by Conrad Reeder – Contributing Editor
Two people couldn’t have been more different or were they?
John Denver and Hunter Thompson were both residents of Aspen, Colorado. Both of their dads were in the military, but a similar trajectory stopped there. John became known for writing love songs and Hunter became known for writing, well, Hunter.
They may not have had much in common, but writer Steve Matty told me they were drinking buddies sometimes at the Jerome Hotel bar, aka J-Bar, in Aspen. John kept a stash of expensive whiskey under the bar (that, I did see). And Matty was a poet laureate holding his own posse at his place in Woody Creek just down the road from Hunter’s. He was my eyes on Hunter.
Matty worked several decades for John Denver (and other entertainers) on and off the road which is how I met him. I sang with John on the road and in the studio from 1982 until his plane crash in 1997, and I spent a lot of time in Aspen, mostly at John’s guest house.
John and I wrote songs together and he recorded one. But in all that time, I never saw Hunter in the flesh—even when I stayed in Woody Creek at another friend’s place. Of course, as a fan, it would not have been cool to embarrass myself and bother Hunter.
I was always uncomfortable when fans flocked around John. Why would I subject Hunter to that? No way would I have had the nerve to speak to Hunter. And why spoil my hero worship by meeting him? What could I say that would even invite a conversation? Hi Hunter, I lived down the road from Louisville when I was 18. Yeah, right.
Being a late bloomer in worldly things, I didn’t discover Hunter until the 80s when I was in Maui and this drummer friend of mine handed me The Curse of Lono. I was hooked and read everything he wrote.
Hunter influenced my writing so much that when I had a real by-line in real magazines in the 90s and people asked about my influences, I’d characterize my style as Hunter Thompson meets Erma Bombeck. Edgy. Satire. On the edge of insanity.
For me, Hunter was the buzz around Aspen and the news from Steve Matty. Hunter and his guns. Hunter’s fight with the locals. Hunter and his peacocks—the peacocks that would disappear into the woods. Matty told a story about Bob (Dylan) calling him and Neil (Diamond) to ask about Hunter’s birds.
We’d smoke fat honkin’ joints by his (Neil’s) pool and talk about French poets a lot, then ring up Dylan to check and see if we were on the right track. Bob would just say, “Quit askin me stuff like that. And, do you guys know anything about peacocks???” Why Bob?? Is NBC buggin’ you?? He’d laugh at that one. But later on when he found out that Hunter had a brood of birds, he sheepishly asked, “He doesn’t let em in the house, does he??” Which meant, Bob did. tee hee… Matty (For The Life Of Me. sjm 2004)
Then there’s the story about Hunter shooting icicles off of a cabin John had rented near Woody Creek. John was not amused. They did not share a love for shooting guns. But they did share a lot of the same ideas about politics and I believe John would have agreed with Hunter when he wrote:
The real power in America is held by a fast-emerging new Oligarchy of pimps and preachers who see no need forDemocracy or fairness or even trees, except maybe the ones in their own yards, and they don’t mind admitting it. They worship money and power and death. Their ideal solution to all the nation’s problems would be another 100 Year War. Thompson (Kingdom xxi)
John performed his song, What Are We Making Weapons For? in the USSR and the US with nukes locked and loaded and pointed at each other. (Actually, they still are.) Who is even trying to say that now? He got Russian officials to sign a cultural agreement that allowed Billy Joel to perform there the next year. It was a gutsy thing to do during a particularly tense period in the mid 80s.
And trees. John loved trees and not just the ones in his yard. One of his last projects was sponsoring an organization to plant trees. John and Hunter were both planters of ideas.
When Hunter died, Matty gave me the report. Apparently, Johnny Depp had trouble getting permission to shoot Hunter’s ashes out of the cannon even though it was on Hunter’s property. Once again, the locals were objecting to Hunter and yet another gun, a really big gun, which is probably why he did it. His last “eff you” to certain locals he liked to annoy.
In the end, Matty said Depp greased somebody’s palm and it was a huge noise. That was it. Hunter won. A few months later Matty crashed into a tree winding down a mountain road in his pick-up truck. No alcohol involved. A heart attack suspected. He was 54.
Matty, Hunter and John loved words and getting into the minds of people with their words, if only to see a reflection of themselves and their own thoughts, as any wordsmith knows.
And if millions of people get it, even better. On that, I believe John Denver and Hunter Thompson would also agree.
August 21, 2021