be afraid to know that their world can become like this; 
    a jungle of savagery and violence and drugs," he says. "It was the '70's; 
    this can happen to you."
    Thompson doesn't expect a repeat of the '70s under President-elect Bush. 
    But that doesn't mean he thinks matters will be fine.
    "Bush will bring in a plague of political maggots," he says. "He'll try to 
    settle in in the next two years, but mid-term elections will be so brutal; 
    we're just taking a pause in the political brawl."
    Thompson hasn't stopped his commentary, or his letter-writing.
    "I sent a letter to my agent the other day accusing him of negligence, 
    fraud, malfeasance," he says. "Well, let's see, 21/2 weeks later, he came 
    up with $88,000."
    Agent Andrew Wylie said he did not have time to comment.
    While the letters may be a historical window into the '60s and '70s, they 
    also document Thompson's wit.
    Here, in a 1971 letter to his editor at Random House, Thompson explains his 
    expenses for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:
    "No doubt some of these expenses are 'unreasonable.' Like renting a white 
    Cadillac convertible and then soaking the (expletive) with the 
    hard-crusted, sun-baked scum of 100 grapefruits and 2 dozen coconuts and 26 
    pounds of catsup and french fry residue along with a layer or so of vomit 
    and a goodly number of bad dings, dents and scrapes that were covered, 
    thank Christ, by an extra $2 a day for total insurance ...
    "Anyway, the point is that you can't send a man out in a (expletive) Pinto 
    or a VW to seek out the American Dream in Las Vegas."
    There is debate over how much fiction Thompson inserts in his writing. But 
    he depends on real backdrops  the Vietnam War, the 1972 presidential campaign.
    "Muhammad Ali, one of my very few heroes, once took the time to explain to 
    me that 'there are no jokes,"' Thompson writes in Fear and Loathing in 
    America. "'The truth is the funniest joke of all."'
    Thompson knows he looks at life differently.
    "I see a sheen of darkness on things," he says, "which I think is kind of 
    "But basically, I'm just a hired gun; a writer. The weird stuff goes with 
    the territory. I just learned to think that way."
    Thompson says his mad-cap career wouldn't have been for everyone.
    "I don't know if I would recommend it as a way of life," he says. "Don't 
    try this at home. I've never advocated what I do, necessarily."
    If he hadn't found journalism, what would Thompson have become?
    "A tight end," he says, "a wide receiver for the 49ers. I had speed in 
    those days."
    9:30 p.m. Monday, at the Kenichi sushi restaurant, Aspen:
    With chopsticks in hand amid crab rolls and tuna, we have taken to calling 
    Thompson "our prey." We try some gonzo math: If he went to bed at 4 
    p.m.  and got 10 hours of sleep, he should be up by 2 a.m. So we can go to 
    bed at 10:30 p.m., wake up at 2 a.m., and call him. But Thompson won't want 
    to see us the first hour or so after waking up, so we could set our alarms 
    for 4 a.m.  Or we could just wake up at 6 a.m., call him and say, 'Hey, 
    wanna grab breakfast?' Meantime, we fear the grapefruits may freeze.
    Thompson may seem annoyed by the latest round of publicity, which sometimes 
    means a half-dozen interviews a day.
    "It's supposed to sell books, I guess," he says.
    He says he feels at home in New York City, but prefers to live in Woody 
    Creek for the wide-open space.
    "I get away from the mobs and crowds," he says. Then, sarcastically, "This 
    is a good place to hide."
    Brinkley thinks Thompson's home in the Colorado mountains cements his appeal.
    "In a sanitized age, there's something about a lone voice typing away in 
    the Rockies," he says. "There's a frontier, individualistic, maverick 
    streak, and a trickster in Hunter.
    "Too often those mavericks are co-opted. Hunter has stayed true to the beat 
    of his own drum."
    Tuesday, Dec. 19, 6:07 a.m., Aspen:
    Thompson's answering machine picks up. We leave a message. We know he will 
    not automatically answer the phone, even if he is awake. We call again at 
    7:30 a.m. Nothing. Finally, we connect with Thompson's longtime assistant, 
    Debra Fuller, at 9:15 a.m. She is confident the interview will happen.
    Curtis Robinson, the Aspen-based publisher of the Mountain Gazette and a 
    self-described "Hunter crony," is credited in the letters book for 
    "brainstorming with Dr. Thompson and creating subheads." He is also our 
    guide through Thompson's world.
    Standing in the kitchen, Robinson is partaking of a classic Woody Creek 
    pastime: reading aloud one of Thompson's works, this one a column from 
    ESPN.com, one of Thompson's current gigs.
    "George W. Bush is our President now, and you better start getting used to 
    it," Robinson reads in his southern drawl. "He didn't actually steal the 
    White House from Al Gore, he just brutally wrestled it away from him in the 
    darkness of one swampy Florida night. He got mugged, and the local Cops 
    don't give a damn.
    "Where did Al Gore think he was  in some friendly Civics class?"
    There is talk of heading down to the Tavern, which caters to Thompson's whims.
    Thompson calls ahead to get the lay of the land.
    "You see any pretty little girls?" he asks with a fiendish laugh.
    "There's three ugly guys at the end of the bar," the bartender replies over 
    the speakerphone.
    2:45 p.m. Tuesday:
    Fuller calls. She says Thompson is waking up. He will call us around 6 
    p.m.  "Maybe Hunter will have masterminded a plan," Fuller says. Thompson 
    finally calls at 6:25 p.m. He is ready, but not for the photographer. 
    Nickerson must circle in a holding pattern at the Tavern.
    Local newspaper clippings on Thompson read more like a petty rap 
    sheet.  "Writer Thompson Wounds Aide." "Writer Cleared in Shooting." 
    "Thompson Fined for Stunt with Fire Extinguisher." "Hunter Thompson's DWI 
    Settled; He Says Agreement Serves as Restraint to 'Crooked Cops as Well as 
    Dangerous Drunkards."'
    Thompson says he was targeted in some of the cases. But the misadventures 
    often find their way into his work.
    "That's not so bad, when you can get paid for that instead of getting put 
    in prison," he says.
    9:30 p.m. at Thompson's house in Woody Creek:
    We finally interview Thompson, without the photographer. Afterward, he 
    agrees to head down to the Tavern. He wears a safari hat with a badge on 
    the front.  The Tavern is empty and the chairs are stacked. The bartender 
    is the only employee there. We find Nickerson, who has been waiting 41/2 
    hours, in the back. Thompson arrives at 11:30 p.m. He lets Nickerson take 
    pictures, but makes him ask permission before each frame.
    Some critics point out that Thompson's "new works" are actually letters 
    written years ago and the rerelease of earlier work.
    It doesn't bother Thompson. He says the critics aren't paying attention to 
    his continuing work, which includes two books, Generation of Swine: Tales 
    of Shame and Degradation in the '80's and Better Than Sex: Confessions of a 
    Political Junkie.
    For his next trick, Thompson says he wants to work on the movie version of 
    his 1998 book The Rum Diary.
    But now it is near midnight, the deadline for our interview to end. We ask 
    Thompson whether he is more proud of Screwjack or the letters. He bristles.
    "That's a question like a raccoon would ask," he says.
    He is recovering from a cold, and a droplet of clear mucous hangs under his 
    nostril. He wipes it away, and goes through a coughing jag that he quiets 
    with quick sips of different drinks, each a different color.
    With that, the clock strikes 12.
    Thompson walks out of the Tavern, and into the night.
    But his day is not over.

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : 01/09/01 EST