Hunter S Thompson, who took his life with a gunshot to the head on Sunday, 22nd February, had become, by 2005, a complete anachronism in the USA. Not because he used alcohol and drugs to savage excess and liked to kill time and small animals by shooting at his 'fortified compound' (how fortified, and how compounded, we were never told) near Aspen, Colorado; America has plenty of drunks and whole towns of people drugged senseless, probably more so since Bush’s re-election. And there is a surfeit of gun-toting lunatics running around the country, although a few of them die every day in firearms-related accidents. No, Hunter was an anachronism because somewhere deep beneath the knarled and frazzled public image, here was a writer who still craved the idealism, vulnerability and openness of the radical 1960s spirit at a time when all the other true believers had renounced, cashed in, vanished, or died.
As with most people who are famous enough to merit an obituary but not famous enough to merit media coverage on a regular enough basis for mainline hacks to actually know anything useful about them, the content of most of the newspaper obits was laughable – third-hand definitions of ‘Gonzo journalism’ and some warnings about LSD probably cut and pasted from valedictions to Timothy Leary or William Burroughs, even Thomas de Quincey perhaps. Only the Independent, with a full-page front cover tribute and a heartfelt piece by Ralph Steadman (illustrator on some of Thompson’s best work), did the man justice. To be fair to the press, HST had been in semi-retirement since at least 1994, and some would argue since 1973. That’s when the second of his two classic books, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, hit the shelves, following the better known Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the previous year.
Las Vegas is the best place to start with an analysis of Thompson’s particular significance as a contributor to late twentieth century English literature; it’s one of the most readable pieces of sustained prose I can think of. (In that respect it shares a lot with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which Thompson viewed as the definitive Great American Novel.) Las Vegas evolved from two separate assignments Thompson was sent on in 1971 by the music newspaper Rolling Stone – the Mint 400 motorcycle rally and a District Attorneys’ conference on the ‘drug problem’. The process by which his coverage of these events got distilled into an incendiary blend of fireapple red convertibles, Chivas Regal, mescaline and ‘adrenachrome’, a 300-pound Samoan attorney, lizards in the hotel lobby, tin dice shakers in the shape of apes at $7.50 a pop in the airport shop, etc. is the first major example of ‘Gonzo journalism’. Gonzo was hailed (and promoted by its author, it must be said) as a ludicrously innovative approach to reportage. However, when stripped down to its component parts – (a): deliberate exaggeration/distortion/fabrication of events to aid the story, (b): copious quantities of whatever ‘situational enhancements’ are to hand, be they pharmaceutical or petrol-engined, and (c): crossing (a) with (b) wherever possible (e.g. adrenachrome, the ‘Vincent Black Shadow’ bike etc.), only (c) is truly original. (a) is almost the textbook definition of a journalist, and even (a) plus (b) is hardly unique to HST – Christopher Hitchens would qualify, maybe even Andrew Gilligan. No, the main "USP" of Las Vegas - and of the rest of Thompson’s best work – is the quality of the writing. It manages to make an incident where guests in a hotel lobby transmogrify into lizards sound completely convincing – more so than Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film version, and so much so that no less an authority than David Icke quotes the scene as evidence for his thesis that the world is being run by intelligent biped reptiles in his 2001 bestseller The Biggest Secret (1st edition, p32). And in many ways the difficulties that befall HST throughout the book are a better argument against drug misuse than fifty government 'drug tsars'.
But at the end of the day, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was solely an entertainment – damn fine, but with little wider political context, although the shadow of the Nixon administration, then seen as a cabal of extreme right wingers (little did they know what was in store for the 80s and the 00s) loomed over the book’s 'Foul Year Of Our Lord, AD 1971'. Campaign Trail ’72 provided this wider context. The 1972 US Presidential election was Nixon’s bid for re-election against George McGovern, an anti-Vietnam war left-winger who was largely written off at the start of the campaign for the Democratic nomination, but who managed to win enough primaries through a skilful and committed grassroots organization to beat his rivals from the old-school, trade-union backed and largely pro-Vietnam wing of the party. Unfortunately, as with the left-wing surge in the UK Labour party in the early 1980s, this strategy splintered the Democratic party and its support badly, leading to a rout at the polls which left McGovern looking very much like an American version of Michael Foot eleven years later. Thompson spent 11 months working at a flat-out pace, both in Washington and criss-crossing the country for the various primaries and conventions. The result is essential reading, even now, for anyone interested in the bizarre mechanics American politics and the fundamental weaknesses of the Democratic party as a force for progressive change in the USA in recent decades. The gallows humour of the final month before the vote, where McGovern knows he’s lost but has enough élan to put his arm round a particularly virulent heckler at a public appearance and whisper softly "I have a secret for you... Kiss my ass", is both hilarious and moving, one of the great images of American politics.
In some respects Thompson’s career is as interesting for what he didn’t manage to do as for what he did. A book on 'the death of the American dream', which would have encompassed several of the pivotal moments in American politics at the cusp of the 1970s, never made it into print. His bid for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, running with a shaved head on a 'freak power' ticket which was filmed for an ITV documentary in 1970 (please, somebody, release this!) failed by only a few percentage points. And his novel, The Rum Diary, first drafted in the early 1960s, didn’t see publication until 1998. Unfortunately, after Campaign Trail Thompson managed no more full-scale book-length works of Gonzo. The rest of his 1970s is to be found in The Great Shark Hunt (1979), the first (and best) of several volumes of collected articles. The best of Shark Hunt – ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’, ‘Fear and Loathing at the Watergate : The Boys In the Bag’, ‘Jimmy Carter and the Great Leap of Faith’ – is pretty unforgettable stuff. If only the same could be said of Better Than Sex (1993), which attempted to get back on the campaign trail with Bill Clinton in 1992 but lacked the intimacy of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, relying too much on press cuttings and bizarre photography, plus one of the more ill-advised prose styles of recent American literature – ending alternate sentences with the words ‘Bubba’ and ‘ho ho ho.’ His penultimate book, Kingdom of Fear (2002) was wildly uneven, but nonetheless a big improvement as it featured his best piece of work in decades, ‘Jesus Hated Bald Pussy’, which is the most powerful, vicious and uncompromising swipe at the Bush administration that anyone has yet managed to excrete. It’s only two and a half pages, and I will selectively quote the last two paragraphs here, because it must be done:
We have become a Nazi monster in the eyes of the world – a nation of bullies and bastards who would rather kill than live peacefully. We are not just Whores for power and oil, but killer whores with hate and fear in our hearts. We are human scum, and that is how history will judge us... well, shit on that dumbness. George W. Bush does not speak for me or my son or my mother or my friends or the people I respect in this world. We did not vote for these cheap, greedy little killers who speak for America today – and we will not vote for them again in 2002. Or 2004. Or ever. Who are these swine? These flag-sucking half-wits who get fleeced and fooled by stupid little rich kids like George Bush?… They speak for all that is cruel and stupid and vicious in the American character. I piss down the throats of these Nazis. And I am too old to worry about whether they like it or not. Fuck them.
This short excerpt should be inscribed on every American passport, driving licence, bank statement, Bible, and all guns and other torture devices. Compared to this, Michael Moore might as well be Brian Sewell. Every time I get upset at these... at these ARSEHOLES running the USA, I look at Kingdom of Fear and think, ‘at least someone else got it as well.’ And it is a crying shame Dr.Gonzo is no longer here to fight against the final death of democracy and freedom in the ‘civilised’ world.
I’m still looking forward to his final publication, Hey Rube: Blood Sport, The Bush Doctrine and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness, currently lost in the post after my attempt to import it from the USA. It’s a collection of Hunter’s columns for the sports website ESPN.com; reports from Amazon and elsewhere suggest it’s stew from old bones, but at least it will have a bit of spike and bile to it. The torch has been passed on now, and although we have precious little to smile about, fortunately the campaigning voice of radical America is as strong as it’s been in decades – witness Outfoxed, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, The Corporation, Dude Where’s My Country (Michael, you are hereby rehabilitated), even Super Size Me. America – indeed Britain too – owes it to Hunter S Thompson to keep on brewing his patented brand of energised radical indignation and fury to as true and pure a recipe as we can. There’s a lot to do, and a long road ahead. Most of us haven’t even tried good quality mescaline yet. Or the ‘Freak Power’ ticket... ho ho ho.