An Audience With The Gonzo King: Hunter S. Thompson
By Paul Zimmerman
Posted 02/13/04 17:31:38
“Who are you and why are you in my house?” It’s just the sort of greeting you’d expect from author / recluse / legend / madman Hunter S. Thompson. Chris Parry, a couple of publicists, one very large man and myself have been summoned from the Denver Film Festival to make the three-hour trek up the Rocky Mountains to Thompson’s fabled Woody Creek compound where trespassers risk the wrath and considerable firepower of the notoriously unstable Thompson. It seems the father of Gonzo journalism and author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has an announcement to make.
Our guide is director Wayne Ewing whose "Breakfast With Hunter" -a warts and all documentary on his friend and Colorado neighbor of 17 years-has just played at the festival. Motoring up the 82 Highway things get strange. And then stranger. Feeling like Willard heading up the river to throw down with Colonel Kurtz we first pass a car on fire and then a motorcycle accident so bad they shut down the road until the survivors can be airlifted to a hospital. Pulling past Woody Creek’s nearest big city Aspen, we run into several military vehicles involved in a major fender bender. “Ye gods,” Parry mutters, “They’ve called in the military. Thompson’s announcement must be major.”
The sun sets over the Rockies as we pull through Thompson’s wooden gates, pass his free range peacocks and twisted trees. We approach the darkened house with trepidation, bearing gifts to the Gonzo King: a Swiss Flag, a court jester’s hat, a $50 high powered cigarette lighter and a videotape on ventriloquists. We’ve got it all except the eight-pound beef tongue we’d wanted to bring for target practice. “Now don’t freak out if you don’t see him right away,” Wayne cautions. “He once invited me over and suddenly appeared dripping wet brandishing a sawed off shotgun. When he blew away the doorframe next to me I realized it was just a test.”
Entering Thompson’s modest (by literary giant standards) farm style house he is indeed nowhere to be found. A cursory look around reveals the following: Stacks of books and faxes everywhere. Stuffed and mounted animal heads. Ralph Steadman prints that Thompson has “personalized” with a shotgun. A sign pinned to a cluttered cord board reads “Swine of the Week.” Someone shivers. The air conditioner is set at 60 degrees. The refrigerator top is covered in Scotch bottles. The piano with high caliber handguns. I go to sit on the couch “Keith Richards passed out on,” and nearly land on an opened stiletto. I gingerly put it with the pistols and suddenly Hunter appears and takes a seat at the kitchen counter where an ancient typewriter sits next to a videotape of "The Godfather II" and books like "The Boys on the Bus."
Despite recent back surgery, the six foot, two inch, 66-year-old Thompson still cuts an imposing figure. Considerably taller and broader than Johnny Depp, who played him in Terry Gilliam’s "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", Thompson is the picture of aging Southern Gentleman. Affixing a cigarette into his trademark holder Thompson proceeds to warm up with a few tumblers of Chivas Regal Scotch and a joint or two (which he doesn’t pass, he throws at you).
“I’m getting back in to politics,” he says abruptly. “But I’m not going to run. I can barely walk.” Insisting that the country is in a terrible mess thanks to George W. Bush and the “evil eggs” his father George Sr. laid after leaving office like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, Thompson has decided to revive his Freak Power Gonzo Party. Formed back in 1970 when he ran for sheriff of Aspen on a platform that promised paving the streets into sidewalks and renaming the ski resort Fat City, Thompson damn near won.
Now more than three decades later many have written Thompson off as a drug addled crank who burned out in the 1970s. He’s got fame, fortune and notoriety, but where’s the next great American Novel? Maybe that will never come but skeptics need look no further than his latest book "Kingdom of Fear" to notice he’s still got the knack for mixing politics, passion and grand storytelling.
Dismissing the Republicans as “snakes”, the Democrats as “Dixiecrats” and “wombats”, Thompson insists the country needs his help. “Freak Power isn’t going to be on the ballot,” he admits but “We need to give people a new way to express themselves.” Thompson is in the middle of writing a piece for Playboy Magazine’s 50th anniversary and suggests we take turns reading his work in progress out loud. He listens intently interrupting with sudden animal noises, whistles and the random Tourette’s syndrome styled complaint. “Arrrgggh! YOU ASSHOLE! What’s wrong with this!!!” Thompson yells when his lighter misfires.
My turn comes up and I make it about two pages in when he suggests one of the female publicists in the room takes a crack at it. “Oh, you want to hear it in falsetto?” I ask. “Yes!” he grunts draining his Scotch. Due to the considerable amount of Scotch and the high altitude I continue reading but in a high pitched falsetto voice. Big mistake. “I’m warning you,” Thompson screams suddenly shaking his drink at me, ”Once more and you’re out of here!” People walk on eggshells around Thompson and I’ve just committed the cardinal sin; making sport of his writing. After a time I get back into his good graces, especially when he talks with fatherly pride about his amazingly normal 30-year-old son Juan.
As the reading continues, he nods his head and waves his arms about the room, like a conductor leading an orchestra. When someone misses a comma or a single word he’s on them like a shark. Critics who think he just dashes these missives off are sadly mistaken. The hours, liquid and smoke drift by and then it’s time to go. Thompson’s Freak Power plans are rather vague and don’t include any concrete candidates yet but plans are afoot for a massive think tank, Gonzo Convention in neighboring Aspen. It all sounds like a glorious mess. As we exit Thompson’s pretty blonde 29-year-old former assistant and new wife Anita suggests Hunter go remedy his damaged back with a swim. He thinks a moment and takes a long pull on his cigarette. “Yeah, I think that’s a good idea,” he says brightening, “Drop some acid and go for a swim.”