Honestly, I had forgotten that Hunter S. Thompson had written for Page 2 until I watched "Gonzo," the new documentary about Mr. Duke (produced by my old pal Mark Cuban). I'm pretty embarrassed to have forgotten it; it's like I blocked it out. I suspect many of you feel the same way; those columns were pretty bad.
I did not grow up with Hunter S. Thompson as a hero. Rolling Stone was waning in relevance when I was in high school and discovering that I wanted to be a writer, but I still read it religiously. To me, in Mattoon, the magazine was a dispatch from an unexplored planet, a place where Kurt Cobain was a hero rather than the leader of that fag band that kissed each other on "Saturday Night Live." (This actually happened: I was blaring "Breed" from my 1989 Chevy Blazer while pulling into baseball practice. The starting third baseman enjoyed mocking me for "listening to fudgepackers.")
But Hunter didn't do it for me; I skipped his ramblings, partly because I didn't care about politics yet and partly because they were full of in-jokes and odd asides that were assuredly more cogent to someone who wasn't 16 years old in Nowhere, Illinois, someone who understood what the hell he was talking about.
By college, I'd torn through Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and, especially, Fear And Loathing on the Campaign Trail. I couldn't believe someone could just call the President a cocksucker; my journalism professors hadn't taught us about that. But still: I was not a heavy drug user, I had no idea who George McGovern was and I was far more concerned with getting laid than getting close to comprehending the American Dream. (No matter; I was unsuccessful on both counts.) Hunter S. Thompson was an icon, sure, but he didn't seem to exist on the same plane of reality as I did. I was hardly alone there.
In August 2000, I was working for Novix Media, a soon-to-be-dead dot-com company that, at the time, was still pretending to be an actual media company. My co-worker, Eric Gillin, was in charge of the political "channel" of the site, which was a challenge, considering our tech staff had yet, four months in, to figure out how to load a story onto the Internet. Eric was tired of waiting, so he, on his own, hacked in and launched a site called IssuePaper.com, which was charged with covering that year's Presidential election.
This year, politics is surrounding us, invading everyone's mental space, but in 2000, if you remember, it didn't appear the stakes were that high. Gore wins, Bush wins, who cares, they're all the same asshole. But Eric was undaunted, and he somehow talked our nearly broke investors (which included, oddly, Billy Baldwin, who once came into the office and attempted to talk me and a fellow 24-year-old that Wilson Phillips was "totally making a fucking comeback") into paying for a crosscountry trip, from Philadelphia, where the Republican Convention was, to Los Angeles, home of the Democratic Convention. Eric said I was his favorite writer on staff — which should tell you something about the quality of individuals Novix Media had assembled -– and asked if I'd come with him. I said yes. It was free.
We were going to make a few stops along the way. The itinerary: Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Littleton (the Columbine shootings had just been a year earlier) and Las Vegas. We weren't sure what we were going to write about; those just seemed like places were things happened.
Two weeks before we were supposed to leave, one of our investors called us into his office.
"Do you guys have any interest in meeting Hunter S. Thompson? He's an old friend of mine. He might give you guys a sit down when you're near Denver."
Gillin wet himself, and, being the go-getter Hunter worshipper he was, within two days he was on the phone with Hunter, arranging the trip. I sat two desks down, listening to Eric try to remain calm.
"Uh-huh … yessir … I'm sorry? OK. Flares? Parachute flares?"
Hunter said he would grant us an audience if we brought him a rare form of parachute flares explosives form a shop in midtown Manhattan. It is a gleeful reminder of how ridiculous the dot-com era was in New York that they let us buy them using a company purchase order. They also rented us a car. I was 24. Eric was 22.
Two weeks later, we were at the Woody Creek Tavern, terrified, and Hunter hadn't even shown up yet. We were told he would come by the bar -– which was decorated with Hunter memorabilia -– and have a few beers with us, let us interview him and then send us on our way. We had other plans. Our next stop was Las Vegas, and we fancied ourselves Mad Great Journalists. We were going to try to talk him into coming with us. We were very, very stupid.
After about an hour, Hunter roared up on his bike. Eric's bobbing leg was actually shaking the table. He came down off his bike looking like the world's most fervid, energized feeble old man. He looked so much older than we were expecting. I can't imagine how young we must have looked to him. He ordered a round – Wild Turkey, of course – and flirted with the waitress, like he surely did every day. We started our tape recorders, but before we could begin the "interview," Eric excused himself to go to the restroom. He might have been throwing up; I've never had the intestinal fortitude to ask him.
The second Eric walked away, Hunter turned to me.
"That guy makes me nervous. Glad he's gone." Hunter was Eric's hero.
"Oh, he's fine, sir."
"Do you see any pigs?"
"Pigs. Cops. Police. Do you see any anywhere?"
I didn't see any. "Uh … no?"
Hunter then pulled out a chewing tobacco canister and unscrewed the lid. It was full of cocaine. Call me a Mattoon rube if you'd like, but it was the first time I had ever seen cocaine. I suppose there are worse circumstances to be introduced.
He then took a full thumb-finger pinch worth and shoved it up his left nostril. He inhaled quickly, sporadically, like a cat with a crushed lung. He then looked at me.
"Moderation," he said.
I stared at him and tried to chuckle knowingly, as if I were not seeing cocaine for the first time, as if that cocaine was not going up the nose of one of the major icons of the 20th century, right in front of me. This happens to me all the time. You go.
He looked over my shoulder. "Shit, your friend is back. Be cool."
We ended up heading back to his house, where we met his two assistants. One, he had just shot. The other, he would marry within a year. We talked about the election, I guess, and he asked us to explain our Web site to him. He then asked us to read his own writing aloud to him. I did not understand why he asked to do this, but I did it anyway, because he was Hunter S. Thompson and he had just given us hashish. He and Eric eventually got along OK.
I'd like to say he was a fevered, inspirational dervish to the both of us, but that's not true. Mostly, he just seemed like a sad old man, stuck in a role he invented for himself but would never be able to escape. It was depressing, even for a 24-year-old who hadn't done shit, to see an American journalistic titan reduced to asking two stranger kids –- children, really –- to relive his great moments for him, moments that were long, long gone. When we left that night, driving to Las Vegas straight, we broke our slackjawed silence only to mock him, to vow that would never happen to us.
Watching "Gonzo" last night, seeing those last days, when Hunter was trapped playing the part of "Hunter," typing out limp retreads of his blistering early work, I was struck with how much we were the problem. Not just us. All those who met with the Good Doctor to tell their friends about it, to share Crazy Hunter Thompson stories. All those editors who let him get away with anything, especially toward the end, when there was nothing on the page but a legend trampling on himself, because that was all he had left to do.
And yet, as the movie points out, he had one last great piece in him. His piece for ESPN, after September 11, pretty much nails every single world event that was going to happen over the next seven years, events he would blissfully miss out on. At the time, when I read that column, I hated it. I didn't want to hear about wars and rantings and warblings; I just wanted to drink and hit my head against things. But he was right. It still feels a little bit like Hunter. Even if ESPN was just letting him do whatever he wanted, because, Christ, Hunter S. Thompson is writing for us. Even with assholes like us, dropping by, trying to live off the old man for a while, get a story they can tell people in a blog seven years later, feel cool. We were all making it worse. We were making the old man dance for us. And he did.
And still, inspired by the movie last night, I went back and read some of that old ESPN stuff. It's not Hunter, and it rarely makes sense … but you know, it still ain't half bad, at the end. It still tried to live.
He didn't have anything left, but, dammit, even his nothing had something.
Explosives For Hunter: A Black Table Retrospective [The Black Table]