A lot of the sentiment still holds true for me, and I wanted to share it here. Hope you enjoy this tribute to a literary and cultural mutineer:
Where Were You When the Fun Stopped?
A Muse and Mutineer, Running on Empty
By Tommy Housworth
So, I’m in the kitchen, it’s midnight. My ritual of readying my coffee for brewing at dawn is splintered by the anchor on CNN radio. I hear it in fragments, the blood rushing to my head as the phrases try to conjoin to make sense of themselves: “unconfirmed reports…Aspen…gonzo journalist…self-inflicted…has died…67.” The rest was muted by sheer shock. I went ahead and brewed the coffee, sniffed around the internet for an hour for answers, praying it was another hoax. After all, it wasn’t the first time he’d been pronounced dead. But, no, it was true. I curled up with “The Proud Highway”, turned on some Warren Zevon and let the grief sink in.
In 1995, I discovered Hunter S. Thompson in the same way Bob Dylan claims to have first experienced Elvis. Of the King, Dylan said, “Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of prison.” That was how it felt. Hunter’s writing was fearless, full of a venom and wit I’d never experienced on the page. Like Lenny Bruce, he searched for a nation’s hot buttons, and when he found them, he was unrelenting. Like Kerouac, he painted himself into the center of his tales and blurred fact and fantasy with a cubist’s touch. Unlike Lenny and Jack, the excess never killed him, so I guess he finally had to take matters into his own hands.
I excuse nothing where Hunter Thompson is concerned. He was a hooligan, a savage with rum for blood. He had damn good aim, or he’d have killed more than one of his nosey admirers over the years. He tied Bill Murray to a chair and threw him in his swimming pool, only saving him when he realized there’d likely be questions. He often had enough substances pulsing through his veins to kill a healthy pachyderm. He made Belushi look like a novice. And then, the unforgivable – he threw his own hand. He was no role model.
And yet, it is that Thompson was the ultimate outlaw that made him the magnetic force that he was. Dodge can be a mighty quiet town, and the adrenaline kicks in when the man in the black hat rides in to stir up trouble. Someone could get hurt. The whole town steps out to watch the showdown. We townsfolk crave a well-armed mutineer.
I was drawn to his absolute disregard for structure, for deadlines, for the system and our leaders. I was vicariously thrilled at the excesses, the unchoreographed violence, and a lifetime spent trying to resuscitate the American Dream. He broke all the rules so that none of us would have to. Someone had to be willing to go in for the kill, or we’d have been hiding in the jungle forever, deep in the heart of darkness. Mistah Kurtz, he dead. Mistah Thompson kill him.
He was the last of the iconic writers. Sure, the chalk-suited Tom Wolfe shows up on the circuit when he’s pushing another bombastic epic, but the days of the writer as hero, as anti-hero, are sadly over. We all know Brad and Jen’s story, but Ted and Sylvia? We can all identify Paris Hilton, but Michael Chabon? Unlikely. Arthur Miller’s death is buried on “Extra” after an update on Jessica Simpson’s newlywed troubles.
“Desperate Housewives”: 1. Updike: 0. Hunter gave literature one last, albeit ignoble, dizzying dose of celebrity.
And, when you strip away the larger than life personality, the antics and the alcohol-fueled binges, there’s what really mattered: the writing: the pure adrenaline of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, the terror of “Hell’s Angels”, the warped insider’s view in “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail”. At the height of his powers, Thompson could string together the most lethal phrases, commingling brutal honesty with hallucinogenic hyperbole. He called it gonzo, I called it exhilarating; 90 miles an hour with the top down.
And now, another sliver of mystery is layered on top of the Doctor’s enigmatic guise – the eternal question of ‘why’? Why, when he’s outlived all expectations, baffling doctors and fans alike, would he choose to leave Owl Farm forever? Why, when our nation is in its biggest crisis since King Nixon reigned would he jump ship? The sycophant in me would like to say that Bush finally did what Nixon couldn’t: created a world too twisted for even the fearless to live in anymore. More than likely, it was something less dramatic, more tragic. A failing body that couldn’t support the abuse much longer. A haunting depression that could no longer be anesthetized by drink and drug. Emptiness. Maybe just pure emptiness. Who knows what anyone’s real demons look or smell like?
I’d like to think that paradise, nirvana, heaven – choose your afterlife – for Thompson would be the place he described in his seminal work:
“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. There was madness in any direction, at any hour. 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 military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. 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.”
I hope he’s found a place like that again, where one can drink deeply and find peace rather than pain, where the waves recede into a landscape more breathtaking than we can fathom. Not because he deserved it – none of us likely do – but because he had the right kind of eyes to see it. He helped me see it. If I could someday write a paragraph as perfect and poetic as his above, I’ll have lived fully. I get the idea he lived in full - perhaps too much so - but then, that’s why he’ll live on. He wrote it down to make sure of that. It’s all we have left of The Mutineer. Perhaps it’s all we ever really had.