Archives For hunter s thompson

“Telling All The Road”: Re-Reading On the Road as New Journalism


From On the Road’s initial publication in 1957 to the release of its original scroll manuscript in 2007, the most persistent issue critics have faced when discussing Kerouac’s most well-known novel has been first establishing it as something that’s worthy of criticism at all. In a 1974 essay, George Dardess cites Norman Mailer’s dismissal of Kerouac as a writer who lacks “discipline, intelligence, honesty, and a sense of the novel”. “Why do students still want to read Kerouac,” Joshua Kupetz quotes a colleague in another essay on the novel in 2007. The rebukes of On the Road – that it has no structure, no definitive ending, is incoherent, and only works as a pop-culture relic – have endured along with the work’s popularity. But perhaps most problems reading On the Road exist because this real-life tale, the story of Kerouac and his friend Neal Cassady, is not best served by seeing the work through a literary lens, but instead by embracing the idea that On the Road occupies a unique space between memoir and fiction. More accurately, On the Road is a story that fits into a literary genre that would eventually become New Journalism, a style of non-fiction writing that’s characterized by literary gymnastics and intense, immersive reporting delivered to the reader through the subjective prism of the author’s own point of view. Continue Reading…

American Mutants Spawned in the Bunker

Originally published in Beatdom #14, and excerpted from the forthcoming memoir/scrapbook, Don’t Hesitate: Knowing Allen Ginsberg ’72 Through ’92.


Allen Ginsberg invited me to see William S. Burroughs in January 1977, when I was visiting NYC. As you may know, Burroughs’ residence at 222 Bowery was nicknamed The Bunker. It was a converted YMCA, with literally no windows and a shiny steel door. The walls were painted white with tiny minimalist art, like that of his old colleague Brion Gysin’s.

I thought it was definitely a great space and safe shelter, then and now. Various young people were hanging out with Bill at a big table like you’d see in a conference room, like James Grauerholz, his longtime secretary and then-platonic companion. Burroughs was extremely gregarious in this environment – a few drinks in him and some weed, and he became a hilarious story teller.

I told Burroughs that I had a dream about him where his face was covered with tattoos like Quequeg in Moby Dick, and was wearing a Hawaiian shirt like Hunter S. Thompson, and also looked like Thompson, which was not a stretch. In the dream, he told me he was a master of Peruvian magic. Burroughs didn’t seem to like the Thompson part, scowling slightly as I told it, but then leaned forward and said, “I am a master of Peruvian magic, my dear.”BurroughsOnBowery-frames

I told Burroughs about this great sci-fi movie called They Came From Within – released as Shivers in 1976 – that reminded me of his work, where man-made parasites (looking like a cross between a penis and a bloody shit) turned you into an insatiable sexual zombie. It was actually David Cronenberg’s first feature, made fifteen years prior to his Naked Lunch adaptation.

Burroughs presented me with a signed copy of a recent chapbook. As we began slowly gathering ourselves to leave, I had the idea to use Burroughs as the subject for a rephotography film experiment I was considering. I talked to James out of Bill’s earshot and asked what he thought. James went off to Bill and came back with a “yes.” We’d meet for breakfast at a diner the next day and shoot Bill walking around the neighborhood.

The next morning, accompanied by my old pal, Richard Modiano, I went to the diner armed with my Bauer Super 8 and a primitive cassette tape recorder. But when we met, Bill was considerably more reserved, stiff, and looked a little hungover. Still, he was friendly in an otherworldly sort of way. He was also most definitely a good sport.

I turned on the cassette player, thinking I’d use it for background to the film. Our discussion turned to film itself, and I made some mention of Godard’s maxim that every camera angle was a moral statement.

To move the camera or not to move the camera,” said Bill. “Right,” I answered. It turned out to be the only remotely audible section of the entire tape, which was mostly a cacophony of restaurant background noise. I later used these two sentences as a loop for the film, though there were only a few mortals who could recognize the words.  Basically, Bill then took a walk around the neighborhood and I filmed him.

Later, I intercut the then rephotographed footage with fragments shot off the TV from Monster Zero, From Russia with Love, and White Heat. I also shot some peep show gay porn right off its rear-projected screen where fellow film student Craig Baldwin worked. Some cruising cat wanted to join me in the booth. I declined.

The San Francisco State University Film Department had this device where you spooled the Super 8 through and it would show up as a TV image, a sort of pre-VCR device the industrial world used that would allow cheap screenings of Super 8 training films. I had been introduced to this device by Craig (he was later to make the great Tribulation ’99: Alien Anomalies Under America), because it allowed all kinds of crude rephotography off the TV screen, going in for close-ups on what was originally a full shot, and filming second and third generations of Super 8 footage. Craig was a big influence, cementing an interest in found footage and deconstruction of image. He lived in this big ramshackle house on Andover Street in the Mission. It would eventually be condemned, with problems like a giant broken hole in the bathroom floor into the apartment below, covered with a sheet of plywood.


Blue first Burroughs walk?

saucer-ray-crowd water

gun window


saucer take-off



spider face-end


— found poem of my own scribbles: how to edit Burroughs on Bowery.


I finished the work print in my graduate film production class, having a terrible contest of wills with instructor-filmmaker Karen Holmes. She gave me a C in the class and a D in the unit lab, basically because I wouldn’t do what she said. I had been used to a great deal more freedom and empathy in my undergraduate years. They were the worst grades of my entire film school career.

I continued working on Burroughs on Bowery, finally finishingand screening it for students and faculty for the San Francisco State Film finals. In those days, they would post how everyone voted. Three-fourths of students and faculty voted against including it. I was devastated but took the print to Naropa University in the summer of 1978 when Allen invited me out.

AllenX--RayBurroughs had this cool queer secretary at Naropa, not James Grauerholz but a new kid named Cabal, dressed in thrift store New Wave – literally the quintessence of “skinny tie band” as the disdainful punks of the era referred to this refined look. I had never seen it before. Extremely short fifties hair, top button of thrift store collar buttoned, black skinny tie, natch, and a small lapel button like a Vote Ike sort of political button, only it was just a solid color with no words of any kind – a no-slogan button. Wow! This guy was one cool motherfucker. Here I was with my Jackson Browne hair and this cat was the next thing, like an alien off a space ship or some warp into the future – the new X-Man, baby! He also wrote prose that closely resembled Burroughs’ cowboy porn, The Place of Dead Roads (as Burroughs would later jokingly refer to the dismal stretch of Highway 5 between Oakland and Los Angeles). Years later I heard he was a little tyrant at the Bunker, bringing friends home to fix while James tried to shoo them away. Our little tyrant apparently told James off – he was Burroughs’ lover now, not James – as recounted by my ex-junkie pal who’d shot up with Cabal.

A teaching assistant, as per Ginsberg’s request, arranged the 16mm projector I needed to show Burroughs on Bowery to Burroughs. Cabal slipped on some white cotton gloves he’d picked up from an editing bench (this was the audio-visual classroom), prompting Burroughs to say, “Interview with the Vampire, my dear.” I struggled a little getting it threaded. Outside Burroughs apparently asked Richard if he smoked. He wanted a cigarette although he’d quit and then Richard came back in to the room with the projector and said, “He’s getting restless.” Fortunately, I then had it and finally showed the movie to Burroughs, who chuckled enthusiastically throughout with his characteristic Renfield/Dwight Frye close-lipped “mmmmm, mmmmm, mmmmm.” They say that closed lips make for a sinister laugh. They’re right. “Great film, Marc,” said Bill. The truly great thing was that I’d always thought the movie was very funny myself, but this seemed lost on virtually everyone who saw it. I remember asking my older brother if he thought it was funny. “In a psychotic sort of way,” he had replied.

Anyway, better to please Burroughs than the entire S.F. State University Film Department, fuck those motherfuckers.

Burroughs invited me and Richard over to his apartment. He offered me a vodka tonic which I first turned down. He frowned so I took it. Gun magazines littered his place. We hung out, made small talk, and sipped our drinks. Cabal was there too and joined in the drinks and pot smoking. It was actually a pleasure to talk in a low key way with the old man. I was just glad it wasn’t awkward.

Costanzo Allione, Italian documentary filmmaker and future husband of meditation teacher Tsultrim (nee Joan Rousmaniere) Ewing, (They met here for the first time), was shooting what became a great film on ’78 Naropa – Fried Shoes, Cooked Diamonds. Beat translator Nanda Pivano came along. She was the connection between Allione and Ginsberg, and had set up this meeting in Ginsberg’s apartment. Allione was in Allen’s apartment with his crew catching the conversation of Burroughs, Timothy Leary, and of course Ginsberg himself. Part of the time, I was also running around with a Super 8 camera making what would become my short collage, American Mutant. Gregory came in with his 16mm camera and announced, “I’m gonna shoot everybody’s feet,” and proceeded to do so.  The film crew caught me over Burroughs’ shoulder.

The New Wave hip look came up again when this interesting queer had wrangled his way into Allen’s kitchen to hang with Leary. The guy had a weird sort of glam look, not quite on the money with it – but he was clearly not a hippie even with Prince Valiant hair – maybe it was vague eye make-up or his clothes, but it was some different quality that was glitter queer like the New York Dolls (whom I didn’t even know about yet and were actually straight anyway).

“What do you think of Crowley’s Book of the Law?” he asked Leary. “Not much,” Leary replied. That was interesting, since he had said in his writing that he considered himself to be carrying on where Aleister Crowley left off, and the queer had just mentioned Crowley’s most important work. It was fairly clear Leary felt no need to be consistent about anything. Ginsberg made some reference to me being of the David Bowie generation, and Leary said, “He isn’t Bowie, this guy is Bowie,” pointing to the glam queer. Well, he had that sorta right, and I duly noted it, even if Bowie had moved on to his Thin White Duke persona already – which was more like Burroughs’ Naropa secretary. I wanted to be like Bowie or Burroughs’ secretary, if not this glam queer, but not some old hippie, definitely, not anymore.

As for Leary’s lack of consistency, Allen and I were talking with him and Allen made some reference to his claim that LSD could cure homosexuality. Leary said, “Oh that was Ram Dass, not me.” Apparently colleague Richard Alpert a.k.a. Ram Dass had once wall-papered a room with Playboy centerfolds and attempted to reprogram himself with a massive dose of LSD. Remembering how astounded I was by porn when on mescaline at age sixteen (vaginas like the mandibles of strange alien fauna); I could guess this hadn’t worked out. After Leary left, both Ginsberg and I recalled that Leary had made such pronouncements in the past, particularly in a Playboy interview. Ginsberg wondered if they’d done something to Leary’s brain at Folsom, since Eldridge Cleaver had also come out of there as a “Mooney,” a follower of Sun Myung-Moon, the self-proclaimed Korean Christian Second Coming; Cleaver later identified himself as a Republican. During Leary’s Folsom stay, Tim started talking extensively about outer space travel, and in particular about alien contact, but dropped the alien bit very rapidly – a wise move, to be sure. Dolphin scientist John Lily had completely discredited himself once he began about his alien chats on LSD. Tim’s new slogan was SMI2LE, “Space Migration/Intelligence Squared/Life Extension.” He was also saying “Stamp Out Death.” Burroughs was actually intrigued, since he saw little hope for the planet.

I think it was this same conversation with Leary about the Book of the Law and homosexuality that included one of his typical quips that if Buddha was back today he’d be a molecular scientist or one of the Bee Gees. He also referred to Ralph Nader as an ecological fascist, which really bugged Ginsberg. “Now stop that!” he actually shouted, adding, “What does that mean, anyway?” Leary quickly backed down and said it was his position to be provocateur, not necessarily believing what he said; just stirring things up. A good gig if you can get it.

Burroughs had already shown the proper way to handle a .357 Magnum borrowed from student poet Richard Roth, drawing “the correct way, not the bullshit way they do it in James Bond.”

One morning, I got up and saw them both brushing their teeth in the bathroom mirror, both naked. Leary was tall with a basketball gut. He saw me and gave his characteristic conspiratorial wink. Tell me life isn’t a dream.

I finally started to really physically crash from the Ritalin and profound lack of sleep that everyone seemed to run on while partying at Naropa, with Allen at the head of the list. I was upstairs lying in bed when Allen came up and said, “Burroughs and Leary are downstairs!” “That’s ok, Allen. I’m tired.” “You’re missing all the good parties,” he said.  “What’s the matter, you depressed?” I was depressed, and hated that he could see it. It was one of those depressions where you know that what’s going around you would be the envy of many, but it wasn’t working for you. I really just wanted a girl like in the movies. That’s why they call it samsara, or as my dad’s favorite reference, “the vale of tears.”  Nobody gets what they want. Poet Amelie Frank later saw me brooding on a couch in a scene from Fried Shoes and said, “the little pouter.” Bingo. By the way, my traveling companion Richard Modiano is in the movie throughout, way more than me, and he’s probably one of the least ambitious people I know. More proof of Buddhism’s sensible irony in a brutal world. Cue that Buddhist monk with the tennis racket drum we kept hearing all over the place.

BURROUGHS_ON_BOWERYSo in my American Mutant film, Leary was a CIA government official (when I asked him to be in the movie he was doubtful until I told him he’d be playing the head of the CIA), Allen some sort of Tibetan Mutant King, and Burroughs had already shown the proper way to handle a .357 Magnum borrowed from student poet Richard Roth, drawing “the correct way, not the bullshit way they do it in James Bond.” When I tried to direct Burroughs a little more closely, he said “I am not an actor.” Apparently he changed his mind, given the number of roles he wound up playing on screen, though arguably they were just about as demanding as what he did for me. Leary was even harder to direct – he kept looking in the camera and grinning idiotically. “That was great, Tim, but ah… could you not look into the camera next time?” Tim announced he always looked into the camera and smiled. It was a rule of his. “Well, if it’s a rule…” I trailed off, obviously disgusted. “Oh fuck it,” he said, and did it my way. I think I may have spared the directors who later used him (as in Wes Craven’s Shocker, of all things – good movie, odd choice for Leary).

I tried to persuade Gregory Corso to take a part as a sci-fi gangster. I had a .45 replica BB gun for Gregory but when I talked to him he was very hungover, saying with disinterest “Guns are bad karma, man.” I shrugged and his toddler son Max escorted me to the door, slamming it behind me while shouting “Get out!”

Leary came back from a meeting with Allen’s Tibetan Lama, ChögyamTrungpa Rinpoche, expecting to be recognized as some sort of colleague, it seemed. Instead he was made to cool his heels in what he described as a dentist’s waiting room, and when he was finally allowed to see Trungpa, all that the Lama said was “stay out of trouble,” seemed good advice to me.

On Bitch Magazine’s Response to Joan’s Death

One of our readers, Devin Fahey, recently posted a link to the Beatdom FB page. The link was to a provocatively titled article in Bitch magazine, “A Great Artist Kills His Wife—Now She’s Just a Quirky Footnote in His History.”

The article itself is partly a response to reviews of Barry Miles’ excellent biography, Call Me Burroughs – a much-needed update on the life and times of one of America’s most controversial writers. The author, Leela Ginelle, argues that these reviews cite Burroughs 1951 killing of Joan Vollmer Adams as the most important event in the author’s life, while also pointing out that Miles calls the incident “clearly an accident” and that Burroughs and his fans have made it part of the author’s personal mythology.

In other words, killing his wife is part of his appeal as an author.Mexican newspaper cover, WSB Joan death

Or, at the very least, something insignificant in the light of his literary contributions.

Now there is something to this. Ginelle is correct in pointing out that we overlook domestic violence in our male heroes. Indeed, we overlook flaws in many historical heroes. And were we to attack Burroughs alone, his late-60s misogyny is probably – in my opinion – the greater target.


Ginelle says that we need to “reevaluate” the incident. Well, the importance of Miles’ book – and my own, from last year – is that Burroughs legacy is being constantly reevaluated. The killing of Joan Vollmer Adams, however, is something that has been studied over and over. She goes on to suggest that Burroughs’ killing of his wife was a part of his apparently on-going domestic violence, and that we overlook this because he is “cool.”

I disagree.

Burroughs never shied away from his culpability in the killing of Joan, although legally he was let-off. He may have helped turn it into part of his mythology, but that’s more due to his lack of promoting the incident. For years it was too painful to discuss, and even later on it troubled him immensely. Besides, to suggest that it was cold-blooded murder is irresponsible.

There are many aspects to the case. For one thing, no one really knows what happened. Joan appears to have possessed a death-wish. She seems to have goaded Bill into playing William Tell. Does that let him off? No. It was still a stupid thing to do, an unnecessary risk. If she didn’t, then she agreed to it. It was a game, a party-trick, and thus an accident. He lived the rest of his life with the agony of having accidentally killed the woman he loved.

To suggest that his books don’t deserve their fame due to this event is absurd. Literature is literature, regardless. If Burroughs had killed her on purpose, out of spite, in a genuine act of domestic violence, it would still not detract from the artistic merit of his work, although it would certainly make him a less likable character – and he already had his flaws.

It’s an old argument. Should we value the work of a monster the same as the work of a saint? What people like Ginelle fail to observe is that there are no monsters or saints. There are a humans and there are – sorry, Bill, I know you always said the opposite – accidents. Look back through history. Our greats were full of flaws. That applies equally to men and women. To suggest that their flaws render their gifts meaningless is ignorant at best.

Now, as for Joan…

Is she a sidenote? Yes, sadly. By all accounts, Joan was a phenomenal intellect, a pivotal character in the formation of one of the 20th century’s most important literary movements, and a fascinating person deserving of more attention. But was she consigned to sidenote status because she was a woman? Did it happen because she was killed by her husband in an event that led him to literary glory?


Joan Vollmer Adams, brilliant though she was, did write great books. Like Burroughs, she got into drugs and went too far too many times. She was a free spirit, an embodiment of Beat. There are many male figures who remain sidenotes in Beat history, but we don’t ask why – it’s because they didn’t have the same output as Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg. It’s not sexism, it’s just that to be a great writer, you have to, y’know, write stuff… and great stuff at that.

But unlike Burroughs, she did not become a great writer or artist. Had she written novels that changed the culture and law of the Western World, perhaps she might have had dozens of books written about her life. But she didn’t, and I don’t think that her untimely death made that so.

Perhaps it was sexism. Perhaps the male-dominated culture of the day made her feel she couldn’t write a book… But I doubt it. Joan was headstrong. She was a tough, independent, ferociously intelligent woman that did whatever the fuck she wanted, and unfortunately she went too far. If she wanted to write a book and publish it, she would’ve done, and the hell with anyone that got in her way. Her life is what Burroughs’ life could easily have been. He was unpopular, gay, an addict. He had his problems – more of them than most people will ever fortunately know – but for whatever confluence of reasons, his problems developed into literature, and Joan’s into self-destruction (and I’m talking about her physical and mental state prior to the shooting).

By all accounts she “deteriorated.” I note a trace of sexism in the biographies when they talk about her beauty fading. But in all aspects she was falling apart. Before her death she was a shadow of herself. She had fallen apart. She wanted to die. Perhaps had history gone differently – had the bullet taken a different flight – she may have lived to create, but we’ll never know. If she had shown no inclination until that point, it seems unlikely. Life was tougher on the female Beats. The movement was about freedom, and while the men had to fight for theirs, the women had a much greater struggle. But some people are artists, and others muses. It has nothing to do with gender, but in this case it was Bill who was to be the artist, and Joan the muse.

Ginelle is correct in observing societal forgiveness of “great men,” particularly in their treatment of women. For one rarely noted example, I would cite Hunter S. Thompson. His fanbase is similar in some regard to Burroughs’, and as such their is little condemnation of their sexist attitudes. But I think that in this case, Ginelle is arguing a silly point. Joan’s death was an accident, and it contributed to the rise of William S. Burroughs, the writer, but it was not an intentional act of domestic violence which consigned her to obscurity, and which is forgotten and forgiven by all.

So let’s cut it with the sensationalist headlines (clickbait, I believe is the new word) and meaningless criticism. If you have a feminist website and want to go after Bill, there’s plenty of material there to criticize. No need for this sort of trash.

Beatdom #7 on Kindle

One of our most successful issues of Beatdom was the 7th, released way back in 2010. This was the music-themed issue, and contained some wonderful essays about the influence of music on the Beats, and the influence of the Beats on music. (You can read more in our archives.)

Beatdom #7 has long been out of print, but fear not – it’s back to life on Kindle! That’s right, since Beatdom #10 we have been using Kindle to digitally distribute our magazine, and very slowly we’ve released Beatdom #9 and Beatdom #8 on the same format.

Now Beatdom #7 has joined the list. Take a look:


Fact & Fiction on the Campaign Trail: The Politics of Hunter S Thompson

I might not get the date right once in a while. I try to be more accurate than other journalists, which is not that difficult. You have to distinguish between what happened and what the situation was.

You can’t be objective when you’re dealing with passionate situations, politics and so forth. I guess you can, I never have. For instance if you were objective about Richard Nixon, you would never get him or understand him. You had to be subjective to understand Nixon. You have to be subjective to understand the Hells Angels.[1]


A Strange and Terrible Transition


Following the publication of Hell’s Angels, Hunter S Thompson had earned the respect necessary to write for The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Pageant and others. Then, with the publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1972, he cemented his own strange reputation. Between these major events, he began to write for Rolling Stone, who would publish serialisations of his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the original articles that became Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. His articles for Rolling Stone documented his running for sheriff of Aspen on the Freak Power ticket, and many of his other crazy escapades. Jann Wenner recalls Thompson’s first appearance at Rolling Stone’s headquarters as wearing a perm wig and carrying beer, suggesting again Thompson’s desire to making an impression.

So by the time Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 was published, Thompson was a legendary figure in his own right, with notoriety rivalled by no other journalist. It became difficult for him to attend press conferences, because the questions would inevitably be aimed at him, while his ‘fortified compound’ in WoodyCreek became a point of pilgrimage for fans.

There was no doubt then in the minds of his readers, and even in the minds of those who had never read a Hunter S Thompson book, that his life was exactly like he presented it in his novels. And it is with this infamy that a new era emerges in his writing, marking a shift from an exploration of events through the presentation of himself as the comical centrepiece and the event or idea as the background, to direct character assassination and the use of his notoriety as an angry man to bend the truth openly to present a feeling that captured a person.

It appears that after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas his work becomes more journalistic, yet less accurate in many ways. He takes on politics, especially following his unsuccessful sheriff campaign, and does so as a reporter. His adventures become second string to the action on the political circuit, yet the action on the political circuit takes place through his warped eyes.


In 1968, Thompson was invited onto Nixon’s campaign bus, and told that he could talk to the politician about ‘nothing but football.’ Nixon was well aware of Thompson’s reputation as a sports reporter and football fanatic, and the two apparently talked about football for some time. This conversation suggested to Thompson that Nixon’s brilliant understanding of tactics and plays allowed him manipulate everything to his political advantage.

Later that year Thompson went to Chicago to cover the Democratic Convention and, despite his press credentials, was beaten by police batons and thrown through a plate glass window. Thompson claims the event turned him into a ‘cold-blooded revolutionary’.

The two events are pivotal in Thompson’s writing career. The first introduced him to his nemesis, Richard Milhous Nixon, the man with whom Thompson became synonymous, and the second was a personal encounter with the injustice of state oppression.

Of course, if we are to ignore the fact that these events are known because they were described by Thompson himself, then we can take them as keys to his shift in style. His apparent intimacy with Nixon allows him to tell us things about the President that are never proven and explained in great depth. And Thompson’s style of reporting from this point on becomes significantly more vulgar as he begins to insinuate and make unfounded and comical attacks on politicians, unprovoked seemingly, as perhaps unprovoked as his attack by government forces in 1968.

[1] Bulger, A., ‘The Hunter S Thompson Interview’ CultureMarch 9 2003

The Rum Diary and the Youth of Hunter S. Thompson

One mustn’t forget, in looking at the works of Hunter S Thompson, to go back and visit his first book, which was ‘lost’ for decades until its eventual publication in 1998. This is different from Thompson’s other books in that it was a genuine attempt at a novel, with a plot and stories that didn’t necessarily happen to the author in real life, but were merely inspired by his surroundings. The book predates Gonzo and Thompson’s journalistic innovations, and comes from the period in his life when he was just another writer, trying to cut it working for a newspaper, and trying to write novels like his idols – Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Yet, even in those early days, Thompson was mapping out his future. According to David Hamilton’s memoir of his meeting with Thompson in South America, the young man was talking about journalists as participants and even actors, helping the events around them to unfold, rather than noting them as an outside.[1]

One can certainly see the early signs of what Thompson’s writing would become, though it never began to peak for another decade. As William Kennedy said,


The tools Hunter S. Thompson would use in the years ahead — bizarre wit, mockery without end, redundant excess, supreme self-confidence, the narrative of the wounded meritorious ego, and the idiopathic anger of the righteous outlaw — were all there in his precocious imagination in San Juan.[2]


Although one could claim any Thompson book to be a novel, due to the dubious claims and distorted versions of true events, The Rum Diary is almost entirely fictional. It is, however, based on the world around Thompson at a certain time. In 1960, prompted by a strange friendship with William Kennedy, and the appearance of his friend Bob Bone, he took a job at a magazine in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The magazine, however, didn’t turn out to be ‘the Sports Illustrated of the Caribbean’ that Thompson expected, and he was trapped in Puerto Rico, writing about bowling, for bowlers. He was not happy.

Thompson found himself living in a beach shack, in some strange paradise. However, the work was demeaning. Thompson’s ego at this point in his life was incredible. He wrote intolerably high-minded letters to publishers and editors, and yet was somehow employed by a low-class bowling magazine, doing nothing more than jamming bowlers’ names into print.


They were introducing bowling to Puerto Rico. I had to go out and cover bowling every night in San Juan. Bowling was going big. Bowling alleys were popping up everywhere. What could you say about bowling?…But about half my work was making sure every bowler in San Juan got his name in the magazine…ever since then I’ve hated the world of bowling.[3]


To keep himself interested, Thompson was writing mediocre travel pieces for newspapers across America, and wrote a few pieces for bigger publications. In between, he earned work as a male model.

Soon, however, Thompson persuaded his old friend Paul Semonin to come to San Juan. Semonin landed a job at the Star, and rented a better place with Thompson, outside the city. Soon Sandy Dawn Conklin, Thompson’s common-law wife, was living in the crowded beach hut. She was Semonin’s ex-girlfriend, and the couple’s nudity and outward sexuality made for an uncomfortable stay.

During this period, Thompson published another piece, this time for his hometown newspaper, which had for the duration of his stay listed him as Caribbean correspondent. The article was about Semonin, describing him as a wandering Louisville son in the Caribbean, honing his skills as a painter. However, the article was completed fabricated, in no way endorsed by the subject, and contained quotes from Semonin that had never been uttered. Semonin was enraged.

Soon after this, Semonin and Thompson were arrested after a dine-and-dash attempt, and spent part of a night in jail, before being rescued by Kennedy. It was all Thompson’s fault, and he played out the whole affair as a theatrical farce, calling the police Nazis, and again enraging his friend.

By the time that Thompson escaped Puerto Rico (through an attempt to get to Europe, but only making it as far as Barbados) he had the idea of a novel in his head. The idea resulted in The Rum Diary. This novel drew heavily from his experiences in Puerto Rico, but was not entirely autobiographical.

He wrote the novel between California and Colorado in the years following his departure from the island, but it was only following the success of his collections of letters that Thompson thought to look back at his old works, at his fiction. When he did, he found The Rum Diary as a thousand-page manuscript. He cut six hundred pages and the result was a pleasant surprise for him and for the critics, who were expecting an embarrassment.


But how much of The Rum Diary was truth, and how much fiction? Ralph Steadman, his old friend and the other half of Gonzo, said that, ‘It was him again, doing an assignment in Puerto Rico, doing small-time journalism.’[4] Indeed, it’s easy to see that the surroundings in the book match other accounts, and the character of Paul Kemp doesn’t differ too greatly from that of Hunter S Thompson, but this was a time when Thompson was a young writers with his sights set firmly on writing novels, and his life acted as inspiration. Perhaps The Rum Diary is a novel like On the Road was a novel, just a cover for a twisted reality. Or perhaps it was indeed a novel in the tradition sense, and Thompson’s imagination had been set into action by his experiences as a struggling journalist.

The novel starts with a description of the setting and background, and quickly moves into what is effectively the story of Paul Kemp’s departure from New York. This doesn’t exactly fit with the story of Thompson’s departure, but it’s possible to see Thompson in the protagonist as he speaks in quick, sharp bursts of angry speech. “You rotten old bastard,” tells an old man after the guy almost sits on Kemp’s typewriter. One hardly needs to stretch one’s imagination to see any incarnation of Thompson in this situation, responding in that manner.

When Kemp arrives in San Juan, to write for the San Juan Daily News, we are presented with a deviation from the truth, in that Thompson clearly arrived for a job at El Sportivo. But this is what The Rum Diary is. It is a novel heavily influenced by Thompson’s time in San Juan, but not specifically about it. It is a re-imagining of the period.

Soon Kemp is talking with Bob Sala, the staff photographer, who asks the newcomer why he came. ‘A man could do worse than the Caribbean,’ Kemp explains. Sala disagrees, and soon the novel departs from the brief glimpse at paradise, and enters the murky world of professional journalism. Kemp realises he has walked in on a bunch of drunks, with the good writers and good people dropping like flies.

From there on the novel details the racial tensions that Thompson experiences, and the run-ins with the law. Sex is thrown into the deal, whereas it seems to be missing from so many of Thompson’s books. This was clearly inspired by Thompson’s relationship with Conklin during her time inSan Juan.

[1] Hamilton, D., ‘In an Innertube, On the Amazon’ Michigan Quarterly Review 29 (1990) p. 382

[2] Backcover blurb of The Rum Diary

[3] Thompson, Gonzo Papers, Vol. 3: Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream (Simon & Schuster: 1990) p. 65

[4] McKeen, Outlaw Journalist p. 340

Fact and Fiction in Fear and Loathing

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is now generally considered a work of fiction. It is the work for which Hunter S Thompson is best known, for which he receives the greatest praise and parody, and about which the most debate exists. It’s the book that inspired a generation of wannabe Gonzo writers, sent idiots armed with quotations to hassle Thompson wherever he went, and made the author a public enemy and the biographer of modern America. It was his On the Road. None of his other books contained such excess, madness and brilliance. He incriminates himself, sends each and every reader into shock and fits of uncontrollable laughter, and sums up the death of hope for the American Dream as eloquently as any great writer.

It bugged Thompson to see idiotic kids running about in Hawaiian shirts, sun hats, sunglasses, smoking cigarettes from long holders, pushing their poor imitations on MySpace forums and quoting passages from FLLV about bats and drugs… Suspiciously, only the quotes used in that unfairly derided movie starring Johnny Depp… It’s the book that hardcore Thompson fans pretend is their least favourite of his, but which was deservedly the book that earned Thompson his place in the canon of Twentieth Century American literature.
Dr Gonzo

The creation of the book came with Thompson’s attempt to write an expose on the death of Ruben Salazar. In order to interview his source, attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta, the two escaped the racially heated tension of Los Angeles and went to Las Vegas to cover the Mint 400 for Sports Illustrated. The job was meant to be a simple process of writing copy to accompany a series of photos, but Thompson began writing notes for a book about the death of the American Dream. The Salazar piece was written for Rolling Stone, while Thompson wrote the manuscript for Fear and Loathing in his spare time. Sports Illustrated ‘aggressively rejected’ Thompson’s article on the Mint 400, which by the time he submitted it, had spiralled to ten times the desired word count.[1]

The best way to understand the book is to read Thompson’s Jacket Copy for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, as published in his collection, The Great Shark Hunt. Here Thompson describes his views on the book, stating the result was ‘a failed experiment in gonzo journalism.’[2] However, this doesn’t mean that Thompson necessarily viewed the book as a failure, but rather that he envisioned the literary genre of Gonzo, set out its principles, and then failed to achieved what he’d set out to accomplish. He wanted to record events exactly in his notebook, and then publish the notebook, much like he claimed to have done with the ‘Kentucky Derby’ piece. However, he ended up editing and writing frantically, and the result was the book.

The statement that the book was ‘a failed experiment in gonzo journalism’ implies that he intended the book as purely journalistic, but that it failed. Whether it failed as journalism or as his particular and intended form of journalism is unclear. However, he precedes the statement of Gonzo failure with musings about Faulkner’s notion of good fiction being more true than journalism. Thompson argues that both fiction and journalism are ‘artificial categories’, and then gives up trying to explain, resorting to an explanation of his own hybrid theory of Gonzo. Certainly, the mention of Faulkner’s idea is a suggestion that perhaps Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was more a novel than a work of journalism, but that given the subject of the novel was the end of the drug decade and the American Dream, then the loosely autobiographical nature of the text qualifies the novel to a status of accurate depiction more appropriate and comprehensive than any work of pure journalism could have achieved.

So there we have the story of a journalist failing to report his story, written by a journalist failing to report his story, with the result being a novel more accurate than any journalism, and taking into account, and beautifully describing the state of the era and the death of an idea…

So then Thompson accurately described a generation, a time, an event, and a host of ideas. But the book itself was about the story of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo, based on Thompson and Acosta, going to Vegas to cover the Mint 400. How much of their bizarre and illegal actions actually occurred?

Certainly, the framework of the book was invented during Thompson’s rewriting of the original notes that he believed would be published raw and unedited as his intended version of Gonzo. Whereas he wanted everything as it happened, jotted down and accurate, he later resorted to changing the chronology of the events, having over a month of action crammed into a few days. For example, the race and the narcotic convention took place over a month apart, with the Mint 400 starting on Sunday 20th March, 1970, and the convention on 25th April. However, certain truths do hold up to scrutiny, as Debbie Reynolds indeed played the Desert Inn the weekend of the race. And his description of the topless dancers at the Circus Circus holds up to historical study, too.[3] Thompson later stated, in his Rolling Stone interview with P.J. O’Rourke, that time in the novel was unclear and insignificant, and that moving the two events closer together really didn’t matter.[4]

It’s very possible that Thompson invented much of the action and dialogue in the book, as any novelist would, to convey the ideas he wanted to convey and to entertain the reader. Two drug-addled maniacs on the loose in a city of people as depraved and ignorant as the maniacs certainly sets an interesting premise for an indictment of Las Vegas, and of modern American greed and affluence. At the same time Thompson was having his characters live out the dying days of the hippy generation, when drug use was widespread, and by having his characters embody the hedonistic madness, he could pass comment on the death of the sixties idealism.

Yet knowing what Thompson was like as man, it’s hard to believe everything that happened was fictional. Indeed, Thompson himself has never claimed the work to be entirely factual, but it was always a given that he used language to make things sound a little more exciting. He was notorious for showing off and getting in trouble, and while he probably created many of the incidents as foregrounding for the espousing of ideas, it’s unlikely that much was created solely in his head. In the BBC documentary, Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood, he says: Raoul Duke ‘was a vehicle for quotations nobody else would say… that was me really talking.’[5]

Getting back to Thompson’s own explanation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it’s again hard to take anything as definite truth. The piece was written some six months after writing Fear and Loathing, and that was back in the days before fame and the security of being respected. Thompson’s credentials then relied on his talent, his intelligence, and his bad-boy reputation. It was the insanity that sold the copies, and the genius that got the reviews. Yet those were dangerous times, and admitting entirely to the actions contained within the book would have been foolish. He never denied nor fully owned up to what allegedly happened in Vegas. What he writes is about having fun in Las Vegas, suggesting strongly that he did do all the things Raoul Duke did, without directly reference any specific action. However, he then states ‘Only a goddamn lunatic would write a thing like this and then claim it was true.’[6]  This suggests either that the work was so obviously fictional and barely based on any form of truth that it would be idiotic call it journalism, or, more likely, that it would be foolish to own up to the realities of the text, but that Thompson didn’t mind implying that what happened accurately depicted.

Even twenty-five years on, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Thompson is coy with his explanations of ‘the Vegas book.’ ‘”A work of the imagination” was what [Random House editor] Jim Silberman came up with. Of course, it didn’t stick. We went to “nonfiction,” which led to it being categorised as “sociology.” As far as I was concerned, I was writing what happened to me in Las Vegas. It was just in the gonzo thinking, taking it one step further.’[7]

Certainly he sought some infamy after writing the text, first chastising the editors of Sports Illustrated for passing up his piece, telling them they had ‘set in motion a fantastic mushroom… When you see the fireball, remember that it was all your fault.’[8] Then he told the story of his rejection, repeatedly calling it ‘aggressive’ and changing the alleged desired word count and the number he supposedly sent the editors.

Thompson then sent his manuscript to Tom Wolfe, telling him it was largely written in ‘an all-night drink/drugs frenzy’ and later edited together in a hotel. Thompson then informed Silberman that he was not on drugs while writing anything to do with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and that the book was rather ‘a very conscious effort to simulate drug freakout… I didn’t really make up anything – but I did, at times, bring situations & feelings I remember from other scenes to the reality at hand.’[9] This is perhaps the most telling and convincing explanation of the composition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as it allows us to combine the knowledge that we have of Thompson – that he was a crazed drug fiend and a professional and intelligent writer. He was professional enough to produce a book drawing upon his drug experiences as a front for exploring the Death of the American Dream, a theme he had been trying to write a book about for years. In the end, the chaos of the story became significant in itself, and one must wonder whether Thompson deliberately created or recounted the madness as a reflection upon society, or the loss of any meaning in that still-chased fantasy. Bruce-Novoa, claiming that Thompson’s work was essentially fiction, stated, ‘Gonzo fiction becomes a metaphor for the chaos of the American dream… [it] is fiction at work to produce that “truer reality” Faulkner sought.’[10] John Hellmann thought similarly of the comedy of the book: ‘The exposure of American values as self deceptions, has so long been typical of modern American literature, the search for those ideals can no longer be taken seriously.’[11] In other words, perhaps Thompson wrote his ridiculous parodies and comedies as a mockery, not necessarily on a person or group of people, but rather of the American Dream and American values.


Drugs certainly are what gained Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas its notoriety. Those who know nothing of his work are aware of the book and the film and all the illegal substances. Yet only Thompson and Acosta knew the truth behind the story in regards drugs. We can pick apart names and places and dates, but the drugs are something different, and we are pretty much reliant upon later interviews with Thompson to gain and insight into how much of it was true.

In one sense, it’s all true, in as much as the book is about Thompson looking at the world around him, with a head full of drugs. His perceptions may have included hallucinations, but he recorded them as accurately as he could, and in that sense, what he saw was reflected in the book. He may have used comedy and exaggeration, but he wrote about what he saw and thought.

But did he take what he said he took, and does it matter? No, it probably doesn’t matter because he used drugs as a device. Indeed, they were instrumental in the creation of the book, but also a literary tool. Thompson claimed drug logic took him from LA to Las Vegas, propelled the story as one long act of drug logic, and then helped and hindered him in writing the manuscript. They provided the plot and the style of narrative. They acted as a view to the counterculture, and as a way of highlighting the nature of the non-drug taking world.


The important thing in Hunter’s life, actually, is seeing that great country… go down the drain. The drugs play a part in it, it’s only another way of twisting the mental image… Maybe he needed something to speed himself up, to keep going, I mean in a way as a kind of dedication, just in order to see what he wanted to see.[12]


If we are to believe that Thompson and Acosta took massive quantities of various substances during their trip, which we should, then that brings us to the question of whether or not Thompson accurately reflected upon the experience. He told O’Rourke, in the Rolling Stone interview, that remembering and adequately describing a drug experience was one of the hardest things he’d ever done.[13]

This interview, ‘Fear and Loathing at 25’ allows us perhaps the reliable source of information about book from the author, as so much time had elapsed since its publication that Thompson really had nothing to prove. He was established and successful, and had nothing to hide nor gain in revealing the truth. Whereas in the ‘Jacket Copy’ piece, he wished to boost his reputation, but also had to avoid bringing the wrath of the law upon himself and Acosta, here Thompson discusses the circumstances of its conception without such motivation.

When discussing how much was true and how much was fabricated, Thompson mentions ‘imaginary alligators’. Obviously such things were hallucinations, but they were, as O’Rourke comments, ‘real imaginary.’ That is to say, what Thompson saw may not actually have been there, but he saw them nonetheless, and wrote about them. Therefore he accurately and truthfully recorded a trip. His thoughts were wild and absurd, but he really did think them.

The actual physical drugs, as mentioned earlier, probably existed, but we must consider how much Thompson exaggerated or hid, and how important this is to the text. If he exaggerated for theatrical or comical effect, and the drugs were merely a device, then it’s not that important, but would certainly push the labelling of the book closer to the fiction category. But it’s hard to say for sure what exactly was consumed.

The book famously begins with unrepentant drug use, and soon sees the description of the drugs allegedly consumed throughout:


We had two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.[14]


Thompson follows this description with the claim that all of it was collected in one night of furious driving around Los Angeles. Knowing Thompson through his work and the testimony of those that knew him, it’s easy to believe that he could have owned and consumed all of this, but it’s harder to believe that it was all gathered in one night. This claim sounds more like a method of setting up the story – an early introduction to the carnage and depravity. Whether it’s true or not, we know from reading this that the protagonists are heavy drug users, and in some kind of rush.

Thompson liked to set himself as a device within his writing, whether as a pillar of relative normality in Hell’s Angels or a lost and confused reporter in ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas it seems that he took a role similar to that of ‘The Kentucky Derby’ and added more drugs to reflect upon the world around him and the death of something that had for a long time been mired in drug talk. The drugs worked for him, and although he may not have advocated them to others, they were an essential component of his greatest book.

One of his most famous drug references was the passage in Fear and Loathing with adrenochrome. To see the importance of Thompson’s description upon the history of the drug, and the relative lack of knowledge surrounding it, one must simple Google it. There is very little known about the substance, and it remains uncontrolled in the United States. According to Terry Gilliam, director of the movie, adrenocrome was an invention by Thompson, and consequently both the book and movie portray a fictional drug.[15] However, unknown to Gilliam, but presumably known to Thompson, the drug exists. Its effects, however, are known, and the method of its production is fictionalised in both the book and the movie. For a start, adrenochrone is produced not through the extraction of a human pineal gland, but rather through the oxidation of epinephrine.[16] The effects of adrenochrome are also debated, as some scientists believe it to be hallucinogenic and others don’t. Perhaps Thompson heard of the drug through Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception.

[1] Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time (Picador: London, 1979) p. 114

[2] Ibid

[3] F. Andrew Taylor, The City: In Search of Thompson’s Vegas, from, 1997

[4] O’Rourke, P.J., ‘Fear and Loathing at 25’, Rolling Stone, November, 1996

[5] Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood

[6] Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt p. 116

[7] O’Rourke, ‘Fear and Loathing at 25’, Rolling Stone

[8] Back of ’72 book

[10] Bruce-Novoa, J., ‘Fear and Loathing on the Buffalo Trail’ MELUS 6.4 (1979) p. 43

[11] Hellmann, J., ‘Journalism and Parody’ p. 82

[12] Steadman talking in Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood

[13] ‘Fear and Loathing at 25’

[14] Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream

[15] Gilliam, T., ‘Director’s Commentary’, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

[16] MacCarthy, Chim, Ind. Paris 55,435(1946)

Strange Rumblings on the Way to Las Vegas

Ruben Salazar was killed by a police officer on August 29, 1970. The journalist was killed in unusual circumstances on the day of the National Chicano Moratorium march and rally against the Vietnam War, and soon became somewhat of a martyr for the repressed community.

Hunter Thompson covered the story for Rolling Stone, in the article, ‘Strange Rumblings in Aztlan’. This article is the first real introduction of Oscar Zeta Acosta, and it was during the writing that Thompson and Acosta took their famous trip to Las Vegas, which resulted in the novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.

‘Strange Rumblings in Aztlan’ is all too often overlooked by fans of Hunter S Thompson. It doesn’t really conform to the stereotypical Thompson piece of writing that those who’ve only read the famous books will know. Thompson appears in the book, with Acosta, but there is little in the way of goofing around. It’s not quite Gonzo, and it’s not as wild and crazy as what Thompson was known for, but ‘Strange Rumblings in Aztlan’ might well be the best piece of muckraking journalism that Thompson ever managed to assemble.

The story appealed to Thompson, unsurprisingly, because of the sense of hopelessness and injustice perpetrated by the authorities. He said the story had ‘all the proper hooks for outrage’.[1] Thompson had never been able to sit silently while such things happened, and this case seemed to him to be a great opportunity to expose evil deeds. However, it may come as a shock to some readers to see Thompson striving always for the truth, rather than taking the sense of injustice and using his words to convey it. He never gets fully behind the Chicano claim that the white authorities were silencing a Hispanic reporter, and he doesn’t necessarily try to support Acosta’s claims. Instead, he lays them out and confirms or denies them, adopting the technique he used in Hell’s Angels. As a result, the article takes the form of an obituary, an investigation, and a study of the violence and racial tensions prevalent in the Chicano areas of Los Angeles at the time. Consequently, whilst Thompson does manage to take his usual shots at the police and the media, he casts a critical eye in the search of truth rather than mocking and accusing his enemies. He takes the police accounts and discredits them, and although he goes into detail in regards the charges of the militant Chicano community, he does not necessarily take their arguments as truth.

The result is a serious piece of journalism with elements of Gonzo inserted for mild comic relief. Thompson remains the narrator and a participant, but unlike ‘The Temptation of Jean-Claude Kily’ and ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’, in ‘Strange Rumblings in Aztlan’, Thompson takes a much harder approach. Obviously his contempt for injustice saw him strive for something more than the thrown-together madness of his recent work, as he returned somewhat to the style of his South American reportage.

While he does come clean about his prejudices against the police and his scepticism over the death of Salazar, as well as his sympathies towards the Chicano cause, Thompson refuses to jump on the conspiracy, and eventually comes to a conclusion that neither the militants nor the authorities were entirely correct in their claims.

By offering his prejudices up front, Thompson is employing a technique that will be explored in the second part of this book, as frequently applied in his political writing. He states his position and shatters the idea of objective journalism. The reader knows that what follows is biased, and must then approach it differently. When an outrageous claim is made, perhaps it is not a fact, but rather a method of conveying an understanding of the subject. Nothing can be taken literally.

In ‘Strange Rumblings in Aztlan’, though, this technique is carefully applied, whereas in his later writings, it is used to a more ruthless effect. Here, Thompson states his opinions and seeks a truth that he may not want to discover. He makes himself vulnerable as a reporter, but somehow more honest. The reader knows Thompson’s opinions, but is also presented with alternatives, and consequently can come to a conclusion different to that of the author. He portrays himself as flawed and human, unlike the journalists of supposedly objective journalism, who purport to having all the facts. Instead, Thompson is a ‘frantic loser’[2] and troublemaker, searching for the truth, and this helps to draw the reader into the search as well.

Nonetheless, Thompson’s conclusion is shocking. Rather than his wild assertions about Nixon, the government and the media, he provides a conclusion that blends his feelings with the facts in a last attempt to search for the real truth.


Ruben Salazar couldn’t possibly have been the victim of a conscious, high-level cop conspiracy to get rid of him by staging an “accidental death.” The incredible tale of half-mad stupidity and dangerous incompetence on every level of the law enforcement establishment was perhaps the most valuable thing to have come from the inquest. Nobody who heard that testimony could believe that the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department is capable of pulling off a delicate job like killing a newsman on purpose. Their handling of the Salazar case – from the day of the his death all the way to the end of the inquest – raised serious doubts about the wisdom of allowing cops to walk around loose on the street. A geek who can’t hit a 20 foot wide ceiling is not what you need, these days, to pull off a clean first-degree murder.[3]


This has the hallmarks of a Gonzo text – most notably when Thompson refers to a police officer as a ‘geek’ – and it is simply Thompson’s opinion, but it is the result of a long and honest search for the truth in a complex murder investigation. Rather than rave about the evil of the authorities, Thompson reflects upon his exploration of the story by questioning the intelligence of the police in dealing with the killing, which one can hardly dispute.

[1] Reference needed – taken from The Great Thompson Hunt

[2] Wolfe, T., The New Journalism p. 172

[3] Thompson, ‘Strange Rumblings in Aztlan’, Rolling Stone 81, April 18, 1971

The Kentucky Derby: Decadent and Depraved?


*This is the 2nd in a series of columns by Beatdom editor, David S. Wills, about the role of truth in the work of Hunter S. Thompson. To read the first, click here

Kentucky Derby Decadent


With the success of Hell’s Angels, Thompson moved on to his first true work of Gonzo, ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’.

The problem with Gonzo, and with Thompson’s liberal use of both fact and fiction, is that it is extremely difficult to get to the truth behind his writing. To understand what did and didn’t happen in the writing of the article is a process made harder by the fact that when Thompson recalls the origin of the article in later interviews and writings, he may well have been exaggerating or simply inventing stories to build his legend and myth, or to compound the ideas stated in the article.

As the story goes, Thompson took the job of writing about the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s Monthly in 1970, where he first met and worked with Ralph Steadman. Madness occurred and Thompson and Steadman failed to actually witness the race. When deadlines loomed, Thompson began tearing pages out of his notebook and sending them to the magazine, creating a manic series of observations, loosely strung together and exploring the nature of the crowd more than the event.

Did Thompson and Steadman really do what Thompson claims in the article that they did?

Thompson’s writing and Steadman’s illustrations complimented and justified each other, creating a hideous portrait of the greed and drunken affluence of the spectators, something entirely overlooked by the conventional journalists present. Of course, in true Gonzo style, Thompson and Steadman become part of the story, immersing themselves in the depravity and becoming larger than life characters. The article culminates in a musing on how similar the author and illustrator were to their subjects.

Of course, a problem arises in the sheer extent of the carnage and madness. Did Thompson and Steadman really do what Thompson claims in the article that they did? Were their roles as characters accurate presentations of their actions? Was the crowd really as depraved as they depicted? Did Thompson really write notes, tear them out of his notebook and pass them off as professional journalism?

‘Politics is the art of controlling your environment,’ Thompson once wrote. Indeed, he was very talented at persuading the world he was what he wanted them to believe he was, because only his closest and dearest can testify to him being otherwise. Thompson eventually trapped himself with his own created image. But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a reality behind the illusion. Hunter Stockton Thompson and Raoul Duke could be remarkably similar.

If we go back to Thompson’s childhood, as presented most thoroughly in Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour’s Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S Thompson, we can see a picture of Thompson that he did not create. Throughout his adult life we know Thompson through his own writings, seeing what he wanted us to see. But through interviews with his friends and family, we can see what he was like as a child, and then as an adult. It is interesting to see that even as a youngster he appeared as a junior version of the insane characters he would have us believe he was later in life. His friends present Thompson as an intelligent, sensitive, racist bully. He was a trouble maker with little or no regard for authority, but a penchant for books and a talent with words. He had the ability to blend into any crowd, and to defend or hurt his friends without their understanding of his motives.

As an adult, Thompson’s friends and colleagues testify somewhat to his public and private personae being much the same, albeit that’s most likely what Thompson wanted. He is depicted as a show man, seemingly living up to his name, trying to impress and repulse everyone around him. He would publicly unpack his bags, which, according to Paul Scanlon, managing editor of Rolling Stone, contained ‘fresh grapefruits, notepads, a can of mace, a tape recorder, a carton of Dunhills, spare cigarette holders, a bottle of Wild Turkey, a large police flashlight, lighter fluid, a bowie knife – the usual stuff.’[1]

We see throughout his life that Thompson was a show-off, loving any attention, and realising its potential. Perhaps in his writing his manic actions are simply his way of impressing his readers, while the rest is just the job – the journalistic duties. But it’s hard say.

We know that he claimed from time to time that he felt compelled to live up to his legend, and that he exaggerated some his actions. But he also claimed that much more went unsaid, for fear of reprisals. Of course, stating that he did things he couldn’t legally say is another way of showing off as the badboy… Or perhaps he genuinely did live as dangerous a life as he claimed, and simply downplayed his hyperactivity to gain conventional literary respect from his peers…


The Kentucky Derby piece is well known because it fused Thompson’s writing with Ralph Steadman’s illustrations to create an overall image of decadence and depravity. Everyone knows that the piece is about the failure to write about the race and was blinded in carnage. It’s no secret that the failure to write about the race or produce a coherent narrative stemmed from the over indulgence of the writer (and his illustrator).

After the Derby ended, and the two day hangover dissipated for Thompson and Steadman, the illustrator submitted his work and fled the country. Thompson, however, was trapped in a hotel in New York, faced with a deadline. As always, he struggled to meet it. A copyboy ran between the writer and his editors, exchanging notes and pages as they were written. Thompson was baffled. However, as the deadline approached, his grand plans for the article seemed unlikely to be achieved within the time limit, and as the legend goes, he began ripping pages – sketches of scenes – from his notebook and submitting them.HST Kentucky Derby


When I first sent one down with the copy boy, I thought the phone was going to ring any minute with some torrent of abuse. I was waiting for the shit to hit the fan, but almost immediately the copy boy was back and wanted more… I was full of grief and shame… They printed it word for word even with the pauses, thoughts and jagged stuff like that.[2]


Suddenly, Thompson, the man who thought he was the greatest writer of the 20th Century before anyone cared to read his work, had been humbled by his own irresponsibility. He wrote an apology to the editor, lamenting not having had more time. To Bill Cardoso, he wrote: ‘It’s a shitty article, a classical of irresponsible journalism.’[3] He was certain he’d never work for another major publication.

The article, however, was a success. Scanlans started gaining publicity and Thompson was receiving letters of praise. When Cardoso replied, he said: ‘I don’t know what the fuck you’re dong, but you’ve changed everything. It’s totally gonzo.’[4]


The start of ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’ is pure literary gold, but raises a few questions again about truth and fiction. We believe what we read because it sounds like it happened, but it also sounds a little too perfect, a characteristic that courted many of Thompson’s earlier articles. Read the following and consider whether it was something Thompson heard and reported verbatim, or something he honestly felt could have been said:


I got off the plane around midnight and no one spoke as I crossed the dark runway to the terminal. The air was thick and hot, like wandering into a steam bath. Inside, people hugged each other and shook hands…big grins and a whoop here and there: “By God! You old bastard! Good to see you, boy! Damn good…and I mean it!”

In the air-conditioned lounge I met a man from Houston who said his name was something or other–”but just call me Jimbo”–and he was here to get it on. “I’m ready for anything, by God! Anything at all. Yeah, what are you drinkin?” I ordered a Margarita with ice, but he wouldn’t hear of it: “Naw, naw…what the hell kind of drink is that for Kentucky Derby time? What’s wrong with you, boy?” He grinned and winked at the bartender. “Goddam, we gotta educate this boy. Get him some good whiskey…”

I shrugged. “Okay, a double Old Fitz on ice.” Jimbo nodded his approval.

“Look.” He tapped me on the arm to make sure I was listening. “I know this Derby crowd, I come here every year, and let me tell you one thing I’ve learned–this is no town to be giving people the impression you’re some kind of faggot. Not in public, anyway. Shit, they’ll roll you in a minute, knock you in the head and take every goddam cent you have.”[5]


Whether this character existed, or whether he actually said what he is quoted as saying, isn’t important. He is a device, whether real or imagined, that conveys in the earliest words of the article, the author’s opinion of the subject of the article. The subject will not be the race, it will be the spectators. And the spectators all sound and act like our friend, ‘Jimbo’. Perhaps this is another example of the collective speech method explored in Hell’s Angels. When he tells us that the ‘people’ whooped and said ‘By God! You old bastard…’ there is no specific person saying these words. Rather, this is the voice of the masses, of the many identical spectators Thompson wants to tell us about. And if ‘Jimbo’ never existed as a single person, he is certainly a fictional character representative of the people Thompson witnessed during the Derby. It certainly sounds real. We’ve all met caricatures who fit a mould too perfectly to be believed.

Thompson is playing a trick on us, too, here, as much as he is fooling poor, gullible ‘Jimbo’ when he tells him that the Black Panthers and ‘white crazies’ will ruin the Derby. Thompson uses his literary brilliance to convince us that this really happened, rather than present us with stale, cold facts. He has our senses tingling with his descriptions, so that the voice is not an abstract piece of information. Everything feels real because it’s so complete: the darkness, the heat, the whooping, the taste of a an ice cold drink… Yet these sensual elements were not forced into the narrative. Rather, they appeared where they would naturally come, as they occurred around the narrator. It’s just like reading a novel and falling into the prose, only this is meant to be non-fiction.

When Thompson meets Steadman, the show really begins, and things get blurry. As with the previous Scanlans article, ‘The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy’, Thompson set out to write the article as an account of the process of writing. This would allow him to take an alternative view of a subject that had already been reported in depth. Thompson wanted to view the spectators, rather than the race, and after switching from a narrative that cast himself as the behind-schedule, troubled journalist, Thompson found Steadman to be a fitting device. Steadman was both the foreigner to whom Thompson could show his native land, and an intelligent weirdo off whom he could bounce ideas. The result was essentially Gonzo: madness and chaos mixed with musings about the nature of the subject.

As John Hellmann noted, ‘Thompson’s self-caricature is a paradox of compulsive violence and outraged innocence, an emblem of the author’s schizophrenic view of America.’[6] When he portrays himself as a hopeless loser, Thompson is attempting to draw pity and shock, just as when he looks in the mirror at the end and sees that he is no different from those he is studying. His actions shock us, but we begin to suspect that he, like the savages in the crowd, and products of a society that is fundamentally sick.

There are discrepancies between Thompson’s and Steadman’s accounts of the long weekend, but nothing major. For a start, Steadman is neither an Englishman, nor did he fly to the Derby from England. Steadman is Welsh and was staying in America at the time. Thompson was probably taking artistic liberties to portray himself as lost, as well as to portray Steadman as foreign, for the sake of his story. If Ralph came across as weird and alien, then Thompson could use him to compare with the spectators, and as an instrument of his planned narrative: as someone to guide around town.

Thompson’s version of events has the narrator being told about Steadman by their motel manager, who describes Steadman in a comical way. The helps the image of Thompson as lost and confused, whilst getting across some entertainment through another person’s voice. Thompson later finds Steadman in the press box, as both of them had apparently acquired credentials through separate means. Thompson mocks Steadman a little, and then proceeds to play the role of a guide. He is no longer the incompetent journalist, but instead the knowledgeable local.

In Steadman’s recollection, the events are just as amusing, but a little different. Steadman had never been to the motel, and the issue of his appearance was raised at first sight, rather than through the motel manager: ‘They said I was looking for a matted-haired geek with string warts and I guess I’ve found him.’[7] After this meeting, the two sit down over beers, rather than the whiskey that Thompson claimed. Whiskey is used throughout the piece to connect the depravity of Thompson and Steadman to that of the spectators. It appears at the beginning and soaks through as they mingle with the masses. Rather than Thompson taking the instant role as guide, Steadman recalls their talking about gambling, and then suggests that the rest of the assignment just happened, whereas the suggestion is planted in the article that Thompson knew all along what would happen – that the crowd would become the subject rather than the race.[8] However, according to Steadman, it was Thompson that procured the press credentials and not, as Thompson depicted, as matter of fortune for both of them. This little deviation from the truth suggests again that perhaps Thompson was better prepared than he let on, and that consequently the weekend was not as random as the article said.


Whatever the truth was behind ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,’ it becomes a lot harder to separate truth from fiction in his most famous work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

[2] Nocenti, A., and Baldwin, R., The High Times Reader (New York: Nation Books, 2004) p.79

[3] Thompson, Fear and Loathing in America, p. 295

[4] Caroll, Hunter, p.114

[5] Thompson, ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’

[6] Hellmann, J., ‘Journalism and Parody: The Bestial Comedies of Hunter S Thompson’ Fables of Fact: The New Journalism as New Fiction, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1981) p. 70

[7] Steadman, R., from ESPN 2 and Independent

[8] Ibid