Monday, February 21, 2005

Goodnight Doctor- Hunter S. Thompson's legacy

"It was hard to say sometimes whether he was being provocative for its own sake or if he was just being drunk and stoned and irresponsible. But every editor that I know, myself included, was... willing to risk all of his irresponsible behavior in order to share his talent with their readers."
- Paul Krassner of the Realist, quoted in an Associated Press story

What might be more amazing than the fact that Dr. Hunter S. Thompson killed himself is the fact that he was even around as long as he was. The guy was a tough old bird for sure, which makes both circumstances so puzzling. Other than Keith Richards, few other people have cheated death so long despite their on-the-edge lifestyle. No doubt that details will soon come out about the circumstances of his death but I'm inclined to agree with Sam Smith of Lullaby Pit for now: "Given the language and tone from the family, I'm just about willing to be that there's more to the story. I'd be not at all surprised to learn that he had something terminal eating him to death, and chose to go out on his own terms. We may never know for sure, but there is nothing in his history to suggest that he'd lay down and quit if there was the slightest hope."

In light of the many obituaries that we'll see from other literary figures and editors, I also wonder about Krassner's quote above. Most of the articles about Thompson will probably cover the same ground- he was a self-absorbed nut who nevertheless did wondrous things in print. Just as Susan Sontag had her detractors when she died recently, you can bet that Thompson will too. Though it might sound too weak-kneed to proclaim, I think his fans and detractors both have good points.

I first learned about Thompson in a New Journalism class I took in college. There were other writers who fell under this mantle but no one quite as colorful as Doc T. He definitely wasn't the first journalist to insert himself into his noirish narrative reports in articles but rarely was it done with such abandon. Sometimes, the original subject of the story became only a backdrop for his own story. Of course, such a bold move would be cheap egotism if it weren't for the fact that he made his life into an intriguing story. The 'gonzo' journalism that he pioneered effectively murdered off the silent non-paristan narrator and presented in its wake, manical brutally honestly, to-the-bone assessments and accusations. Unless anyone wants to peg him as a wide animal who learned how use a typewriter, Thompson was also enamored of classic American literature and in some ways, took what he wanted from other masters- the bluntness of Hemingway, the impish spirit of Twain, the wild flights of fancy of Faukner, the muckraking of Sinclair and so on.

In the end, Thompson's greatest story was his ongoing autobiography. A peer like Tom Wolfe would be known more for his distanced narrative stories than for his own life since he took almost the opposite approach, crawling into a character's brain and letting them tell their own tale. Likewise, an Oscar-nominated movie can easily be made about Jackson Pollock's life (full of manic alcoholic episodes, much like Thompson) while any studio would be hard pressed to finance a film about say, Mark Rothko who led a much more sedate existance. Which isn't to say that Thompson and Pollock were necessarily any better or worse at what they did than Wolfe or Rothko but to say that the added detail of a public rough-hewn life does add to recognition and sad to say, overall worth to many.

Going back to Thompson's work itself, it's easy to see why many people were intrigued by what he did. It would be one thing if he made up the narratives about his involvement in a story but even if some of it was hyperbole, the fact that he was able to recount it so well and such vivid, gory detail was something special indeed. But since he many times didn't cut a distance between his life and art, it was inevitable that it would have a toll on him, as it's done for many artists who've taken the same path before. Where he always carried around with him a righteous anger, his work in the last 20 years didn't have quite the fire and bile that his early, best-known work did even if he did still have great instincts for who the real enemies of the people were. Maybe it was because enough hacks had tried to pick up his mantle or maybe we were just used to his point of view by now or maybe it was because his self-immersed rancor is so prevalent in political debate nowadays. Maybe it was also painful for Thompson to watch cheap imitators try to mimic his best work- think of Dale Peck turning literary criticism into an empty contact sport or artist Chris Burden recently quitting his teaching position after a student tried to copy his gunfire-as-art idea.

A headline covering the Burden story can be just as applicable to Thompson's life/work: "Violent art can act as social commentary." At least that's how Thompson would have wanted it though it didn't always appear that way. I was never enamored of his most famous work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and when Terry Gilliam turned it into a movie, it seemed like a high art version of Cheech and Chong. That isn't to take anything away from Gilliam or Johnny Depp playing Thompson in the movie but that's how it appeared. The bravest thing about Thompson's indulgences were his unashamed and unapologetic embrace of them, taking it to ultra-comic lengths. Only towards the end of the film did we hear any kind of worthwhile commentary and observations about the world around Thompson that he was trying to escape- not just Vegas but also the American war machine and the faltering counter-culture. Similarly, David Cronenberg (like Gilliam, another great director) mistakenly imagined William S. Burroughs' The Naked Lunch as a stylized, surreal monster movie, ignoring any kind of message beneath the surface. Burroughs also lived an on-the-edge overly-medicated lifestyle but like Thompson, there were many innate truths lurking behind the bizarre narratives for the perceptive reader to find. Almost none of that was evident the other film based on Thompson's life, Where the Buffalo Roam, starring Bill Murray, where again, the wild details of the Doctor's lifestyle were seen to be enough of a story in and of itself.

And what about Thompson's impact on the music world? Other than his association with Warren Zevon, his most noted connection were his Rolling Stone pieces. Even after he had long given up on writing there, his name still appeared in the masthead. This wasn't surprising as his own work was part of what originally made the magazine so unique. Like Krassner, RS publisher Jann Wenner surely knew that and likely put up with a lot to get stories, or not get stories sometimes. Thomspon's irreverent, reckless style surely connected with rock fans who found the freedom of his work reflecting the music they loved. This in itself wasn't unique as writers from Amiri Baraka to Langston Hughes to Ishmael Reed (note a pattern there?) were able to do something just as magical with their work.

And then there was another Rolling Stone writer named Lester Bangs. You've probably heard of him. He also led a rambunctious life and inserted himself into his stories. Though Doc T preceded him in terms of chronology, and I'd warrant influenced him, Bangs was in effect his contemporary at RS. While Thompson took up and trashed the campaign trail, Bangs did the same for the rock/pop world. Even though he's been canonized in book and film, one thing I come back to about Bangs' legacy (and which connects to Thompson) is a class that critic Jeff Solomon of the Austin Chronicle taught about music journalism. As part of the class, Solomon had the students study not only pop culture but also the people who had chronicled it, such as Bangs and Robert Christgau. When Solomon had the students write their own reviews, which writer did they most pattern themselves after? As it turns out, it wasn't Bangs. No matter how entertaining his work was, it seemed that it wasn't as easy to imitate and do it well. Unfortunately, we've seen that proven too many times.

And such is the case with Thompson. Imitated but not equaled? Maybe but it's more accurate to say that as with Bangs, many writers know that they don't have the goods to do so, even if they wanted. Also, it takes a lot of guts, egotism and insanity to live and chronicle an out-of-control lifestyle. The lifestyle part of it can and is being done by thousands of idiots but few of them have any interest in writing about it in a meaningful way, much less having any adventures or observations that are worth writing about. What Thompson (and Bangs) presented was an inspiring type of literary freedom. Most of us writers admire that in some way, even if we don't want to fully follow in their footsteps.


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