In every breath
we speak what we know,
Being what we are.
I am a man of good intention.
I have not hurried a difficult
Day by praying for night.
no candle before its hour.
I have not tested the limits imposed by gods
Nor tried to turn back the stampede of events
That brought me to my knees
Confession, in Awakening Osiris: The Egyptian Book of the Dead, by
Normandi Ellis (Phanes Press, 1988)
Legacy of Lono
At the conclusion
of The Curse of Lono, author Hunter S. Thompsons scathing report on the
body Nazis who participate in the Honolulu Marathon, he makes a claim
that he is Lono, the ancient Hawaiian god of agriculture and peace.
a public talk around the time the book came out, I took advantage of the Q&A
to ask about the ending. At the end of The Curse of Lono, you leave the
reader thinking that youre God a god named Lono. My question is,
did you give up religion for the same reason as politics no money
in it, hed written or are you, in fact, God?
had a good laugh at that but quickly turned deadly serious. No, I am Lono.
journalist as shaman
traditional societies shamans are often known as masters of death,
writes Neville Drury in The Visionary Human: Mystical Consciousness & Paranormal
Perspectives. And they have been defined by Mircea Eliade as ecstatics capable
of making a visionary journey from one plane of reality to another.
his own reckoning Thompson had nearly died some 15 times. Each return from the
journey whether beaten by Hells Angels or by Chicago
cops he had a story to tell.
Drury noted, The shaman returns to earth consciousness with
and in traditional shamanic societies such revelations
become part of that cultures accumulated wisdom teaching.
tribal shamans, the artists saw themselves, in Ezra Pounds phrase, as the
antennae of the race, Daniel Pinchbeck writes in his study of contemporary
shamanism, Breaking Open the Head.He suggests that both 19th-century Romantic
poets and Modernist writers emulated shamanic practices. In a secular culture,
they were the ones who journeyed into the land of the dead, who crafted images
of an elusive sublime, who went into ecstatic states of inspiration.
such as Thompson, John Reed, Studs Terkel, Ida Tarbell and Mollie Ivins certainly
qualify as the antennae of the race reporting on the view from
the other side. Unlike these more conventional journalists, Thompsons
methods can be seen in a shamanic light. In virtually every article, he is in
search of the nut of his story and generally it involved journeying
in some non-ordinary reality that could be brought on by the systematic
derangement of the senses via chemical means, by sleep deprivation and unbridled
paranoia during a deadline frenzy or by raw amazement at the listless stupidity
of normal life.
he returned from his wanderings into the savage heart of the
American Dream in Las Vegas or survived a campaign in the vicious
business of presidential politics, he crafted tales of fear and loathing
that illuminated, informed and inspired his tribe and entered into the cultural
obscenity-laced texts led some readers to question his skill with language. In
his reply to one appalled reader, who cancelled her subscription to Rolling Stone
in a letter that said profanity is a crutch for conversational cripples,
HST said, [W]ords are just tools, for a writer, and when I write about Richard
Nixon Ill use all the tools I can get my hands on, to make people like you
think about why Richard Nixon was elected by a landslide in 1972. My primary idea,
whenever I sit down to write, is to get the attention of people like you and make
referred to Richard M. Nixon in the past as a cheap, thieving little bastard,
and a criminal geek, in recent years Thompson actually grew a bit
wistful about his arch nemesis. In his last piece for Rolling Stone he wrote,
Nixon was a professional politician and I despised everything he stood for
but if he were running for president against the evil Bush-Cheney gang,
I would happily vote for him.
went on to predict a Kerry win, and called George W. Bush a treacherous
little freak and a natural-born loser with a filthy-rich daddy who
pimped his son out to rich oil-mongers.
other journalist in the world would have the guts to say such a thing out loud,
much less publish it in a mass-circulation periodical. But Hunter was like no
other journalist in the world.
journalist as outlaw
live outside the law, you must be honest, sang Bob Dylan, one of HSTs
favorite musicians. I always figured I would live on the margins of society,
part of a very small Outlaw segment, Thompson wrote in his 2003 book, Kingdom
of Fear. I have never been approved by any majority. Most people assume
its difficult to live this way, and they are right theyre still
trying to lock me up all the time. Ive been very careful about urging people
who cannot live outside the law to throw off the traces and run amok. Some are
not made for the Outlaw life.
novel approach to writing, dubbed outlaw journalism, new journalism
or his own preferred Gonzo journalism, was an instinctual response
to what he saw as the need to get inside a story and tell it from the perspective
of radical subjectivity.
knew from the time he was 16 he wanted to write. That was all that really
interested me, he told writer P.J. ORourke in an interview for Rolling
Stone magazines 20th anniversary issue in 1987. Actually, learning
interested me. Learning still does. Thats the main thing about journalism:
it allows you to keep learning and get paid for it.
was a long, strange trip from his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, to his fortified
compound near Aspen, Colorado, fueled by almost any and every legal and
illegal substance a boy or man could put his hands on.
act of belligerence on his part got him into the Armed Forces: when given the
choice after a series of youthful indiscretions, he opted for military service
rather than jail. He later refused to accept a security clearance from the Air
Force on the grounds that he didnt consider himself a good security risk
because I disagreed strongly with the slogan, My Country, Right or
Wrong. His punishment? I was passed over for promotion and placed
in a job as sports editor of a base newspaper on the Gulf Coast of Florida.
was no turning back. In that most precarious of careers, freelance writing, Thompson
spent the next 40-plus years sharing his careening life up close and personal
during a time of unprecedented transformation in the countrys political
landscape: through post-JFK-assassination America into the rice paddies of Vietnam
and Cambodia; the police riot at the 68 Chicago Democratic Convention;
the dark and venal Nixon years and his subsequent humiliating departure
from the White House; the hopeful Carter years when the country came close to
decriminalizing personal recreational drugs; the fascist (using Mussolinis
definition of fascism as corporatism) onslaught of the Reagan years,
further developed during the first Bush presidency; the Clinton/Lewinsky detour;
and on up to the president-select in 2000 and now the re-elected
fortunate son, George W. Bush, whom HST described in Kingdom of Fear as a
bogus rich kid in charge of the White House.
the editors note for Fear and Loathing in America: The Gonzo Letters, Volume
II Thompsons correspondence from 1968-1976 historian Douglas
Brinkley writes, As a pure literary art form, Gonzo requires virtually no
rewriting: the reporter and his quest for information are central to the story,
told via a fusion of bedrock reality and stark fantasy in a way that is meant
to amuse both the author and the reader. Stream-of-consciousness, article excerpts,
transcribed interviews, telephone conversations these are the elements
of a piece of aggressively subjective Gonzo journalism. It is a style of
reporting based on William Faulkners idea that the best fiction is far more
true than any kind of journalism, Thompson has noted.
just usually go with my own taste, HST said in a Paris Review interview
in 2000. I wasnt trying to be an outlaw writer. I never heard of that
term; somebody else made it up.
an outlaw journalist might take a dim view of deadlines, paltry word counts and
expense account limits, he is not a criminal, say, in the way a journalist is
who outs a covert CIA operative. Thats a felony, by the way,
if anyone bothers to prosecute. An outlaw journalist isnt a stenographer
to the powerful and would never run verbatim transcripts of White House press
briefings with the excuse, If I am communicating to my readers exactly what
the White House believes on any certain issue, thats reporting to them an
unvarnished, unfiltered version of what they believe.
its a postmodern world where a poseur like Guckert/Gannon can get day passes
as a White House correspondent so he can transcribe Scott McClellans remarks
but Maureen Dowd at the New York Times, who might ask a tough question or two,
is denied access.
Hunter had a press pass to the White House while covering Nixons departure,
he used the access to file uncompromising stories for Rolling Stonethat are unthinkable
in todays self-preservation-oriented journalism herd-mentality.
climate of those years was so grim that half the Washington press corps spent
more time worrying about having their telephones tapped than they did about risking
the wrath of
a Mafia-style administration that began cannibalizing the
whole government; they swaggered into Washington like a conquering army, and the
climate of fear then engendered apparently neutralized the New York Times along
with all the other pockets of potential resistance, he wrote.
comments about the neutralized Gray Lady during the Nixon administration
could just as easily serve as a contemporary coda to Howard Friel and Richard
Falks convincing brief against the paper of record in The Record
of the Paper, which outlines the Times inability and/or unwillingness to
consider numerous violations of international law in its coverage of U.S. foreign
As a maniacal
freelancer, HST wrote for the Times Magazine, as well as Time-Life publications
and a score of notable and forgettable periodicals. He wasnt interested
in the life of a time-clock puncher.
He told Peter Whitmer, Journalism
has always seemed a good way to get someone else to pay to get me where the action
old-school journalists who called in 50-paragraph stories to the office, Thompson
usually composed on-the-spot narratives from his notes, a reporting skill that
takes tremendous focus, dedication and a firm grasp of the subject matter.
style was a direct descendent of the traditional method, but instead of 50 paragraphs,
hed submit 15,000-word screeds using a primordial fax machine, the technology
of the fabled mojo wire a low-resolution and low-reliability
machine for transmitting text in pre-PC days that has since been overtaken
by wireless computer networks, cell phones and e-mail. In this technological milieu,
HSTs most natural offspring are the bloggers.
personal, unfettered by so-called journalistic objectivity and deadline constraints,
blogs are a vestige of Gonzo journalism that deserve recognition as part of Thompsons
Miles, whose most recent biography of Frank Zappa follows other life stories of
counterculture heroes such as Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac
and Paul McCartney, writes, Zappa is an iconoclast in the male American
tradition of Neal Cassady, Hunter S. Thompson, William S. Burroughs, Ken Kesey,
Allen Ginsberg, Lenny Bruce and the early Norman Mailer.
Heartland iconoclast was not just a psychedelic hillbilly drunkard but also a
keen intellectual, a brilliant political analyst and a gifted, determined craftsman
who persevered against tremendous odds to tell his readers that there are options
for resistance, that we can send a message to the fixers and greedheads to say
that while they will always be among us, we are not afraid to meet them head on,
to speak our truths and to stand our ground to the bitter end.
was an old, sick, and very troubled man, and the illusion of peace and contentment
was not enough for him. ... So finally, and for what he must have thought the
best of reasons, he ended it with a shotgun.
Hunter S. Thompson
closing words from a 1964 National Observer piece about a pilgrimage to Hemingways
Ketchum, Idaho, seem remarkably prescient. The man who wrote them would, like
his hero, take his own life, in a different mountainside town, a few hundred miles
to the south, some four decades later.
his fans need not grieve over his final defiant act. Read long-time collaborator
Ralph Steadmans tribute in the Guardian. It wasnt a question
of if, but when, Steadman wrote in his moving essay.
dont have to wonder what Thompsons last thoughts were. His suicide
was a deliberate act a calculated move by a man driven, as he often claimed,
to control his environment as an ultimate assertion of individuality.
In their public statement his family called him a warrior because his parting
shot was a courageous act. In fact, it was heroic like a samurai warrior
who committed ritual suicide as an act of courage and honor.
leaves behind a remarkable journalistic legacy, unrivaled in the modern era, that
chronicles the closing decades of the 20th century as well as the dawn of the
new century in a raw, savage style that manages to wring out truth in brutal honesty
without a trace of nostalgia or romanticism.
rebellion of the 1960s carried with it a kind of naive sense that since we were
right, then right would prevail and we would stop the war and find
better ways to live, he told Peter Whitmer. But he knew better and thats
why he interjected the word naive.
called on the power of the peoples history of the recent past
to remind us there were precedents to show that we could stand up to tyranny.
We were angry and righteous in those days and there were millions of us,
he wrote in his final Rolling Stone piece. We kicked two chief executives
out of the White House because they were stupid warmongers. We conquered Lyndon
Johnson and we stomped on Richard Nixon which wise people said was impossible,
but so what? It was fun. We were warriors then, and our tribe was strong like
the river was dammed by the neocons and drained by the fearmongers and greedheads
whose idea of morality is gutting the Bill of Rights. I can imagine that after
four decades of chronicling the death of the American Dream and seeing
things go from bad to worse, Thompson was bushed.
a man whose lifetime fascination with intoxication was an integral part of his
work, its almost ironic that the best word I can use to describe my response
to his passing is sobering. With all of the stories that need to be
told, all the chits that need to be called in, all the aggressive Calvinists seeking
to supplant science with superstition, sacrifice human rights for property rights
and convert the land of the free into the home of the brainwashed, Thompsons
final gesture should not cannot be ignored.
issued a wakeup call, warning of the cultural/political shitstorm that threatens
our beleaguered nation and challenging us to awaken from the nightmare of history
that has given the world George W. Bush and his cruel henchmen.
hope we have the courage to answer it.
Thomas P. Healy
a journalist in Indianapolis and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .