Monday, February 21, 2005

It Never Got Weird Enough.....

Owl Farm
Woody Creek, Colorado

.....for him.

"DENVER (Reuters) - Hunter S. Thompson, who pioneered "gonzo" journalism and became a counterculture celebrity with works such as "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," fatally shot himself at his Colorado home on Sunday night, police said. He was 67."

Before he started to get stupid, and worse - famous, Thompson wrote this about the last days of Ernest Hemingway:

"Ketchum was Hemingway's 'Big Two Hearted River', and he wrote his own epitaph in the story of the same name, just as Scott Fitzgerald had written his epitaph in a book called 'The Great Gatsby'. Neither man understood the vibrations of a world that had shaken them off their thrones, but of the two, Fitzgerald showed more resilience. His half-finished 'Last Tycoon' was a sincere effort to catch up and come to grips with reality, no matter how distasteful it might have seemed to him.

Hemingway never made such an effort. The strength of his youth became rigidity as he grew older, and his last book was about Paris in the Twenties.....Like many another writer, Hemingway did his best work when he felt he was standing on something solid - like an Idaho mountainside, or a sense of conviction."

.....What Lured Hemingway to Ketchum, Hunter S. Thompson, The National Observer, 1964.

Now, Thompson was no Fitzgerald, and try as he might he could never quite write an even halfway decent Hemingwayesque novel, this despite the fact that he wrote thousands, if not millions, of phrases, paragraphs and entire journalistic set pieces in that strange Hemingway/Gonzo fusion that in the end became cliche for all to see, both in print and, especially, all over the Blogosphere. But back in the days when he was really stomping on the terra, a careful read always gave you the sense that it was more than just technique and that HST was standing hard on conviction, even when he was going a hundred miles an hour:

"So it was always at night, like a werewolf, that I would take the thing out for an honest run down the coast. I would start in Golden Gate Park, thinking only to run a few long curves to clear my head....but in a matter of minutes I'd be out at the beach with the sound of the engine in my ears, the surf booming up on the sea wall and a fine empty road stretching all the way down to Santa Cruz...not even a gas station in the whole seventy miles; the only public light alont the way is an all-night diner down around Rockaway Beach.

There was no helmet on those nights, no speed limit, and no cooling it down on the curves. The momentary freedom of the park was like the one unlucky drink that shoves a wavering alcoholic off the wagon. I would come out of the park near the soccer field and pause for a moment at the stop sign, wondering if I knew anyone parked out there on the midnight humping strip.

Then into first gear, forgetting the cars and letting the beast wind out....thirty-five, forty-five...then into second and wailing through the light at Lincoln Way, not worried about green or red signals, but only some other werewolf loony who might be pulling out, too slowly, to start his own run. Not many of these...and with three lanes on a wide curve, a bike coming hard has plenty oof room to get around almost anything....then into third, the boomer gear, pushing seventy-five and the beginning of a windscram in the ears, a pressure on the eeyeballs like diving into water off a high board.

Bent forward, far back on the seat, and a rigid grip on the handlebars as the bike starts jumping and wavering in the wind. Taillights far up ahead coming closer, faster, and suddenly--zaaappp--going past and leaning down for a curve near the zoo, where the road swings out to sea.

The dunes are flatter here, and on windy days sand blows across the highway, piling up in thick drifts as deadly as any oil-slick...instant loss of control, a crashing, cartwheeeling slide and maybe one of those two-inch notices in the paper the next day: "An unidentified motorcyclist was killed last night when he failed to negotiate a turn on Highway 1."

Indeed...but no sand this time, so the lever goes up into fourth, and now there's no sound except wind. Screw it all the way over, reach through the handlebars to raise the headlight beam, the needles leans down on a hundred and wind-burned eyeballs strain to see down the centerline, trying to provide a margin for reflexes.

But with the throttle screwed on there is only the barest margin, and nor room at all for mistakes. It has to be done right....and that's when the strange music starts, when you stretch your luck so far that fear becomes exhilaration and vibrates along your arms. You can barely see at a hundred; the tears blow back so fast that they vaporize before they get to your ears. The only sounds are wind a dull roar floating back from the mufflers. You watch the white line and try to lean with it...houwling through a turn to the right, then to the left and down the longh hill to Pacifica...letting off now, watching for cops, but only until the next dark stretch and another few seconds on the edge...The Edge...There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are ones who have gone over. The others--the living-- are those who who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later."

....Hell's Angels, Hunter S. Thompson, 1967

I heard the news of Thompson's death while sitting hunched over the computer down in the Subterranean Blues Room (the basement). It came in on a scratchy signal that skipped its way up to Vancouver from San Francisco's KGO on the radio... Of course, I immediately went A-Googling and the first wide open net pulled in just under 2 million hits...I got serious and started to look for the Ketchum/Hemingway piece but didn't find it on the first couple of straightforward passes. I was setting the thing up for an extremely complicated boolean search when I stopped myself short thinking of all HST's descriptions of searches for books no hotel desk clerk could ever quite locate in the middle of the night in Milwaukee.

And so I bounded up the stairs and began rummaging around the night-table stand, bashing and crashing about with a flashlight until my wife stirred and asked me what was the matter. I didn't answer right because the flashlight beam had hit lurid red paydirt.

"Thompson's dead", I whispered.

But she didn't hear me - she was already asleep again before I started to answer.

I headed back downstairs with my dog-eared and taped-up copy of The Great Shark Hunt bought in a second-hand bookstore out on the Avenues a long time ago.

I found the right page and held the thing open by laying a copy of the Gonzo Papers, Volume I gingerly across the top. Then I squinted at the yellowing pulp and commenced typing as hard and fast as I could, pretending all the while that I was pounding away on a big old Selectric with lightning reflexes and that I could hear the surf crashing outside my window.

Res more.

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