Reviews, articles, rants & ramblings on the darker side of the media fringe

Hunter S. Thompson – Part 2

After The Nation published the article (May 17, 1965), Thompson received several book offers and spent the next year living and riding with the Hell’s Angels. The relationship broke down when the bikers concluded that Thompson was exploiting them for his personal gain. The gang demanded a share of the profits from his writings and after an argument at a party Thompson ended up with a savage beating, or “stomping” as the Angels referred to it. Random House published the hard cover Hells Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs in 1966, and the fight between Thompson and the Angels was well-marketed. A reviewer for The New York Times praised it as an “angry, knowledgeable, fascinating and excitedly written book”, that shows the Hells Angels “not so much as dropouts from society but as total misfits, or unfits — emotionally, intellectually and educationally unfit to achieve the rewards, such as they are, that the contemporary social order offers.” The reviewer also praised Thompson as a “spirited, witty, observant and original writer; his prose crackles like motorcycle exhaust.”

Following the success of Hells Angels, Thompson was able to publish articles in a number of well-known magazines during the late 1960s, including The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Pageant, and Harper’s. In the Times Magazine article, published in 1967, entitled “The Hashbury is the Capital of the Hippies”, Thompson wrote in-depth about the Hippies of San Francisco, deriding a culture that began to lack the political convictions of the New Left and the artistic core of the Beats, instead becoming overrun with newcomers lacking any purpose other than obtaining drugs. It was an observation on the 1960′s counterculture that Thompson would further examine in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and other articles.

In early 1968, he signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War. According to Thompson’s letters and his later writings, at this time he planned to write a book called The Joint Chiefs about “the death of the American Dream.” He used a $6,000 advance from Random House to travel on the 1968 Presidential campaign trail and attend the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago for research purposes. From his hotel room in Chicago, Thompson watched the clashes between police and protesters, which he wrote had a great effect on his political views. The planned book was never finished, but the theme of the death of the American dream would be carried over into his later work, and the contract with Random House was eventually fulfilled with the 1972 book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

By late 1967, Thompson and his family moved back to Colorado. In early 1969, Thompson finally received a $15,000 royalty check for the paperback sales of Hells Angels and used two-thirds of the money for a down payment on a modest home and property where he would live for the rest of his life. He named the house Owl Farm and often described it as his “fortified compound.”

In 1970, Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, as part of a group of citizens running for local offices on the “Freak Power” ticket. With polls showing him with a slight lead in a three-way race, Thompson appeared at Rolling Stone magazine headquarters in San Francisco with a six-pack of beer in hand and declared to editor Jann Wenner that he was about to be elected the next sheriff of Aspen, Colorado, and wished to write about the Freak Power movement. Thus, Thompson’s first article in Rolling Stone was published as The Battle of Aspen with the byline “By: Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (Candidate for Sheriff).” Despite the publicity, Thompson ended up narrowly losing the election.

Also in 1970, Thompson wrote an article entitled The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved for the short-lived new journalism magazine Scanlan’s Monthly. Although it was not widely read at the time, the article is the first of Thompson’s to use techniques of Gonzo journalism, a style he would later employ in almost every literary endeavor. The manic first-person subjectivity of the story was reportedly the result of sheer desperation; he was facing a looming deadline and started sending the magazine pages ripped out of his notebook. Ralph Steadman, who would later collaborate with Thompson on several projects, contributed expressionist pen-and-ink illustrations.

The first use of the word Gonzo to describe Thompson’s work is credited to the journalist Bill Cardoso. In 1970, Cardoso wrote to Thompson praising the “Kentucky Derby” piece in Scanlan’s Monthly as a breakthrough: “This is it, this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling.” Thompson took to the word right away, and according to illustrator Ralph Steadman said, “Okay, that’s what I do. Gonzo.”

Thompson’s first published use of the word Gonzo appears in a passage in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism.”

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