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The God Of Gonzo Hunter Thompson’s Book Of Letters Illustrates The Jagged Career Path Of The Original Gonzo Journalist

Lynn Carey Knight-Ridder

The author escort looks apprehensive when we meet in the lobby. “You know about Hunter, don’t you?” she asks, tentatively.

Oh, yeah. I know about Hunter. Having just finished his latest book, I feel like I really knew about Hunter. “The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman” (Villard, $29.95, 683 pages) is his book of letters from 1955 (when he was 18, just after he got out of jail and joined the Air Force) to 1967, just after his first book “Hells Angels” had been published (and he had been soundly trounced by the bikers as a result).

Through his letters, you see the path he took to becoming the god of gonzo journalism. You also see the beginning of behaviors that eventually lead to his reputation for being a man who never said no to a bottle, a vial, a reefer, a tab, a woman, a fast bike or a good gun.

I devoured Hunter S. Thompson’s works as a college journalism student. I even made a trek once to UC-Davis, where he was speaking. Sort of. The audience members made a parade to the stage, reverently laying tumblers of liquids and baggies of who-knows-what at the god’s feet. He imbibed all.

Remarkably, the guy can still write. And turning 60 in a few weeks he’s on what he says is his fifth generation of fans. One of them is actor Johnny Depp (“Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” “Donnie Brasco”), who is traveling with Thompson on this book-signing tour. Depp portrays Thompson when the cameras start rolling in late July for “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” based on what is, to some, the consummate Thompson tome.

On the day of the interview in San Francisco, Depp is already speaking for Thompson. It’s 2:30 in the afternoon and apparently The Man is still prone, probably on the floor in the suite. It had, of course, been a late night. They fired the first limo driver because smoking wasn’t allowed in the car. They played pool at Tosca in North Beach, one of Thompson’s old haunts from the various times he lived in San Francisco. They rolled in around 4 a.m. They took issue, at some point, with the fact that their suite was at the St. Francis Hotel instead of the Fairmont, Thompson’s preference.

Fairmont. St. Francis. Both start with “F.” Easy to be confused. So, after the interview, the pair were moving to a suite at the Fairmont.

But, in the meantime, Depp relays to the author escort Thompson’s desire to conduct the interview at the adults-only Mitchell Brother’s O’Farrell Theater. They later change their minds; Thompson is barely awake and in pain due to a back injury. (He’s taken a few falls in his day.)

When we finally enter the room, it’s nearly 3 p.m. Thompson, in his ubiquitous sunglasses, sits hunched over on a couch, in a blue shirt, pajama bottoms and white athletic socks. Dunhills in a cigarette holder seemed glued to his mouth. Depp, in jeans, a nylon shirt and heavy boots, smokes Kools in a holder like Thompson’s. He has to get used to the holder, he says, for the movie.

On a small table, incense burns next to a full ashtray. On another table is what looks to be a healthy breakfast, including a plate of fresh fruit and a tall glass of orange juice. None of it appears to have been touched. Thompson’s beverage of choice, however, is not OJ. It is a tall tumbler of ice, over which he pours Scotch.

The circumstances of this interview are unusual, to say the least. We start a half-hour late, and the author escort is already looking anxious about the time. And what with the controlled-substance cornucopia surrounding us, many logical questions don’t get asked, such as, “Hunter, do you fear death?”

But, we do the best we can, as quickly as we can.

I begin by mentioning seeing him at UC-Davis.

Knight-Ridder: How does it make you feel when people are throwing baggies of stuff at you? Would you rather they were throwing, say, verse?

Hunter S. Thompson: No. I’ll take the baggies.

KR: You’re a hero to generations of fans.

HST: Why is that, I wonder?

KR: I’m asking you! You’re the gonzo god.

HST: I think maybe I’m not awake enough to answer these. I want him to read that thing. Then I’ll know what town I’m in.

Johnny Depp reads aloud a glowing review that’s just arrived from a New Orleans literary journal that compares Thompson’s writing to rock ‘n’ roll. In the middle of this, one of Thompson’s old editors at Rolling Stone, Tim Ferris, comes in. While (almost) everyone is watching Depp, Thompson takes out a box filled with white powder, stuffs a big straw with the stuff, snorts it up one nostril, repeats the process with the other nostril, then dips two fingers into a tall glass of Chivas and sticks the fingers up his nose, inhaling again to wash it down, so to speak.

HST: That’s interesting. I’ve been trying to explain the connection between music and writing for a long time. But that doesn’t help me much. I was hoping I could get a stolen line, something to help me figure out what I have been doing. Why do I now speak for five generations? I have 9-year-old fans. It’s really weird.

Discussion turns to his break-through gonzo piece, 1970’s “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” published in Scanlon’s Monthly.

HST: That was one of the low points in my life as a writer. I failed, totally. I remember lying in a tepid bathtub in the Royalton Hotel (in New York City) thinking, “Well, I’m finished, now. I missed a deadline. I can’t do anything. My professional life is finished.” And that’s when I started pulling the pages out of the spiral notebook. I had just discovered the Xerox telecopier. It was magic for me. The Derby piece went straight to press, out of the notebook.

Depp reminds Thompson that a prescription bottle of Flexeril, a muscle relaxant, arrived that day. He fetches it.

HST: I might as well take it all.

Depp: It says take one tablet, three times a day.

HST: I’ve never seen anything work with one pill, except acid. I’ve built up a huge resistance KR: So, are you starting to feel like you’re approaching 60 in a few weeks?

HST: That’s nonsense, I’m approaching 23. (He chuckles.) But it does seem like one long year since 22.

KR: What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about you?

HST: That I’m a nice person. (Laughter all around.) It’s that comic strip (Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” has a character named Uncle Duke that looks and acts remarkably like Thompson). I don’t read comic strips, but every morning. … If “Lil Abner” was there, I might want to be. It’s kind of difficult wandering around the world for I don’t know how many years. It was during Watergate that that (expletive) first started. You try being a comic strip character for 25 years.

KR: Aren’t you flattered a little bit?

HST: Not at all. I think that’s responsible for the largest single misconception. That the character he swears has nothing to do with me. I don’t follow it, so I don’t know what Duke does. But it might have something to do with bridging the age gap. When I have a 9-year-old boy come up to me speaking very articulately. And asking me to autograph a copy of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Very polite. In a tavern. I wouldn’t sign. I don’t sign autographs when I’m trying to drink. All of a sudden I’m confronted with this 9-year-old boy talking knowledgeably about the book.

KR: A 9-year-old reading “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” What does that tell us?

HST: I’ve wondered about it. I can only guess it had to do with getting away with it. It seems to me there’s not too much you can get away with these days. (Pause) Where am I?

KR: What are you most passionate about these days?

HST: Well, getting arrested all the time keeps you on your toes. I think Clinton has put too many cops on the streets. I think the law enforcement industry has replaced the defense industry as the lifeline of the government spending. The Russians aren’t there. The war on drugs doesn’t seem to be working. And now we have too many cops.

KR: Who’s your hero now, Hunter?

HST: Heroes. Dr. Kevorkian comes to mind. Morris Dees, from the Southern Poverty Law Center. He’s been a civil rights lawyer almost as long as I’ve been a journalist. I used to have three heroes: Muhammad Ali, Bob Dylan and Fidel Castro. I don’t have any reason to change that.

KR: Do you ever feel like some of the people who hang around you, you could ask them to do anything and they’d do it, for free?

HST: Are you offering to do something?

KR: That depends. But the people in Woody Creek (his home, a “fortified compound” in Colorado), do they still flock to you like you’re the Dali Lama?

HST: I’m still intensely active in local politics. I think politics is the art of controlling your environment. It’s important to me who’s sheriff and who’s mayor. It probably should be important who’s president.

KR: What is your legacy?

HST: Well, if I don’t get put in prison for a really shameful thing, if I was accused of the things that Clinton stands accused of now, which are worse crimes than Nixon was forced to resign for, uhhhhh. … What was the question again?

KR: What’s your legacy.

HST: Being a writer in America is very hard. A free-lance writer. I’d like a monument to me indicating that you can do it - if you don’t lie.

KR: If you don’t lie?

HST: Yeah. That’s a tricky thing to say. Yeah. I’ve been pretty honest, I guess, with what I’ve written. The only thing that would hurt me would be to be accused of something really horrible, the kind of crimes I jump on people for. Lies, treachery. If it came out I was working for Scientology all this time. (Laughs.) KR: Do you ever get tired of the word “gonzo?”

HST: Yeah. I just did that to differentiate myself from the “new journalists” that were cropping up. I don’t know why I did it. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But since then, we don’t have any generations of gonzo journalists. It’s more than going out and getting drunk and pushing people around in public places. It’s in the Random House Dictionary as whatever I do. “As defined by the work of Hunter S. Thompson,” something like that.

KR: That’s great.

HST: Yeah, but it’s kind of lonely.

KR: And kind of a lot to live up to.

HST: I’d like to pass it on to more people. But it isn’t something like the key to the kingdom that you are given. (He gestures to “The Proud Highway.”) I’m shocked at all the 10 years of agony in there. I didn’t really do the cutting (Douglas Brinkley is the book’s editor); I just objected to the poverty (described in the letters), particularly to the weird sums that are given. It just proves that it wasn’t so easy. But it looks like fun, doesn’t it?

KR: Yep!

At this point the author escort is frowning and pointing to her watch. In the spirit of gonzo journalism, she is ignored.

KR: What do you think was your proudest moment?

HST: I get these big, huge questions. Any time you can beat city hall.

KR: So it’s not like when one of your books came out, your proudest moment. Like “Hell’s Angels.”

HST: That was close. I was never surprised to be published. I just thought it was overdue. And going back to Louisville (he received the key to his hometown in December). That large event. Getting my mother there. She had a wonderful time, drinking whiskey. She and my aunt were in the front row, in Memorial Auditorium. I was proud of that.

KR: Did you have any say in having Johnny Depp portray you?

HST: We’re both from Kentucky.

KR: Had you seen his movies?

HST: No. We met in a bar in Woody Creek. I didn’t know who he was. I had no idea he was going to play me in a movie. He’s getting nervous, now.

Depp: I already told Hunter that if I even do close to a good job of portraying him, he’ll probably despise me for the rest of my life. That’s why I figure we’ll hang out now.

HST: While we can.

KR: Were you a fan? Is that why you went to Woody Creek then?

Depp: I’ve always been a fan. But I needed advice.

KR: On what kind of gun to buy?

Depp: No, no, I’d always been a fan.

KR: So, you had read his stuff?

Depp: Oh, yeah, I’d read a lot of his stuff.

HST: I thought he was just a homeboy, being brought up to the house by a friend. I was a little puzzled by the fact that his girlfriend (superstar model Kate Moss) was traveling with her mother and a bodyguard. But I adjusted to it.

Depp: The mother just loved the explosion, also.

KR: What explosion?

Depp: The bomb.

HST: Kate was videotaping about 10 feet from the explosion. I don’t know what the hell would have happened to the mother’s income if Kate’s face had been blown apart by the bomb.

Depp: I just remember asking Hunter, “Is there shrapnel?” He said, no, no shrapnel.

KR: Are you a grandpa yet, Hunter?

HST: No! No I’m not. I forced my son’s wife to have several abortions.

Author escort: You can’t print that.

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