Too Much Life | AspenTimes.com

Too Much Life

Chad Abraham
Thompsons favorite picture of himself. Dan Dibble photo.
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“The meek shall inherit nothing.” Frank ZappaThe moon was nearly full on the night Hunter S. Thompson ended his life with a bullet to the head.An untamed blizzard was roaring up and down the valley, but at Owl Farm the clouds had parted. In a day or so, the moon would be full, and had he lived to see it, there is little doubt Thompson would have howled at it. Or shot at it. He had similar celestial ideas in 1976, when he took a nighttime swim just before departing Woody Creek for the Democratic National Convention.An essay titled “Democratic Convention Notes” begins, “A full moon tonight, and a cold bright sky above the long pool behind the Jerome Hotel. The Milky Way looking down from so close that it looks like a madman with good reflexes could shoot the stars out of the sky, one by one, with something like a .264 Magnum or maybe a .220 Swift. The pool is warm, the bar is closed, Main Street is empty except for an occasional cop zooming by in one of the red Saabs they use. No cars on fire in the parking lot behind the Jerome tonight, no dope addicts lurking around in the darkness under the tent, no red-tipped cigarettes glowing suddenly back in the darkness where white iron lawn tables, wet on the tops from cold mist & dampness, sit under the big cottonwood trees behind the old Aspen Times building.”This night was also quiet. There was no crack of gunfire or mysterious explosions; only ugly silence. A red light shimmered above the dirt driveway, the electric eye of a gargoyle standing guard from a tall pole. Helping the statue watch over the compound was a Pitkin County Sheriff’s vehicle.Along with the snow, a heavy amount of disbelief settled over the valley, and later the world. How did it come to this end?

The aim here is to shed some light on a quality he treasured above all – truth, specifically the truth about Thompson and the life he lived. Or at least as much as we can cram in the allotted space. Chronicling a life like Thompson’s is no easy task, even with his fine record-keeping abilities. There is simply too much. The man was off in so many simultaneous wild directions over the course of his life that anyone trying to tell his story is automatically overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information. And that is perhaps a fitting epitaph for Thompson: Too much life.”Spending time with Hunter was never dull,” said legendary newsman Ed Bradley. “It could be frantic and it could be enlightening.”Thompson would have it no other way.”Let us visualize the secure man; and by this term, I mean a man who has settled for financial and personal security for his goal in life,” he wrote some years ago. “In general, he is a man who has pushed ambition and initiative aside and settled down, so to speak, in a boring, but safe and comfortable rut for the rest of his life. His future is but an extension of his present, and he accepts it as such with a complacent shrug of his shoulders. … Life has bypassed this man and he has watched from a secure place, afraid to seek anything better. What has he done except to sit and wait for the tomorrow which never comes? … As an afterthought, it seems hardly proper to write of life without once mentioning happiness; so we shall let the reader answer this question for himself: who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived, or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?”Thompson wrote that for the Athenaeum Literary Association. He was 17 years old.To do justice to the telling of Thompson’s chaotic and complicated impacts on Aspen and Woody Creek, and the world of journalism, it helps to start at the beginning.”At the moment I am hard at work helping Paul [Semonin] restore his home,” Thompson wrote nearly 42 years ago, in a letter to the author William Kennedy. He had just arrived in Aspen. “We are living here with no running water, no toilet and no access road. The car is parked 1/2 mile away at the bottom of the ski slope, which is a brutal climb with luggage, groceries, wine, or even nothing at all.”In “The Proud Highway,” a book of his letters written between 1955, when Thompson was in high school, and 1967, when he was soaring on the critical acclaim from “Hells Angels,” the author says he arrived in town like virtually everyone else in the ’60s: He was on his way somewhere else.

It was either Aspen or “a small ranch near Jack London’s Wolf House” in California, “The Proud Highway” says. While he decided, he stayed with Semonin, a childhood friend who had graduated a year ahead of Thompson from Louisville Male High School. Hunter was ready to head West, in part because Aspen was too much fun. “At the moment I think I prefer Calif.; the house is more isolated and without the distractions (nearby bars) of Aspen. I’ll wait a week or so before deciding; it’s so damn good to have a choice that I don’t want to give up that feeling,” he wrote to his brother, Davison, on Aug. 20, 1963.A month or so later he moved to a ranch property in Woody Creek. A half-year later, with his first wife, Sandy, a month away from giving birth to the couple’s only child, Thompson uprooted and settled in Glen Ellen, Calif., north of San Francisco. Restless and seeking a bigger paycheck, and now with son Juan in tow, the couple moved to San Francisco a few months later.Here, he would start his seminal plunge into new journalism. “Hell’s Angels” was a novelistic expose on a dangerous world most Americans were afraid to think about, much less read up on. But read it, they did. “His language is brilliant, his eye remarkable,” raved an article in The New York Times Book Review section.The book is a hilarious and frightening account of a biker gang living on society’s fringes. But even the amazingly brutish bikers were stopped in their tracks, at least momentarily, by LSD.”Contrary to all expectations, most of the Angels became oddly peaceful on acid,” Thompson wrote in the book. “The aggressiveness went out of them; they lost the bristling, suspicious quality of wild animals sensing a snare. … The Angels had no regard for what psychiatrists consider the limits of safe dosage; they doubled and tripled the recommended maximums, often dropping 800 or 1,000 micrograms in a twelve-hour span. Some went into long fits of crying and wailing, babbling incoherent requests to people nobody else could see.”Reading Thompson’s best work is a synapse-firing pleasure. It makes for smiles, if not outright guffaws.”He was beautiful writer,” said Jann Wenner, founder, publisher and editor of Rolling Stone magazine, in the first interview he has given since Thompson’s death on Feb. 20. “The journalistic thing [is what] everybody is writing about, gonzo journalism and all this stuff, but that overshadows for the time being the fact that he was a really lyrical writer and one with also a real acid-black sense of humor. He was good. He was a standout writer and was proud of it.”

Perhaps some of his funniest and most clever writing, besides the epochal “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” can be found in “The Great Shark Hunt,” a collection of stories published in 1979. One of his best-loved pieces is “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” which ran in Scanlan’s Monthly. It proved to be a pivotal assignment, as it paired him for the first time with Ralph Steadman. Hunter and the British artist would continue their fruitful, bizarre relationship for decades.Attending the 1970 Kentucky Derby was Steadman’s first exposure to America. “Steadman was already in the press box when I got there, a bearded young Englishman wearing a tweed coat and RAF sunglasses. There was nothing particularly odd about him. No facial veins or clumps of bristling warts. I told him about the motel woman’s description and he seemed puzzled. ‘Don’t let it bother you,’ I said. ‘Just keep in mind for the next few days that we’re in Louisville, Kentucky. Not London. Not even New York. This is a weird place. You’re lucky that mental defective at the motel didn’t jerk a pistol out of the cash register and blow a big hole in you.’ I laughed, but he looked worried.”A veteran of the mint-julep scene, Thompson schooled the 34-year-old artist on the event’s finer points. “Now, looking down from the press box, I pointed to the huge grassy meadow enclosed by the track. ‘That whole thing,’ I said, ‘will be jammed with people; fifty thousand or so, and most of them staggering drunk. It’s a fantastic scene – thousands of people fainting, crying, copulating, trampling each other and fighting with broken whiskey bottles. We’ll have to spend some time out there, but it’s hard to move around, too many bodies.’ “Recovering from a vicious assault by an angry pack of Angels, Thompson arrived back in the Roaring Fork Valley with a finished first draft of his first book in 1966. Renting an apartment in Aspen from Bob Craig, then the executive director of the Aspen Institute, Thompson would soon meet the man who would give him his permanent home. George Stranahan, a longtime local land owner and philanthropist, and Craig “hatched the idea that we would save Woody Creek. It was beginning to sell a little bit. [Craig] would do the legwork of buying up the land as it came on the market. He could go over as a neighbor, he could negotiate, and we used my assets to purchase land,” Stranahan said. “We were buying up Woody Creek in little bits and pieces.”Craig and Stranahan decided to rent to Thompson what would become gonzo journalism’s Mecca. Settling in at Owl Farm, Thompson cemented his relationship with influential editor Carey McWilliams of The Nation, who had commissioned the author to write about the Angels gang. He also plunged into local politics, joining an effort that would rewrite Aspen’s social charter.In 1969, a 29-year-old hippie bike racer named Joe Edwards ran for mayor of Aspen on the Freak Power ticket, an effort by drug-addled leftists to take over the town. In a letter to a Random House publishing agent, Thompson said Edwards lost the race by one vote “out of 1,200 or so. We scared the living shit out of the Aspen Power Structure (the Ski Corp, Atlantic-Richfield and the Institute, with a board of directors including Paul Nitze, Robert McNamara … and more fat Washington names than would fit on this page).”A year later, Thompson ran for sheriff. Helping run the campaign were Michael Solheim and Ed Bastian, a longtime neighbor and friend who had recently been in charge of six states in New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential campaign.

“The sheriff’s campaign in ’70 was really important for us and really important for this community,” Bastian said. “It marked a transition for Aspen, which up until that point had been old-school, conservative … in the sense that a few powerful people in the community would control the destiny of everybody – that commercial interest would take precedence over environmental interest, and we changed that. And the legacy is still there.”Thompson would help shape a powerful movement to thwart developers hoping to capitalize on the town’s fast-rising fame. Real estate prices were soaring and Aspen was beginning its road to fur, fashion and wealth.The trend was spreading to Woody Creek, but many residents refused the profitable overtures and turned to active resistance. A caucus was formed to speak for Woody Creek, and its influence would shape an environmental ethos that helped preserve Aspen’s and Woody Creek’s character.”I think Hunter saw the caucus as a platform to deal with greater issues that affected the whole community – the whole community being the Roaring Fork Valley and sometimes even broader than that,” Stranahan said.Thompson was riding the insurgent influence of Freak Power, a description he endorsed, but not before noting the slogan’s irony given the political climes at the time. On the back of a campaign poster from 1970, he wrote, “In truth, that phrase was a crude, but super-effective piece of political theatre – which worked too well, so now is the time to bury it and move on to the serious action: the task of returning local government to the people who live in this valley, instead of greedheads – and their local agents – who only want to invest here.”Which raises a point about Freak Power that I’d like to make before we close the coffin. For some reason that has to embarrass me as a writer, I failed to make it clear that I use the word ‘freak’ in a positive, sympathetic sense. … This is the real point: That we are not really freaks at all – not in the literal sense – but the twisted realities of the world we are trying to live in have somehow combined to make us feel like freaks. We argue, we protest, we petition – but nothing changes.”Something did change in that election, however. “We had about 46 percent of the vote,” Bastian said. And the groundwork was laid for growth controls that were later approved by the Pitkin County commissioners, one of whom was Edwards. And the sheriff’s office would never be the same. Thompson ultimately lost, but his close friend Dick Kienast would win the sheriff’s election in 1974. “Dick Dove and his Deputies of Love” ushered out the old-boy system in favor of a more tolerant style of policing.

Whether Thompson was spewing vitriol at someone who had wronged him or simply needling a friend, his writing was often hilarious. His rabid sense of humor and desperation rubbed off on others.He wasted little time in replying to author Tom Wolfe, a new journalism colleague who had told Thompson that the Italian people thought Hunter was crazy. On a book tour, Wolfe had been trying to explain “Hell’s Angels” to audience members.Thompson replied,”You decadent pig. Where the fuck do you get the nerve to go around telling those wops I’m crazy? You worthless cocksucker. My Italian tour is already arranged for next spring & I’m going to do the whole goddamn trip wearing a bright red field marshall’s uniform & accompanied by six speed-freak bodyguards bristling with Mace bombs & when I start talking about American writers & the name Tom Wolfe comes up, by god, you’re going to wish you were born a fucking iguana!”Asked what the world of journalism will remember most about Hunter, Wenner said, “The freshness and honesty of the voice.”He said Thompson’s often rude, abrupt and hostile mannerisms were part of his character.”Some people are quick to anger and they’re also very quick to forget. [It’s] just a temperament. He was not a careless or reckless person by any means. He was a very thoughtful and methodical individual.” Asked how Thompson handled deadlines and expense accounts, Wenner laughed loudly. “Well, there were exceptions.”He would work right to the very, very end of the deadline. He’d meet it, but he’d go to the very end.”In “Fear and Loathing in America,” his second volume of letters, Thompson sent a steady stream of complaints about the business side of Rolling Stone. “I am tired beyond the arguing point with this insane haggling over every goddamn nickel, dime & dollar.”

Asked about the quarrels, Wenner said, “We would drag it out quite a bit. But he never submitted outrageous expense accounts.”After living away from Woody Creek for several years, Bastian moved into a home just above Thompson’s spread in 1989. The relationship between the reunited friends would literally save Bastian’s life. The author “once helped save my life when I was basically dead of a bee sting,” he said.”He came rushing up to the house and applied his own unique brand of artificial respiration. I discovered [Hunter’s efforts] later, because after the paramedics came and brought me back to life, I discovered this really bad pain in my chest. I was informed later that Hunter was pounding on my chest trying to will me to live as I was lying there motionless on the floor.”Asked how Hunter knew that Bastian was in trouble, he said that “Bobby Braudis, my other best friend, heard the 911 call. Bob immediately called Hunter and Hunter immediately came over, got there before the ambulance and went to work. He had his unique brand of medicine that he could apply to almost any circumstance and you would have to just roll with it.”And so would the wildlife. Thompson once told a reader that he felt little remorse for blasting a mother fox in front of its brood to protect his prized peacocks that strut about his property. As for bears, whether they lived or died came down to manners.”Right now I am focused on going out in my dark front yard and shooting a bear who weighs five hundred pounds and is into a feeding frenzy … I don’t want to kill the bear, I just want to sting it in the ass and make it move along. I am a territorial man, and I have been here longer than the bear has.”Asked whether Thompson’s explosive late-night antics involving homemade bombs would alarm him, Bastian said he usually slept well because “I lived out of the trajectory.”Bradley of “60 Minutes” said his friendship with Thompson formed easily. “I moved to first Aspen and then Woody Creek [where he still has a home] because of Hunter. We’ve been friends from the day we met.”

He first read Thompson’s work 33 years ago while on assignment for CBS News in Vietnam. Thompson was covering the 1972 presidential campaign between longtime nemesis Richard Nixon and George McGovern for Rolling Stone magazine. His third book, “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail,” would soon emerge.”My sources of news were the Armed Forces Radio Network, the international editions of Time and Newsweek magazines, and then I would go out to the commissary and pick up Rolling Stone,” Bradley said. “I would read Hunter’s coverage of the campaign, and I thought it was at the same time brilliant and hilarious. The way that he weaved himself into coverage of a political campaign was just astonishing. “He managed to get in the way of the story if you judge him by standard journalism practices. But when it came to unearthing the story, he came right to the heart of the problem. He did that so well.””He did in writing what Ralph Steadman did in his drawings,” Bastian said. “Ralph provided a visual caricature in order to provide a deeper reality, and Hunter used words as a verbal caricature in order to reveal deeper truths.”Bastian believes he understands at least some of the reasons behind Thompson’s suicide.”I always thought Hunter would take charge of his own ending. He basically tempted fate and lived many lives, and got away many times in his life. I think he realized there was no more getting away as one nears his stage in life, and the best thing he could do for himself – and probably in his own sense of compassion for those around him – was to proactively end his life. I have to honor that.”Stranahan said the last time he and Hunter spoke was during the Super Bowl earlier this month. There was a party at the author’s residence, an event filled with wagering.”I was deeply saddened, but I’m not shocked by Hunter. It’s no surprise that Hunter would shoot himself,” he said. “And he would know exactly how and when to do it. He was deliberate.”

“It’s indescribable how sad it is,” Wenner said. “I was surprised. In retrospect it’s not surprising, it makes complete sense. He always talked about suicide. I think he didn’t want to live a life of physical disability.”Bradley expressed remorse that so few of Thompson’s fans realize the craftsmanship and energy that he exerted when he wrote.”Unfortunately I think most people will remember Hunter’s wild life and style. The fact of the matter is Hunter was a very, very good reporter and at times brilliant writer, and someone with an eye who could discern whatever the subject matter was. That ranged from politics to sports.”One column in the ‘Hey, Rube’ book stands out. What he wrote the day of 9/11 is so insightful. I read it sitting in [his] kitchen this summer, and looking back on that terrible day and seeing what he wrote then off the top of his head was just amazing,” Bradley said. “I’ve watched him work at crafting a story. He just doesn’t spew forth and what you write is what you get. He [went] over every line, every paragraph.”Wenner said editing Thompson involved helping “him structure what he was doing. He was very grateful about that and he was not a difficult person to edit in that sense in any way.”Of all the stories about crooked presidents, thieving politicians, self-induced, drug-laden insanity, gambling, sports and the general decline of civilized mankind, Stranahan said his most memorable Hunter tale is one the author conjured up for his son.”My kid Ben was 3 or 4, and Christmas was coming. Hunter left a long Christmas story for my son, written out in handwriting,” he said. “And that’s the kind of tenderness he could do. But then the story went something like Ben wakes up in the morning and goes to look at the chimney to see what is hanging in the stocking. And all he sees is the blood dripping down onto the fire. And the story goes on … I guess Santa in a fit of pique has jammed a reindeer down who has died in the fireplace and is stuck there and the blood is dripping. So there was that tender Christmas story for a little boy. That was Hunter.”The silence wasn’t total on the night Hunter S. Thompson filed his last story after 67 years. The Roaring Fork was faintly audible in the distance. And then there it was: the call of peacocks.The loud chattering penetrated the darkness, a wild noise made by a creature unafraid of the black void of night. It was a sound that could only have originated at Owl Farm.Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is chad@aspentimes.com


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