One of the most misunderstood men of the 20th century and a literary idol of my youth took his own life last night at his home in Colorado. Hunter S. Thompson, the good Doctor, was a conscious social critic, whose wild persona tragically out shined the breadth of his empathy and the depth of his understanding in the public's imagination.
My fondest memory of the Great White Shark Hunter, whose work I had long imbibed, was at the Beat Generation Conference at New York University in Winter of '94 or Spring of '95, I forget exactly, at any rate, sometime in the muddle of the mid 90's. I was in the press seats with my long time friends, Giles Davis and Tim "Ziggy" Brown. A number of prominent Beats and academics were on stage for a round table discussion, but, of course, the man we were there to see was in absentia. The conversation started without Dr. Thompson. Some Yalie in suit and tie was droning on about the vitality of the Beat poets in a sonorous tone that threatened to put the Starbuck's triple espresso junkies to sleep.
Then, about fifteen minutes into the discussion, the double doors at the back of the auditorium in the old student center across from Washington Square Park sprang open with a bang and two giggling idiots in cowboy hats and Browntone shades stumbled up the aisle to take the empty chairs on stage. Hunter had arrived, with no less a personage than Bob Guccione Jr., in tow. The two of them joined the table and promptly began passing a bottle of So Co and a pipe back and forth between them.
Hunter immediately took center stage and drove the conversation. Suddenly, there was vitality, not a vivsection of life, but life living and frank, meaningful talk of a life lived. Allen Ginberg wore the biggest grin I'd ever seen as he sat in the first row of the press section, just two seats in front of me. Hunter was describing the incident of the Hell's Angels hooking up with Kesey and the Prankster's and Ginsberg was kibitzing so much, the stage hands finally brought a mic to Allen so everyone could hear, not just us lucky few up front.
The interplay, the word play between these titans of a lost generation was living history, history lived, and I sat there watching them relive it all, caught up in the vivid whip crack of their intensity.
My dear friend of 20 blah blah years, got up and directed a question to Dr. Thompson and I watched as Giles nervouly addressed his idol and then as he swelled with pride, actually blushing, as the good Doctor began his response, "Well, you're obviouly a very ambitious young man..."
Everything in the room that day seemed more vibrant, more alive than everyday life and afterward, it was hard to recall exactly what was said or why it seemed so important at the time, but it did. As we left the conference we crossed the patio of the student center, where all the tables and chairs had been precariouly piled on top of each other in a spontaneous burst of creativity, whether by a single individual or a group inspired by the day, I've never known and it didn't matter. Art lived that day. In every action. In Every Person. In everything. It was a unique congregation, I was privleged to among the believers.
The old student center has since been torn down and a new building stands were the other once did. The patio, where stainless steel chairs and tables were momentarily tranfsformed into found art objects, the room in which those rich impassioned voices echoed and boomed is gone and now so are they. Yet they live in the memories of all who heard them, all who read them and all those fortunate enough to know them.
Here I'd like to quote from my attorney's blog on the death of Dr. Thompson: "Hunter S. Thompson died of a self-inflicted gunshot on Sunday. I found out about it when I got up this morning and I have been genuinely grieving all day. Others ...were talking about it and the general vibe of it was all about his persona. Not one person mentioned his writing.
I can understand it, at least partially. "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is, on casual inspection, a description of a wild, drug induced week of havoc in Sin City. However, after the title page is a quote, all by itself on the page. "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man." Now, go read the book with that quote in the back of your mind and tell me this man was revelling in the behavior.
More importantly, Thompson was a gifted writer. "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72" is a facinating, quasi-inside look at a presidential campaign and is heralded by many political commentators as the most accurate ever written. Sure, Thompson was a counter-culture icon, reduced to absurdity in Doonesbury, but, God, could that man write. Res Ipsa Loquitor (The thing speaks for itself)." - Giles Davis.
And from the Dr., himself:
"San Francisco in the middle '60s was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run ...but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that comer of time and the world. Whatever it meant.
And that, I think, was the handle--that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting--on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark--the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."
Hunter S. Thompson - "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"