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Gonzo Gets Gone

“We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

—Hunter S. Thompson, Conclusion of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas



When the Gonzo decide to get going, they apparently go with a bang.

I heard the news of Hunter S. Thompson blowing his head off as I was returning from the Mexican border and hydroplaning up the 101 last Sunday night. Peering into the wedge of dim light my high beams cut through the falling sheets of water, I could only conclude I was driving right into some new historical epoch. Just as the Portland-like downpour seemed to be ushering in a new Age of Weather, the last standing hero of the ’60s decided to make a sudden and dramatic exit from the globe as we know it.

Sudden, but not surprising. The good Doctor Gonzo has been rather publicly trying to kill himself more or less since LBJ signed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. That he made it to age 67 was, in itself, something of a miracle. How somebody can smoke so much grass, pop so many pills and tabs, wash them down with so many gulps of bourbon and feverishly play with such an arsenal of pistols, shotguns and even machine guns and not have done himself in long ago is beyond me. If a coroner’s report is ever made public you can bet the list of chemicals found in HST’s bloodstream will be as long as the list of reasons he could rattle off to demand Nixon’s impeachment.

I only met Hunter once face to face . . . and under circumstances I choose to keep to myself. But he was a huge if not defining influence on me and scads of other writers. A little bit of HST always seems to be sitting on my shoulder every time I do some feature reporting, and it’s not infrequent that I will ask myself What Would Gonzo Do? Unwilling (and certainly unable) to answer that question by cracking open a stash of two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of blotter acid, a salt shaker of coke, and a galaxy of uppers, downers, screamers and laughers — as HST did as he crossed the Clark County line into Las Vegas — I usually settle for some good old-fashioned Gonzo inspiration.

Thompson was a ferocious wit, a brilliant and immensely entertaining writer who grabbed you by the short hairs and dragged you along on some harrowing, illuminating and ultimately unforgettable ride. Unbeknownst even to many of his most ardent fans, HST was also a world-class reporter. His books on the Hell’s Angels and Las Vegas were his big breakthroughs; lesser known is the solid reporting career he had already racked up long before he became a counterculture icon. It was perhaps his little-noticed stint as South American correspondent in the early ’60s for the now-defunct National Observer that first brought him face to face with the less attractive aspects of the American Dream. Or maybe just growing up in Kentucky was enough to acquaint him with the Nightmare, something he could never shake off.

Those haunting green gargoyles that sometimes perch on our bedposts long about 3 in the morning were the Good Doctor’s constant playmates. His piercing insight into those demons and his knowledge of the outstanding place they hold in the darkest corners of our national soul drove him batshit. The resulting, constant pain could only be blown off by blasting his guns, eating some screamers or sweating out a marathon writing session (if not all three together). The product on paper was consistently of stunning quality. Even in the so-called valley of his career — from, say, the early ’80s until a few years ago when he seemed to be rebounding — his prose remained spectacular. How someone so visibly irrational could produce such literature and such steady reporting was — by my limited imagination — simply unfathomable. I’ve always wondered if the guy actually took notes, or how the hell he remembered in excruciating detail events of 20 or 30 years ago, let alone what had happened the night before. I asked him that when I met him, but his answer took him off on a tangent that pinballed between the relative quality of Brownings versus Remingtons and led to a meditation on the sweet oak aftertaste of Wild Turkey.

Doctor Gonzo’s only misfortune is that he outlived journalism. Rolling Stone was still around, of course, but like much of American journalism it had become a brightly painted, grotesquely animated corpse. There simply wasn’t much room in our current world for reporters and writers as outsized as Hunter S. Thompson. They just don’t fit in anywhere anymore. I guess he came to the same conclusion.