Reading over Part 1, it occurs to me that what I am attempting is nothing less than a sober reappraisal of Hunter S. Thompson’s legacy. Is such a thing necessary? Is it desirable? Is it even possible? Well, never mind; I’m into it now, so there’s no sense in quitting. As the Doctor liked to say, buy the ticket, take the ride.
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The whole thing hinges, I think, on the concept of Gonzo journalism. Was it a brilliant innovation or a flimsy excuse to ignore the established rules of the trade? Did it have an ethos and an objective, or was it merely a platform for fuzzy, drug-induced “insights”? Do we even know, after all this time, what it really was?
It’s hard to conceive of now, but in his early years Hunter Thompson was a relatively straight journalist, albeit one with an offbeat pedigree and a taste for exotic locales. In The Great Shark Hunt you can read a bunch of stories that he wrote for The National Observer from 1962 through 64. These were mostly filed from places like Peru and Brazil, though there are also travelogue pieces about Thompson’s home state of Kentucky and Ketchum, Idaho, where Ernest Hemingway lived the last years of his life.
Thompson’s prose style is clearly recognizable in these pieces, but they are pretty tame by his standards, mostly sticking to the what, where, when and who of things. Apparently he was conducting his own personal drug experiments at the time — according to a Rolling Stone article by Mikal Gilmore, it was South American coca leaves and speed that caused his hair to fall out before he turned 30 — but this does not find its way into The Work.
In the mid-60s Thompson moved to the Bay Area (talk about being in the right place at the right time…). Soon after arriving he accepted an assignment from The Nation to write a story about the Hell’s Angels, who were getting a lot of press at the time because of an alleged rape incident in Monterey. However, as Thompson notes in Hell’s Angels — the book that grew out of his magazine articles — nobody had told the real story of the Angels yet, because most journalists were too scared to get close enough to write it. And with good reason: The Angels were a closed society hostile toward all outsiders, especially journalists, whom they loathed at least as much as cops — and maybe more.
Hunter S. Thompson was the perfect guy to take on this challenge. He was big enough and tough enough not to be frightened of the Angels, and jaded enough not to be seduced by their outlaw mystique. He also understood what was going to be necessary to get the story. Spending a day or a week with the Angels wasn’t going to cut it; he would have to become part of their scene, gain their trust, or at least enough of it that they would let him stay around until the job was done. This, I think, is the first glimmer of the Gonzo method: If the truth is hidden from outsiders, the only way to get the story is to become part of it.
It is interesting to read Hell’s Angels now and see that the first 50 pages or so read a lot like the National Observer articles — filled with Thompsonesque locution and vocabulary, but still within a traditional journalistic framework, and always narrated in the third person. But as the book goes on, the line between the writer and the story starts to blur, and the word “I” starts to crop up a lot:
By the middle of summer I had become so involved in the outlaw scene that I was no longer sure whether I was doing research on the Hell’s Angels or slowly being absorbed by them. I found myself spending two or three days each week in Angel bars, in their homes, and on runs and parties. In the beginning I kept them out of my own world, but after several months my friends grew accustomed to finding Hell’s Angels in my apartment at any hour of the day or night.
And this makes perfect sense; if you’re part of the story, why write in the third person? If Gonzo has a philosophy, this is it: Objectivity is for pussies. If you want to write about something, get inside it and really understand it. Anything else is a cop-out.
There are dangers to this way of doing things, of course. For one thing, Thompson ended up getting severely beaten by the Angels when he inadvertently offended them. More to the point, when the Doctor became a celebrity in later years, his involvement would often overwhelm and subsume whatever story he was supposedly covering. But at this early stage it is the perfect marriage of method and subject, enabling him to write about the Hell’s Angels with this kind of eloquence and understanding:
The farther the Angels roam from their own turf, the more likely they are to cause panic. A group of them seen on a highway for the first time is offensive to every normal notion of what is supposed to be happening in this country; it is bizarre to the point of seeming like a bad hallucination... and this is the context in which the term "outlaw" makes real sense. To see a lone Angel screaming through traffic — defying all rules, limits and patterns — is to understand the motorcycle as an instrument of anarchy, a tool of defiance and even a weapon. A Hell's Angel on foot can look pretty foolish. Their sloppy histrionics and inane conversations can be interesting for a few hours, but beyond the initial strangeness, their everyday scene is as tedious and depressing as a costume ball for demented children. There is something pathetic about a bunch of grown men gathering every night in the same bar, taking themselves very seriously in their ratty uniforms, with nothing to look forward to but the chance of a fight or a round of head jobs from some drunken charwoman.
But there is nothing pathetic about the sight of an Angel on his bike. The whole — man and machine together — is far more than the sum of its parts. His motorcycle is the one thing in his life he has absolutely mastered. It is his only valid status symbol, his equalizer, and he pampers it the same way a busty Hollywood starlet pampers her body. Without it, he is no better than a punk on a street corner. And he knows it. The Angels are not articulate about many things, but they bring a lover's inspiration to the subject of bikes. Sonny Barger, a man not given to sentimental rambling, once defined the word "love" as "the feelin you get when you like something as much as your motorcycle. Yeah, I guess you could say that was love."
The fact that many Angels have virtually created their bikes out of stolen, bartered or custom-made parts only half explains the intense attachment they have for them. You've got to see an outlaw straddle his hog and start jumping on the starter pedal to fully appreciate what it means. It is like seeing a thirsty man find water. His face changes; his whole bearing radiates confidence and authority. He sits there for a moment with the big machine rumbling between his legs, and then he blasts off... sometimes in a cool, muted kind of way, and sometimes with a roaring wheelstand that rattles nearby windows — but always with style, with élan. And by cutting out in the grand manner at the end of each barroom night, he leaves the others with the best possible image of himself. Each Angel is a mirror in the mutual admiration society. They reflect and reassure each other, in strength and weakness, folly and triumph... and each night at closing time they cut out with a flourish: the juke box wails a Norman Luboff tune, the bar lights dim, and Shane thunders off drunkenly into the moonlight.