Hunter Thompson Died 15 Years Ago: Hear Him Remembered by Tom Wolfe, Johnny Depp, Ralph Steadman, and Others

Hunter S. Thomp­son died on Feb­ru­ary 20, 2005, fif­teen years ago, and ever since we’ve been won­der­ing aloud what he would make of the state of the world today. Though events have all but cried out for anoth­er Thomp­son to sav­age­ly describe and even more sav­age­ly ridicule them, what oth­er writer could live up to the for­mi­da­ble stan­dard Thomp­son set with Hell’s Angels, “The Ken­tucky Der­by Is Deca­dent and Depraved,” Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and his oth­er har­row­ing gonzo-jour­nal­is­tic views of the Amer­i­can scene? These works, as the late Tom Wolfe puts it in the inter­view clip above, made Thomp­son “the great com­ic writer of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.”

Like any­one who knew the man, Wolfe had Hunter Thomp­son sto­ries. The one he tells here takes place in Aspen, Col­orado, years after Thomp­son ran for sher­iff there and near­ly won. As soon as Thomp­son and Wolfe were seat­ed at a local restau­rant, Thomp­son ordered four banana daiquiris and four banana splits.

After con­sum­ing all that, he called the wait­ress back: “Do it again.” This may remind fans of a more glut­to­nous ver­sion of the scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo threat­en­ing­ly demand an entire pie at a din­er. The real-life Thomp­son also had vora­cious appetites, not just for junk food and intox­i­cants but also for destruc­tion, as evi­denced by the sto­ry of propane-tank tar­get prac­tice John­ny Depp tells above.

Depp, who played Thomp­son in Ter­ry Gilliam’s film adap­ta­tion of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, also bond­ed with the writer in ways not involv­ing eighty-foot fire­balls. Both came from Ken­tucky, and both admired the writ­ing of the 1930s satirist Nathanael West. The two would read West­’s work aloud to one anoth­er, and lat­er Thomp­son’s own. (We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured Depp read­ing the “wave speech,” Thomp­son’s best-known pas­sage, here on Open Cul­ture.) “Hunter taught me how he want­ed his work read,” Depp remem­bers, “and if there’s any­thing such as a bless­ing, that was it.” The pri­vate Thomp­son may have loved Amer­i­can prose, but the pub­lic Thomp­son loved out­ra­geous behav­ior. As John Cusack puts it in the clip above, “He was ready for a show that was beyond any sense of decen­cy and went into some absur­dist land that made your heads bend.”

Few had as much expo­sure to Th0mpson’s head-bend­ing as Ralph Stead­man, the artist whose illus­tra­tions made vis­i­ble the Thomp­son­ian “gonzo” sen­si­bil­i­ty. “Gonzo is a Por­tuguese word, and it means hinge,” Stead­man says in the news seg­ment above. “I guess to be gonzo is to be hinged — or unhinged.” The two first met at the 1970 Ken­tucky Der­by, where they were meant to col­lab­o­rate on a piece about the race. In the event, they did more drink­ing and rumor-spread­ing than report­ing, and it all led to a moment of truth: “We looked in the mir­ror and there we saw the evil face: it was us, look­ing back at us.” The final prod­uct, “The Ken­tucky Der­by Is Deca­dent and Depraved,” now looks like the birth of a form Thomp­son and Stead­man cre­at­ed, per­fect­ed, and quite pos­si­bly destroyed.

In the Joe Rogan Expe­ri­ence clip above, jour­nal­ist Matt Taib­bi describes Thomp­son’s writ­ing thus: “He let it all hang out and just said what­ev­er the hell he thought, and he let the chips fall where they may.” Easy though that may sound, in his best work Thomp­son man­aged to employ “the same tech­niques that the great fic­tion writ­ers use” to craft a “four-dimen­sion­al sto­ry, but at the same time it was also jour­nal­ism.” As the cur­rent occu­pant of Thomp­son’s old polit­i­cal-reporter job at Rolling Stone, Taib­bi knows bet­ter than any­one that “most peo­ple could­n’t get away with that.” It takes “a Mark Twain-lev­el tal­ent to do what he did, which is to mix the ambi­tion of great fic­tion with jour­nal­ism” — like most of Thomp­son’s endeav­ors, “one of those don’t-try-this-at-home things.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Read 11 Free Arti­cles by Hunter S. Thomp­son That Span His Gonzo Jour­nal­ist Career (1965–2005)

John­ny Depp Reads Hunter S. Thompson’s Famous “Wave Speech” from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Hunter S. Thomp­son Inter­views Kei­th Richards, and Very Lit­tle Makes Sense

How Hunter S. Thomp­son Gave Birth to Gonzo Jour­nal­ism: Short Film Revis­its Thompson’s Sem­i­nal 1970 Piece on the Ken­tucky Der­by

Hunter S. Thomp­son, Exis­ten­tial­ist Life Coach, Gives Tips for Find­ing Mean­ing in Life

Watch Hunter S. Thomp­son & Ralph Stead­man Head to Hol­ly­wood in a Reveal­ing 1978 Doc­u­men­tary

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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Comments (4)
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  • Corey D Silence says:

    Hunter S. Thomp­son, you did won­ders at inspir­ing my sec­ond nov­el. I hope I ruined a child­hood nov­el­ty with war weapons, pussy, cocaine, and crys­tal meth!-Nihil List Chris­to

  • Corey D Silence says:

    Too much of life is about owing mon­ey, there has to be bet­ter ways to make mon­ey, it’s just in this book mon­ey does­n’t mean shit any­more and nei­ther does the barter.- Nihil List Chris­to

  • Corey D Silence says:

    Yes­ter­day I pissed in the creek at the VA hos­pi­tal while my elec­tric­i­ty went out. Weeks ago I pissed on the Bank Of Amer­i­ca, and that’s as close as I got to ever becom­ing an Anti-Patri­ot!

  • Emanon says:

    Anniver­sal­ly, your off by one day. And yeah, I just made that word up.

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