Hunter S. Thompson: The Champion of Fun

art by Nic Price

art by Nic Price

 

by Todd Brendan Fahey
originally appeared in the March 1991 issue of Fling

I remember very crisply my introduction to the cult of Hunter S. Thompson. Having already broasted the front side of my body under a thin ozone layer one warm August afternoon in Santa Barbara, I traded my beach chair for a friend’s towel so I could lie on my stomach and read from an orange and blue paperback, which had him laughing so hard he could barely hit off the joint we were trying to finish before the locals came begging around. Ralph Steadman’s insane sketching on the cover of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had sucked me right into the rented fire-apple convertible, and into the giddy vortex where Dr. Thompson lives.

Later that afternoon, like any obsessive-compulsive personality, I drove to Earthling Bookshop and cleaned out their supply of Thompson works and began reading to the extent that I neglected basic human contact for as many weeks as it took to exhaust the six pieces of stone-madness. I became a True Believer, an historian, a collector — most likely a huge bore — emerging from literary hibernation and bringing Dr. Thompson with me to work, to parties . . . home to the folks for Thanksgiving. Dad was a bit miffed. He suffered through the introduction to The Great Shark Hunt, shaking his head spasmodically, and handed the book back to me, muttering, “Well, it isn’t James Michener.”

No. It is not. Hunter S. Thompson is a special breed, a variety of which will not likely be replicated in the near future.

Untitled

And so, when Herr Doktor’s agent informed me of an impending “nightclub act” at The Strand in Redondo Beach, I was genetically enthusiastic. I was also a bit apprehensive: the scattered reports emanating from similar gigs, from people I trusted, were not real . . . positive. The first ugly feedback came from a girlfriend of mine, who had gone to see the Doc do his “Gonzo thing” at UC Santa Barbara. The outlaw journalist, she said, staggered onto the stage and proceeded to suckle from a bottomless flagon of Wild Turkey, alternately raving and mumbling in a uniquely demented fashion until he was booed off the stage by a band of angry preps feeling cheated out of their twenty-dollar cash drain. The other, less reliable, report came from a tainted source and had something to do with Dr. Thompson, G. Gordon Liddy, a mound of white powder and a blow-up doll — but the story was too disturbing to want to verify, and so I’ll have to take my gentleman source at his word.

*       *       *      *      *      *

I jogged across Pacific Coast Highway, after eating dinner at a rustic little ptomaine palace called the Bull Pen, and positioned myself as near as I could to the Doc’s stage-table. Looking around, I was struck with the respectable outward appearance of most of the crowd — like any you might see at a Manhattan Transfer concert. I laughed nervously at the thought of well-dressed ladies paying $21 a shot to see, by his own admission, the most depraved and degenerate figure in the history of American Letters. And I was suddenly overcome with a newfound revery: I understood the perverse thrill that keeps the good Doktor from otherwise staying home at the Owl Farm, with his peacocks and a crippling agoraphobia.

LADIES…AND…GENTLEMEN, WOULD YOU PLEASE WELCOME
DR….HUNTER…S….THOMPSON, THOMPSON!

“Gonzo!!…Gonzo!!”

The audience has become frantic. The self-described Heavyweight Gonzo Champion of the World is led onto the stage by one of his beautiful young assistants — more like someone reluctant to be lowered into a pit of adders than a man confident of his universally-sanctioned title. He is a tall fellow, with the gangly physique of a longshoreman far gone into serious yoga, and he jerks and twitches in a spastic sort of kinetic motion, which gives him the appearance of a brutish marionette. A pair of grey-tinted shades shield his dilated pupils from the painful glare of the spotlights. I can hear him repeating to his assistant: “You’re going to have to help me . . . blind as a fucking mole up here.”

I could feel sorry for Hunter — for, oh, five or nine seconds — until he lifts a quart of Chivas from out of an ice bucket and pours himself a healthy glass on the rocks, and I remember, once again, that this man has had more excitement and adventure and pure notoriety than the Beach Boys, Marco Polo, and Jim Jones put together.

This is a man who talked football with Nixon, drank beers with Jimmy Carter; who covered the first Ali/Spinks fight for Rolling Stone and won all his bets. He raises high-altitude peacocks near Aspen for relaxation, plays shotgun golf on his own hundred acres: a man who calls himself “The Champion of Fun.”

“Well, shit, I’m only an hour late,” the Doc grins from behind his shades, and taps the microphone against the table — to see if it works — and nods as it reverberates in a nasty “tthhap!” throughout the club. “It’s a nice feeling to know you’re not going to have to register yourself as a Sex Offender at the airport. I can handle a lot of things, but Sex Fiend isn’t one of them.” He thinks for a second. “Even fiend wouldn’t be that bad, but a Sex Criminal is kind of degrading.”

1988: Hunter S. Thompson speaking at the Miami International Book Fair.

 

Sex & Drug Bust

Last year’s [1990] sex and drug bust is still fresh in Thompson’s mind. And even though all eight felony counts were eventually dropped — including possession of 39 hits of LSD, and assorted sticks of dynamite and blasting caps — the pain of an ugly trial lingers on. Seems an unwelcome visitor had come to Thompson’s Owl Farm one lonely evening last summer. “Gail Palmer,” he says with emphasis. “A real pig. Really. Does anyone remember . . .”

“Candy Goes to Washington!” yells a man in the audience.

“Yes! Yes! That’s it. Smart boy, wanna come up here?” Thompson nods eagerly at the empty chair at his table, but the man opts against the honor.

Tthhap!!

“The bitch almost ruined my life. Why would I want to fuck a burned-out porno queen?” he shrugs. “I was originally arrested for a goddamn third-degree misdemeanor. They called it Sexual Assault. Can you imagine that? I mean, Sexual Assault is a low-rent fucking thing.”

As he tells it, one Gail Palmer was inexplicably in Thompson’s living room, crazy with booze and carnal predilections, and wanted to hump the mad Doktor senseless in his jacuzzi. But Dr. Thompson — the gentleman that he is — refused her come-on and gingerly prodded her toward the front door . . . which differs slightly from the account Ms. Palmer gave to the police the next day.

According to Pitkin County sheriff’s records, a friend of Gail Palmer — a long-time associate in the porno industry — reported that Thompson had held a gun to the woman’s head while trying to force her into his hot-tub. The Doktor disputes the allegations: “Would I really need to do that to get her to fuck me?” But the assistant District Attorney took the call seriously enough to dispatch a squad of officers to the Owl Farm in Woody Creek.

“The police spent eleven hours in my house,” he mutters. “Eleven hours in a man’s house. I guess that’s what happens when people get the idea you’re not . . . well. . . I’m surprised they didn’t find more drugs,” he giggles. “I hadn’t cleaned my house for twenty years.”

Indeed. The relationship between Hunter Thompson, sex, and strong chemicals is so intertwined that, at this late stage in his life, the triumvirate becomes impossible to separate. He is a man fond of forming oblique associations, having spent his formative years writing about “an unholy trinity of God, Nixon, and the National Football League” — a bizarre combination which produced such Gonzo classics as Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72; and Fear and Loathing: At the Superbowl. But Thompson, Rolling Stone‘s erstwhile National Affairs Desk editor, packed up and left politics for the good life around 1976. No more cardiac arrhythmia in Washington press briefings; hello O’Farrell Theatre.

 

The Night Manager

Hunter Thompson took up residence in San Francisco’s Chinatown, in a suite “with wrap-around balconies and a deep Ginzu bathtub . . . where the management brings me eggrolls every day.” He became friends with the notorious Mitchell brothers, who took the journalist/hedonist on as Night Manager of the O’Farrell Theatre, the Carnegie Hall of Public Sex in America. Thompson became a friend to the lap-dancers, to the suppliers of dildos and ben-wa balls, cavorting at night with a head full of amyl nitrate and a heart full of hate for everything traditional under the Republican sun.

simone

Rolling Stone has never given up on its often-reluctant star writer. After nearly four years of hibernation, during which time Thompson and publisher Jann Wenner wrangled hotly over the mojo wire, then-editor Terry McDonell reached into a grab-bag of assignments and pulled out a plum scandal of sex and drugs so irresistible that Thompson, in March of 1983, went outside once again to write “A Dog Took My Place” — a blistering account of the Roxanne Pulitzer divorce trial, replete with tales of Palm Beach orgies, wanton coke snorting, and even bestiality. Thompson got immediately into character, chauffering beautiful topless lesbians around Palm Beach in a rented convertible, sniffing the Dumb Dust off the dashboard, and smiling brazenly at police, whom he called “the security guards of the rich and shameless.”

“I was in that mood,” Thompson wrote somewhere. [Fahey and his editors too lazy to chase down the reference]. “Whoop it up with the rich for a while . . . Nevermind the story. It would take care of itself.”

It was Hunter Thompson’s newfound reputation as a Player in High-Life that brought a letter to the Owl Farm from one Gail Palmer, the former porn-slut-turned-producer. Answering the letter was a mistake, Thompson says now, which would cost him time, money, and almost his freedom. The nine Felony counts totaled 54 years in a federal prison — a death sentence for the 52-year old writer. Feeling the burn, Thompson went out and hired some of the best lawyers money could buy and turned the case into a media spectacle. In the end, they broke Gail Palmer, who refused to aid her own prosecution attorneys, and the judge tossed the case out.

“They say I touched her chest,” Thompson moans ruefully. “I guess you shouldn’t push a woman, except from the back.”

And the evening goes on.

The crowd yells “Nixon!! Nixon!!

“There’s plenty of time for that,” he grins, looking at his assistant for the time, and then fills his glass with fresh whiskey and lights his trademark FDR-style tipped cigarette.

 

The Battle of Aspen

Thompson tests the crowd’s intelligence, grilling them on his recent escapades dubbed “The Battle of Aspen” by Smartmagazine [now defunct], which involved Thompson’s alleged unlawful discharge of automatic weapons in front of the home of would-be Aspen developer/greedhead Floyd Watkins. But the crowd fails miserably.

“I guess you’re not into journalism. Okay. I’ll tell the story myself.”

And he does: about how he tried to be friends with this “swine,” and how it just didn’t work out — especially not at the Jerome Tavern at Woody Creek, where the natives look to their guide as a sort of cultural divining rod. “Okay, so I was playing the fence and I fell off,” he shrugs. “I said, `I just can’t be friends with you anymore, Floyd. You’re a pig and my friends are giving me a hard time.'”

A few nights later, the police report reads, Hunter Thompson lit up the sky over Watkins’s property with a sustained burst from his modified AK-47. “The Language of the Full-Auto,” he mutters repeatedly. “Different from shotguns or bombs. Some people only understand the Language of the Full-Auto. I kind of enjoy violence,” the Doktor admits.

He is at home. The crowd cheers. “Free drinks after the show, Doc,” yells a burly, rugby player. Thompson just grins.

Gary Hart!” someone yells.

“What about Gary Hart?” Thompson wonders. “He would have been a good President . . . he just tripped over his dick.”

On Kitty Dukakis: “She was a really good advertisement for speed for twenty-six years.”

On Drinking Rubbing Alcohol: “They say the craving for speed is so bad . . . but it’s not that bad.”

On Where the Buffalo Roam (in which Bill Murray portrayed Thompson): “The movie ate shit, of course.”

Tthhap!!

“How many more minutes? Seven? Seven more minutes,” he giggles, like a child.

“Hunter!”

“Yeah. Right there. You. Yeah.”

“Do you think drugs should finally be legalized?”

“It’s the only solution,” he nods.

The crowd goes crazy.

He shrugs. “I think there will be an adjustment period. We’ll lose about half a generation at first.”

He reminds the crowd that “I am the most accurate journalist you’ll ever read.” Which is probably true, in a bent sort of way, but that hardly matters now. His handlers call it a night. He has put on a good show. He is at home: his niche carved, his cult-following happy, the show over, his fireplace in Woody Creek only a three-hour flight away and a fine story brewing in the head of a young writer he’ll probably never meet.

1977 hunter thompson-lying on couch-smoking and smiling-Gramercy Hotel-2-Edit