Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson
By Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour
Little, Brown: 2007
My Brother in Arms
Hunter S. Thompson was part of the DNA of Rolling Stone, one of those twisting strands of chemicals around which a new life is formed. He was such a big part of my life, and I loved him deeply.
He was a man of energy, physical presence, utter charm, genius talent, and genius humor. It was very hard to have to give him up and say good-bye.
When I was a young man, twenty-four years old, in the summer of 1970, I had the great fortune of meeting Hunter. He came to my office, then in San Francisco, to settle the details of writing an article about his campaign for sheriff in Aspen, Colorado. He was thirty-three, stood six-three, shaved bald, dark glasses, smoking, carrying two six-packs of beer; he sat down, slowly unpacked a leather satchel full of “travel necessities” onto my desk—mainly hardware, like flashlights, a siren, knives, boxes of cigarettes and filters, whiskey, corkscrews, flares—and didn’t leave for three hours. He was hypnotic, and by the end I was deep into his campaign.
The record indicates that in 1970 we published “The Battle of Aspen”; in 1971, he wrote about the stirrings of Mexican unrest in East Los Angeles, based in part on a fiery lawyer named Oscar Zeta Acosta, who later that year emerged as Dr. Gonzo in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
In 1972, we began nonstop coverage of the Nixon-McGovern presidential campaign. Hunter took over my life then—and for many years after that, when he was reporting (long nocturnal telephone calls and frequent all night strategy sessions) and especially when he was writing.
After “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” everything else he wrote was a full-out siege. Setting up the assignment was easy—Hunter was pretty much welcome everywhere and had skills and instincts to run a presidential campaign if he had wanted. But then came the travel arrangements: hotels, tickets, researchers, rental cars. Then, later in the process, finding a place for him to hunker-down and write—the Seal Rock Inn, Key West, Owl Farm, preferably somewhere isolated and with a good bar. Flying in IBM Selectric typewriters with the right typeface; booze and drugs (usually he had this part already done); arranging for a handler-assistant at his end; and then, back at Rolling Stone, I had to be available to read and edit copy as it came in eight-to-ten-page bursts—via the Xerox telecopier (“the mojo wire”), a primitive fax that had a stylus that printed onto treated paper (at a rate of seven minutes per page) and smelled. I had to talk to Hunter for hours, then track and organize the various scenes and sections. He usually began writing in the middle, then would back up or skip around to write what he felt good about at that moment, reporting scenes that might fit somewhere later, or spinning out total fantasies (“Insert ZZ” or “mid-night screed”) that would also find a place—parts that were flight of genius. Generally the led was easy, describing the invariably dramatic weather wherever he was writing from. Then a flurry of headlines and chapter heading and the transitions he had to produce on demand to create the flow and logic, and always, sooner or later, the conclusion, which we always called “the Wisdom.”
He liked to work against a crisis, and if there wasn’t a legitimate one, he made one. We never had a fight about the editing. I never tried to change him or “improve” him, but since I had a pretty deep understanding of his style and his motives, I could tell where he was going and sit at his side and read the map to him. If I didn’t personally supervise everything he wrote for Rolling Stone, he wouldn’t finish. It was a bit like being the cornerman for Ali. Editing Hunter required stamina, but I was young, and this was once in a lifetime, and we were both clear on that.
Hunter’s office visits and debriefings were always an event. The late arrival, the slow, long, ambling walk down the hall, the gathering commotion, and finally some kind of loud noise or shriek or siren blast as he got to my office. We had an ice-making machine installed at his insistence. He was a Pied Piper, and everyone realized how extraordinary he was—charming, flirtatious, insanely funny. And smart.
Life with Hunter was so much fun—he used to stay at my house, but that got to be a little too much. Car rides—headlights off—at three a.m. on moonless nights with a head full of acid were a pretty standard feature in those days. Later on, Hunter used to tell me that I was responsible for the drug problem in America. “Are you kidding? It’s your fault, Hunter, and everyone knows it.” We agreed to share the blame. (For the record, I never canceled his life insurance when he went to Saigon. And also for the record, I do not have seven thousand first editions of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” secretly warehoused, to be sold upon his death.)
I am no longer pissed at him for shooting off a fire extinguisher in my elegant New York office a few years ago, which he did to remind me that he had done the same thing years earlier, very late one mellowed-out night, as I sat listening to music in front of the fireplace in my living room, deep into the lysergic.
Great stories of “bad craziness” and gonzo behavior are legendary, and they are all true. It was part of what all of us found so addictive about Hunter: It was an adrenaline rush to be with him. Walking with him, you knew you were likely to come near the edge of the cliff, to sense danger, to get as close to the edge as most of us get in our lives.
And, at the same time, so extremely funny.
Our friendship became a deep one; we were at each other’s houses constantly for years; our families became close-knit. The stories of his loyalty and courage told by his many, many friends in this book convey what it was really like to be his friend.
We both were deep into politics and shared the same ambition to have a voice in where the country was going (thus, the “National Affairs Desk”). We deliberately set out to do this. We became partners in this as well, as mad as it may have seemed at the time—a rock & roll magazine and man known for writing about motorcycle gangs, joining forces to change the country. We used to read aloud what he had just written, get to certain phrases or sentences, and just exclaims to each other, “Hot fucking damn.” It was scorching, original, and it was fun. He was my brother in arms.
In my opinion, he hit his peak in humor in a piece titled “Fear and Loathing Elko” (1992), a dark, sustained masterpiece of violence and madness. Although many people tend to neglect his later work—and he wrote much less in the last ten years—“Elko,” “A Dog Took My Place” (1983), and “Polo is My Life: Fear and Loathing in Horse Country” (1994) are among his very best, at the top of his form.
Now those days are gone. Once I had Hunter all to myself, and now I don’t have him at all. He was a careful, deliberate, and calculating man, and his suicide was not careless, not an accident, and not selfish. He was in a wheelchair toward the end of his life, and he decided he would not be able to live with extreme physical disability; it just wasn’t him. He had already lived longer than he, or any of us, had expected. He had lived a great life, filled with friends, his genius talent, and righteousness.