The Gonzo Goodbye

You asked me "whom we should dispatch" to cover the monstrous memorial ceremonies for Hunter S. Thompson this weekend. Whom? Whom? Here's my answer: Send Leary. Send Kesey. Better yet, send nobody. Hell, send Corey Clark -- he's nobody. Just don't send me.

Not that I begrudge the good Doctor his booming sayonara. Whatever private anguish or defective pharmaceutical prompted him to cash in his chips, at 67 and in failing health -- well, no player can tell another when it's time to quit the table. And if his loved ones want to tamp his ashes into a howitzer and blast them across the bar at the Jerome, that's their business.

But to join the pack of media hyenas slavering at the gates...all those gizmo-saddled, gonzo-worshiping curs...swilling Wild Turkey, snorting ether, waving cigarette holders and craning their wattled necks for a glimpse of Johnny Depp...sorry, but I'll pass. The plan to erect a giant fist clutching a peyote button is a nice touch, but it's a bit anachronistic; these days what matters is who's doing the fisting.

Feature this, Mr. Wenner: This depraved cult of press jackanapery is what took the punch out of gonzo a long time ago. Hunter was our tragic clown, but he used to be much more than that, before the bitch Celebrity got him. We should be celebrating the seat-of-the-pants outlaw who savaged despots and wrote like Fitzgerald on liquid nitrogen, not guzzling Cristal with the rest of the press corps in Aspen -- a nest of rabid greedheads that would have been renamed Fat City if the Doctor had won the sheriff's race back in 1970.

(It's worth noting that Hunter's Freak Power ticket lost that race by only a few hundred votes -- probably because he called for putting drug dealers in the stocks if they gave bad weight. In his later years, he was the town's éminence grise, its Magnum-packing madman in the woods, but nobody wanted him in charge any more than they would have welcomed the reign of Uncle Duke. But I digress.)

Forty years ago, our man wrote a startling book about biker scum and got stomped for his trouble. It was his last sustained piece of reporting. He went on to do some wonderful things -- the Vegas book, the relentless pursuit of Richard Nixon throughout the '72 campaign and the unfolding Watergate scandal -- but journalism was no longer the point. Not even New Journalism. He was riffing, piping it, tripping the fantastic and the grotesque. Woodward and Bernstein regarded Nixon as prey and stalked him the old-fashioned way, with dogged investigative journalism; Hunter saw him as a predator, a "drooling red-eyed beast" who, while Washington slept, leapt over the White House fence and into the darkness, in search of fresh meat. Let others hound him into resignation; the Doctor would dissect his soul.

When interviewers tried to draw him into serious discussions of the gonzo aesthetic, Hunter snorted contempt. "Holy shit," he told one. "If I can write like that and get away with it, why should I keep trying to write like the New York Times?"

It was marvelous stuff at times, but it was also a steel-jawed trap. What outlaw can move from the fringe to the spotlight and still keep his edge? Press conferences became HST fan meetings. The lecture circuit beckoned. Hunter became the story, even as his growing notoriety made it difficult to write about anything else. It's hard to rattle other people's cages when you're in one yourself.

His fame soared as his output declined. I'll skip over the abortive assignments to Vietnam and Grenada, the legendary blown deadlines and staggering expense accounts on stories that never saw the light of day, the inevitable self-parody. By the 1980s he was pounding out rambling columns about Soldier of Fortune conventions, predicting that George Bush Senior had a 33-1 chance to be president and insisting that G. Gordon Liddy was Deep Throat. At one point I heard he was working as a projectionist in a San Francisco porno palace -- an intriguing research project, if true, but one that seems to have yielded no story at all. There were brief flashes of the old brilliance (the coverage of the Roxanne Pulitzer case was pure gonzo gold), but there were also endless carpings about hot-tub misunderstandings and local drug cops in Fat City.

The biographers inventoried his medicine cabinet. The publishers made off with his shelved manuscripts and old letters. Woody Creek filled up with second and third homes for big guns like Ed Bradley, while the freaks hauled ass down-valley. The Doctor still pranked, but he hardly drew down on anyone anymore; he was the ultimate slacker in Slackerville. He had become respectable, beloved, admired -- sheer death to the trade. Gonzo spawned no progeny, just wretched imitators...and worse, self-aggrandizing fabulists and plagiarists like Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair.

Some of his most ardent admirers got it all wrong. They saw the swagger, but not the endearing fallibility. They loved the drug lore but skipped over his darker ruminations on hippiedom and the crack-up of American culture and morality. He could be generous with his fans, even with college kids who tried to beard him at the Woody Creek Tavern. But he had his limits. A couple of years ago a friend persuaded him to grant a phone interview to a pack of Colorado College students, who demanded to know what gave him the right to shoot off guns with abandon.

"Three things," he snapped. "The Second Amendment. The Second Amendment. And the Second Amendment."

He was passionate about the Bill of Rights. Yet the outrage became muted, even as the going got weirder. After Nixon, he couldn't seem to muster quite the same animus for Reagan or Clinton, heaping his scorn on sideshows like Ed Meese. And now that we have a regime so arrogant and rapacious that it makes one long for an upstanding, shifty-eyed werewolf like Richard Nixon, his voice is silent forever.

No, I won't be heading up to Woody Creek for the big farewell. There's too much work to do right here. A few of the boys are stockpiling Ketamine and cattle prods, waiting for the right moment to deploy. Like the old coot says at the end of the greatest gonzo Western ever made: "It ain't like it used to be, but it'll do."

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