Larger than life and twice as wild

Hunter S Thompson mined the human comedy
of the American story, and wrote in a form part journalism and part
personal memoir, his legacy is studied by Bill Borrows

“OH
SHIT, WE’RE in trouble now,” says the old man with orange glasses and a
hat made from the pelt of a baby bear. His fingers grip the same blue
whisky tumbler he had been holding when he climbed out of his Cherokee
Jeep three hours previously.

Two young women of indeterminate motive were still with him. Doctor
Hunter S Thompson bolted for the car, his expensive golf-shoes
providing grip enough to get him there before myself and the Loaded
photographer can get to our getaway car several feet away. When Hunter
Thompson says, “Oh shit, we’re in trouble now”, you can consider that
to be a professional assessment.

The snapper is neither insured
nor legally old enough to drive while I’m incapacitated after 12 hours
in a bar, but he’s got the keys and there’s no time to argue. We are
following Thompson but an aggrieved-looking gentlemen in excess of 275
pounds behind the wheel of the Volvo estate that has just been
vandalised with a spray can of green criminal identification ink is
following us. Thompson pulls a skid to the right but the vigilante in
pursuit misses the turn and ends up on Interstate 70. A lifetime later
we arrive in front of the low-slung abode of an attorney-at-law who
must remain nameless for legal reasons. “Come in, this is my lawyer,”
said Hunter. “I always come here when I’m in trouble.”

Thompson’s
lawyer is a man of equable temperament and benign appearance. He
directs us towards the vodka and red wine as Thompson reflects, “I
don’t think you guys realise how much trouble you’re in. There’s been a
fight at the Tavern, a car has been vandalised, you’re covered in
[green] criminal identification ink… where are you going to stay
tonight?

You can’t stay here, it’s out of the question. There’s
only one thing for it, wait a couple of hours and head for the state
line.”

The above was a piece I wrote for a 1997 issue of Loaded,
a magazine that changed the lives of everybody who worked for it:
typically you acquired either an addiction or a conviction, and more
often than not both. But that was when it was magazine of the year two
years running and had something to say for itself rather than the tits
and lists now available at a top shelf near you. There was rarely a
features meeting, you just got a phone call and the next day you would
be on a plane somewhere.

There was no brief (actually, the Hunter
story did have a brief, editor James Brown just said, “Go to America
for a month and get in trouble”), discussion of word length or which
angles might be appropriate were deemed unnecessary. It amazed
everybody on the title, and no doubt in the boardroom at IPC, that it
actually came out every month.

We did not even have an interview
with Hunter S. Thompson on this occasion but I knew he lived in Woody
Creek and spent an afternoon in the Tavern bribing waitresses to go up
to his compound and persuade him to come down for a drink. It was
Superbowl day and he always threw a party at which guests were
encouraged to experiment with firearms and both legal and illegal
stimulants of various kinds – not the kind of situation health and
safety tend to favour. We gave the waitresses several spare copies of
the magazine and a note which read, to all intents and purposes, “Dear
Dr Thompson, I trust this copy of Loaded magazine finds you well. We
are in the Woody Creek Tavern and would be delighted if you could find
time for a couple of sherberts. This is the best magazine in the world
and you inspired it.”

He was not the only inspiration but as an
entrance point into the possibilities journalism can provide, Fear and
Loathing in Las Vegas is pretty tough to beat. I read it at 16, reread
it at 18 and then set about devouring everything else Icould find with
Hunter S.

Thompson’s name on the spine. I’d been thinking about
becoming a lawyer so you can imagine my sense of gratitude. But not
just mine. Every writer (and even some of the photographers) on the
magazine loved his style of journalism and the gonzo ethic, the brand
of reportage he invented and has done most to promote. In essence, it
is the idea that the most obvious focus is the backdrop to the real
story. It was almost an entry requirement.

We read Thompson as
kids and then went out and started our own fanzines until we could
discover a way to get the men in suits to let us do it for a grown-up
magazine. When co-founder James Brown got a knock-back for the NME
editor’s job he was asked if he fancied coming up with an idea for a
new magazine: he told IPC he wanted to create ” Arena as edited by
Hunter Thompson.” And that is why Loaded happened. I assume that the
majority of publishers are unfamiliar with the Thompson canon. Back in
Colorado, news eventually filtered through that we had been granted an
audience. The good doctor loved the magazine, particularly the name
(with the obvious drink and gun connotations)n and agreed to come down
after the game. It seemed at the time that in the 25 years since he
left the double- spaced, typewritten acid blotter of Fear and Loathing
in Las Vegas with the editors of Rolling Stone magazine – the
serialisation of which was turned into the book that turned Thompson
into a cultural icon – and our first meeting the old bastard had never
stopped advancing the agenda advocated by another famous doctor, 18th
English lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson: “He who makes a beast of
himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”

That is, if you
call throwing a pool ball at a halfpissed bystander, spraying two
English journalists with green ink for your own personal wry amusement,
starting a bar room brawl and urging the discharge of a corrosive
substance into the face of a barman, making “a beast of yourself”.
Which you might, but Thompson certainly didn’t. It was just a quiet
night out really. Headlines in the eighteen months before our next
meeting included: “DA snags Thompson in sex case”; “Hunter Thompson
nailed for alleged drunk driving”; and “Hunter plays with fire
extinguisher, gets busted”. And that’s just the local Aspen paper.

The
Jerome is a five star hotel, which doubled as his mayoral campaign
headquarters in 1970. He missed election by just four percentage points
and was barred more times than any of the staff can remember, but he
was allowed back in when Johnny Depp came to town to understudy the
great man before starring in the patchy 1998 film of Fear and Loathing.
Thompson took Depp and a collection of guns into the wild where they
relaxed by shooting at nitroglycerine strapped propane gas tanks.

“I
know that swine Borrows,” the Doctor faxed his publisher from the
Chateau Marmont in L.A. after a request for another interview eighteen
months after our first meeting. “I enjoyed his last visit out here, so
let’s do it again.” And yes, it is framed. I arrived in Aspen 10 days
later. He was under the black aegis of a heavy cold and had been in bed
for four days while I found myself snowed into the Jerome after the
worst blizzard to hit Colorado since records began, 20 inches of snow
in one night, 50mph winds and temperatures of 20 below.

By the time Thompson surfaced, the worst of it was over. He made a typically understated entrance.

Dressed
in a striped t-shirt and a blazer, toasted pink lipstick and an
uncomplicated shade of nail varnish, he ambled into his kitchen and
opted for, what might be considered to be, an unusual greeting. He
threw a dart at his personal assistant (it missed) and offered out his
hand to shake. Ten minutes later he had a .454 Casul Magnum in his
hand. “This is an extremely powerful weapon,” he explained, sitting
down, squeezing the barrel of the enormous gun like an early morning
erection. “There are only three in the country,” he continued, “And I
got two of them.”

The other one was for Depp.

Thompson used
to demand that visiting journalists read his work aloud. On this
occasion, however, it was an historic opportunity. It was the first
piece Thompson had written for Time since he was sacked in 1958 as a
21-year-old copyboy for attacking the office Coke machine with a
baseball bat before finally kicking it to death with, what he called at
the time, his heavy shit-kicker boots (he would subsequently attack a
candy machine at the Middletown Daily Record and a soda machine at
Rolling Stone). It was my privilege.

“The first chance they had
to publish me (after the Coke machine incident) was chapter two of Fear
and Loathing. They said I was too old. I guess this is payback…” he mumbled, perhaps to himself.

He was sitting in what looked like a kitchen but was actually the nerve centre at his Owl Farm homestead.

Around
him were two telephones (both on speaker to provide for a three-way
conversation should that become necessary), an electronic typewriter, a
huge FST television which had never been turned off since the day he
bought it several years before, a fax machine, a selection of egg
whisks and an L.E.D. convenience store message display that constantly
runs the William Faulkner quote: “The best fiction is far more true
than any kind of journalism and the best journalists have always known
this.”

There was also a lamp shade decorated with several pairs
of spectacles and a backstage laminate from a Lyle Lovett gig, a
pamphlet he wrote for Timothy Leary’s memorial service, some
English-made 12,000 volt electric shock batons (just next to the
whisks)n and a cartoon of himself drawn by Ralph Steadman for inclusion
in the Time piece. “Still getting the old bastard work,” sighed
Thompson. There was also, a stereo and a selection of Country and
Western tapes, some outlandish hats, a black and white photograph of
Jack and Bobby Kennedy and an orb, which contained a neon blue
electrical charge. This is where he blew the back of his head off with
a .45 calibre hand gun two weeks ago.

We subsequently fell out
over my questions about the Proud Highway , a book he was trying to
promote at the time, (sample quote: “Well, fuck you then.

Maybe
there wasn’t [a follow-up to a letter about the JFK assassination] so
there’s a hole in the book. That was a pretty good letter I thought.
You want a followup? You shithead.”

We had arrived at
10.30pm the previous night, we left at 6.30am in the morning. It was
light as we left Owl Farm. The photographer was driving, as usual, and
I wanted to settle down to 20 minutes sleep before we arrived back at
the Jerome. The snow crushed beneath the weight of the car as it was
slipped into reverse. The nearside front tyre went over something quite
soft. Like one of the peacocks Thompson kept in a glass menagerie at
the side of his front room almost. The snapper looked at me and
flinched. I just nodded.

Bill Borrows is a freelance journalist

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