HUNTER S. THOMPSON
first crossed paths with Hunter S. Thompson in the middle 60's when he was working
for the Middletown Record, a small paper in upstate NY.
was staying on the West side of Route 209 in Huguenot, NY. All that was there
was a tiny road side store called the Huguenot Superette I used to come a mile
from where I lived to the store, to get provisions for the week. The Huguenot
Superette was almost always empty, and the owner, after months of stony silence,
finally spoke to me confidentially one afternoon about seeing flying saucers and
saucer people in the field across the road, and how he had never dared to tell
anyone, except for two people. Those two people were myself and someone else he
described as that crazy writer upon the hill in the cabin close to both his store
and my place.
crazy writer turned out to be Hunter, who had moved up North to write, and to
find work as a journalist. By all accounts, he was doing excellent work for the
Middletown Record, until he left his job at the paper after attacking and nearly
demolishing the soda machine in the building where he worked, when it failed to
refund his change.
reminded of all this over 30 years later, when Louisville poet Ron Whitehead and
author and historian Doug Brinkley organized a tribute to Hunter in Louisville
in the late 90's. He and Johnny Depp, both Kentucky natives, were to be given
awards as Kentucky Colonels.
was invited to come down to organize a group of players into some kind of tribute
band, as well as create all the music for the evening to accompany readers. The
unusual group of musicians who had been asked to participate included master songwriter-pianist
Warren Zevon, the great Kentucky singer Suzy Wood and her bluegrass band, with
Johnny Depp sitting in with us playing slide guitar. None of us in our tribute
band had ever met one another, and everyone showed up at different times all afternoon,
so as I was hard at work getting this unlikely ensemble together, when a few hours
before the show, Hunter made a grand entrance into the theater.
heard his familiar staccato bellowed greetings as he roared into the backstage
of the theater, dressed like a Viet Cong paratrooper, replete with an Aussie hat,
a meerschaum pipe and a flask of fine Kentucky brew.
back here Amram after you rehearse, and we will reminisce" he said.
we finished rehearsing whatever was possible to plan in advance, I told everyone
I would give them signals, to go with the spirit of the evening, and we that we
would have no problem. They all loved Hunter and his work, and were wonderful
While the musicians
went to get supper, I went back into one of the empty dressing rooms and sat down
with Hunter. He told me how amazed and excited he was that his hometown of Louisville
was honoring him after all these years.
mother will be here" he said. "I hope she approves of my behavior. She
is a librarian as you know. She always encouraged me to keep reading all the books
I took out as a kid. I guess my early days were similar to Kerouac's. I tried
to read practically everything I could get my hands on. I always knew I wanted
to be a writer. It is so nice you all came for this, My son will be here too,
as well as old friends I grew up with."
was a real treat to be able to spend some quiet time with him, as he spoke about
all the things that had happened over the years since we first met so long ago.
As all his friends can tell you, when you were with Hunter in a room alone, he
was always acted in a completely different way then he did when a lot of people
He was often
shy, sometimes reflective, always witty, and genuinely compassionate. i saw as
i listened to him talk that over all the years, and through the turmoil of his
life, he had somehow kept his roots as a Southern Gentleman, even though in public
it was obvious that he kept this hidden from others. He indicated to me that he
found out early in life, after leaving Louisville, that graciousness, good manners
and modesty are often perceived by many as being a sign of weakness.
he found out that, to his amusement and occasional dispair, his wild, crazy and
often outrageous public persona was adored by many, and being a wild man in public
allowed him to retain most of himself, to draw upon when he retreated to the solitude
of writing each day, I think he sensed that if he really allowed others to see
him in his moments of gentility and kindness, they would be disappointed or feel
that this was an act.
memorable night during the tribute to Hunter in Louisville, there was a mini-marathon
of performances which included Johnny Depp reading Kerouac with my accompanying
Johnny, musical selections that we hoped Hunter wanted to hear, and a host of
speakers all giving their heartfelt speeches honoring Hunter.
all of this, Hunter stood off-stage by the curtain in the wings of the theater,
cradling a fog machine, taken from the wall backstage, which was supposed to be
used in the theater for emergencies to contain fires.
stood silently, crouched like a commando, clutching the fog machine as he listened
intently to the music, the readings, and every word being said about him by all
the speakers who came to pay tribute to their native son.
anyone who was giving their testimonial to Hunter began praising him excessively,
Hunter would bound onto the stage, and with perfect theatrical timing, as if on
cue, spray them with the machine, filling the whole stage and front rows of the
theater with fog, like a production of the famous Witch's Scene in Macbeth, until
they cut their speech short, all of which was accompanied by gales of laughter
and applause from even the most conservative members of the audience.
isn't the Academy Awards or a Presidential Inauguration' he whispered to me backstage,
between sprayings. "I'm simply a writer. These windbags have to learn to
cut it short and get to the point"
that night, after the music was over and the last public speaker had been sprayed,
we all went out to celebrate some more, and Hunter told me how much Kerouac's
work had always meant to him, and wanted to know how Jack could stand dealing
with the pain of instant notoriety of being an overnight success following the
publication of On the Road, which instantly made Jack the last thing any serious
writer ever wants to be: an American Celebrity i.e. a person who is famous for
being famous, rather than someone whose work is read and respected.
like Jack, always knew since he was a teen-ager in Louisville that he was a writer
and an artist first and foremost, and whatever outrageous events he took part
in over the course of his life, he always remained as serious about his work as
he was about life itself
also talked about music, writing, sports and our shared love of the South, and
the beauty of the small towns and farmlands and the old inherent values of what
seemed part of a vanishing America, which both Steinbeck and Kerouac had written
In the wee hours
of the late night/early morning, as we were imbibing in some fine
Bourbon, I reminded Hunter of the old Huguenot Superette and the flying saucer-loving
proprietor from Route 209.
remember him" said Hunter. "Does he still sell the same stale week old
loaves of bread? Is he still there? Is he still alive?"
gone now, Hunter" I said. "He has left us"
we all have to leave eventually" said Hunter. "Let's have another drink
and plan on staying around for a long time. Here's to many more. There is still
a lot of work to be done."
Hunter has left us, and it is hard to imagine an America or a world without Hunter
S. Thompson, here to keep us all in line and remind everyone of the work that
needs to be done by all of us.
he revealed in his writings the dark side of an America that no one else dared
to talk about, he was also sharing with us the story of his own idealistic love
of America and it's glorious history of liberty and free speech, all of which
seemed to be in danger of being destroyed by the criminal behavior of bible thumping
politicians who wrapped themselves in the flag, and used the horror of a senseless
war to justify their own misconduct.
believed that truthfulness and honor are the values we should cherish the most,
and that pretentiousness and lying should never be ignored or tolerated, especially
when indifference and cynicism become the status quo for people we allow to serve
us in public office or any positions of responsible leadership in our society.
said that night, as he did through the years, that the last thing he ever expected
was to become famous for what he wrote, out of desperation and disgust, in 1972,
after seeing first hand the nightmare of the Presidential campaign he covered.
He honestly thought that his 1972 reportage would be his swan song as a professional
journalist, and instead it made him a star.
would have happened if I had liked and admired the people I was writing about
in '72?" he said to me that night in Louisville. "I would have remained
an obscure journalist, if even that. The whole Gonzo thing is similar to what
I am sure Kerouac went through with the Beat thing. Putting a label on someone
has nothing to do with their work. I am first and foremost a writer, just as Jack
and all the great writers we remember today knew that they were. As a Southerner,
I was brought up with old fashioned ideals of what this country was about. I still
believe in those ideals and couldn't and never will just sit quietly by when I
see our values being trashed and desecrated by lying lizards and thieves!!"
to Doug Brinkley's brilliant editing of Hunter's letters into a major book a few
years ago, Hunter lived long enough to be rediscovered by a new generation as
one of the great writers of our time, and much a much more important artist than
the Gonzo Journalist stereotype, which only defined a part of his impressive literary
For his farewell
to us, Hunter requested that his ashes be fired from a cannon, and I am sure that
his wishes will be respected. I am also sure that all who are present at this
final ceremony will expect him to leap out with a cigarette lighter to the cannon
at the last minute, from wherever he is, to ignite the fuse himself for his final
blast off. Hunter would never let a good time pass him by.
after the final cannon shot has sounded, and his ashes have settled in the mountain
side around Woody Creek Colorado, our children and grandchildren will still be
reading those amazing books that he wrote.
the tribute to Hunter in Louisville, his son told the audience that having Hunter
as a dad was an extraordinary experience that he treasured every day. Many of
us blessed to spend time with him feel our lives will always be enriched by knowing
him every day that we did.
all should take a moment to send prayer to him for his spirit, as well as sending
our love to his family.
showed us that none of us have to be afraid, that we must persevere in life, and
pay attention to what is happening in the world we live in, just as he did, and
that we must dare to speak out and stand up for what we feel in our hearts is
honorable, decent and sensible.
he now rests in Peace, his work will always remind us that we have to remain awake
while we are here, and celebrate each precious moment of life.
Putnam Valley NY
Feb 21 2005