Hunter S. Thompson:
"IT NEVER GOT FAST ENOUGH FOR ME."
You work with me not someone else
Words and photography by Sarah Feeney for
T*S*P*T*R print magazine
A 4-minute read
Without a shred of doubt or defence to the contrary, Hunter S. Thompson was a way-out mother.
He was obsessed with dynamite, guns, pranks, and oddities. He'd autograph his books with shotgun bullets, play recordings of squealing pigs outside the doors of 'Keef' Richards and Jack Nicholson, and “Shotgun Golf” was a game he invented for which there doesn't seem to be any instructions. Probably because there aren't any.
As one of America's greatest ever method-research writers, he chronicled rollicking good times, road trips and sporting events in his self-made (but not self-named) “Gonzo journalism” style: a subjective blend of fact and fiction in which the writer takes a leading role and tells the story in the first person.
Whether in or out of Gonzo mode, Thompson’s distinctive shadow is always cast across the pages of his work, confirming his presence exactly where he wants and needs it to be: smack-bang in the middle of the action. He’s mostly writing about himself. His characters are often done with mirrors.
Hunter S. Thompson was committed to his own kind of darkly charismatic ideology. His cult of drugs and speed (as in fast motorcycles, not the amphetamine), along with his self-administered bar brawls, was his own system, his own way of dealing with life and living seven days a week. Hunter S. Thompson never messed about as a part-time player — he lived a life without compromise. Not a single day off.
As a result, he admits: “I am not without scars on my brain and my body, but I can live with them” — a verbal shrug of resignation as opposed to any kind of admission of regret.
His life was one most of us would never dare be a part of, yet one with which we are all familiar. Thompson’s life and work are up close — so close we can almost smell the exhaust fumes, taste the drugs and dodge the punches. His books are spyholes through which we voyeurs can enjoy the action without getting a headache.
His most familiar works are those which offer a vicarious trip into intense and devout drug-fuelled whirlwinds. So familiar is Thompson's shopping list of stimulants, uppers, downers, poppers, bangers, hallucinogens, and legally acquired Wild Turkey (apparently his fave bourbon) that we've probably learnt more about the drugs in his work than anything else.
But then again, "drugs" is pretty much his work.
For Thompson, there isn't a point in the day where his work ends and the drugs begin. Or the end of the drugs and the work beginning. It's all just one endless mush of a far-out trip. It makes perfect sense why Thompson ended up as one of the godfathers of drug-induced literature.
In her biography: Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson, E. Jean Carroll timetables a typical day. It begins with Thompson waking at 3 pm to several glasses of Chivas Regal and oodles of Dunhill cigarettes, followed by rotating cocaine and coffee until 'lunch' at 7.05 pm, after which, at 9 pm, he 'starts snorting cocaine seriously' (I've already counted at least 7 'warm-up' snorts by this point), followed by acid and grass until, at midnight, 'Hunter S. Thompson is ready to write.' (Using his full name here suggests that by midnight he's finally achieved his literary persona.)
He writes accompanied by continuous pornographic movies and more cocaine. At 8.20 am, he goes to sleep after 'Halcyon'.
I don't know what 'Halcyon' is, but I suspect it's an Elephant tranquillizer.
But self-described as being one of his “finest addictions” was Thompson’s love of “high-speed crotch rockets”: fast motorcycles, speed, “and all its dangerous pleasures.”
Thompson was a connoisseur of motorcycles all his life. He was the owner of a much coveted 1951 Vincent Black Shadow, the more niche Bultaco Matador and the popular BSA A65 Lightning —bought, he said, at the time because it was the fastest bike available according to Hot Rod magazine.
He’s often seen astride a Harley-Davidson FXSTC Softail Custom (but I’m not sure if this was his own) and writes about riding a Kawa 750 Triple through Beverly Hills “at night with a head full of acid.” All these bikes are Fine Machinery indeed, especially the Vincent, which is in the same league as a Brough Superior (and that’s stella super-league.)
In his “addictions,” Thompson had great taste.
There's an outstanding bit of audio in the Studs Terkel Radio Archive. It's an interview between Terkel and Thompson recorded for Chicago's WFMT radio station in 1967.
In it, you can hear the distinctly unique and recognisable ‘clink’ of Thompson’s Zippo lighter as it endlessly sparks up cigarette after cigarette. (I think there are a few clinks from cubes of ice in a tumbler too. Must have been a refreshing orange juice.)
Terkel plays a clip of a young motorcyclist: “Chuck”, explaining what he gets out of riding his powerful motorcycle:
(It's) "complete control over something that's much stronger than you are and a lot faster than you are. This is the feeling I get. I enjoy, I enjoy it immensely."
It's easy to appropriate Chuck's explanation to Thompson riding his bike:
“Just drunk out of my mind….in just short pants and a tee shirt. It's a beautiful feeling”
But Thompson beats Chuck on foot, too, his endless LSD usage providing other enjoyable trips in which he is also in the grip of something potentially stronger than himself but is somehow managing to control it.
The Curse of Speed, which he claimed plagued him his whole life and to which he felt a slave, was a passion that even managed to keep Thompson off the drugs now and then, preferring instead to ride with “immaculate sanity.”
A Zen-like state I’m sure a lot of riders identify with.
With one foot unable to find his brake pedal and the other foot in the drug cabinet, Thompson is always switched on. It's a win-win.
Immersing himself into the cult of the motorcycle was relatively turnkey for Thompson. As early as 1947, the state of California was alive with American-made bikes by Harley Davidson and Indian. This motorcycle boom was mostly a product of WW2 and, later, the Vietnam War.
On returning home, most of the GIs and Vets wanted to get back to an orderly role in a “respectable” (and secure) society. But some were in no way going back to social expectations. Instead of order and routine, they wanted, or needed, more action, more distraction.
During their time in service, they'd learnt much-needed mechanic skills. (No good being in the middle of WW2 without knowing how to adjust your Sherman Tank's track tension or being unable to patch up your Huey after a search and rescue mission in Vietnam.)
With these wrenching skills and a motorcycle in place, this “action” had a place to be and, more importantly, a place to go and a place to escape from.
Throughout his youth, Thompson often meted out random displays of petty, fist-delivered retribution, usually in bars. These displays were conducted as commonly and as provocatively as “accidentally” spilling someone's beer and seem to have lacked any effective focus.
Who exactly is it he’s so furious with in the first place? Other than perhaps the man, them, the squares or himself.
His anger certainly wasn’t a result of him being a man who had lost all momentum and was not yet reconciled to that loss. Professionally and recreationally, he held on to his productivity, receiving many commissions and accolades despite, or indeed because of, the chaos caused by his addictions.
He was also getting a legal paycheck for his very particular, peculiar lifestyle and was smart enough to recognise the importance of this: "If you're going to be crazy, you have to get paid for it or else you're going to be locked up.”
Thompson’s regular bar brawls, which he had flippantly described as being: "good-fun type things" eventually became a thing of the past: “I kind of, you know, I've finally caught on”, he explained in 1967, believing violence to be futile.
But Thompson’s fascination with firearms never waned. In 2005 it was a pistol from his own collection that finally made clear the ambiguity of his desire to check out for good.
Thompson controlled his own death, doing so because he felt he'd got to the point where his advancing years and medical issues were getting in the way. “This kid is getting old," he was heard frequently muttering. Too old, it seems, to be ‘Hunter S. Thompson’ as effectively as he had done before.
Remarkably, he’d made it to the age of 67 —he's one of those legendary, oversized characters we all assume die young. It wasn't the drugs that did him in; it was his depression-induced suicide.
It can't be underplayed the damage the years of drug-taking, knocks, and scrapes had directly made to his mental and physical health. But Thompson felt that, in some way, they had kept him alive, or at least made him feel alive:
"I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me."
On checking the date that Thompson took his life, I learnt it was February 20, which, by some strange and utter coincidence, was the exact day this piece was finished.
I'm going to put that down to the ongoing cult and mystique that is Hunter S. Thompson.
"Football season is over. No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your age. Relax — This won't hurt."
Hunter S. Thompson.
As featured in T*S*P*T*R magazine
Written by Sarah Feeney
T*S*P*T*R magazine is a seasonal 136-page magazine available from the TSPTR website.
An 8-page feature of words and original photos shot and written in California during the lockdown of Spring 2020.
Writing and photography by Sarah Feeney.
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