AJR logo     

    
 AJR  Features

From AJR,   April/May 2005  issue

Appreciation: An American Original   

A journalist--whose AJR account of an unforgettable night with Hunter S. Thompson led to a big-time demotion at his day job--fondly remembers the Good Doctor, and a surprising act of kindness in the middle of the night.


By Richard Keil
Richard Keil covers the White House for Bloomberg News.      

"The best epitaph a man can gain is to have accomplished daring deeds of valor against the enmity of fiends during his lifetime."
--Thomas McGuane

Hunter S. Thompson is gone, and we're the poorer for it.

The man whose drug-fueled paranoia and bottomless love for the promise of America combined to produce unforgettable ruminations on the state of American politics--in a new form of journalism he popularized--checked out at 67 while sitting in his own kitchen, a place that over the years became a veritable salon of American arts and letters, gonzo-style.

Naturally, a gun was involved.

I met Hunter nearly 10 years ago and had stayed in touch but sporadically (the wasting of a great gift, not making more of that acquaintance, it seems to me now), and his death was the kind of thing where your friends call the minute they hear. I was in Brussels when the news came down, covering George W. Bush, who, with Richard Nixon, was among Hunter's least favorite presidents. At the exact moment, I was sipping a late-night beer in a smoky bar, checking in with a friend by phone, when someone e-mailed the Associated Press dispatch from Aspen.

I quickly hung up and read, and reread, that maddeningly short wire story, looking for clues as to why. And all through the next hours came the e-mails from the States.

He'd like that, I think, knowing that I, who knew him slightly, and the thousands and thousands of others who never met him will always remember where we were when we got The Word.

I once had the great fortune to spend an evening with Hunter in that kitchen, a night both unforgettable and difficult to fully remember, a ride that encompassed nearly everything in the Thompson oeuvre, save for the firing of guns. Which we had intended to do, but, as these things go, we found ourselves distracted.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Hunter took journalism in a new direction, for sure, throwing out the rules and conventions of traditional writing as unsuitable for the times.

"Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism, which is true, but they will miss the point," Hunter wrote in the middle of an obituary of Richard Nixon, a piece in which he said Nixon's body should have been burned in a barrel and his casket launched down "one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles." He continued: "It was the built-in blind spot of the Objective Rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place."

What's less remembered about Hunter is the sweep of his knowledge--he could quote the Bible, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer, the Koran, at will--and the clarity of his writing.

"Hell's Angels" holds up today as one of the guideposts in observatory journalism; "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" ranks with Terry Southern's "The Magic Christian" or Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" as slim, essential volumes that include not a wasted word or extraneous thought.

David Byrne once said that everyone who heard the Velvet Underground went on to form a band, and it's safe to say--especially given the Bloggers' World we now live in--that Hunter inspired a lot of people to start practicing journalism.

But it was more than the attitude. Hunter's passion for the reporting of the truth, the instructive, persuasive nature of telling a story in the right way, was what made him special; he'd found a new way to do the right thing.

It wasn't only anger that made his prose sing. It was pain, love, joy, hope, about both the craft of writing and whatever he happened to be writing about.

Getting it right, making it sound right, mattered tremendously to him.

If it were as easy as he made it seem, everyone would do it well.

The great always have their pretenders, and there are few male journalists or writers of a certain age, say 25 through 60, who haven't at times tried to emulate some aspect of Hunter S.Thompson's routine.

For some, it was an effort at crafting the pithy, cruelly accurate description--Nixon as the "dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character," to cite perhaps his most famous example. Had Hunter been born 20 years later, it's easy to imagine him making his mark in Spy, not Rolling Stone.

For others, it was an effort to be the Oracle, the all-seeing prognosticator of political things to come. (Fact: Hunter figured out before David Broder or Johnny Apple that George McGovern was the real deal for the Democratic nomination in 1972.) The better ones among these emulators ended up on the op-ed pages of America's leading newspapers.

There was another path most took, because it seemed easier, and cooler--the heroic bouts of drinking and drugging that were a frighteningly genuine part of Hunter's makeup. "So what if we're covering the Pennsylvania Legislature: Let's do it Right, the way He would."

This, we all learned, was not sustainable for very long, useful only in short, frantic bursts at the end of a long campaign trip or in the days leading up to some Big Event, when adrenaline was your friend, at least for a while.We were sprinters, and bad ones at that; Hunter was an ultramarathoner.

So it came to pass that a friend of mine was getting married atop Aspen Mountain one fine summer day in 1995 and, as I planned to head out for the festivities, I faxed Hunter a note asking if we could get together and talk. As a junior political reporter at the AP, I had just enough bona fides to at least make the attempt.

Expecting rejection, I added a throwaway line: I'd bring a six-pack of my home-brewed beer, home-brewing being all the rage just then.

Late that night, my phone rang. It was Hunter, telling me to come on over once I was in Aspen. And to not forget the beer.

I documented the events of the evening--watching football, drinking, talking politics, wild late-night rides in the same 1971 Chevrolet Caprice convertible he made famous in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"--for AJR (see "Still Gonzo After All These Years," April 1996).

It turns out the beer, which we consumed rather quickly, had been my ticket: Hunter himself, once more ahead of the curve, had gotten into home-brewing back in the 1960s. He told me, as we were getting to know each other, that he had been thrown out of a girlfriend's East Village apartment, once and for all, when the two cases of beer he had just bottled erupted like Mount Vesuvius, ruining her postage stamp-sized kitchen.

"You obviously put too much priming sugar in," I told him.

"Rookie mistake," he nodded. "On lots of levels. Hell."

My notes from that evening make me laugh, still.

My handwriting, at the outset, is Catholic-school neat, far more orderly than I was even then, a sign of obvious nerves. Then about midway through the pre-midnight portion of the evening, it begins to weave and flow across the page. Later still, some pages contain but one very large word, the thought continued on the next page. Some of the pages are blotched, others torn. Finally I stopped writing altogether and relied on my tape recorder. Listening to it now, Hunter sounds clear and impassioned. I might as well have been speaking Farsi.

The whole evening, I recall, I kept having a recurring thought: This is who he really is! I had been warned by those who knew him that he wasn't some empty bubble of the Uncle Duke cartoon character, but part of me had expected him to power down a few drinks, bark at the moon awhile, and then sit back for a quiet, intelligent and reasonable discussion of the events of the day.

We had that conversation, of course, but it was anything but quiet.

The moment that I decided I wanted to remain in touch with Hunter came sometime between 2 and 3 in the morning. We were at the Woody Creek Tavern, eating dinner and consuming drinks as fast as they could be poured.

When we had come in the tavern, the bartender had given Hunter the latest fill on efforts by local developers to expand Aspen's airport so it could accommodate larger aircraft, something Hunter felt strongly would ruin whatever was left of the quaint ambiance of Woody Creek that had attracted him to the place more than 20 years before.

He kept returning to this topic all night, each time with higher levels of agitation. We were the only people there, save for the bartender, the waitress and one mid-30s guy sitting by himself at the far end of the bar, casting nervous, sidelong glances Hunter's way.

Like all celebrities, Hunter had developed that sixth sense of knowing when he was being watched, sensing when he was about to be interrupted by some gladhander or autograph-seeker. So there he was, in high Hunter dudgeon, going on about the airport. It was vintage stuff: The fist banging the table, the voice rising, the promises of bad things to come to the developers growing ever louder.

I noticed the bartender, presumably accustomed to such things, watching us out of the corner of his eye. The fellow at the end of the bar picked that moment to nervously approach. "Jesus, Hunter's going to skin him alive," I thought.

The fellow started talking in a faltering, stilted way that suggested he'd been waiting around all night, praying that Hunter would show, and was now embarking on the speech he'd rehearsed a hundred times in his head, hoping against hope that he'd get a chance to deliver it, while driving to Aspen from Ohio or California or wherever it was he came from.

It was the usual stuff about how Hunter had changed his life, gotten him interested in politics, reading, writing. Obviously sensing that he didn't have much original to offer, the fellow concluded by saying, with a self-conscious swallow, "You probably hear this all the time."

Hunter, who had been sitting silently the whole while, his fist still clenched on the battered table, allowed a smile to slowly spread across his face. "I do," he said softly. "But I'm not used to hearing it expressed so eloquently."

A line. Hunter knew it, I knew it, and sure as hell this fellow knew it. But he was grateful for the decency, the gentleness, and now he looked like a little kid at Christmas, surveying all the presents under the tree. Eagerly, he pulled a tattered copy of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" from his back pocket and thrust it forward to Hunter.

He looked confused for a moment, until I slid my pen across the table. He autographed the book, stood up, shook the guy's hand and sent him quietly into the chilly Colorado night.

"That was nice," I said.

Hunter cleared his throat.

"Yeah, well, anyhow, those goddamned developers, I'm going to take a garden trowel and rip their lungs clear out of their chests..."

I'd offered my bosses a chance at a Hunter interview story, and they decided correctly--that he hadn't made any news. And so, since they passed on it, I was free to write something for someone else.

In hindsight, it's not hard to see why the suits at AP were less than enamored with the tell-all nature one of their reporters laid out about a night with the Good Doctor. Rereading the AJR piece now, it's harder than ever to argue with friends who opined that I must have had a death wish of sorts in writing it as I chose to.

The AP has pretty strong union rules, so firing me--which must have crossed their minds--wasn't really an option. So, instead, they busted me down to menial reporting tasks--covering local news, the kind of thing I'd done when I first arrived at the bureau nearly 10 years before. My days were filled with quiet desperation and devoted to searching for work.

One night, during one of our infrequent conversations, I let Hunter know what was up, being careful not to suggest that I blamed him in any way for what had happened. After all, I had written the piece, not he.

"Do you regret anything you wrote?" he asked in that gruff, challenging way.

"No," I told him. "But I sure as hell regret the fallout."

His voice softened just a bit.

"You wrote the truth," he said, "and there's never anything wrong with that."

In November 2000 Hunter began writing a column on pretty much whatever he pleased for ESPN's Web site, a forum that allowed him to opine primarily on two of his passions, sports and gambling.

His health was beginning to fail him, which must have been frightening, even though he was unlikely to admit it. In a July 21, 2003, column titled "Welcome to the Big Darkness," Hunter wrote about undergoing spinal surgery to relieve the pain then shooting through his body: "I hate pain, despite my ability to tolerate it beyond all known parameters, which is not necessarily a good thing."

That column, and later ones, include the leitmotif: "Big Darkness, soon come."

So in hindsight we look stupid for having missed this coming, although, according to his son, Juan, and his widow, Anita, trying to talk Hunter out of thinking about killing himself might have been useless anyhow.

The man who was a hero to so many, and never completely comfortable in the role, had an easier time making heroes out of others.

One of the people he admired most was Muhammad Ali. Maybe that's because he saw something of himself in Ali's fiercely independent spirit (a man who went to jail rather than fight in Vietnam, and nearly lost his boxing career as a result). Perhaps it was that, in the good old days, Hunter's verbal poetry was a counterpoint to Ali's artistry in the ring.

And they were both on top of their respective games at the same time, giants walking the Earth. Or maybe it's because, like Ali, Hunter took huge bites out of life and enjoyed every mouthful.

Whatever it was, just like Ali, Hunter was an American original.

We'll never know another like him.