my pissant two cents

Sunday, February 20, 2005

gonzo, r.i.p.

"i have always found writing to be the most hateful sort of work. i suspect it's a bit like fucking, which is only fun for amateurs. old whores don't do much giggling." -- hunter s. thompson, 1937-2005

hunter thompson is dead, and i don't feel so good myself.

the 67-year old father of gonzo journalism apparently took his own life with a gunshot to the head. his son juan found him in his home, known to his fans as the owl farm, the "fortified compound" in woody creek, colorado, just outside aspen. the family issued a statement asking for respect for their privacy as they attempt to deal with the shock and horror.

i, too, am caught in the grips of shock and horror. i know that many of my friends and colleagues feel the same.

i caught the news on a tease during the "snl: the first five years" on nbc. seems almost appropriate, what with saturday night live doing for television comedy what thompson did for journalism. he created a whole new thing, new, refreshing, and entirely vibrant.

"gonzo," as he coined it, is a visceral, affecting and effective style of writing that took all of the rules of what journalism was supposed to be and disregarded them altogether. the story is not what happened, but what it feels like while it happens. the reporter is more than just a stenographer, but a participant, the reader's surrogate. thompson did it like nobody else could. the wry, twisted visions, often including a litany of minor-league crimes involving firearms and very fast vehicles and major-league substance abuse, told serious stories with biting wit and incisive humor. it was like nothing before or since.

he became a character, and sometimes a caricature. doonesbury's "uncle duke" is based on thompson. bill murray and johnny depp have played him in movies. he was close friends with warren beatty and sen. gary hart. he talked football with nixon and considered pat buchanan a friend, but he often spoke of violent ideas that came to mind when he thought of the jimmy swaggarts, ronald reagans and george bushes (both), who turned america into a generation of swine.

hunter thompson, to be quite frank and perhaps a little maudlin, changed my life. i read fear and loathing in las vegas when i was 16, and it was like an epiphany. i had always been a good writer, writing often rambling but funny bits, sometimes taking potshots at power, but it was strictly for laughs. after fear and loathing, i realized that this was something i could actually do for a living.

it is difficult to explain how powerfully i was moved and motivated by gonzo. i became a voracious reader of thompson's stuff, and from his work moved on to other "new journalists" that came out of the same '60s era. tom wolfe, joan didion, edna buchanan, jimmy breslin, kate coleman.... i learned a literary style of reporting that tells the story in anything other than the inverted pyramid tradition, but grips the reader by the back of the neck and makes him see the story, like alex watching the ultra-violence in "a clockwork orange."

i taught a class in gonzo journalism as my senior thesis in college. i read everything thompson had written to that point, several times over. one particular piece was among the finest things i have ever read, because it told a story solely in the subtext, which had far more impact than anything traditional journalism could produce.

it was from songs of the doomed, thompson's 1990 collection of newspaper columns, magazine articles, short stories, and random correspondence. among these was material concerning his 1989 prosecution for sexual battery, which charges were dropped after the supposed victim was seen by the prosecutor as "flirting" with thompson from the witness stand. (i wrote an article for the college paper about the case, but it was dropped before i had a chance to go out to colorado to cover it in proper gonzo fashion. ) thompson was certain that the case was politically motivated, that the right-wing district attorney was trying to make a high-profile example of the good doctor in those salad days of reagan/bush, letting the people of his stripe know that the money and celebrity flooding into aspen at the time had no patience for perverts and drug users.

the piece that so accurately wrapped up the gonzo ethos and thompson's journey through the criminal justice system was called "let the trials begin." it tells the story of thompson breaking into the county law library to do a little light reading about his case. there, he meets a meek and beaten man named andrew, whose work-release program from prison requires him to do custodial work at the library. thompson befriends the man, who says he's also a writer. to prove it, he gives thompson a piece he's written, called "electricity."

"nobody feels safe," it begins. "fires burst out on dry hillsides, raging out of control, while dope fiends dance in the rancid smoke and animals gnaw each other. foreigners are everywhere, carrying pistols and bags of money. there are rumors about murder and treachery and women with no pulse. crime is rampant and even children are losing their will to live."

it is brilliant, and thompson knows why: he wrote it. enraged by the plagiarism and disgusted by andrew's shattered spirit, thompson unfolds a plot that ends with andrew viciously beaten and arrested by aspen police.

i gave that piece to my students, and asked them what it was about. they uniformly hated it. why would thompson do that to someone? to make friends with someone and then betray them in such a savage way is a horrifying, decidedly ungonzo way to conduct oneself.

and then i told them. the story is not about thompson and andrew; it's about thompson. there is no andrew. andrew is what thompson fears will happen to him if he's convicted. he will become a broken man. thompson fears losing what is left of his freedom and all that it means to him. so he destroys andrew, the scared little man inside him.

and as i looked around the room, i saw the lightbulbs going on over every head. they got it, and it meant something entirely new and vital.

that was the power of good gonzo.

perhaps the good doctor ended his life because at 67, he saw his finish line approaching and didn't want to stagger across it. only this time there was no "andrew" around. i don't know.

all i know is that hunter thompson is dead, and i don't feel so good myself.


  • according to the ny times he was 65 years of age. someone's wrong here. i'm assuming it's the times.

    By Anonymous rosa luxlx, at 9:39 AM  

  • nice piece dave. i share your sadness and confusion over the good doctor's suicide and the loss of magnetic north.

    (for the record, according to his personal letters, thompson was born in 1937. he was 67 years old when he died.)

    By Anonymous jeffrey allen, at 11:09 AM  

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