By Ashley Beth
In this post-counter culture age, where the Druggery and Decadence of the Sixties, or as my generation sees it, the Designated Play Time our parents got to enjoy, resulted with Nixon signing a federal Controlled Substance Act in 1970; the name Hunter S Thompson seems to be an obvious one. Omniscient, even. His face on motivational posters regarding professionalism, his Johnny Depp portrayed likeness with sun hat and cigarette holder, with special appearances from Bill Murray and cameos in Doonesbury comics.
He was a Flame of Freedom at a time when Freedom seemed impossible. With typewriter and Wild Turkey in hand, he led a generation of babies created from the booming industry of the World War II effort across country to the Pacific Coast, like the Pied Piper of Professional Partying, just in time to see the Wave roll back into a span of decades where the wake of such a wave would provide enough disco room and fleeting memories and lingering Hendrix notes for everyone to cling to each swirl of smoke and live recording from Woodstock spilling through our hands as we try to cling onto those memories. You know that awesome, poignant point you are going to make as you sit in a smokey circle with your buddies until suddenly the thought slowly slips away and the more you try to chase it the further down the axion it goes until it is bureaucratically tabled in the hippocampic terminus of short-term memory loss? Ya, it must have felt something like that.
Hunter was an inspiration to many. A tall, gun shooting, walking example of permission to the Rest of Us to Live Free or Die. It is my hypothesis that these traits are what made him so memorable and why Hunter has reached such legendary status that as I type this article I am thinking about my 15 hour drive last month to celebrate the Writer Himself, in his hometown of Louisville, KY, which he shares with yet another superlative, historical figure, Mohammed Ali. Why everyone seems to have some tattoo or otherwise tribute to Hunter. Why people know where Bartsow is. Why the words “Bat Country” produce a knowing giggle from any colorful personality in a hotel room lobby or recreational acid trip. Hunter S. Thompson became the Toner which would Lift the American Spirit of the latter half of the 20th century into a Technicolor dreamcoat with cigarette burns, a sporting event ticket in pocket and ‘Hell’s Angels’ cut on the back.
But why should you keep reading past my obligatory yet generic tribute to a man who I still need to describe as ‘The Fear and Loathing guy’ at my workspace in order to gather even the slightest glimpse of recognition as to the Legend of Himself? It’s because I want to add onto the pig pile of data indicating that Hunter S. Thompson had a heavy hand in the shaping of the rebirth and resuscitation of the modern American Spirit. From your first incarceration resulting from that first rebel group of friends you made at that one party where you watched Fear and Loathing while sipping your first beer, well, right down to the Muppet Babies. That’s right. When Jim Henson created the Muppet characters in the 60s, many of them, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, came to life as satires of personalities one could find if they went to enough parties in enough cities in our tumultuous 60s Amurrica. After all, who among us does not know a diva like Miss Piggy, a nice guy who always seems to finish last like Kermit the Frog or an impulsive, primitive-brained male who is compelled to respond bellowingly to any attractive stimuli, like Animal. “WOMAN!!!!!!!!” I mean, you can almost predict what Animal 2015 would be shouting . “FACEBOOK NOTIFICATION!!” “LIIIIIKES!” “BRAIIIIIIINS!!!” ……………case in point.
And then there’s The Great Gonzo. Let’s first state the obvious token outfit Gonzo would often be featured in. Hawaiian shirt, Aviator sunglasses and a sunhat. He lived in the desert with his ‘Chicks……….’ He was obsessed with canons, launching devices and generally anything that went ‘BOOM!’ He was fun-loving, had a death wish and was often maniacal in nature. “”I shall now eat a rubber tire to the music of The Flight of the Bumblebee…music, maestro!” He was the crazy one. The one with a hair brain schemed to get the Muppets out of whatever caper they had fallen into this time and while his ideas were often dismissed as silly, he often came to the Muppets’ rescue in the end.
Jim Henson tended to type cast his Muppets. Kermit was the Hero, Fozzy Bear the right-hand man, Miss Piggy the Diva, Dr. Teeth and his Electric Mayhem served as the musical source of funkadelic beats and Rizzo and his community of rats brought up the rear as the under-served population, forever living in the sub-plot as comedic relief….and to scuba-dive rescue the sunken pirate booty in the end of Muppet Treasure Island —thank God, as Tim Curry drenches his corset in a sinking life boat.
Henson often casted Gonzo as narrator, photographer or you guessed it, a journalist. He was often interrupting important and climactic scenes, visibly annoying everyone, all in the name of capturing the moment for later reporting. Who can forget his classic screech “Say cheese!” and then the loud, victorious, “Haha!” he would exclaim. Victorious in the sense that he fulfilled his duty, with universal insight, with minimal input, and can now go back and play with his chickens.
Many Muppet viewers, myself included, identified with Gonzo. While most Muppets belonged to a certain species, Gonzo was introduced originally as a member of the ‘Frackle’ family of muppets. These characters resembled humans but often had toothy beaks for noses and were usually hairy. They later spun off into the Fraggles of Henson’s TV show ‘Fraggle Rock.’ Most of the primary Muppet cast were members of an established animal species, but Gonzo refered to himself as a ‘Whatever.’ His inability to identify with a specific animal group was often targeted as a punch line. His tone of expressing the word ‘Whatever’ was often in a “Hey, what are ya gonna do”, laissez-faire sort of manner, a method of speech Hunter often used during interviews. Ultimately, Gonzo’s ‘Whatever’ identity and his response to it, was a constant unspoken satire of the categories into which the human brain naturally wants to people, places and things.
Gonzo was the observer. He acted impulsively, clearly did not give a flying Hen what anyone else thought of him, and allowed himself to get swept up in whatever was going on in the Muppet Universe. He was often the character to explore, take risks and ultimately push himself Furthur into the realm of loud clothing, loud talking and loud behavior. He was passionate. He was generous. He was loyal. He would stop anything he was doing if one of his chickens, especially Camilla, grew upset or took a fall.
Even his tone of voice. Remember? Go back to the living room carpet, bowl of cereal in front of your crossed legs, looking up at Muppet Christmas Carol. Blink. Blink. When Gonzo started talking, he would always take a tone of profound observation as he told his stories. Often as a listener I remember thinking that the observational tone suggested that he aimed to do more than simply tell a story. I feel Henson used Gonzo’s narration as a way of making observations on the way people behaved. His choice to re-tell stories that have lasted through generations and stories that take place in Space, that Henson noticed a pattern to people that he didn’t see ending any time soon.
Hunter was indeed an observer of patterns, and often behaved in a manner that would differentiate, even at times isolate him from the group of journalists or sports writers to which he belonged. He reflected on the society as a whole but could zoom in and examine the specifics of the politics of a town like Aspen, a group like the Hell’s Angels, or a movement like the 60’s Counterculture.
Similarly, nobody could report on the shocking incidents of the latter half of the 20th century in America with the passion, wisdom and overall awe as Hunter did. Gonzo journalism is loosely defined as reporting without declaration of objective facts but more of a first-person narrative of the reporter. Hunter’s reporting on such momentous events as the Democratic Convention riots in Chicago, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and the events of September 11, carried all the weight and sentiments of being a subject in the story he was writing about his Country. He was a Patriot. Loyal to the soil that grew him, always looking towards the sky for progress, Spirit and some God damn piece and Quiet. After the precious ash particles of our blessed Phoenix rejoined the Dust of the Spirit in the Sky, we remember him as a reporter who reported the objective with the subjective. He laughed with us. He cried with us. He partied with us. He left us.
Henson was smart. He knew people’s bodies do not last forever. He did know, however, that Spirits do. Just like children’s stories do. And damn do I feel lucky to have a childhood sprinkled with that.