In early August of 1990 I went to Aspen, Colo., to cover what looked as if it would be a rather banal summit involving Margaret Thatcher and George Bush. (The meeting was to be enlivened by the announcement of the forcible annexation of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, who would go on to trouble our tranquility for another 13 years.) While the banal bit was still going on, the city invited the visiting press hacks for a cocktail reception at the top of an imposing mountain. Stepping off the ski lift, I was met by immaculate specimens of young American womanhood, holding silver trays and flashing perfect dentition. What would I like? I thought a gin and tonic would meet the case. “Sir, that would be inappropriate.” In what respect? “At this altitude gin would be very much more toxic than at ground level.” In that case, I said, make it a double.
The very slight contraction of the freeze-frame smile made it plain that I was wasting my time: It was the early days of the brave new America that knew what was best for you. Spurning the chardonnay and stepping straight back onto the ski lift, I was soon back in town and then, after a short drive, making a turn opposite the Woody Creek Inn (easily spotted by the pig on its roof). And there, at the very fringe of habitation, was Owl Farm and its genial proprietor, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Once inside these well-armed precincts, I could drink and smoke and ingest any damn thing I liked. I finished a fairly long evening by doing some friendly target-practice, with laser-guided high-velocity rifles, in the company of my host. An empty bottle didn’t stand any more of a chance outside than a full one would have had within. It was vertiginous, for me, to be able to move from one America to another, in point of time and also of place, so rapidly.
It had been in 1970 that Thompson first ran for local office in Aspen, and stood against the wave of bourgeoisification that would soon make it a place where the locals could no longer afford to live. Local police officials tried to harass him in numberless ways, only to find that they were dealing not with some hippie or freak, but with one of the charter members of the Colorado National Rifle Association. Thompson was to pursue this feud, with absolutely Corsican persistence, for many decades. If he had done nothing else, he might be remembered as a village Hampden, or a minuteman of the Rockies.
But, as Carey McWilliams of The Nation had recognized a long time before, Hunter was more than just a “character.” His proposal to write about the Hell’s Angels for the magazine, once accepted, was more than a brilliant piece of observant and participant journalism. It helped to curtain-raise the ‘60s, and perhaps most especially the hectic excess of that decade in California. Keen as he was on the herbivorous and antimilitarist side of that moment, Thompson wasn’t at all blind to the noir aspect, and helped prepare readers for the Manson and Altamont dimension. He’d been in this mood since at least November 22, 1963, when he first employed the words “fear and loathing” to express the way he felt about whomever it was who had murdered the president.
“The only things I’ve ever been arrested for,” said Hunter in one late interview, “were things I didn’t do.” It would take a very long article to describe all the deeds for which he could have been indicted, and all the days and nights when he could well have ended up dead. I hope that it isn’t true that he became depressed and miserable about the pain and immobility of a broken leg, and that the only lethal crime he ever committed was against himself in a dark hour, but the thing seems depressingly plausible, and there would always have been a firearm, and ammo, within easy reach.
I’m not that crazy about the gonzo school, or any other version of the new journalism either, but Thompson’s signature style was not always, or not entirely, about faxing unedited notes or having his life insurance cancelled by Jann Wenner. He was, above all, a highly polished hater, and could fuel himself as well as ignite others with his sheer contempt for Richard Nixon and all that he stood for. This involved, for some years, a life where there was almost no distance between belief and action. And it is why his 1972 book on the campaign trail holds up so well. But even then he knew, as he was to keep repeating, that “the wave” of the insurgent ‘60s— “a fantastic, universal sense that whatever we were doing was right: that we were winning”—was a wave that had not only “broken” but had “rolled back.”
This was a rapture that was hard to recapture. In Wayne Ewing’s oddly effective movie, Breakfast with Hunter, it is possible to detect the sensation of diminishing returns. The old enrage doesn’t really look that comfortable as he is card-indexed by the historian Douglas Brinkley (who edited his collected letters, for Chrissake) or venerated as an icon by George Plimpton. He doesn’t even seem all that keen on being played by Johnny Depp in the celluloid version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He’s fine when hanging out with Warren Zevon, but he appears a bit lost when he’s discharging fire extinguishers, or hurling blown-up fuck-dolls around the scenery, as if this sort of thing was expected of him. “He was never one to hang around when it was time to go,” a mutual friend e-mailed me on Monday. The realization that this might have occurred to him before it occurred to us is a very melancholy one.