A Twisted Evening With Dr. Gonzo
My early literary influences naturally gravitated towards counterculture writing that started with Kerouac’s On the Road, Ginsberg’s epic poem of the Beat Generation, Howl, and experiencing the utter depths of depravity and heroin addiction in Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. This led me to the subversive, humanistic writings of Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Wolfe. I then segued from them to Hunter S. Thompson, who was considered a bastard scion of the original Beats. He quickly became the ultimate, caustic, rule breaking outlaw journalist who made his bones as a reporter for the then fledgling tabloid Rolling Stone. From there he exploded on the literary scene in the late sixties upon publication of his first book, Hell’s Angels, a savage, first person account of Thompson’s year long, day to day involvement with Sonny Barger’s vilified West Coast motorcycle gang. The book was infamous for the brutal beating Thompson endured by the hands of the group for some still unknown slight in the last chapter.
His seminal second book, and still considered his magnum opus, was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a strange and surreal, drug laden trip through the heart of the American landscape as seen through the twisted mind of the author and his constant co-conspirator, a 300 pound Samoan lawyer named Oscar Ocasta.
He was the first journalist to interject himself into the very essence of the story and the end results were often outrageous, terrifying and brilliant. He essentially created an original American writing voice that was often imitated but never duplicated. Although constantly flirting with certain doom there was a laser-like sledgehammer of honesty and integrity that was tinged with dark, comic despair.
Unfortunately the very assets that made his writings so powerful and original proved to be his undoing. He made the fatal mistake of actually trying to live up to the Gonzo lifestyle that was so prevalent in his writings. Years of alcohol abuse, illegal drugs, prescription pills and his lifelong mania for all things firearms eventually curtailed his literary fecundity. He spent most of his career, after a controversial run for sheriff on the freak power ticket, holed up in a heavily fortified compound in Woody Creek, Colorado. Except for occasional visits from celebrities, strippers, porn stars and fellow gun nuts he rarely ventured from it, becoming somewhat reclusive from society in general.
It made quite an impact on Hunter’s New England fans when he announced a rare lecture appearance in October 1998 at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square. It was comparable to a Halley’s Comet sighting to a true Thompson fan and I survived a major scrum at the box office, walking away with two orchestra tickets, before the quick sellout of the venue. I offered the second ticket to my partner in crime, Fast Jack, a fellow Thompson aficionado, who years before had bestowed upon me a mint, first edition of Hell’s Angels for my birthday. What better way to repay his considerable largesse.
We eagerly anticipated the upcoming event and when the day finally arrived we imbibed heavily in homage to the night’s upcoming audience with the true prince of Gonzo. We arrived at the venue hours before the start eager to soak up the vibes emanating from our fellow Thompson fanatics.
It was sheer pandemonium in the Davis Square area, more befitting a rock concert than a lecture. Feeling somewhat fortified with an abundance of both legal and illegal stimulants, we entered the venue and were instantly taken aback by the cacophonous madness within. The rowdy, college aged crowd seemed ready for an actual human sacrifice performed by their literary Dark Prince.
The admission ticket stated a 7:30 p.m. start but Hunter was well noted for being fashionably late, or worse, not showing up at all. I looked at a visibly reeling Fast Jack and said, “This crowd will probably torch the place to the ground if he’s a no show.” The screams, howls, and catcalls of the amped up crowd grew noticeably louder and more manic, yet all that was visible on the stage as a spotlighted set of folding chairs and a small, ornate dressing table that displayed a full bottle of Jack Daniels that the crowd bird-dogged like a pedophile at a playground.
It was well after 10:00 p.m. and the rowdy, impatient, and spastic gathering were stomping their feet, clapping, whistling, and demanding the Prince of Gonzo to take the stage. Fast Jack looked downright pensive due to his being down to his last can of contraband beer that he had smuggled in. I was down to a few roaches, a pint of ginger brandy and a handful of valium that I had pilfered from my mom’s medicine cabinet. As I shared the pills equally with Jack and both dashing them down with the remaining brandy, he said, “There’s no way in hell the good doctor’s gonna let a full bottle of Jack sit there undrunk.” Looking up I noticed the balcony swaying above us from the constant movements of the frantic crowd. At 10:45 p.m. the crowd erupted in sheer intoxicated delirium as a prolonged standing ovation greeted the good doctor’s entrance onto the stage. He wore an alligator skin cowboy hat with a large “Fuck Nixon” button prominently displayed in front, a death’s head print dress shirt, jeans, and lizard skin cowboy boots. He appeared unsteady on his feet and totally oblivious to the adoration afforded him by the rabid crowd. He instantly made a rapid beeline to the bottle of Jack, poured himself a liberal amount and downed it quickly to ecstatic applause.
The alcohol infusion seemed to energize Dr. Gonzo but it was difficult to gauge who was more inebriated, Hunter or the crowd, now grown dangerously surly by their long wait.
The interview on stage was to be given by noted author/sportsman George Plimpton (noted editor and co-founder of The Paris Review). George valiantly attempted to get the program underway but the doctor’s obnoxious behavior was at best erratic and difficult to control. He started by asking Hunter’s views on the current presidential administration but poor sound miking made Thompson’s rambling rebuttal both hard to understand as well as be heard. Things did not progress much better from that point on as Hunter seemed more concerned about the bottle of Jack than the task at hand. The disgruntled and frustrated fans began heading out towards the exits, yelling out their displeasure and hastily fleeing the unfolding fiasco before them. Hunter at least finished the entire bottle of Jack and ended the night verbally challenging the nonstop hecklers who taunted his each and every incoherent, rambling statement. George Plimpton struggled throughout the proceedings but effected a hasty retreat from the stage when the debacle turned into an abusive heckling exchange with Dr. Gonzo badly treading water amidst his irate fan base. It was turning uglier by the minute.
Hunter’s bodyguard/handlers suddenly appeared by his side afraid for his safety and to appease his remaining tormentors he actively began signing books and memorabilia at the foot of the stage which instigated a frenzied scramble to obtain the good doctor’s coveted signature. Planning ahead I had brought a book bag containing my mint copies of Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing. Fast Jack and I quickly scoped out the strengths and weakness’s of the surging crowd and using Jack’s ample girth as a pick I found a suitable place in line, holding up the treasured books to get Hunter’s drug addled myopic attention. After a few minutes of holding the books aloft Hunter made eventual eye contact with them, scrutinizing them for a second and then waved me in closer to the stage, totally oblivious to the pleading fans around him.
I passed the books to him as his looming handler kept the belligerent crowd at bay. He again studied the mint condition tomes, lowered his glasses, exposing his heavily bloodshot eyes and asked, “Would you sell these to me? I’ll give $100.00 each for them.” He then leaned over to his handler and conspiratorially whispered to him, “I want those books!”
He then handed the books to the bodyguard who ominously extended his arm out to me, pulling me up onto the stage to attempt further negotiations for the books. I then informed the grim faced protector that Fast Jack was with me and he was also pulled up and he led us behind the stage curtain, down the hallway to the dilapidated backstage dressing room area. The handler then introduced himself as Lou and informed us that the good doctor, through his career had lost, misplaced, shot, or drunkenly given away his now diminished supplies of his earlier works and that they were getting both pricier as well as harder to come by. “You could probably get more than a couple of hundred for them but he’s as much a cheap fuck as he is a full-fledged maniac.” After advising us and leaving the room to assist the outnumbered doctor back on the stage. We made ourselves at home in the sparse, dingy, smoke-filled room that consisted of folding chairs, a ratty well-worn coach, and an ash covered desk that had on display a carton of Dunhill British cigarettes, an iced case of Coors, another full bottle of Jack Daniels, rolling papers, an ornate water pipe, and what appeared to be a generous rock of pure white Bolivian marching powder, complete with razors and straws alongside a small mirror.
Fast Jack didn’t hesitate to dig on, chipping off a copious amount of the rock, snorting it audibly, showing his obvious approval of its quality and handing the straw to me. “Oh well—When in Rome . . .” as I nasally ingested the Devil’s dandruff before me, feeling its rapid numbing of my sinuses, gums, throat, and eventually my anxieties about the predicament we were in. I then washed the buzz down with a shot of Jack and and an ice-cold Coors, wondering how to abscond from the premises with my books in tow since I was remiss to part with them.
Fast Jack and I were feeling no pain when a frazzled Hunter stormed into the room, arms all akimbo and muttering under his breath about “Motherless swine . . . Pig Fuckers . . . Godless Heathens.” We could only assume he was referring to the perturbed crowd he had just left. He totally ignored us, instead chipping off a considerable rock of blow, ingesting it and washing it down with a Coors that he slurped with relish. As he removed his garish cowboy hat, we noticed that he was sweating profusely as if he had ran a marathon. He was wearing a massive N.R.A. belt buckle and a bulge in his ankle revealed a small derringer strapped on his leg just above the boot. The combination of drugs and alcohol seemed to have a calming effect on him and the evening’s exertions. He focused his reptilian, glazed eyes as he finally took notice of us sitting there in total silence beside him. He appeared puzzled and paranoid and it was more than obvious that he had no recollection of who we were or why we were there. Just as it began to get downright uncomfortable, Lou entered the room and reminded Hunter, “Doc you remember the gentlemen with those books you wanted.”
Realization eventually settled in from the doctor’s pickled persona as he instantly turned on the southern charm, offering us his hospitality and undying personal friendship in his obvious attempts to cajole me from my books. He then rambled on for quite some time, touching on a multitude of subjects but never really reaching his point, being easily distracted by more alcohol or another rock of coke he constantly reached for.
His many years of living up to his own created literary persona had done some serious internal and external damage. He seemed a living, breathing cartoon character, an abject figure sitting there ranting and gibbering about perceived or imagined injustices against him from unnamable sources. His erratic and crazed monologues continued to the point where the uncomfortable silence on our parts became even more so painfully obvious.
Like a psychedelic passage from one of his works, and feeling like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, we were being held physically and emotionally hostage by the Prince of Gonzo. While he rambled, he fingered the books on the table, and unconsciously scribbled his signature on the title pages.
Fast Jack leaned into me and weakly whispered, “He’s making me lose my buzz. He’s as crazy as a loon. Just give him the books and leave before he decides to shoot us!” I was torn between agreeing with Jack and my wanting to keep the now signed books when the good doctor opened a window of opportunity. He lurched to his feet in mid rant and muttered, “I gotta see a man about a horse. We’ll settle business when I get back.”
He staggered through the doorway and had to be physically helped down the hallway by Lou, visibly listing after having consumed enough alcohol and contraband to take down a baby rhino.
I sobered somewhat and, books in hand, chose escape over more verbal punishment and insanity from the mescaline madman we now fully realized was an emperor without clothes.
I looked out the doorway to see if the coast was clear as Fast Jack ingested the last of the snow rock, grabbing a six-pack for the ride home. We made our way cautiously and stealthily along the dimly lit hallway until we came to a brightly lit fire exit sign. We looked at each other like Butch and Sundance just as we heard the maniacal doctor returning and yelling for us to stop. We hit the door jamb simultaneously, setting off the alarms throughout the darkened theatre. We made a rapid run to Jack’s run down caddie that was easily found since we were the only vehicle left in the now empty lot. We jumped in and Jack panicked and flooded the gas line, making us both freak out. Lou the handler appeared at the driver’s side window, trying to open the locked doors, banging them violently. “Where are you going? You can’t insult the doctor like this!” he yelled. I kept expecting the now crazed doctor to any second leap onto the windshield, pistol waving to obtain his prized first editions. Not realizing the doctor was in no shape to even walk, the vehicle finally started and Jack burned rubber the length of the parking lot. We didn’t breath a sigh of relief until we were many miles away. We both agreed that the good doctor had more than lived up to his writings, but his up close and personal mania had absolutely scared us straight.
I never encountered the Prince of Gonzo again but instead vicariously followed his infamous exploits sporadically through the media highlighting his sordid run-ins with the religious right, allegedly victimized porn stars and strippers, and law enforcement troubles that usually entailed copious amounts of crystal meth, amyl nitrate, hashish, poppers, and enough weaponry and plastique to service the army of a third world country.
The insanity and rock and roll lifestyle eventually took its toll on Hunter’s health. He was hobbled by a hip replacement, serious arthritis, and the once active Thompson became depressed and withdrawn. In early 2004 some say emulating his writing mentor Ernest Hemingway, he blew the top of his skull off with a shotgun to ease his discomfort, pain, and shame.
He truly went out his own way and in August of 2005 his good friend Johnny Depp (who played Hunter in the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), put up over 1.5 million of his own money to honor Hunter’s final request of having his ashes shot into outer space in a custom built rocket with a gonzo fist emblem embedded at the top.
The launching itself was a celebration of the doctor’s notorious life and was attended by lifelong friends such as Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, Bill Murray, Kurt Vonnegut, George McGovern, and his chief illustrator Ralph Steadman. It made quite the surreal send-off to a true American original.
His philosophy was best summed up by this famous quote “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone. But they’ve always worked for me.”
Like many in the American cult of personality his sudden death only elevated his legend and writings to mythic proportions. I recently had my prized/signed Thompson books appraised by a rare book dealer who offered me three thousand for them, making me not regret taking flight with them during my memorable night with the good doctor back in 1988. If my exposure to him had taught me anything it was that you could never really buy into the hype!
“WHEN THE GOING GETS WEIRD . . . THE WEIRD TURN PRO . . . ”
– HUNTER S. THOMPSON R.I.P.