It seems a strange night – Sunday, February 20, 2005 – for Hunter S. Thompson, PhD, aka Dr. Gonzo, aka Raoul Duke, to have put a bullet in his head, ending his 67-year-old life. It was, after all, the night of the NBA All-Star Game and Thompson had a Page Two column to pen for espn.com. It seems off for a man who, if nothing else, always met his deadlines, if only at the final buzzer.
While most only know him as the writer behind the Johnny Depp vehicle ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,’ to us in the journalism world he’s something of an icon. His personal habits aside – an enthusiast of recreational drugs, alcohol, firearms and other such things The Signal cannot officially condone – he was, after all, a journalist – a professional journalist, a renegade journalist, a maverick journalist, an outlaw journalist – who did more to change the rules of the game than anyone in his lifetime. “When the going gets weird,” he said, “the weird turn pro.” And for Hunter Stockton Thompson, the going was almost certainly always weird.
When he died, he once said, he wanted his ashes to be shot in a canister from a statue of a clenched fist, double-thumbed, into the air to explode over his fortified compound in Woody Creek, Colorado. This seems a spectacular and fitting end for the
He was our correspondent from the edge, looking in at our world with nightmare eyes and reporting what he saw. Truth is the shining jewel and centerpiece of American journalism, so we are daily told by our English department gurus, and this is what Thompson gave us – truth. As he saw it.
He espoused a brand of new journalism, what he called gonzo journalism. Thompson reported based on the principle that observed events are altered by the presence of the observer – that the observer’s importance often surpasses the importance of their subject. In Hunter’s stories he was at the center, reporting on the sick world he saw orbiting him.
He was not objective, he was searing and acerbic. He was unafraid to smash at the strong walls of American hypocrisy, to expose our fat depravity, our self-obsession, our ignorance, to show our political process for what it is: a gaudy carnival sideshow, all smoke and mirrors, greasy swindling and grifting. His voice was a stunning one in the great American conversation; he threw up words most journalists were frightened even to think. He spoke for someone, himself, instead of for the anonymous everyone the papers preach to every morning.
To the end, Hunter S. Thompson was a brilliant man, always in control, always at the center. He was a man unwilling to submit to forces greater than him. At 67, with his legend looming large, his place in American letters cemented, and his health beginning to fail, the only thing greater than him was death. And he controlled even that.
So it’s one more in an endless series of our weekly Monday night freak-outs here at The Signal. Creeping up on 3 a.m. and the office is nearly empty. The presses are ready to roll again. Hunter’s gone, but the truth is marching on.