Jake O’Brien retrospectively glances at the freak who brought ‘weird’ to a national level
THE WORD ‘icon’ is thrown around like a mace on a battlefield. The victims of this branding are many and varied, and more often than not, are left in a heap of gritty reality, with an onus of living up to standards that they had no input in setting. Hunter Stockton Thompson falls kicking and screaming into this category.
Born in 1937, Thompson went from prison to a military base in Florida before beginning his literary career. His eccentricity heralded the beginnings of ‘Gonzo journalism’, infamous surreal way of crafting articles. From New York to San Juan and back, his alcohol fuelled rants hurtled maniacally away from contemporary, objective journalism.
When The Nation commissioned Thompson to produce several articles on the notorious Hell’s Angels biker gang in 1965, he leapt on the morally heinous bandwagon. With son and wife in one hand and a bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon in the other, Hunter ran riot with the Angels. Submerging himself in a culture pouring over with violence, he initiated his Gonzo way of living and became a subject of the story as opposed to its author.
While crossing swords with the Angel’s front man, Sonny Barger, Thompson was beaten and left in a bloody mess –and yet, he regretted nothing. This became his rationale to understanding the American Dream. His sporadic, unhinged association with a group of ‘freaks’ led him to enjoy unnerving people, relishing any opportunity to obnoxiously contradict someone’s very essence.
With Freak-power in tow, Thompson moved east and settled in Woody Creek, Colorado, where he mustered his literary and political prowess and began to press on ‘the powers that be’, penetrating Pitkin County and running for the position of Sheriff in 1970. He lost by only 400 votes out of a total populous of 2,500, but the loss was the very point he was trying to prove: the American Dream was on its way out. Individual freedoms had been replaced by the shallow dreams of the Nixon government that Thompson saw as the worst thing to happen to the United States in eons.
His unorthodox contradiction of personality and reality attracted the editor of the newly formed Rolling Stone magazine, and so began his illustrious, if half-baked career with the voice of the freaks and losers across a generation.
Most people will know Thompson from his hugely popular collection of articles that was later dubbed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This ‘central nerve’ of his work was the last squeeze that gave birth to Gonzo journalism. Sports Illustrated hired him to cover the Mint 400 Desert motorbike race in Las Vagas. Hunter and attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta loaded up on equipment and drugs and blasted their way on to the desert roads in search of the American Dream.
With no intention of covering the race, Thompson immersed his exploration of a culture that he loved so dearly and the contemplation of where it all went wrong. Like the ‘Great Red Shark’ the pair drove, they conquered all, abused everyone and moreover, pissed people off. However, much like the ‘White Whale’, Thompson rents in the latter half of the book, it is he that is conquered. The fear and the loathing set in and the drug frenzy becomes a savage reality.
Hunter Thompson created and dominated a fi eld of journalism that only he could grasp, but more importantly, he encapsulated how a generation of people felt and how they would respond given the correct opportunities and environment. He was a self-titled loser, but he was the best one.
Staying as far away from the motorbike race as possible, Thompson found a direct route to the source of the American Dream, and now, more than ever, this is relevant.
Thompson provokes people to visualise ourselves in that fi re red convertible and strive to be the knife that twists the side of the ‘powers-that-be’.
The point is that this man did the most while attempting the least. He did not work for his fame, and he never intentionally toiled for his infamy. What he did do was change the face of not only journalism, but politics too; his stunning coverage of the 1972 Presidential Campaign Trail between Nixon and George McGovern dominated the pages of Rolling Stone.
However, Gonzo was beginning to dismantle his life. The drugs took over and his critics became tougher. Nonetheless, he bit back with Kingdom of Fear, which spewed his distain at his society for letting it all happen again. Bush was where Nixon was, and an equally senseless war was raging. Throughout his adult years,
Hunter Stockton Thompson remained completely disenfranchised from the authority he so grotesquely despised, but nonetheless retained a certain, if mangled respect for the American Dream that his constitution stood for.
On 20th February 2005, Thompson – life long fi re-arms enthusiast – died from self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head and the battlefield lay silent as other icons stood still at his loss.
For his funeral, Thompson’s ashes were launched from a 47 metre red rocket, shaped like a double-thumbed fi st grasping a small cactus. This last act challenged conformity in a Thompsonesque way – with a surreal and violent immediacy.
An icon has the power to change your mind and speak the truth, no matter how horrible and mortifying it may be. With this in mind we fi nd that Thompson was indeed one of the greats.