Hunter S. Thompson
July 18, 1937--February 20, 2005
July 18, 1937--February 20, 2005
"Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era — the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .
"History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of 'history' it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
"My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights — or very early mornings — when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder's jacket . . . booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change) . . . but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that. . . .
"There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .
"And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. 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 — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."
--Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1971)
Ages ago, as time is reckoned on Da Intarwebs (translation: like, man, you know, last week or sumthin'), one of the many discussion boards I read posed this question:
"Who changed the shape of your head?
So who's the last person to alter your worldview, put new ideas into your head that shape(d) your operating system for the rest of your life? Who was the first person to do it?"
For me, the quick 'n' dirty answer to that last part is "Hunter S. Thompson."
I guess I was around 13 when I read Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs as a follow-up to Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test*; both books cover the same time period and intersect in a number of places. The interesting thing to me was, whereas Wolfe reported events as some sort of peripherally-involved off-screen narrator (see New Journalism), Thompson was an integral part of the action. Huh? Whaa...? Subjective non-fiction? Oh, mama; give me more of that!
Three years later he did, with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, then later, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. At that point I wanted to be Hunter S. Thompson: smoke dope, snort ether, drink Wild Turkey, whiz around the country in an oversized, dangerously high-powered automobile and collect... experiences... which I would then dutifully document in a sweat-drenched, fever-pitched frenzy of Smith-Corona pounding while Lou Reed blasted from the stereo and manic friends on a three-week lithium vacation hooted and hollered in the background.
Didn't work out that way--big "Duh!" there--but the fantasy entertained and sustained me for years, fueled at regular intervals by new collections of writings such as Gonzo Papers, Vol. 1: The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time (and others).
Unfortunately, Hunter got older and the ravages of his singular lifestyle finally caught up with him. His writing and his body began to deteriorate and at 5:42 p.m. on February 20, 2005, he killed himself with a gunshot to the head.
Typical Thompson-- not with a whimper, but a bang.
I miss him.
There's a nice reading list here, a MetaFilter tribute from the time of his death here, and my favorite (i. e., readable) biography here.
*Not a good age to read such a book, especially if you're growing up in a small, sleepy, Southern factory town in the 'Sixties where nothing ever seemed to happen. The same holds true for On the Road; both rendered me restless, irritable and discontented at a time (and place) when (and where) there was really nothing I could do about it.