The Duke of San Francisco

Hunter S. Thompson is dead. Long live Hunter S. Thompson

Dog Bites is far too young to have gotten wasted or shot guns with Hunter Thompson, so we asked friends to remember him. Because today, during a moment of unreasonable sadness, we wished we were old, so we could have been full of life, back when he was. But it was a pretty short moment.

In the Beginning

Everybody else is partying. There sits Hunter in an easy chair, alternately gazing at the floor and into the middle distance, muttering to himself, loaded. Chuck Alverson, a buddy of mine from S.F. State and a buddy of Hunter's from their Wall Street Journal days, throws endless parties, and Hunter is a fixture. Rarely changing position or making eye contact, he tosses back drink after drink, sucks cigarette after cigarette down to the filter. Hunter is all alone.

His Hell's Angels story for the Journal -- later a book -- is regarded by us second-generation New Journalists as an instant classic of sardonic, coldblooded, fearless reporting and prose. I'm managing editor at Rolling Stone, and I'm thinking that Hunter's skew is right in step with "All the News That Fits." I ask Hunter to send me some clips; I'll connect him with RSfounder Jann Wenner. He does, and I do, a move I regret to this day.

After three years, I can't stand the idea of working another day with Wenner and quit. This leaves nobody at RS to question Hunter's escalating bullshit. (Fed up with my back talk, Wenner has decided to proceed sans managing editor.) Wenner himself is often absent, literally and/or figuratively, and Hunter exploits this opening. He files his stories at the last possible moment to circumvent anything like editing and takes sweeping liberties with -- often liberating himself from -- reality.

The result: gonzo, a mix of self-loathing fury, ripped political "insights," and pryotechnique, a sort of let's-pretend journalism. Sad stuff. Sadder yet that anybody takes this plainly damaged '60s bad boy seriously.

Consider poor Ed Muskie, blindsided to oblivion by Hunter. The Maine senator has a pretty good shot at the 1972 Democratic presidential candidacy ... until Hunter zeroes in on him, writing that Muskie is addicted to ibogaine, a slow-fuse narcotic that heightens sexual drive and desire to fevered levels.

The boys on the bus fall for Hunter's fantasia, pick it up, share it with a gullible public, and Muskie, a pro-environment, widely respected good guy who might just have whipped Nixon in '72, is dead in the water.

At a '70s writers' conference, Hunter and I are on a panel, and I ask him if he's proud of helping Nixon win. Deeply loaded, Hunter explains that he wasn't really writing about, ahhh, Muskie, but, ahhh, about America's pathological detestation of sex. This bit of gonzo showmanship generates whoops of applause.

Who gives a shit if Nixon gets another four years?, Hunter goes on. These assholes are all the same, and, ahhh, Nixon's better copy than Mr. Clean.

Hunter played his readers for suckers, chumped and misled them, and I apologize for playing any role, however fleeting, in his career. (John Burks)

Song of the Doomed

The first time I saw Hunter S. Thompson in person, he was incoherent, belligerent, and highly entertaining. It was the late '80s, and Thompson -- who shot himself this past weekend -- was speaking at the Herbst. Well, "speaking" is perhaps a misnomer: The words didn't often coalesce into sentences understandable to anyone operating on a human wavelength. Mostly he mumbled, panted, waved his arms around, and hunched morosely yet theatrically in his chair. There was no mention of gonzo journalism, but the topics, as I recall them (and as they could be deciphered), ranged from reporting on the campaign trail to shooting guns to what seemed like bragging about his own dissolution.

Back then I was living in a typical Berkeley-style communal Victorian next door to a Hare Krishna house; we called it the "Mouse House" because it had a giant head of Mickey Mouse affixed to the front. My landlord, Harold -- a photographer, raconteur, rabble-rouser, and chaste admirer of coeds -- had invited me to join him at the event. I hadn't read any of Thompson's work at the time, having grown up sheltered in San Jose, so Harold naturally thought I'd be the perfect guest. We piled into his mangy red VW van and headed over the bridge.

For me, the event was a study in the variety of places a wild life can lead. Harold was in his 50s at the time and had a head of thick white hair, a quick wit, and a seemingly insatiable appetite for house parties; he loved to bring old "mice" together to jam on countrified instruments in the front room of the house. In contrast, Thompson, who was about the same age, was bald, addled, and clearly past his prime; he still had several more books in him (including Hey Rube, published last August), but the writing made less and less sense as time went on.

We sat in the balcony and looked down on Thompson's smooth head. At one point in the talk, someone threw a clear film canister of what looked like pot onto the stage at Thompson's feet. The writer looked at it eagerly and bent slowly to pick it up, but before he could reach it a college-age handler swept in from the wings, snatched the offering up, and fled. Thompson shrugged helplessly at the audience and continued his rant. The crowd laughed and clapped -- foiled again by the Man.

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