Still Gonzo After All These Years
For years, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson's twisted, unflinching journalism has cut through the babble of America's popular and political culture like a chainsaw being dragged through a vat of Jell-O. And time has hardly mellowed the gonzo guru. Here's what happened when a longtime Thompson admirer ventured into Thompson's Colorado redoubt.
By Richard Keil
Richard Keil covers the White House for Bloomberg News.
"In the whole eastern dark wall of the divide this night there was silence and the whisper of the wind, except in the ravine where we roared... All in darkness now as we fumed and screamed in our mountain nook, mad drunken Americans in the mighty land. We were on the roof of America, and all we could do was yell, I guess."
– Jack Kerouac, "On The Road."
I had that passage on my mind, and a beer resting on the seat between my legs, as I made the hard left turn into the rutted gravel driveway of Hunter S. Thompson's home outside of Aspen.
Suddenly, a peacock darted into my path; I cursed and swerved my rental car to the left, narrowly missing the little bastard. Not a good way to begin an interview with a man whose cynically warped take on American culture in the '60s and '70s influenced as many budding journalists as Kerouac created mad backpackers.
ý killed the engine and flicked off the headlights. Twilight was giving way to darkness – evening for the rest of the world, morning for Thompson. I sat there a moment, finishing my beer, trying to decide how to approach a man who was like Muhammad Ali at the end of his career: Someone trying, without much success, to match his earlier triumphs, but someone still capable, on a good night, of throwing a more brutal punch than anyone in the business.
His business being politics, it seemed important, somehow, to try to get inside his head. The gaggle of talking heads that so dominate political coverage these days take themselves – and the candidates – so seriously that no one ever thinks to ask whether any of the current crop of presidential aspirants have any legitimate claim to representing the nation's political hopes.
I figured that a man who described Richard Nixon, well before Watergate, as representing "that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character" might think to ask why lawmakers who helped push the nation to the brink of financial ruin in the 1980s thought they deserved a chance to lead America into the 21st century.
I grabbed the six-pack of my home brewed beer I had brought along and approached the screen door of Thompson's log cabin home.
No one answered, although the TV was audible from inside. I stepped back, took a deep breath and surveyed the yard: Scattered over the grounds were an old Volvo 244, a Jeep Wagoneer, a 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood convertible and a behemoth of a John Deere 770 tractor.
I stepped toward the garage and peeked in, noticing what I had missed before: a '71 Chevy Caprice convertible, with white leather interior and a hood the length of an aircraft carrier. This would be the same model in which Thompson roared across the desert in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," a seminal work that both established his literary genius and served as an instruction manual on drug use, expense-account fraud and rental car abuse for a generation of Americans.
I banged harder on the door this time, and within moments Thompson's personal secretary, Deborah, welcomed me in.
"Hunter's in the shower," she said, leading me through an impossibly cluttered side room into the kitchen. "Still doing the wake-up thing. You want something to drink?"
I asked for a beer and settled onto a stool, turning my attention to the big-screen TV across the room that was blaring an exhibition game between the Jets and the Bengals.
"I told Hunter that you were coming at 8, and that since this was just an exhibition game, he had no excuse to sit there and watch it," Deborah told me by way of apology. "That's why he's running late."
"Nonsense," I corrected her. "The regular season starts next week. These things count now." She shook her head as she handed me a beer. "That's what Hunter said. You want me to show you around?"
I nodded, although I had been trying to take in as much as I could just sitting there, trying not to get too wild-eyed. Tacked to a lampshade was a warning from the Palm Beach police department; the human skull sitting atop the television was pretty hard to miss, as was the Colombian marshal's badge mounted beside it.
And just below that, taped to the side of the TV, was this motivational warning: No Music + Bad TV = Bad Mood and No Pages. "That's where he writes," Deborah said, pointing to the far end of the kitchen counter at which I was sitting. The stools faced the TV and a massive sound system.
A low-hung couch, perfect for collapsing on and musing, scribbling or creating, sat beneath the counter. "He just sits here," she said.
"Amid general chaos and confusion," I interrupted.
"Right. Typing away."
That seemed to make sense; Thompson's best stuff had always come together in hotel bars, noisy convention halls and speeding cars, where he was able, through chemical assistance, to step up and out and make a twisted kind of sense of everything around him.
I looked around more carefully now, since I had been invited to do so. Every square inch of space, it seemed, was covered with old post cards, press clippings, speeding tickets from here and there, reminder notes, summonses, addresses, phone numbers – a private, chemically altered universe of political memorabilia.
A long bulletin board sat next to the entertainment complex, jammed chock-full of material for his book-in-progress, "Polo Is My Life." All sorts of intriguing plot developments were set off on index cards, one after another, with summaries like "Incident With Stolen Rental Car."
"He's got a drop-dead deadline with Rolling Stone, which is publishing this," Deborah said, suddenly sounding tired. "They really mean it this time. They need it by Monday."
"It must be difficult, working like this," I told her.
"You get used to Hunter's schedule," she said. "It's getting back on a normal schedule, when you go away, that can be difficult."
We stood for a second, looking out at the gathering gloom. She flicked on a light switch, and the peacock shelter was suddenly illuminated. "Out around the back there is where Hunter fires his guns," she said, knowing that I would be familiar with this element of the Thompson M.O. "He just fires off into the hills back there."
I asked her whether there were problems with the neighbors. She shook her head ruefully.
"They're used to Hunter."
"I saw some pretty impressive weaponry when I came in," I told her.
"Oh, yeah, let's go back there," Deborah said. "That's where Hunter does his artwork."
She led me back through the kitchen, and I noticed for the first time that the stove was unusable, since boxes and papers were stacked across all four burners.
In the side room where I had come in, four guns were mounted on the rough-hewn walls. I glanced over at Deborah, who was simply pointing to a two-by-three foot gilt-edged frame propped up against a table.
Behind the glass was what was left of Mickey Mouse, superimposed over a silhouette of Disneyland. Huge, ragged holes – from a .12-gauge shotgun, it appeared – had been blown through the lower half of Mickey's face, tearing his silly smile right in half.
"He does these things as the mood strikes him," Deborah said mysteriously. "Then he sells them for big money."
A few feet away was a framed Warren Zevon publicity poster, pockmarked with neater, smaller-bore holes. This didn't make sense; Thompson, it seemed, would probably identify with a man who wrote songs with titles like "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner";and memorialized psychotic violence in "Excitable Boy."
"What's the deal with that one?" I asked, pointing at the poster.
"Oh, Warren and Hunter are good friends. He was up here a while back, and he and Hunter did some shooting. Warren thought this was a great idea."
He must have; peering closer, I could see that it had been signed by both Thompson and Zevon.
"So, there you have it," Deborah said, with the practiced, prideful air of someone who knew that her various duties included serving as a de facto tour guide in what amounted to one of the world's most bizarre museums.
I peered in a little alcove just off the kitchen; a huge refrigerator sat there. "That's the beer fridge," Deborah told me.
I went over and opened the door. The shelves had been removed, and several cases of Molson were stacked one atop another, turned sideways to allow quicker, easier access to the brew.
We went back into the kitchen, and I positioned myself on the stool, intent on finishing my beer. I was getting nervous now; I couldn't help it.
My tensions increased a moment later when Thompson padded into the room with his trademark bouncing stride, extended his hand, and gave me the piercing, searching look for which he is so famous.
"New York is winning," I told him cautiously. "Thought you might want to know."
He allowed himself a tight smile, and told me he had money on the Jets. "Or was it the Bengals?" he asked, filling a glass with Chivas Regal. "I don't know. Maybe I'm drunk."
He glanced sharply at me, looking for a reaction. This was beginning to feel like some sort of test. "I wouldn't know if you were," I told him. "I'm getting there myself."
Thompson chuckled, his cheeks glowing like Santa Claus, as he poured another four jiggers-worth of Chivas into his glass.
"Sit down," he commanded, then gestured expansively to a counter covered with bowls of salsa, oranges, apples and freshly cut mint. "Help yourself."
We settled in and felt each other out for a few minutes, talking football; each of us offered the other a quick summary of our predictions for the upcoming season, Thompson's punctuated by several pauses to light Dunhills, which he was chain-smoking in his trademark cigarette holder.
"You find the place OK?" he asked.
"Deborah's directions were fine," I assured him. "I guess a lot of people find their way up here, though, right?" I had guessed, correctly, that thousands of drug-addled acolytes made their way to Woody Creek; such was the price of Thompson's fame.
"It's a problem," Deborah said simply as she settled in on the couch.
"How do you get rid of them?" I asked.
Thompson smiled, and rubbed his bald head. "Sometimes I've got to wave a gun around," he chuckled.
The Jets game ended and segued into the 10 o'clock news back in New York, where a breathless, blow-dried TV reporter was describing from a police headquarters somewhere in the middle of Long Island the wildfires raging out in The Hamptons.
Our bonding, of sorts, occurred a moment later, when the screen switched to a shot of the angry orange flames licking the sky, edging ever closer to pricey vacation homes in that pricey Eastern version of paradise.
"Jesus Christ!" I shouted.
Thompson paused from lighting up another cigarette to ask me what was wrong.
"Well, it seems odd for Armageddon to begin in The Hamptons," I began, pausing to take a sip. "But the more I think about it, the more appropriate it seems." A vicious smile spread across his face, and his eyes gleamed behind his eyeglasses as a maniacal chuckle emanated from his throat.
"That's exactly what I was saying to Deborah here an hour ago," he said. "Those greedheads."
I glanced over at Deborah, who was rolling her eyes. Thompson then looked expectantly over my shoulder, toward the refrigerator.
"You about ready for one of my beers?"
ý had offered to bring my own beer, mostly as a means of keeping my interview request as low-key as possible. I had hoped it might set me apart from the usual dim-eyed types who try to hang out with him: Here I was offering to bring my own beer, beer I made at that, instead of just trying to glom off of his generosity.
Thompson nodded. He took a sip and pronounced it good. We had several more beers sitting there and I became momentarily worried.
I had serious business to conduct, of course, and I could see that my temptation to simply get savagely drunk with Thompson might be unavoidable anyhow, and that it was better to just plunge ahead, become one with my environment, as it were, boring questions about presidential politics be damned. The Experience, I convinced myself, was The Story.
"I don't often let people up here to the house," Thompson said after a moment, his voice softer than it had been all evening. "But I figured if you were willing to bring your own beer, beer you made, you were probably all right."
I glanced at a stack of books on the counter in front of me: some of Thompson's own works, a book on Leonard Cohen, something on Genghis Khan and a whole sheaf of legal-sized paper. The top sheet was blank, but headed with a drawing of what looked like one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse wielding a polo mallet. "Kill" was inscribed on its saddle blanket.
"Ah, you've found the galley sheets," he said, bounding over in front of me and sifting through the pile. "Here. Read this out loud, will you, and tell me what you think."
This almost shocked me back into sobriety: Thompson wanted me to read his own work, and offer comments? I took a stack of papers he had thrust in front of me.
"This how you work?" I asked.
He nodded sagely. "Sometimes, when you hear it," he said, muttering something else into his scotch glass.
I read three or four pages that went on at some length about a baroness traveling in the polo circuit, who told Thompson that she was flogged by Clinton every evening.
"The public doesn't give a hoot in hell if Clinton flogs foreign women at night, just as long as he doesn't deny it. Many admire his attitude, in fact, and they secretly vote accordingly," one passage began. "This is what big-time politicians call 'the adulterers' vote,' and it is huge. They are linked by a chain of guilt and perjuries too foul to admit."
I paused and looked up; Thompson was nodding his head contentedly; but his eyes remained fierce and wary, evaluating every word.
" 'Adulterers' vote' – I started that with Gary Hart, which you know, if you're familiar with my work," he mumbled. "Continue."
"Bill Clinton is a natural magnet for these people," I read. "He is clearly guilty, but it doesn't bother him, and that gives the others new hope. They envy him, because he has dropped his veil of shame and they haven't. They can't. They feel guilty like rats in the walls of a cheese factory."
Thompson held his hand up and nodded, satisfied. "What do you think?"
"Well," I began, opening a fresh beer, "I think the bit about Clinton being a magnet for adulterers: You miss a fairly obvious Nixon comparison."
"Nixon wasn't an adulterer!"
"That we know of," I said quickly. "But on a thematic point he just oozed the kind of human ugliness that others couldn't admit in their own souls, and this guy had the audacity to run for president and govern the free world! God, no wonder they admired him. That total absence of shame."
Thompson nodded thoughtfully, jotted something in the margin, and then heaved them back onto the pile.
We sat and drank for another couple of hours, our disjointed conversation flowing from his efforts to restrict expansion of the local airport – a battle against "greedheads" he seemed to be enjoying – to whatever his relentless channel-surfing picked up. We stopped for a minute on a CNN update on the Simpson trial, which prompted Thompson to cackle with glee.
"Fuhrman is going down," he predicted, "like the low-rent piece of garbage he is. Total scum."
I wondered out loud whether Fuhrman could be forced to take the stand, a subject then in much debate after the discovery of the most famous tapes since Watergate.
"Let's find out," Thompson yelled, stabbing his index finger at the phone.
Moments later, his attorney was on the line, guiding us through the intricacies of the California penal code and whether witnesses could be compelled to testify, or take the Fifth, in the presence of the jury. In California, they couldn't.
As we listened to this, I took note of the cassette tapes scattered throughout the room – various Bob Dylan offerings, something by Los Lobos, and an Austin band called Arc Angels. I made a note to ask Thompson what was going on with some homemade tape called "Kidnap" and then promptly forgot.
The Fuhrman issue resolved, I proposed we get some dinner. Glancing at my watch, I was stunned to see that it was almost midnight. "Shit," Thompson said. "We should have done this sooner."
After Deborah announced she was going off to take a nap and commanded Thompson to be done with me by 4 a.m., the Doctor squinted at the phone and punched up some numbers.
"Woody Creek Tavern," we heard after a couple of minutes.
"Uh, hi," Thompson said.
"Uh, hi Doc," said the voice, sounding less chipper than a minute before. "You want to eat?"
"We need to eat," Thompson corrected him. "You still open?"
"We can be."
Orders for fish and enchiladas were quickly placed, and Thompson jumped out of his chair. I scrambled to my feet, thinking we were about to leave, but the good doctor was bent double, coughing violently into his hand.
"Deborah," he rasped. "Deborah!"
His assistant, who had not yet left, jumped from the couch and yanked a bottle from the collection of liquor atop the refrigerator. Thompson, his face as red as a tomato, took a bottle of Chartreuse and gargled noisily with it for a second or two before finally swallowing and sighing.
"You maybe should have that looked at," I suggested politely.
"Nah," he said, waving his hand dismissively. "I had my lungs X-rayed recently. Clean as a baby's."
After another admonition from Deborah about being ready to work at 4 a.m., we stepped outside into a night that had grown quite chilly.
"I'll drive," he growled. He smiled slightly when I told him I'd be happy to drive my paltry little rental car.
"Grab these," he said, tossing a couple of pint glasses in my direction. "I'm on the revolving plan with these guys. Gotta take their glasses back."
I slid into the Caprice, a bigger, more solid piece of machinery than anything Detroit pumps out today. Moments later we were out on the main road. Thompson thrust the pedal down, and the engine roared to life. My head snapped back, and as I looked up at a blanket of stars blurring past me, I guessed the wind-chill factor was probably about 40 below.
Moments later we were lurching to a stop outside the Woody Creek Tavern, which is to Thompson what the Algonquin Hotel was to the early New Yorker crowd.
"Wait," he commanded, as I was nearing the door. He reached into the back seat and turned on a little tape machine; the shrill squealing of a pig pierced the solitude. "Gotta let them know we're here," Thompson said with a shrug.
The next three hours were a blur. Our food sat, getting cold, as Thompson got his daily fill of local politics. The airport issue was hot, and the developers and ski barons were eager to finish killing off Aspen, he told me.
We were alone in the place, except for the chef, a waitress and an affable bartender who bore a disturbing resemblence to Jerry Garcia.
After Thompson disappeared into the back with the waitress and emerged 10 minutes later looking more relaxed than I'd seen him all night, I tried to bring up politics again. He dismissed the current crop of presidential candidates with a derisive snicker.
"Would you want to have a beer with any of those people?" I thought about knocking back a Rolling Rock with Bob Dole, or sucking down some Lone Stars with Phil Gramm.
"I see your point," I told him.
"Exactly," he said. "Empty suits, padded resumés and, like we talked about with Clinton, evil the only natural human tendencies present."
Finally, it was almost 3 a.m., time to go.
Out in the Caprice, with a final pint of draught beer in hand, I took a tumbler of scotch from Thompson as he fumbled in both pockets for his keys. Once he had backed up and successfully negotiated two speed bumps, I handed him his drink just as he jammed the accelerator again, heading toward the hairpin turn that lay about 100 yards down the road.
As we came up to the corner, Thompson swerved left and slammed on the brakes, taking his foot off the pedal and flooring the accelerator as soon as the Shark had skidded to the point where it was aiming back uphill. The gravel underneath sounded like a machine gun erupting; the speedometer never went below 60. Neither one of us spilled a drop.
"You're a good driver, Hunter," I said.
"Racing suspension," he said proudly, taking a sip of scotch. "Racing suspension."
We ate our dinner quickly, once we had reheated the food in the microwave. My ride was about over, and I knew it. He was brooding as he chomped on his fish, staring at a blinking light on the answering machine. He played the message, and it was from an agitated Deborah warning that 4 a.m. was approaching.
I went to the bathroom and came out to find Thompson standing there, clad only in a terry-cloth robe, holding a towel in his hand. "Time for a swim," was all he told me. "I gotta go and get back, or there's going to be hell to pay."
He lit up another Dunhill and took his tumbler of scotch outside. "Don't let the fucking bastards get you down," he said as he climbed into the Jeep. "And watch your back."
I heard nothing more from Thompson after that bizarre evening. I had only one snapshot of the Red Shark serving as confirmation that I had actually been to Woody Creek.
On the day after the November elections, I read a news article from Colorado saying that the battle against the airport expansion had been successful; I chuckled thinking of Thompson, tumbler of scotch in hand, cackling about having defeated the greedheads.
When I got home that night, the light from a full moon was streaming in the window, providing the only light besides the blinking of the answering machine.
I pressed the playback button. It was Thompson offering me a scoop: He had been busted for DWI the night before while in the midst of some election-night celebrating. "It's a political set-up," he muttered angrily. "All these ski Nazis are out to get me." (The case has not yet gone to trial.)
The message drifted to an end, and the disembodied voice inside the machine told me what time the call had come in. I realized that he probably called as soon as he got sprung from jail.
I dialed his number, and got the answering machine. "Politics is an ugly business," I reminded him, after expressing interest in hearing his end of the story. "Watch your back." l ###