“We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert…when the drugs began to take hold.” – Hunter S. Thompson, July 18, 1937 – Feb 20, 2005
Fuck “Call me, Ishmael.” The first sentence of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas is the best opening line to any book I’ve ever read.
Five years ago today, Hunter penned a suicide note titled, “Football Season is Over,” and shot himself in the head. In accordance with his wishes, his remains were cremated and then shot out of an enormous cannon of his own design. Five years ago today, we lost the father of Gonzo journalism.
Hunter S. Thompson had a gift. He was one of those rare mutants he spoke of in his writing. Creatures like him are necessary to provide that first brave leap into the unknown so that other, less courageous souls can follow in their footsteps. He was journalistic evolution in action.
He threw himself into the middle of his stories, took drugs, and blurred fact and fiction so that it was hard to tell the difference between the two. His coverage of the 72 Democratic Presidential Campaign is a good example, where his reporting of Ed Muskie’s use of an obscure drug, Ibogaine, was interpreted as fact and reported by various news agencies, possibly affecting Muskie’s standings among the public. Given Hunter’s skill for weaving truth and lie interchangeably in his stories, often with a good amount of corroborating numbers and “sources” for both, I would imagine fact-checking his work to be a nightmarish prospect. He would often go way past his deadlines and then submit all at once, forcing most of the story to go through unedited.
He broke a lot of rules for writing in general and journalism in particular, creating his “Gonzo journalism” in the process. Gonzo is a type of subjective journalism where the writer is immersed in the story and uses fact and fiction to convey an overall message. You see, Hunter learned a long time ago that it was very difficult to truly report anything objectively and additionally it was not necessarily desirable to do so. At the end of the day, reporting a point equally two ways doesn’t impart anything of real value to the reader, especially if the argument for one side has much more substance than the other. The reporter and their story are intertwined and he was one of the first in the modern era to embrace it with wild abandon.
While you can see many different examples of Gonzo journalism online today, the reason it took off in the first place is because it put you directly in the head of Hunter S. Thompson. Instead of simply reading coverage of the Kentucky Derby, you could read, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” And Hunter’s head is an interesting place to be, filled with boozed up lizards, demons covered in tits, “a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers,” and brilliance. We’ll miss him.