Thompson adopted the word after receiving letters hailing his coverage of the Kentucky Derby, a piece he considers a “botched assignment,” as a breakthrough in journalism.
“If I made this breakthrough,” Thompson said, “I had to call it something, so I liked the word ‘Gonzo.’ It had a nice crazy zing.”
Thompson’s first taste of notoriety came with Hell’s Angels, a report on the infamous motorcycle gang (“60 percent cheap trash,” a gang member calls it when confronting the author on television). It didn’t make the bestseller lists, but it got him on What’s My Line, the popular TV show where a panel tried to determine which of the three mystery guests was the person they all claimed to be. “Will the real Hunter S. Thompson please stand up?”
The real Hunter S. Thompson stands up in this documentary, but too often he sits down, a figure as puzzling at the end as he was at the beginning.
It was his work for Rolling Stone, the voice of the counterculture in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that made Thompson and his “Gonzo” brand famous. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his most popular book, was first serialized in the magazine’s pages, and was followed by his coverage of the 1972 and 1976 presidential campaigns.
“There was no one quite like Hunter,” conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan, then a member of the Nixon administration, remembers. “It was on the edge, and beyond the edge, and it was very funny.”
Radical though he was, Thompson did not genuflect and plant sloppy wet kisses on those revered by the left. “Hunter did some of his best work on liberals,” recalls Buchanan. Though he championed George McGovern and, later, Jimmy Carter, Thompson loathed liberal icon Hubert Humphrey. “There is no way to grasp what a shallow, contemptible, and hopelessly dishonest old hack Hubert Humphrey is,” Thompson wrote. If Humphrey was “treacherous, gutless,” Thompson reserved his most vitriolic attacks for Richard Nixon who “speaks to the werewolf in us on nights when the moon comes too close.”
Before his suicide in 2005, Thompson spent most of his final two decades trying to live up to, and possibly live down, his reputation which by then was based less on his literary achievements than his eccentricities, his fondness for drugs and guns. Gibney’s documentary fails to explain the demons that drove Thompson, a man who once told his friend, artist Ralph Steadman, that he would feel trapped if he couldn’t commit suicide at any moment.
Thompson committed suicide in 2005, and while his words survive (read throughout the film by Johnny Depp), the image of the shotgun-blasting madman is more accessible in this post-literate age. It looms large in this film, dwarfing his actual achievements.
The trouble with being a famous “anti-Establishment” figure is that it requires recognition from the very Establishment one is up against. Ultimately, they define you. Rolling Stone is now as much a part of the Establishment as Time and Newsweek, and like them, its days would seem to be numbered, hence its continued pandering to the baby boom generation with which it came of age (all those Dylan covers, and soft-cover books about the best of this and best of that). It still pushes a liberal, or “progressive,” agenda, but there are now those of us wise enough to see that the whole “right versus left” battle is an illusion, a show to deceive the masses and prevent them from noticing that the same puppeteer pulls the strings on both. Maybe Thompson got wise himself in the end, and that, as much as anything, may explain his decision to bow out.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson is worth seeing, but its subject remains a mystery.
© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks