The Doctor is Out: Hunter S. Thompson

Dr. Hunter S. Thompson“True gonzo reporting needs the talents of a master journalist, the eye of an artist/photographer and the heavy balls of an actor. Because the writer must be a participant in the scene, while he’s writing it — or at least taping it, or even sketching it. Or all three,” said Hunter S. Thompson of the brand of journalism with which his name was synonymous.

Indeed, Dr. Thompson had thrown down the gonzo gauntlet — heady stuff when I was a young Lumaville newspaperman. The narrative style, the experiential element, the release of the first-person from the cage of objectivity were the principle inspiration for my own bastard invention — Blonde Journalism — wherein I recounted my attempts at getting laid in Lumaville (see my Dateline Lumaville column, from November 17, 1999, in which I venture into the field to track the spread of “sexually transmitted ennui” http://daedalushowell.com/kron.html ).

These kiss and tell columns were popular with the townies, some of whom would scour the callow text for their own bold-faced names (or at least the nom de guerres I’d appoint them) to count the dwindling degrees of separation between us. A closer reading, however, would reveal a couple of lifts from Thompson’s own oeuvre — as it’s been said, “imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism.”

A line of Thompson’s that has found its way into my columns on more than one occasion first appeared in a piece he wrote for the San Francisco Examiner called “Saturday Night in the City” (reprinted in “Generation of Swine”) in which he cajoles a colleague into getting a tattoo for the sake of a news story and his looming deadline. After the girl is indelibly inked and Thompson files the few hundred words soon line the city’s birdcages, he justifies the whole sleazy scenario with his deadpan “We are, after all, professionals.”

The line resonated with me particularly since I had just gone pro myself (my press pass and union pin always at the ready), and I gleefully paraphrased it as “After all, I am an accredited representative of the media.” The notion has remained something of a mantra for me and has gotten me cheekily through such low calorie assignments as wine country film festivals (where I see more wine than films) or when being wooed by PR sirens during fashion week in Vegas this month.

Though the term “Gonzo” is often attributed to Thompson, it was actually coined by Boston Sunday Globe reporter Bill Cardoso to describe Thompson’s work. Cardoso borrowed it from the slang of South Boston where it referred to “the last man standing after a drinking marathon.” Unfortunately, the last man standing often gets stuck with the tab and Thompson paid for his gonzo legend not just in the hard currency of brain cells but also in how seriously he was regarded as a member of the fourth estate. It is with a little squeamishness that I learned that Thompson’s last gig was filing online columns for sports website ESPN.com, a far cry from his alma mater Rolling Stone, but probably restful work for a 67 year-old journo who had long ago secured a seat in Valhalla.

“Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality,” Thompson penned in an essay collected in 1979’s “The Great Shark Hunt.” “Weird heroes and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of ‘the rat race’ is not yet final.”

GonzoSurely Thompson recognized that he himself had become a “weird hero,” if not to the counter culture at large then to every first year journalism student who sat bleary-eyed in front of a laptop after their first binge drinking experience. Thompson must also have been aware that fostering such a legend brought him precariously close to self-parody, to being a cartoon (literally, in the case of Doonesbury’s Duke). This possibility was furthered when he was portrayed by professional clowns Bill Murray and Johnny Depp in the films inspired by his work (Thompson kept up with at least one of his doppelgangers, see his final ESPN.com “Shotgun Golf with Bill Murray.”) But then, Thompson was journalism’s court jester, a niche role he devised for himself and elevated to kingly heights. His reach is perceptible still, from j-schools where Thompson is required reading to the blogosphere, much of which owes a genetic debt to gonzo principles.

In the early 90s, before I went legit as a newspaperman, I published the satire tabloid SCAM Magazine, an inky humor rag, which was, as the motto went, chock full of “lies, fraud and scandal.” Sometimes a year would pass between issues and at least two of the four editions (numbered 1, 9, 11 and 12 to suggest “lost issues”) included reprinted transcripts of Lenny Bruce’s stage act, which I had acquired by the bushel from Bantam Books. There was also a mock obscenities trial penned by Geoffrey B. Cain that featured your humble narrator mired in a sex imbroglio involving a “crotchless monkey suit.” Cain’s obvious genius notwithstanding, content was not king at SCAM Magazine and I decided we needed to tart the paper up with some high profile interviews. Thompson’s outsized persona, of course, seemed like a natural fit.

A bit of legwork led me to one of Thompson’s regular haunts, the Woody Creek Tavern in Woody Creek, Colorado. I was instructed to call the bar and ask for the Sheriff. Once I was connected to the Sheriff, I was told to make the rather arcane inquiry “Is the Doctor in?”

The call went about like this:

Ring, ring.
Voice on other end: “Tavern.”
Howell: “Uh, the Sheriff, please.”
Short pause. Ruffling — the sound of a receiver being switched from one ear to the other.
Same Voice on other end: “This is the Sheriff.”
Howell: “Hullo, Sheriff.”
Sheriff: “Hello.”
Howell: “Is the Doctor in?”
Long pause.
Sheriff: “Who’s askin’?”
Howell: “Daedalus Howell, SCAM Magazine.”
Sheriff: “Uh-huh. Hold on.”
Through the muffled receiver:
Sheriff: “Hey Doctor, got a kid named Doodles from Scum Magazine on the line. Is the Doctor in?”
A voice rumbled from the background.
The Doctor: “Fuck no!”

(I still have no idea to whom I had actually spoken.)

Sadly, the doctor is out. For good. A self-inflicted gunshot wound retired his byline to the annals of history, odd terrain for so vital a personality, but a place where perhaps he can be better understood — or perhaps not. As Thompson wrote in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”: “History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of ‘history’ it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.”

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