by David S. Wills
Music has always been a matter of Energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people will call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel.
Music is a theme that crops up throughout the entirety of Hunter S. Thompson’s bibliography. It was an incredibly important aspect of his life, and he always took the time to listen to what he wanted. Those who know about Thompson know that Bob Dylan was one of his heroes, and it is often claimed his favourite song of all time was “Mr. Tambourine Man.” But, of course, there was more. Thompson’s interests were diverse. As a teenager he loved Bing Crosby, whose “Galway Bay” was once his favourite song. He tended to gravitate towards music that reflected the world around him – from Kentucky bluegrass to San Francisco rock ‘n’ roll.
Thompson’s times were wild ones. He lived through the 1960s and 70s, fully immersed in the counterculture of the era. He lived in the Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love and watched the musicians of his generation artfully reflect their environment, like he was doing with his writing.
Indeed, Thompson respected their work as much as that of any contemporary writer. He once said, “I’ve been arguing for years now that music is the New Literature, that Dylan is the 1960s’ answer to Hemingway.”
Music was fuel for him, too. Not only did he respect these artists as fellow documenters of the world, but they meant something to him. Good music drove him onwards. It helped him write. And he loved those bands and did what he could to push their careers forward.
As Douglas Brinkley puts it,
He would do anything for the music he liked – people like Warren Zevon, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Lyle Lovett, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker; old Kentucky bluegrass masters like the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and Lester Flatt; and some blues people like Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dizon. Those were gods to him, and a lot of them were friends. He would do anything to promote their CDs, to go to their concerts, to talk them up. But his interest in rock music was not as deep as people think. Because he wrote for Rolling Stone, people sometimes think he was a big music guy. Hunter was not up on current music and didn’t really care to be. He knew what he liked: some Bruce Springsteen; Van Morrison could really get him writing. He knew Leonard Cohen songs by heart. But it was Dylan first and foremost. Any of the Dylan live bootlegs he thought was the greatest thing of all time.”
The above note is telling, but far from complete. Thompson’s favourites spanned decades and genres. He loved folk and bluegrass, but also the various forms of rock music. He was discerning, too. In Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour’s Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, Brinkley also talks about Thompson refusing to sell quotes from his writing to bands that he didn’t like. In his later years musicians would approach him and what mattered was whether or not he liked their style – not how much they were willing to pay. That is telling for a man whose life was spent chasing paycheques and fighting expenses.
In 1970, Thompson took the time to compose a list of his favourite music of the 1960s (which he posed as “Raoul Duke’s” favourite music) in a letter to his editors at Rolling Stone. The list might be surprising for readers of his work. (It should also be noted that two of these albums weren’t even released during the 1960s!)
1) Herbie Mann’s 1969 Memphis Underground
2) Bob Dylan’s 1965 Bringing It All Back Home (especially noted as “Mr. Tambourine Man” in his letter)
3) Dylan’s 1965 Highway 61 Revisited
4) The Grateful Dead’s 1970 Workingman’s Dead
5) The Rolling Stones’ 1969 Let it Bleed
6) Buffalo Springfield’s 1967 Buffalo Springfield
7) Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 Surrealistic Pillow
8) Roland Kirk’s “various albums”
9) Miles Davis’s 1959 Sketches of Spain
10) Sandy Bull’s 1965 Inventions
With that list in mind, it should prove useful to explore a few names in depth – to look closely at the relationship between Hunter S. Thompson and the music he loved.
Dylan is a goddamn phenomenon, pure gold, and as mean as a snake.
That quote says it all, really. One could open nearly any Hunter S. Thompson book and find a glowing reference to Dylan. Dylan was there throughout much of Thompson’s life, singing about the changing times and documenting the turmoil of an unjust world. Thompson loved Dylan’s work, and viewed Dylan as one of his personal heroes. In interviews with Playboy and SPIN magazine he has even gone as far as to compare himself favourably with Dylan. He viewed both of them as artists against the world; leaders of the underground.
He told Harold Conrad that Dylan was one of the three most important men alive (alongside Muhammad Ali and Fidel Castro) and went on to say,
Bobby Dylan is the purest, most intelligent voice of our time. Nobody else has a body of work over twenty years as clear and intelligent. He always speaks for the time.
Let’s see. I just got the new Bob Dylan box set from the Rolling Thunder tour from 1975. It’s kind of a big package with a book and several CDs in there. It’s maybe the best rock and roll album I’ve ever heard.
In spite of the above list, one could argue pretty vigorously that Thompson’s favourite song of all time was “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Numerous sources testify to the fact that he would listen to this song before writing, and that it was a constant force throughout much of his life. He first heard it whilst living in San Francisco – surrounded by the musical forces of his day – and would play it over his custom-made 100 watt speakers from his home in the Rocky Mountains. When his most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was published, Thompson dedicated it “to Bob Dylan, for Mister Tambourine Man.” Then, after his death – as decided decades earlier – it was the song that played as his ashes were fired from a giant Gonzo Fist at Owl Farm.
The story of an artist chasing his muse, it spoke to Thompson like no other song.
As a struggling journalist Thompson constantly wrote to his friends and family, and frequently advised them to listen to Dylan. He kept promising to send Paul Semonin – a friend in Africa – some Bob Dylan records, but of course, he kept running into financial issues. It is clear, however, that he felt Dylan’s work was important enough to spread around. When he first met the Hell’s Angels, in a story that is well known to Gonzo fans, Thompson brought the biker gang back to his apartment, while his wife and child cowered in another room. The group partied all night, with The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan providing the soundtrack to this important meeting.
In 1968, Thompson wrote a long piece about hippy music in 1967, that appears at the very start of Fear and Loathing in America. In it, Thompson first describes Bob Dylan and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” He portrays Dylan as “the original hippy,” and his song as “both an epitaph and a swan-song for the… ‘hippy phenomenon.’”
Later in his career, Thompson found himself drawn to presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. This was largely due to Carter’s famous Law Day Address, from May 4 1974. For Thompson, justice meant the world. He was obsessed with right and wrong, and about the corruption and greed that he saw controlling his country. Carter’s speech meant a lot to him, and did so partly because Carter referred to Thompson’s favourite artist:
The other source of my understanding about what’s right and wrong in this society is from a friend of mine, a poet named Bob Dylan. After listening to his records about “The Ballad of Hattie Carol” and “Like a Rolling Stone” and “The Times, They Are a-Changing,” I’ve learned to appreciate the dynamism of change in a modern society.
Thompson recorded this speech and would play it back for friends, comparing it to General MacArthur’s “old soldiers never die” address.
This is perhaps a key to why Dylan meant so much to Thompson – a man whose work is characterised by an unrelenting attack on hypocrisy and injustice. Thompson saw in both Carter and Dylan an awareness of what was truly right. Dylan was a magnificent poet, but his work – like Thompson’s – sought to frame the guilty for their crimes, to expose the rank side of modern life and explore the possibility of change.
Although Jefferson Airplane only arrives at number six on Thompson’s list of his favourite albums of the sixties, a reading of his writing from and about that particular decade would suggest that he thought about the band, and in particular their singer, Grace Slick, a whole lot more than anyone except Bob Dylan.
His sixties-era writing is packed with references to his time in San Francisco, living in the Haight-Ashbury, and frequenting the Matrix. One night he witnessed the debut of a band called the Jefferson Airplane, and immediately began telling people about them. He seems to labour this point in his letters… He sent numerous notes to people to let them know that he “discovered” the Jefferson Airplane, and that he played some role in their rise to success.
He supposedly phoned Ralph Gleason and told him about the new band. Gleason became known for championing the Jefferson Airplane and helping them reach a greater audience.
The Matrix played a large part in Thompson’s life for a short period of time. Whilst writing Hell’s Angels, he used to ride through North Beach on his motorcycle, seemingly, just to watch Grace Slick in action. He said that she “made even the worst Matrix nights worth sitting through.”
After writing the book, whilst on his gruelling publicity tour, Surrealistic Pillow was released. Thompson demanded time out from his schedule, just to listen to the record. He could barely contain his excitement.
Upon hearing the first note I smiled. This was the triumph of the San Francisco people. We were all making it, riding a magical wave which we didn’t think would break.
His favourite Airplane song was, of course, “White Rabbit,” which he listened to for years after he left San Francisco. He claimed that its sound not only captured a vibe or a feeling, but a whole generation. It was the song of the sixties, in his eyes. When asked what he was trying to convey in his own work, Thompson once played Surrealistic Pillow for his publicist and said that was it. He said, “I could’ve written these lyrics myself. Today is my time.”
In his opus magnum, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Matrix appears in a brief flashback scene to what came before the fall of the sixties. It is viewed as an example of that wave that Thompson mentioned above, as well as in a more famous segment of his book. The song “White Rabbit” also appears in the novel. In one of the book’s more memorable moments, Dr. Gonzo demands that Raoul Duke (Thompson’s alter ego) play “White Rabbit” for him:
“Let it roll!” he screamed. “Just as high as the fucker can go! and when it comes to that fantastic bit where the rabbit bites its own head off, I want you to throw that fuckin radio into the tub with me.”
When Thompson left San Francisco and moved to Woody Creek, he found himself a home away from the madness. It was a place he could come to escape the world, and to give him some sense of security.
He needed his music, though. Away from the action, he had a custom-made 100watt amp that he used to blast inspiring music out over the mountains. These songs were fuel for his writing.
He once said,
I like to load up on mescaline and turn my amplifier up to 110 decibels for a taste of ‘White Rabbit’ while the sun comes up on the snow-peaks along the Continental Divide.
The Grateful Dead
Thompson’s love for the Grateful Dead is well known. He frequently makes reference to owning at least one Grateful Dead t-shirt, and the band’s name pops up throughout his body of work. Thompson even shared the same literary agent as the band.
As mentioned his list of favourite albums of the sixties, Thompson had a particular fondness for Workingman’s Dead. He said, in a letter found in his Fear and Loathing in America collection: “I think Workingman’s Dead is the heaviest thing since Highway 61 or ‘Mr. Tambourine Man.’”
His favourite song from this album – which it should be mentioned once again was released in 1970 and is thus not really a sixties album… – was “New Speedway Boogie.” This song was written in 1969 about the death of Meredith Hunter at Altamont, by a gang of Hell’s Angels who were hired as security. It was written by Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.
Thompson once said: “…at the moment my writing room is full of ‘New Speedway Boogie’ by the Grateful Dead. It says more than anything I’ve read in five years.”
Aside from the three “Hunter’s” involved, and the familiarity of the violence of the Hell’s Angels, Thompson was probably drawn to this song as an epitaph of sorts for the sixties. Thompson’s most famous work – and the most famous passage in that work – concerns the death of the idealism of the 1960s: “the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
After the advent of Gonzo Journalism, Thompson was taken by a burst of inspiration. He had – with Ralph Steadman – taken on the Kentucky Derby in his masterful short, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” He began tossing about the idea of taking Gonzo to all of America’s grand institutions. One such idea involved the America’s Cup. Thompson wrote numerous letters that announced his plan to commandeer a sort of Freak Press yacht and sail into the midst of the race with the Grateful Dead playing on deck.
Later, during George McGovern’s run for presidency in 1972 – which Thompson documented in his classic Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 – the author tried to bring the Grateful Dead on board the democratic nominee’s campaign. In the end, Warren Beatty successfully organised a fundraising concert that included the Dead, while Thompson merely suggested that McGovern go out in public while wearing “my Grateful Dead T-shirt.”