GONZO IN POPULAR CULTURE
1994/1997 copyright Christine Othitis
Through his writing, antics and ego, Hunter S. Thompson made
himself a public figure, long before he was even famous.
His charisma and exaggerated style of writing, he has
established a myth and a following that his friends have
likened him to Charles Manson (Carroll, p19). If he
ever dies, he will live on in popular culture.
As a child, Hunter was the magnet that everyone was
attracted to, partly because of his reputation as a
hell-raiser and partly because had a commanding presence.
Gerald Tyrell remembers Hunter as a great organizer who made
up baseball teams and rounded up beer on Friday nights
(Carroll, p19). Hunter was, and still is, very deft at
manipulating people. Tyrell also remembers Hunter
"hobnobbing" (Carroll, p54) with the most socially
untouchable people at school. Later on, Hunter came to have
the most astounding friendships among a diverse group of
people - writers, sports promoters, musicians and
politicians as well as their families.
A prime example of Thompson being able to work his way out
of situations happened during his El Sportivo period. One
night, he and Robert W. Bone (a photographer friend from The
Middletown Daily Record) went to the San Juan dump to shoot
rats. The police spotted them, and Bone recalls how Hunter
almost go away with it.
"(W)e were arrested and taken to jail. But Hunter, of
course, with his considerable charm, began to make friends
with the police. Naturally we had gotten rid of the
gun...so there was some doubt...eventually we and the cops
were having coffee together. Then Hunter put his feet up on
the desk and leaned back (and) the.357 Magnum bullets rolled
out of his pocket. They threw us back in jail and the
embassy was called. (Carroll, p92)".
Then there is the string of editors - "The basic crux of it
was that people wanted to know if the stuff in the books was
really true...I think they came away feeling like it's
probably not the whole truth. It was probably much worse
than that," (Carroll, p188) so says Laura Ross, who was a
young college student when she had the opportunity to work
with Hunter in the 1970s. Other magazine editors - Rob
Fleder, Vicki Sufian, Tim Crouse and Charles Perry echo her
comments. While they all agree that Thompson is a great
writer and fun to have around, working with him could be
extremely hard, because of Thompson's own stubborness and
violence. Rob Fleder described the experience as being
"stuck on a pin and having your wings pulled off" (Carroll, pxx).
Using what Bill Kennedy (editor of the San Juan Star,
author) described as his "meritous wounded ego" and
"self-righteous etc (Kennedy, 1997, p106), he wormed his way
into the news and popular culture. Gonzo journalism was a
new phenomenom of sorts that everyone wanted to be in on.
He had groupies. He still has an audience, which, through
the Internet, becomes wider each day. And he still has
high-profile forums for his writing, such as Rolling Stone,
the San Francisco Chronicle, and sometimes Esquire or Vanity
Fair (most recently, Cycle World. "Song of the Sausage
Creature" caused a fury and the magazine reported that in
it's 33 year history, this was the most mail it had ever
received on a single story).
"He first showed up in my office wearing a gray bubble wig,
with a huge satchel full of God knows what and three six
packs in one hand and talked for an hour straight," Jann
Wenner wrote in the forward of the first of three 25th
anniversary editions of Rolling Stone. The bizarre
interview led to a story on HST's campaign for sheriff of
Pitkin County in Colorado (most of which are reprinted in
The Great Shark Hunt). By now a public relations master,
Thompson, with his "Freak Power" candidates and shaved head,
lost by only 465 votes. The election, recounted in Better
Than Sex, attracted the attention of national media and
From there a legend was truly born, and Thompson has
attained a sort of folk hero status, with punk rock songs
penned in his honour.
Probably the first to life the 'gonzo' name were the
basement t-shirt shops that reproduced the 'Gonzo Family
Crest' used on his campaign posters, which were designed by
Tom Benton. "The t-shirts are revolving. People give them
to me and I give them to other people," (Carroll, p13) he
says, describing tees from places like The Tremmel T-Shirt
Co. (with the frontispiece from Las Vegas on them; apparently Tremmel is out of
business, but you can still get shirts from Doodah Designs), the
collector's items from The O'Farrell Theatre (a skeleton
dancing around a jug of Chivas proclaiming 'the weird never
die') to the gonzo wear available from various Aspen shops.
There are some, like Robert Fleder, who say that Hunter
lives a very comic book life. Knowing this, it is little
wonder that his life and writing translate so well into
cartoons and comic strips. Besides famous the caricatures
by Ralph Steadman, there are at least two other cartoon
incarnations of Thompson. The lesser known is the Fear and
Laughter comic book published independently by Bill Stout in
1977 (cover reprinted in Hunter).
The more famous rendition is the "Uncle Duke" character that
first appeared in 1975 in the satirical strip Doonesbury by
Trudeau's portrayal threw Hunter into a fit. At one point
he was convinced that Trudeau had spies watching him
(Carroll, pxx). When Trudeau admitted that he was skimming
ideas from his books, Thompson refused to believe it.
Trudeau himself was shocked at his ability to capture
Hunter's personality, having not actually met him. In 1993,
a collection of Uncle Duke strips was published. Titled
Action Figure, it spanned 23 years of Duke escapades - from
his governorship of Samoa (a position Hunter claims he was
offered) to lecturer (based on the riotous results of a talk
at Duke University) to owner of Club Scud in Iraq. Of
special interest to collectors was the plastic posable
figure that came with the book, turned out in fatigues, a
plastic AK-47, whisky bottle and wine glass.
In the strip, Duke is the uncle of Zonker Harris, a free
spirited hippie with an extremely weird take on life. The
"Duke" name comes from one of Thompson's pseudonyms, Raoul
Duke, which he originally wrote Fear and Loathing in Las
Vegas under. Trudeau's Duke takes his turns as a reporter
for Rolling Stone, ambassador to China, governor of Samoa,
ships captain to Donald Trump, NRA spokesman, guest
lecturer, suspect in the JFK assasination, and most
recently, director of an orphanage. In both cases, Duke is
a sportswriter and ambassador to China, where from
(allegedly) comes to drag Hunter out of hiding in Songs of
the Doomed (Thompson, 1990, p11). From this angle, Trudeau
gives Uncle Duke a Chinese girlfriend/secretary, Honey.
Uncle Duke has done much to start and perpetuate rumours
about Thompson as well as to preserve the myth that
surrounds him. For instance, no one can really be sure if
Hunter really told John Denver to "Rocky mountain high-tail
it off my property or else your guitar won't be the only
thing with a hole in it!" (Trudeau, 1993). What is known is
that the folk singer actually did visit Hunter. Almost
actually. He knocked on the door of their neighbours, Anne
and Billy Noonan.
"He had on little glasses and had a
little bowl haircut and a plaid shirt and I thought he was
creepy...(h)e had won a song contest...and was looking for
Hunter, who had some notoriety by then," (Carroll, p115).
Trudeau, as a cartoonist and satirist, manages to pin down
the cantankerous qualities of Thompson's personality, the
often bizarre aspects of his lifestyle and sharp humour
(Note: Due to the fact that I cannot reproduce the few
strips originally included in the essay, I will skip over
the commentary. I would suggest reading Action Figure or
Virtual Doonesbury and try to pick out all the gonzo
references. You might also want to visit Doonesbury Electronic Town Hall
for more strips and merchandise.)
At least one feature film has been made about HST and that
is Where the Buffalo Roam, starring
Bill Murray as Hunter and
Peter Boyle as his Hungarian attorney Lazlo (Chicano groups
protested using a white actor to portray Oscar Acosta). The
movie was adapted from Las Vegas,
Campaign Trail and an
article called "The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat"
(reprinted in The Great Shark Hunt), which is about the
disappearance and possible death of his best friend, Oscar
Acosta. While it was not a box office hit, it was not a
failure and has become a cult classic, often appearing late
at night. Reviews ranged from raves (Roger Angell, "the
movie is a raunchy comedy...(I)t is made for me by the
performance of Bill Murray") to disgust (Merrill Schindler,
"The movie is, at best, gonzo dreck).
After almost twenty years, Las Vegas is (hopefully) being
produced as a movie. Rhino Films sought to produce it, with
Johnny Depp starring as Thompson. Alex Cox (Repo Man) was
originally chosen as the director; he bowed out and was
replaced by Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python and Brazil fame.
Previous attempts at making it into a movie included scripts
by Larry McMurty and Jack Nicholson.
Gonzo regularly appears in most media. The Wonderstuff
named their last and final album "If the Beatles had read
Hunter...". The song "Ventura Highway" copyrighted 1972,
contains the Vegas-esque line "alligators, lizards in the
Don Johnson's new series, Nash Bridges, is loosely based on
a script written by him and Hunter. The original idea was
"to have a Fuhrman-style recovering alcoholic cop who was
dating a mobster's widow with a bad case of Tourette's
syndrome." That didn't quite fly with network
TV, but every now and then Johnson spews that immortal line:
"You got that right Bubba." (Christine: A little too often for my liking. My mom is a big fan. However, I could just kill
every time he says that!)
Elsewhere, Scott Bakula played Peter Hunt, a gonzo
journalist on Murphy Brown. Thompson has appeared in Arts and
Entertainment Biography specials for Annie Liebowitz and Jimmy
Carter, as well as on David Letterman.
The most recognizable gonzo is The Great Gonzo, a freakish,
fuzzy blue Jim Henson muppet. He is obsessed with chickens,
just as Hunter loves owls and peacocks. Gonzo is described
by friends Kermit and Fozzie as a "weirdo". Indeed. The
muppet is, and looks, uncomparable to anything else, just
like Thompson. Gonzo possesses a strange manic energy, with
a penchant for explosions and craziness, just as HST is
prone to driving the wrong way on freeways at night (Green,
1992, RS 632).
As a word, "gonzo" has come to mean anything weird or crazy. It appears in most
slang dictionaries and the OED as such. The word takes on an even larger meaning in
a series of mystery novels aimed at juvinile readers. "Mike Gonzo", created by adult mystery author
William L. Crider, is a rather dorky kid
who doesn't shy away from strange situations such as a pair of disappearing sneakers.
Thompson made news in 1990 for the famous "breast-tweaking
incident". A porn-star-turned-ophthamologist's-wife named
Gail-Palmer Slater visited Owl Farm, enjoyed herself
apparently, all in attendence drank somewhat heavily; then
what follows is unclear on all accounts. What resulted,
however, was an eleven-hour search by the Colorado Beaureau
of Investigation, which turned up (Christine: what else?
Jeezus!) various amounts of explosives and "uncontrolled
substances" (Thompson, 1990, p293-294).
The case made headlines everywhere and Entertainment Tonight
even ran several segments about it. However, it was two
carloads of strippers from the >O'Farrell Theatre - friends
from HST's days as night manager there - who attracted the
most attention. Often scantily clad, they picketed the
courthouse with a giant buffalo head.
Eventually Thompson was aquitted on lack of evidence;
Palmer-Slater claims she never wanted to press charges
(Carroll, pxx) and holds no hard feelings.
Many feel that the incident was an attempt to rid Woody
Creek/Aspen of its famous resident. Thompson's neighbours,
which happen to be millionaires and movie stars, regularly
complain that he is constantly shaking the foundations of
their homes. This strange neighbourliness is known as
Battle of Aspen.
Thomspon's infiltration into American culture is rather a
strange one. He was able to because he and his writing was,
and still is, so different and unique from what anyone had
ever seen before. He is in some ways a folk hero, the young
man who went West and found fortune, the outlaw who delivers
common people from their opressed (and perhaps repressed)
Evan Nescent runs The Death Game. It is a betting game run
by a group of actuaries in New York (interestingly enough,
the Thompson family has long been involved in insurance).
"There are some people who think he's immortal...he's either
immortal, or he's going to die immediately. I mean, you
know, we can't really find a middle ground." (Carroll,
p270-271). That comment seems to sum up Hunter's life; he
constantly pushes his luck, for example, the stomping at the
end of Hell's Angels. It makes him seem like a mythical
hero, but one who is more realistic. Instead of being
virtuous, he is depraved. But his integrity and ideals are
intact and he stays true to them.
He is a modern Achilles, seeming impervious to great
quantities of alcohol and drugs. He is a journalistic
Prometheus, breaking away from the normal rules of
reporting. He is a witty and clever orator who understands
human motivation. His life is one long Dionysion ritual,
and even he admits, "The myth has taken over. I'm really
that way as a person" (Carroll, pxx).
Through his brilliant and daring (and most important)
contemporary writing, he "has so deeply impressed so many
readers that he has infiltrated the culture. Gonzo. Fear
and Loathing. He's all over the place. Can you imagine
Vladmir Nabokov in Doonesbury?" (Carroll, p148).
At a time when the social fabric of American society was
unravelling, along came Hunter S. Thompson with his gonzo
journalism and robust personality. He talked down to no one
except politicians and neither encouraged or condoned his
own personal addictions. Most important of all, such as in
Las Vegas and Hell's Angels, he was able to prove that a
peacenik could be just as patriotic as John Bircher. As a
child, Hunter was the pain in everybody's backside. As an
adult and writer, he was, and still is, a thorn in the
lion's paw, painfully reminding everyone of the deceit,
treachery and unfairness that prevail in this world. With
the help of admirers, and other artists and writers,
Thompson has perpetuated his owns myths thad by new readers of gonzo to come.
Rather than rewrite the whole thing to include this note, which occured to me in a webforum:
We all tell stories, however, few grow to the grand scale of myths. Perhaps that is because we are a larger community and
because our stories don't have any scietific meaning; they don't answer why the sun shines or why rhinos have wrinkled skin.
Just like their are so many versions of myths, there are many versions of family stories because everyone remembers what
happened in a different way.
For example, one of my favourite authors has created his own personal myths through his writing; his readers tend to think that
life happens to him in a most extraordinary way, when it really doesn't. It is through the power of his own writing and
storytelling abilities. He is able to take the most ordinary, everyday act, and exaggerate it so that it seems almost a super-human
feat. Of course, no one can substantiate what he writes about, which even adds to the aura of his writing.
[FIRST ESSAY] * [SECOND ESSAY] * [THREE ESSAY]