Hunter S. Thompson – Gonzo Frontiersman
“My only faith in this country is rooted in such places as Colorado and Idaho and maybe Big Sur as it was before the war. The cities are greasepits and not worth blowing off the map.”
- Hunter S. Thompson (from a letter to Lionel Olay, February 16, 1962)
Hunter S. Thompson is a name that will always be associated with a variety of locations – from his birthplace of Louisville Kentucky to his longstanding fortified compound in Woody Creek Colorado, from San Juan Puerto Rico courtesy of The Rum Diary to Las Vegas and his journey to the heart of the American Dream. Thompson was a seasoned traveller and indeed such was the extent of his time on the road in his early twenties that he once declared that his wanderlust made ‘Kerouac look like a piker’ (Thompson 1997, p.244). Although the natural environment has always played an integral role in the make-up of Thompson’s work, it remains an element of his writing that is all too often overlooked in favour of focusing on the more radical characteristics that have come to define both his literary persona and Gonzo Journalism. In order to fully understand and appreciate the various underlying principles that motivated Thompson and shaped his development as a writer, attention must be paid both to the manner in which he utilises the natural environment as a literary device and how the frontier as a concept lies at the heart of his literary oeuvre. Interestingly, the very point in Thompson’s life where the aforementioned come into being, a time and place that could be considered the genesis of both the fictive persona of The Hunterfigure and Gonzo Journalism, is actually one of the most overlooked periods in his life. That place is none other than Big Sur, California. Thompson arrived there in November of 1960 in the hope of settling down to write what he called “The Great Puerto Rican Novel” inspired by his experiences living in San Juan. His journey from the Caribbean island to his new home on the west coast of America had been far from straightforward however, with New York City being the first port of call in July of 1960 in what would become a westward bound voyage across the country that echoed Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. It is important however, to first examine how and why Thompson ended up in Big Sur from San Juan, as the journey itself reveals important details concerning Thompson’s motivationsthat ultimately find their ultimate expression through his writing.
The West Is The Best – Goodbye to the Rat Race
The catalyst that spurred Thompson on his travels echoed that of certain frontiersmen that first journeyed westward across the land in search of pastures new; they were both equally motivated by a desire stay one step ahead of the law. In the time honoured tradition of the Outlaw heroes that he so admired in his youth, Thompson had fled Puerto Rico whilst out on bail awaiting charges of breach of the peace and resisting arrest, following an incident in which he had first refused to pay for his meal at a restaurant and subsequently got into an ugly confrontation with the police, of whom he compared to Nazi’s when asked to explain his actions in front of a judge in San Juan. Rather than await his fate, Thompson as ever opted to control his own destiny and thus returned to the familiar scene of New York. Though he had become disillusioned with journalism following his stint in Puerto Rico, he still had a strong desire to get his fiction published and whilst in New York he made one final pitch to Grove Press to garner interest in Prince Jellyfish, his first novel. Success however, was far off, and upon receiving yet another rejection letter, Thompson decided to move on from the novel, declaring to William Kennedy that he would ‘chalk that year up to experience’ (Thompson 1997, p. 22). For Thompson though, New York proved to be only a temporary stay. His focus quickly switched to the horizon and an escape route away from the big city. He was never comfortable living in a city the size of New York, though he did find it to be a never ending source of intrigue. When he first arrived there on Christmas Eve, 1957, the towering skyscrapers made such an impression that he later wrote:
I’d never been there, never even seen it. I remember being stunned at the New York skyline as I drove over this big freeway, coming across the flats in Secaucus. All of a sudden it was looming up in front of me and I almost lost control of the car. I thought it was a vision. (Thompson 1992, p.39)
However, the constant struggle to survive on a meagre wage in New York had been the principle reason for Thompson fleeing to Puerto Rico by January of 1960 and now, six months later, he had come full circle. The city had proven to be a rich learning experience in the past, from his stint working as a copyboy at Time, to the classes in “Literary Style & Structure” and “Short Story Writing” that he had taken at Columbia University. Living in New York had also exposed him to the very epicentre of the Beat Generation universe, and their rise to literary prominence did not escape his attention. He was particularly taken by Jack Kerouac whose “confessional prose made quite an impact on Thompson’s philosophy for living, if not on his writing style” (Brinkley in Thompson 1997, p. 110). For Thompson though, the negative aspects of living in New York far outweighed the positive, to such an extent that he harboured a life long aversion to the “rat-race” reality of big city life, a sentiment that was all too clear from even the earliest days of his time in New York, as is illustrated in his letter to his former English teacher at Louisville Male High School, Arch Gerhart, dated January 29, 1958:
Anyone who could live in this huge reclaimed tenement called Manhattan for more than a year, without losing all vestiges of respect for everything that walks on two legs, would have to be either in love, or possessed of an almost divine understanding. The sight of eight million people struggling silently but desperately to merely stay alive is anything but inspiring. For my money, at least eight million people would be much better off if all five boroughs of New York should suddenly sink into the sea. (Thompson 1997, p.106)
In the two years that followed that appraisal, Thompson had only found more reason to convince him that his time was best spent elsewhere. He had hoped that Puerto Rico would have been the solution to his problem, but even a supposed Caribbean paradise turned out to have a dark side. Thompson however, had not entirely given up on the region and by August of 1960 he had another island in the Caribbean in his sights – Cuba.
As with all of his endeavours, the potential for excitement and adventure was always paramount and in 1960 Cuba was at the centre of attention following the exploits of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara a little over a year earlier. The image of the Guerrilla fighter in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, fighting to overthrow the Batista regime, greatly appealed to Thompson’s romantic sensibilities. There was also the Hemingway connection to contend with which only served to heighten Thompson’s desire to travel to the country in search of work and indulge his fantasy of following in his literary heroes footsteps. The dream however quickly fell by the wayside once Thompson realised that work opportunities on the island were scarce and his own financial situation had deteriorated to the point of making any return to the Caribbean impossible. Undaunted by this disappointment, a new plan of action swung into gear by September of 1960, with Thompson and his friend Paul Semonin deciding to undertake the cross country road trip that would culminate in his arrival in Big Sur.
The duo’s first destination was to be Seattle, which involved delivering the vehicle they were journeying in to a car dealer, after which they hoped to make their way down to San Francisco. Once they took to the highways though, they quickly found themselves paying homage to Kerouac’s On the Road:
Their first rule of the road was to pick up every hitchhiker. In western Kansas, Semonin stopped for a man carrying a five-gallon gas can. When the hitchhiker got into the backseat, he flipped the latches on the can to reveal it was stuffed with clothes. “No one will pick you up if they think you’re a hitchhiker,” he explained. “You have to be a motorist in distress.” Hunter smelled a story and interviewed the man about the difficulty of getting rides. When they neared a signpost that proved they were in the middle of nowhere, Hunter made Semonin stop and take a picture of the interviewee with his thumb out, looking forlorn. (Perry 2004, p. 53)
Given the nature of their expedition and literary sensibilities, the Beat Generation connotations are unsurprising. Thompson was particularly fixated on the image of the lone hitchhiker during this jaunt, with multiple photographs taken by both Thompson and Semonin along the way consisting of a solitary figure standing at the edge of an empty highway, awaiting the opportunity to catch a ride to the next town from a stranger that might never materialise. The sheer vastness of the landscape in the background creates an overwhelming sense of isolation but also raises the alluring prospect of endless possibilities and unlimited freedom. It was an intoxicating picture for Thompson but one that he felt was increasingly under threat, as is evident from his article Low Octane For The Long Haul:
Hitchhikers have fallen on bad times in recent years. The raised thumb, long a symbol of youthful adventure, suddenly took on a threatening aspect when both Hollywood and the Readers’ Digest decided the public would be better off if hitchhiking were a lost art. It almost is – and things have come to such a sad pass that only uniformed servicemen and Jack Kerouac seem to be able to move about the country with any ease. The others are having trouble. Most people are afraid of them, insurance regulations prevent truckers from picking them up, and a good many of those who still stop for the stranded thumb are often more dangerous than the hitchhikers themselves. (Thompson 2006, p. 23)
It was a doomed image that Thompson himself brought to fruition in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with his alter ego Raoul Duke and attorney Dr. Gonzo terrorizing a hitchhiker on the desert highway to Las Vegas, a place that we are ominously reminded as being the last known home of the Manson family.
In 1960 however, there was a still a vestige of innocence and youthful optimism that had yet to be swept away by the tide of violence that would come to define the decade ahead. Upon his eventual arrival in San Francisco in October of that year, Thompson delighted in seeking out the North Beach haunts of the Beats, including the City Lights Bookshop owned by Laurence Ferlinghetti. The novelty of the city by the bay soon wore off though and once more Thompson found himself cursing the pressures of city life. The task of finding accommodation was temporarily eased by his friend John Clancy offering him the use of his vacated apartment until the lease had expired. Clancy was moving across the bay to Berkeley and so Thompson seized the opportunity with relish. Yet the perennial problem of employment once more reared its ugly head, with a soon-to-be despairing Thompson applying for everything from bartending to selling encyclopaedias. He was met with rejection across the board. When his application to the San Francisco Chronicle for work went completely unacknowledged, Thompson sent editor Abe Mellinkoff an Orwellian inspired put down entitled – Down and Out in San Francisco:
City of hills and fog and water, bankers and boobs – Republicans all…city of no money except what you find at the General Delivery window, and somehow it’s always enough – city, like all cities, of lonely women, lost souls, and people slowly going under. City of newspapers for Nixon (“careful now, don’t upset the balance of terror”)…where you talk with editors and news directors and creative directors and hear over and over again how easy and necessary it is to sell out…(Thompson 1997, pp. 237-8)
There was now also a notable political edge seeping into Thompson’s writing, no doubt a reflection of the extraordinary political circus that was unfolding before an electrified nation – the first televised presidential debates between Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy…
Okay folks if you want to read the entire article, which is a good deal longer, then head over to Amazon where you can pick it up in either paperback ot for kindle. Beatdom #11 also includes interviews with leading Kearouac scholar Ann Charters, Al Hinkle (Ed Dunkel from Kerouac’s On the Road), musicians Hank Williams III & Richie Ramone, alongside articles on William Blake, William S. Burroughs and Arthur Rimbaud.
All the best,
Review: The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved (Various Artists/Spoken Word – Paris/429 Records)
Well what a long road it has been for this project. We first reported on it here at Totally Gonzo back in October of 2009 and have been eagerly awaiting its release ever since. Last November we received a tantalising update on the record courtesy of Ethan Persoff, who also earlier contributed an intriguing profile of Paris Records and their projects to the Evergreen Review. For those of you interested in work by Burroughs, Terry Southern, Ginsberg et al his article is a must read.
As for the Kentucky Derby project well I am delighted to say the wait is finally over and the record is finally available via iTunes and Amazon. I have to say I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first heard about this record. I’m don’t ever really listen to audio books and I always get nervous about any adaptation or interpretation of Thompson’s writing. When it works it is great but when it doesn’t…well the less said the better.
Thankfully, this record has more than exceeded my expectations. Which is a huge relief as The Kentucky Derby article is one of my favourite pieces by Thompson and is pretty much hallowed ground in the Gonzo cannon. Failure is not an option. I think it is fair to say that full credit must go to Michael Minzer for bringing Hal Willner on board as producer along with composer Bill Frisell, whose accompanying musical score is a delight and without which this project would have no doubt suffered greatly.
As for the cast, obviously the number one question concerns Tim Robbins role as Hunter. When he was first announced in the role I was intrigued. I never thought that he was an obvious choice for the part but I have always been a huge fan of his work ever since I saw The Shawshank Redemption (if you are one of the few mortals who haven’t seen this film then you need to rectify this immediately). I suppose having gotten used to Johnny Depp portraying Thompson onscreen it has become difficult to imagine anyone else playing that role. Comparisons are inevitable, even for such a different project as this. Thankfully however, Robbins is an inspired choice as the Good Doctor. At first it is a bit jarring to hear another actor take on the role, but what a take it is. Robbins brings a wealth of experience to the table here and it really shows. Some people might find Robbins increasingly frenetic delivery a little odd but I think it fits with the material well, particularly as a reflection of the manic energy that defines the Gonzo narrative.
I also took particular delight in the fact that Ralph Steadman came on board to play his part in the story, which lends that extra dimension of authentic Gonzo flavour to the album, not to mention his iconic Kentucky Derby artwork that decorates the sleeve of the album and CD itself. The rest of the cast put in solid performances but I have to single out Dr. John for his take on Jimbo which had me grinning like a fool. He absolutely nails the part.
So now that the 138th Kentucky Derby is less than a month away, what better way to mark the occasion than to make yourself a Mint Julep and listen to this fantastic release courtesy of Paris Records and 429 Records.
All the best,
COMPETITION: If you would like to win 1 0f 5 copies of the album courtesy of 429records than check the Official Totally Gonzo Facebook Page for details.
I recently received an email from a writer by the name of Brian Kevin who is currently on an epic trek across South America as part of his latest book project. I was intrigued to learn that he is attempting to retrace the route that Hunter S. Thompson took when he travelled around South America between 1962 & 1963, no mean task and one that will take Brian the first half of 2012 to complete. He has already secured a book contract with a division of Random House and he expects that his work – The Footloose American: Following the Hunter S. Thompson Trail through South America – will be published in the spring of 2013.
Brian first got the idea for this project a few years ago, when he visited Columbia and travelled the route that Thompson took across the country in 1962, when he arrived in South America to report for the National Observer. It is a period in Thompson’s life that interests Brian and one that he has always felt gets short shrift in terms of the various books and documentaries out there.
According to Brian, this book is not going to be a biography as such but rather a narrative travelogue:
(excerpt from email – I trust Brian doesn’t mind that I quote him directly here)
“I’m interested in how Thompson’s time in South America shaped him as a writer and a social critic who would come to fame years later. But I’m also interested in “following up” on the topics he covered fifty years back — resource extraction, the marginalization of indigenous peoples, the allure of leftist populism, and the consequences of dramatic income inequality. All topics that remain super relevant in Latin America today (and, I suppose, back at home, too). My thesis, in part, is that Thompson found something here that took him off the path of a Lost Generation dilettante novelist and put him onto his famous beat, “the death of the American dream.” He said as much towards the end of his trip, writing in a letter, “The main thing I’ve learned is that I now understand the United States, and why it will never be what it could have been, or at least tried to be.””
To whet our appetite Brian was kind enough to share a very cool piece of Gonzo history that he managed to unearth already and is a testament to his detective work and dedication. Below is a copy of the front page of the El Heraldo of Barranquilla, dated May 26, 1962. In The Proud Highway Hunter mentions that his arrival in Columbia made it onto the social page of the daily paper in Barranquilla. Thanks to Brian Kevin we can now all see this little write up for ourselves. The paper was sitting in an archive all these intervening years, yellowed by time, as it was never archived in a digital format.
(Full Page – Click on image to enlarge)
(Close up of column – Click on image to enlarge)
I have to say it was great to receive this material from Brian as I am currently writing about this period of Thompson’s life in my PhD thesis. I am really looking forward to his book and I have to say that research of this dedication is a very welcome addition to the Hunter S. Thompson & Gonzo community. Brian has also added a number of posts to his blog documenting his time in South America and the above is only the first of many cool observations and discoveries that he has made down there. To see what I am talking about, check out his blog here – A Footloose American
Ok for now,
“This is my life,
So watch it, babe.
Don’t try to keep me tied.”
And I Like It –JeffersonAirplane
In the ever expanding list of biographies and memoirs about Hunter S. Thompson, this latest offering, Keep This Quiet! by Margaret A. Harrell, is quite simply a breath of fresh air. This is by no means intended as a slight against previous publications, the majority of which are solid and have contributed much to our understanding of Hunter S. Thompson – the man and the myth. However, what sets Keep This Quiet! apart is the extent to which Harrell explores the question of identity and myth, in her quest to simultaneously answer questions concerning her own character and that of one Hunter S. Thompson. As Harrell writes early on – “Who was he? There was no indication how complicated that answer was.”
Keep This Quiet! is a fascinating memoir in this regard, one that is multi-faceted in terms of Harrell’s own journey of self-discovery, both in a personal and artistic sense and the manner in which this is mirrored by the events of the period, with the tumultuous Sixties marking a nation tragically losing its innocence courtesy of the assassins bullet and the toil of war. It is also, of course, a time of exuberant creativity and this is evident throughout, with Harrell also detailing her relationship with “poète maudit” Jan Mensaert andGreenwich Village “poet genius” Milton Klonsky. Working at Random House placed Harrell at the centre of a literary world and this is reflected by the many different characters that make an appearance – from Hunter’s oldest friends William Kennedy and David Pierce to non other than Oscar Zeta Acosta, of whom Harrell includes rare letters that he sent to her concerning getting published at Random House.
It is Harrell’s insight into the development of Thompson both as an author and a character that truly set this memoir apart. There are two quotes in particular that illustrate this understanding – the first is a quote of Thompson’s that Harrell singles out as key to understanding his motivation as an author (incidentally one that I have also identified in my PhD – a nice bit of synchronicity):
“The psychology of imposition…the need to amount to something”…”if only for an instant, the image of the man is imposed on the chaotic mainstream of life and it remains there forever: order out of chaos, meaning out of meaninglessness.”
The above quote comes from a letter in The Proud Highway and Harrell is absolutely correct in singling it out for its importance. As Harrell states – “Like Faulkner, Hunter wanted to leave his life in stone tablets, mark time with a sign KILROY WAS HERE.” To understand this in relation to Hunter and how it shaped his creative development is absolutely essential.
In closing, this book is a joy to read, particularly for anyone that has that urge to express themselves through the creative arts in all their forms. In terms of its importance to the Hunter S. Thompson world I would have to say that there are not many other books out there that have the same intimate understanding of the man behind the myth. Keep This Quiet is not just a reflection on the past but also a rediscovery of that period, with a new understanding of the events and the people that populated that particular corner of the era of rapid change and growth, one of both personal discovery and cultural revolution, whose effects to this day are still rippling across the consciousness of the American psyche.
PS: I meant to post this review ages ago but I have been crazy crazy busy with my PhD. I hope to also post a review of the upcoming record from Paris Records – The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved and also report on the trip of a wayward American in South America. Stay tuned!
He disappeared in the dead of winter: The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted, The snow disfigured the public statues; The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day. What instruments we have agree The day of his death was a dark cold day. Far from his illness The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests, The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays; By mourning tongues The death of the poet was kept from his poems. But for him it was his last afternoon as himself, An afternoon of nurses and rumours; The provinces of his body revolted, The squares of his mind were empty, Silence invaded the suburbs, The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers. Now he is scattered among a hundred cities And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections, To find his happiness in another kind of wood And be punished under a foreign code of conscience. The words of a dead man Are modified in the guts of the living. But in the importance and noise of to-morrow When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse, And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed, And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom, A few thousand will think of this day As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual. What instruments we have agree The day of his death was a dark cold day. (from In Memory of Yeats - W.H. Auden) A message from Owl Farm
I have been eagerly looking forward to this book, as have a lot of people, ever since it first appeared on the horizon over three years ago. Originally slated for release in November 2008, it suddenly vanished off the radar as quickly as it had appeared, with no explanation whatsoever from the publisher. Having finally received a copy of this book before Christmas, all I can say is that it is a pity it didn’t remain in the wilderness for good. In short this book is an utter disgrace.
I cannot fathom what Jann Wenner was thinking when he decided to publish this book. You might of course be wondering why on earth I would have this opinion? This is of course perfectly reasonable, given Hunter’s long and illustrious history with Rolling Stone, the publication in which his greatest work appeared. Yet reason had little to do with this latest offering.
In what can only be described as a decision of breathtaking arrogance, Jann Wenner, with the help of Paul Scanlon, decided to severely edit Hunter’s original prose. I am not just talking about taking excerpts from the original articles – that might actually have been a sensible move considering the length of some of his work. Instead however, what is contained in the pages of this collection can only be described as a kind of horrific experiment gone wrong, FrankenGonzo if you like, starring Jann Wenner as the crazed creator holed away in a workshop of filthy creation. The result of his efforts of course is a creature of monstrous ugliness.
It is hard not to form this impression when you see the heavy handed dissection of Hunter’s work. The original flow of his writing is all but destroyed, with paragraph after paragraph hacked away in favour of this new re-imagined beast. Take Strange Rumblings in Aztlan for example, the entire first page or so has vanished in favour of an opening line that comes from the middle of a paragraph on the second page of the original article. Actually, what Wenner does here is to combine two of Hunter’s sentences into a shorter opening statement. So basically the first sentence you read never even really existed in that form. Of course, Wenner might point to a letter from Hunter, dated February 10th 1971, in which Hunter questions the editing of the piece and admits that the chronology is scrambled. However, there is nothing that justifies the crazed butchery that takes place with the remainder of the material in this book.
Apart from The Battle of Aspen and a section from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, what is presented as “The Essential Hunter S. Thompson”, is in fact quite the opposite. There is absolutely no point to this collection at all. Why would anyone want an edited version of Hunter’s original prose? It is like taking Hamlet and deciding to edit out the soliloquies, or releasing a new version of Gonzo: The Art by Ralph Steadman with a new colour scheme selected by Jann Wenner. I also find it amusing that Wenner decided to include Mistah Leary, He Dead, Hunter’s obituary for Timothy Leary, which he describes as “a proper RS send-off”. The original article was published in issue 740, August 8th 1996. If you have trouble finding it in that issue that is because it was buried away in the letters section, as if submitted by a reader. Funny how time changes a person’s perspective. (Personally I always liked the piece and was baffled at its original location in issue 740)
As for Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl it is so heavily edited the only explanation I can think of is that Wenner turned the article over to a bunch of giddy interns who had just discovered the delete button. It is utterly unrecognizable.
To make matters worse, Jann Wenner’s feeble attempt to explain away this thoroughly misguided quackery is nothing short of an insult to Hunter’s loyal readers.
“I’ve always thought that Hunter had, in a sense, written his own autobiography in the pages of Rolling Stone, and that if there was a way to take his collected work and edit it properly, there would emerge a narrative of Hunter’s great and wild life, a story about himself, who was, after all, his own greatest character.”
Let is all take a moment to bow down to this genius revelation courtesy of Jann Wenner. Where would we be without the blessing of his visionary insight into Hunter’s life and work? I for one am thankful that he could spare a minute to take Hunter’s work and “edit it properly”, and yes I mean a minute. There is no other way that you could explain this drivel.
Ok in closing all I will say is this. Don’t waste your hard earned money on this book, if you want to read the essential Hunter S. Thompson, then pick up The Gonzo Papers Anthology or The Great Shark Hunt. At least you will have Hunter’s original work, unblemished as he intended.