September 22, 2007
Growing up HST: Well, did you?
Kurtz--he got off the boat. He split from the whole goddamn program.
--Captain Willard, Apocalypse Now (1979)
Thompson had a way of keeping anyone unfriendly to the very idea of him beyond even mere curiosity. Just unaware. In that case, you were a nice person doing the best you could. You didn't "need it"--anymore than you needed to become good friends with Andy Warhol, Ralph Nader, Harry Dean Stanton, or Dr. John the Night Tripper, whoever they were. --A Fan
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. Now on the stands is Rolling Stone magazine's issue "Growing up Gonzo: A Portrait of Hunter S. Thompson as a Young Man". Buy this and read it this weekend if you "know" Thompson. If you don't know him, just pass. Don't buy it. It's way too late to start. Twenty years ago, when I was an associate in D.C. sweating everything, I worried a lot about something hanging in my office: a framed black, white and red "Hunter S. Thompson for Sheriff" election poster for a 1970 election in Aspen, Colorado.
The poster bore a Harvard Strike fist. Inside the fist there appeared to be what someone explained was a drawing of a plant which bad or crazy people chewed on to "get high". But I quickly realized that anyone who actually knew about Thompson and his books and articles on presidential politics, Las Vegas and the Kentucky Derby--the event in his hometown of Louisville was "decadent and depraved"--would likely like me for having it. I was right. The poster meant nothing to most people who visited my office, and it even helped me make friends. In the 1970s and 1980s, people read and loved him or had never heard of him.
So you either "knew" HST--or you didn't. He either delighted, or was too disturbing to explore. A talented and comical writer, he drank too much, really did like chemicals, hated Richard Nixon, upset people on the press entourage, freaked out editors, showed up drunk for "speeches", and arranged for Ed Muskie to be severely menaced on a train by one seriously funny outlaw rich kid named Peter Sheridan. He liked weapons. He was accused of firing a military rocket at a snowmobile. According to a friend of mine who worked for one of the TV news networks, Thompson once mysteriously and suddenly showed a handgun to Secret Service agents and reporters sitting in a booth in a famously silly Capitol Hill singles bar, mumbling "just in case there's a firefight..."
Even with that public life, Thompson had a way of keeping anyone unfriendly to the very idea of him beyond even mere curiosity. Just unaware. In that case, you were a nice person doing the best you could. You didn't "need it"--anymore than you needed to become good friends with Andy Warhol, Ralph Nader, Harry Dean Stanton, or Dr. John the Night Tripper, whoever they were. Even after Thompson became a character in Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury, saw two movies based on his work, and died by his own hand two and a half years ago, most people didn't have a clue or want to. One exception in later years: "beer hippies" and GenX stoners finally discovered Thompson--"Gonzo, drugs, liberal stances, hey Hunter's my man"--and my guess is that he secretly looked down on them.
Well, anyone can be in his club at this point. But I needed it all along. He was an angry but fine writer, a humorist, an innovator--and a big hillbilly like me who grew up on the Mason-Dixon line and all along just wanted to fall in love. He still makes me laugh and cry.
Maybe there is no Heaven. Or maybe this is all pure gibberish — a product of the demented imagination of a lazy drunken hillbilly with a heart full of hate who has found a way to live out where the real winds blow — to sleep late, have fun, get wild, drink whiskey, and drive fast on empty streets with nothing in mind except falling in love and not getting arrested.
Posted by JD Hull at September 22, 2007 01:59 PM
I knew Peter Sheridan starting in the early 60's in DC. I think he had briefly gone to Georgetown or maybe he just faked it. I don't believe he was a "rich kid." My impression from hearing him talk about his home life was that he came from an Irish working class family in Boston. But I could be wrong -- you never knew with Peter. He definitely liked to hang out with rich people, went to Deb balls, polo, etc., and was actually celebrated by the rich who appeared to enjoy being terrorized by him. He developed a practice he called "dosing," which was to "dose" the punch bowl at formal affairs with a generous amount of LSD, a substance Peter was fond of. Peter was so unpredictable, so totally fearless, and so insanely wacky, very few people could hang out with him for long. For some reason he and I had a very mellow friendship and by the late 60's he was a room mate, but as I recall, my other housemates finally got to the point where they just couldn't deal with him anymore.
Peter was one of those people who you could just tell didn't have a real long life span ahead of him. I last saw him in the early 70's before I left for California. He was fond of motorcycles and had figured out how to stand on the seat with one foot and crouch down to grab the handlebars to steer. I heard he'd been working on the Dead's road crew, then I heard he died on PCH while riding a motorcycle. I never thought he'd make it out of the 60's alive, but at least he made it into the 70's. I think he always believed his greatest stunt of all was the one with Muskie.
Posted by: Michael Everett at January 13, 2008 01:11 PM