Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone: The Essential Hunter S. Thompson, Page 2Hunter S. Thompson
But the fun and games—for Hunter and for the rest of us—always took second position to the work. We loved what we were doing, and none more than he. Once, reflecting on the scrambling years of his early career, he stated that he had “no taste for either poverty or honest labor, so writing is the only recourse left for me.” His tongue, of course, was firmly in his cheek. He was serious about his craft and was an ongoing student of correct grammar and syntax, and enjoyed sharing that knowledge. One of our staff writers was quite talented but often taunted for the sloppiness of his copy. I stood by one day as Hunter patiently lectured him on the necessity of producing a clean manuscript and how it would complement his writing skills (Hunter was right). In fact, he went out of his way to be friendly and helpful, even solicitous, about our work. Hunter would somehow get wind of what I was assigning and often I’d find on my desk a note in his distinctive scrawl suggesting a source or a contact. The notes were always signed: OK/HST. He had a gift to inspire, and he lifted everybody’s game.
He could have played the star, but the really good ones never do. Hells Angels brought notoriety, and his Kentucky Derby piece for Scanlan’s as well as the early Rolling Stone appearances received attention. He chose to be a friend and colleague, and we responded in kind. When the sloppy manuscript guy heard that Hunter used swimming as a way to relax, he escorted Hunter to a scuba school a couple of blocks away where he could do laps when the pool was free.
When he was in town, Hunter became a low-key regular at Jerry’s Inn, the staff watering hole across the street. He was very much at home there at the bar, and would love to engage us, one-on-one, in everything from his heroes, Scott Fitzgerald and Joseph Conrad; to classic sportswriters such as Jimmy Cannon or Red Smith; to the fortunes of the Oakland Raiders, the scruffy, mean-spirited pro football team on which he had a few friends. He also loved to talk shop, about articles we would read in Esquire and elsewhere, which I like to think validated a few of the hours we spent in Jerry’s instead of in the office.
When Hunter embarked on the 1972 campaign trail, it signaled the end of one chapter and the beginning of another for both him and the magazine. At first there was no real blueprint other than establishing a presence with an office in Washington, D.C. But he quickly found himself reinventing the mission statement almost issue by issue, and pretty soon the assignment had become an endless road trip. He was always writing against extreme deadline and filing copy at the last possible minute, which became a crucible for both him and the magazine. I was mercifully out of the direct line of fire, with too many other things on my plate. But I was close enough to feel the terrible weight borne by Jann, associate editor David Felton, copy editor Charles Perry, and a heroic production staff. The now legendary Mojo Wire sat just a few feet from my office door. Night after night, in the midst of deadline frenzy, that infernal thing would be beeping away, signaling Hunter’s presence at the other end, while Jann or Felton stood by, waiting for the copy to be slowly ejected. It was as if he was always in our midst. And in the final accounting, those articles solidified Rolling Stone’s commitment to political coverage, made Hunter a true celebrity (for good and ill), and eventually resulted in a great book. It was a miracle of journalism under pressure, and only Hunter could have pulled it off.
A few months after the election we were sitting in Jerry’s. Hunter looked like hell and was clearly not in great spirits. For reasons that will ever elude me, I decided to give him a helpful lecture. Retire your alter ego Raoul Duke, I said. Or send him on a long vacation. Go back to being the journalist who wrote Hells Angels. Cut back a little on the drugs and the booze. He turned toward me as he reached into the pocket of his safari jacket. He gave me a look; nothing nasty, just a look. He extracted a tab of Mr. Natural blotter acid from the pocket, stared me in the eye, and swallowed it. I got the message. Our conversation resumed.
The last time I worked with Hunter was on his “interdicted dispatch” from a rapidly falling Saigon in 1975. We pretty much lost contact after that, although I’d occasionally run into him in New York. The last time I spoke to him was at a 1996 celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the simultaneous publication of a Modern Library edition, an acknowledgment of his work by the literary establishment of which he was justly proud. It was a splendid evening. A lot of Rolling Stone alumni were there, and among the guests was Johnny Depp, Hunter’s great friend who would portray Raoul Duke, Doctor of Journalism, in the movie version of Vegas in 1998.
One of my favorite memories of Hunter goes back to the spring of 1973, and it’s actually on video tape. He had been sequestered at the Seal Rock Inn, on the western edge of San Francisco, finishing the final edits on Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. A group of video journalists who had been assigned to do a documentary on Rolling Stone for public television had taped him at the hotel as he was preparing to leave, and he obliged them with a few minutes of classic Hunter S. Thompson gibberish and shtick.
But when he got to the office to say his good-byes before heading home to Colorado, the video crew had preceded him and closed in, peppering him with stupid questions. Hunter and I tried to ignore them by poring over his fan mail, which in itself was something to behold. Finally, Hunter gave up. He started moving down the hallway, looking back over his shoulder at me, saying, “I have to meet a guy across the street!” By the time he reached the exit, he was shouting, “I HAVE TO MEET A GUY ACROSS THE STREET!” Across the street was Jerry’s, naturally. The guy was me.
Hunter was a terrific writer whose unique talent and enthusiasm helped propel Rolling Stone forward at some crucial points in its early history. He was a swell drinking companion, a hell of a salesman, and yes, a little bit crazy. Crazy like a fox.
It’s been forty years since Hunter Thompson embarked on the presidential campaign trail and almost seven years since he passed away, but somehow he still manages to consume many of us to this day. When I began work on this book, I figured his total output for Rolling Stone exceeded four hundred fifty thousand words. The main text, after some pretty serious editing, is still about two hundred ten thousand words.
The selection process was easy: practically everything. Only four articles were omitted; they simply weren’t up to par with the other material. But this meant that cutting would be that much more difficult.
The campaign trail material was the least difficult to work with. It was specifically geared to the moment, and much of it had simply ceased being topical. But there were plenty of vignettes and colorful incidents, and the overall reporting has held up remarkably well.
A characteristic of Hunter’s writing is the long digression, or the shorter but carefully designed tangent. If a digression got in the way of the main narrative, out it came. The best example is “Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl.” Almost half the article was a world-class digression on the Oakland Raiders, which had nothing to do with the contest itself. Of course if a digression or tangent was outrageously funny, it had to stay in. It would have been a crime to cut Hunter’s adventures riding the Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle. Such is also the case with “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” The excerpt presented here is a stand-alone section from Part II in which Duke and his attorney have their way with a hapless delegate to the district attorneys’ conference.
Curiously, the hardest article to cut was Hunter’s first piece for the magazine, “The Battle of Aspen,” which details his efforts to unseat the sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, through the use of “Freak Power.” I made a moderate initial cut, but the second time around I struggled and finally gave up. The damn thing was too intricate and dense.
The arc of Hunter’s relationship with Rolling Stone is pretty clear looking at the table of contents. His output from 1970 through 1972 was amazing, and Watergate and all things Nixon kept him involved through 1974. But when he was dispatched to the Ali-Foreman heavyweight championship fight in Zaire that year, he returned empty-handed. His trip to Saigon as th
e Vietnam War wound down yielded an abbreviated, unfinished piece. A later excursion to Grenada yielded nothing. In the meantime, he had become—and would continue to be—a popular speaker on college campuses. The money was good and the appearances were plentiful. The writing just wasn’t there, for long periods.
When he would reappear in the pages of Rolling Stone, the results were often first-rate. In 1977, “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat” was a paean to his friend and sometimes nemesis Oscar Acosta, who had apparently perished in a drug deal gone bad. His two-part profile and interview with Muhammad Ali the following year was insightful and hilarious. Who else would leap into Ali’s hotel room wearing an African fright mask, sending the Champ into gales of laughter?
Another five-year absence ended with Hunter’s last great piece of reporting when he was sent to cover the sensational Roxanne Pulitzer divorce trial. “A Dog Took My Place” features Hunter at his best, exploring the sex-and-drugs culture of well-heeled Palm Beach denizens in wide-eyed amazement and disdain.
The 1990s would produce two late masterpieces. “Fear and Loathing in Elko” is a sustained fantasia of nightmare imagery featuring Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas and a cast of weirdos. It is mordantly funny and dark—in fact much darker than “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” “Polo Is My Life” would prove to be his last great piece of lyrical, expansive writing, involving his observations on a sport for the wealthy, the lost world of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and sex dolls. It should be noted that these two articles, like his first for Rolling Stone, were extremely difficult to cut.
The correspondence between Hunter and Jann starts with their very first exchange in 1969. There are backstage looks at the writer as he works, how “Vegas” came to be, the evolution of the 1972 campaign coverage, story ideas (mostly discarded), and the push-me, pull-you faxes required to produce Hunter’s later work. Taken as a whole, the letters and memos are a kind of additional biography of the writer who did his signature work for Rolling Stone.
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In the Beginning . . .
Hunter first wrote to Jann Wenner in January 1970, having already published his first book, Hell’s Angels, in 1966 to generally positive critical attention. Rolling Stone, then two years old, had gained national attention with a special issue on Altamont, the Rolling Stones’ debacle of a free outdoor concert in December 1969, at which the Hells Angels (incredibly, hired as security) terrorized the crowd, stabbing one spectator to death. Early correspondence between editor and writer danced around the possibility of a story about Terry the Tramp, an Angel who’d recently died, until Hunter casually mentioned his nascent campaign for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado. “The Battle of Aspen”—both Hunter’s run for office and his account of it in the magazine—inserted Hunter into the national conversation both politically and journalistically, and was the opening battle cry to an epic, righteous, and occasionally combustible partnership between Hunter and Rolling Stone.
Undated letter from Hunter S. Thompson to Jann S. Wenner
Woody Creek, Colorado
Your Altamont coverage comes close to being the best journalism I can remember reading, by anybody. When I cited it to a friend who teaches at UCLA’s journalism school he said he’d never heard of Rolling Stone ... and that sort of says it all, I think, except maybe to speculate that the trouble isn’t really with print, but with the people who control print. And that’s an old bitch, too, so fuck it. Anyway, Rolling Stone makes [Marshall] McLuhan suck wind. It’s a hell of a good medium by any standard, from Hemingway to the Airplane. People like [founder of the Los Angeles Free Press Art] Kunkin and [author-journalist Paul] Krassner never came close to what you’re doing ... so don’t fuck it up with pompous bullshit; the demise of R.S. would leave a nasty hole.
Which reminds me of that shitty ignorant slur you laid on Eric Von Schmidt’s last album, Who Knocked the Brains Out of the Sky? It’s one of the few really original things I’ve heard in five years and “Wooden Man” ranks with the best of The Band’s stuff. Whoever wrote that sleazy rap is a waterhead with a shit ear. Dismissing Von Schmidt as a bad rock artist is like comparing Lenny Bruce to the Hells Angels & saying that Bruce didn’t make it.
Hunter S. Thompson
Undated letter from Jann S. Wenner to Hunter S. Thompson
746 Brannan Street
San Francisco 94103
Thanks for your note. Having once read your Angels book in galley proof forms (stole them when I worked at Ramparts) and having really dug it in its pre-cut form, I’ve been a fan of yours. Glad you are now a fan of ours. So, good to get your note.
The record review section has been a problem—a lot of prep-school masturbatory reviewers getting their rocks off in the past. We’re weeding them out now, and bringing the section back under my control, so I apologize for past idiocies in that part of the paper.
How about doing something for us? What have you been writing lately? Send it to me. Maybe we can use it, or maybe you have some ideas for some new stuff. Let me know.
Two items for your interest: 1) We submitted Altamont (plus groupies, ups, Dylan, etc.) for a Pulitzer. I doubt it will happen, but what the hell; and 2) I found out yesterday that Terry the Tramp committed suicide—sleeping pills—he wanted to quit the Angels after Altamont, and that’s how he did it. I think we’ll be having a good story about it. Would you be interested in adding your thoughts?
Hope Woody Creek is as beautiful as it sounds.
Letter from HST to JSW
Woody Creek, Colorado
Feb 25 ’70
Dear Jann . . .
Thanx for the note & good luck with the Pulitzer gig. If I had a vote you’d be in good shape ... but you’ll be dealing with a gang of crusty shitheads, so don’t let it worry you if they don’t give you a medal. And even if they do it’ll probably be for the wrong reasons.
About writing something: Your news about Terry the Tramp depresses the shit out of me. When I think of all those worthless mean-souled fuckers who should commit suicide, it’s rotten to hear that Terry was the one who did it. I have hours of tape-talk with the bastard & I was listening to them tonight & remembering how he always knew that Angel thing was a bad trip & how he wanted to get out of it ... but he never knew how, or where to go. He was the only one of the Angels I ever felt next to for long enough to consider him a friend. I kept expecting him to show up out here & I’d have been happy to see him—but he never did. And now, looking at your letter, I don’t mind knowing he’s dead so much as I hate to think of him sitting around deciding to do it. He should have gone out at about 120, head-on with a cop car. That’s what he was looking for; and it’s a bitch to know he had to go out on his knees.
Anyway, I’d like to write something about him. Maybe a long thing—because thinking about him puts me back in a scene that’s beginning to look very rare. San Francisco in the mid-Sixties was a very special time ... and Terry, to me, was a key figure. I remember taking him down to the Matrix to hear the Airplane before they ever got into the Fillmore ... then taking him down to La Honda to meet Kesey ... and those fuckarounds with the Berkeley peace freaks. So probably I could write a decent thing about him—as a freak-symbol of an era he never quite understood. What do you have room for? A short obit ... or a long rambling truth-nut? Let me know quick—if you need it quick—and also say what you pay. I’ll write the fucker anyway, if there’s room, but I tend to bear down a little harder when I smell money.
Whatever you think: I’ll do a short obit (say, 2500 words) for nothing ... or a long (10–15,000 words) for money. I’d like to get into it, and it fits with the long-overdue book I’m supposed to be finishing right now for Random House ... so if you can use a long piece it’s no problem. Shit ... I sound like a pawnbroker here (or a speed-dealer),
but in fact there’s no point in my zapping off a huge chunk of esoteric madness that nobody can use. I’ve done that all too often, and it gets old . . .
OK for now ... and in any case keep R.S. on its rails. We are heading into a shitstorm on all fronts.
Also—send any details or news clips about Terry—like if there’s a funeral, etc. They would help if I do anything long or serious—Thanx
Letter from JSW to HST
March 30, 1970
Woody Creek, Colorado
Sorry for taking so long to get back to you but just before your letter arrived I went to London for awhile and I’ve just gotten back.
In the meantime, Terry the Tramp has passed from memory and we have received a beautiful piece by one of our writers in London, Chuck Alverson. I think we will be using this piece for a special issue we will be doing this fall about the Sixties. This obviates the need for the Terry the Tramp piece.
However, I would like you to write some things for us. You say you’re working on a book right now for Random House, and if Terry the Tramp fits into it, perhaps then something from your book would fit into Rolling Stone. Maybe you could send us the chapters or some chapters, and maybe we could run some of it. I’d enjoy reading them in any case.
Letter from HST to JSW
Woody Creek, Colorado
Apr 10 ’70
Dear Jann . . .
OK, I’ll try to let you know whenever I have something suitable for R.S. God only knows when, or what, it will be. Between running for Sheriff and getting this new Wallposter off the ground, I don’t have much time for heavy writing. But I have to do it—or else start looking around for a job; so I’ll get something together pretty soon.