by Gary Charpentier
“Being shot out of a cannon will always be better than being squeezed out of a tube.”
– Dr. Hunter Stockton Thompson 1937 -2005
Sunday, March 13, 2005. Exactly three weeks ago today, the legendary Hunter Thompson took his own life in the kitchen/office of his home in Woody Creek, Colorado. I was deeply shocked when I heard the news but strangely, not a bit surprised. This was a man who approached life and writing on his own terms and to hell with his critics. Why wouldn’t he end it the same way?
I was on my way to work, another dreary Monday morning, when I heard the news over my pickup truck’s radio. Listening to the sparse report, I felt like I had been kicked in the guts by a mule and my eyes momentarily filled with tears. “This can’t be right!”, I thought. Hunter wouldn’t go out that way! Would he? I found myself wondering which of his notorious hand-cannons he used to do the deed. He was famous, or maybe infamous, for his love of firearms. They played a starring role in many of his wildest tales. Was it the massive .454 Cassul, or maybe the .44 Magnum he used to demolish his typewriter in a famous photograph? No, I came to find out it was just a humble .45 Smith & Wesson that he stuck in his mouth, and pulled the trigger… certainly adequate for the task.
These thoughts come unbidden and perhaps it is crude of me to express them to you. But I want to record my reaction unfiltered, just the way Thompson would have done.
Hitting his stride in the 1960s, Hunter Thompson created a new style of journalism, called “Gonzo”, in which the reporter became a central character in the story and where the event itself was viewed through the lens of the reporter’s subjective observations. This was a revolutionary approach and perhaps necessary to properly cover what was, by all accounts, a revolutionary time in American history.
I was in grade school when Hunter was stomping the terra of American politics and letters. Over the years I have come to admire his work and almost idolize his legend. It was his example, along with that of Peter Egan, that inspired my own decision to try writing about my experiences with motorcycles and eventually spawned “Diary of a Cafe Racer”. I killed this column little more than a year ago but I had to resurrect it in order to pay homage to this brilliant writer, this warrior-sage. Somehow, it just didn’t seem a good fit for my current “Backroads Diary”.
Hunter Thompson first gained national prominence with his book, “Hell’s Angels, A Strange and Terrible Saga”. In it, he spent a year riding with America’s preeminent motorcycle club and chronicling everything that happened from a rather hazardous, subjective viewpoint. His ride was a BSA 650 Lightning, which at that time was “The fastest motorcycle ever tested by Hot Rod magazine.” I believe that book was one of the very first “Gonzo” reports and it led eventually to the work which made him famous, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”. The immortal first line in that book is a classic of American literature:
“We were somewhere near Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.”
Fear and loathing were a common theme in Hunter’s work. He described his journalistic focus as chronicling “The Death of the American Dream”. Later in the book, he describes his thoughts while sitting, strung-out in a wrecked Vegas hotel room, staring out at the lights but seeing a vision of the turbulent 1960’s:
“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 &endash; that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. … 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.”
Damn. Writing like that sends a shiver down my spine and Hunter Thompson was a master of it. One thing I realized early on was that any attempt to emulate Thompson’s style would inevitably come off as trite, or weak. No sane person could do the kinds of things he did and still be able to write coherently about the experience. The best I could come up with in my writing was a sort of “Gonzo-Lite”. Considering the fact that I was operating a fast motorcycle on public roads, drugs were just never an option, unless you count massive doses of caffeine. Alcohol had to be treated with a healthy respect as well.
For whatever reason, Hunter never had to observe these constraints. Under the protection of some hedonistic guardian angel, he was able to indulge in chemicals and behavior which would have killed legions of lesser men. Some have speculated that his prodigious consumption of drugs and booze was a carefully calculated public persona, a meticulously constructed legend meant to achieve notoriety. I don’t buy that for a minute. I have read accounts where people have gone to visit him at Owl Farm or the Woody Creek Tavern and found him to be positively soaring under the influence of some hellish combination of weird chemicals and whiskey, yet still able to amaze them with gems of wit and penetrating insight… until he got tired of them and chased them away at gunpoint. This man was the real deal and I fear we shall never see his like again.
Someday, while you are sitting at your computer, type “Song of the Sausage Creature” into your browser’s search engine. Hopefully you will come across one of the many pirated copies of Hunter Thompson’s Cycle World review of the Ducati 900SS. This is, without qualification, the most entertaining motorcycle road test feature I have ever read. Thompson was in rare form, at the top of his game, and he approached this assignment in the finest Gonzo tradition. If you ever doubted that Dr. Gonzo was “one of us”, by which I mean a dyed-in-the-wool Cafe Racer, this one article will set you straight.
Now, it has been said by his close friends and family that Hunter intends for his cremated ashes to be placed into some sort of ballistic container and blasted out across his Owl Farm property from a cannon. I hope he gets his wish, as it would be a fitting tribute for one who burned so bright and flew so high. Perhaps they will honor another wish he had for his monument, taken from the final paragraph of “Song of the Sausage Creature”:
“That is the curse of speed which has plagued me all my life. I am a slave to it. On my tombstone they will carve, IT NEVER GOT FAST ENOUGH FOR ME. ”
Indeed. You were faster than any of us, Hunter, in so many ways. You will be sorely missed by those of us who labor in your shadow. Godspeed, Dr. Gonzo.