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Hunter S. Thompson: surprised he's still here

Hunter S. Thompson

Before there was Louis Black, Dennis Miller and Chris Rock, America's reigning rant master was Hunter S. Thompson, a freestyle social satirist whose dire predictions of America's imminent descent into decadence and degradation have proven eerily correct from Watergate to Enron.

A Louisville, Ky., juvenile delinquent (he missed high school graduation because he was in jail serving six weeks for robbery), Thompson joined the Air Force to become a pilot. Instead, he found his life's calling writing highly unauthorized news and sports stories for the Eglin Air Force Base newspaper. His honorable discharge in 1957 could have gone either way.

The '60s couldn't have come along at a better time for Thompson. Revolution was in the air and the itinerant sportswriter grabbed hold of the zeitgeist with both hands, fashioning a highly subjective style of impressionistic reportage dubbed Gonzo journalism. Gonzo's chief tenet was simple: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." After all, how could you cover the psychedelic '60s without partaking of the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll of the age?

Thompson's Gonzo writing style and hallucinogenic perspective found a home at Rolling Stone magazine, where he quickly became an underground sensation. Two Gonzo novels, "Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga" (1966) and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (1971), elevated him to cult hero. Icon status soon followed when Garry Trudeau used Thompson as the basis for the character of Uncle Duke in his popular Doonesbury comic strip (for which Thompson still demands remuneration to this day).

What a long, strange trip it's been for Thompson since then. He has ridden in a limo with Richard Nixon, run for sheriff of Aspen on the Freak Power ticket and wagered endlessly on sports with such frequent drop-in guests as Warren Zevon, Johnny Depp and Sean Penn. He has assumed, on and off, the appellation Dr. in front of his name, no doubt for psychopharmacological research.

Last year, he married and relearned to walk -- twice -- after breaking his leg in a Waikiki hotel. His latest book, "Hey, Rube," a collection of weekly columns he wrote for ESPN.com, contains some of Thompson's most outrageous discourses yet.

We patched into the speakerphone at his highly fortified Woody Creek, Colo., compound for a checkup with the good doctor.

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Bankrate: "Hey, Rube," your weekly sports column on ESPN.com, kind of completes a circle for you, having started out as a sportswriter, right?

Hunter S. Thompson: A lot of people start in sports writing. It's kind of a taproot. It's great because you can use fun words, all the adjectives you can put in there.

Bankrate: Were those lean times for you?

Hunter S. Thompson: Oh, yeah, man. If you've been a sportswriter under any circumstances that are normal, you would know what that lifestyle is like, living in basement apartments.

Bankrate: Some of your funniest letters have been browbeating, expletive-dense tirades directed at editors who owed you money.

Hunter S. Thompson: Normally you get paid on newspapers or you get fired, it's a pretty clear-cut choice. But being a freelancer, you never know if the things that you send out are going to bear fruit and create a river of gold for you. They never seem to come through, and it's the weird ones that you don't expect. That's been my experience.

Bankrate: You've been particularly scathing to Jann Wenner, editor and founder of Rolling Stone.

Hunter S. Thompson: Oh Christ, yeah. Yeah, he never paid on time. Never has, never will. Ask all my good friends: You're nobody in the publishing world if you haven't been fired by Rolling Stone. Two come to mind right away, the editor of Sports Illustrated (Terry McDonnell) and the editor of ESPN.com (John Walsh). It's a really distinguished alumni. He didn't pay them either.

Bankrate: Did you jump at the chance to do a weekly sports column?

Hunter S. Thompson: I always like to have an immediate outlet. I wasn't really looking for that, but John Walsh, who has been a friend of mine for 30 years from Rolling Stone, came out here with a couple other guys. I like writing columns. The lag time between when a piece is due and when it's published can be very disturbing to me. Those small, quick ideas that pass through your mind, a column gives you an opportunity to spit them out.

Bankrate: "Hey Rube" is filled with gambling stories, one of your favorite pastimes.

Hunter S. Thompson: I like gambling. I learn a lot about people when I gamble with them. If you bet on just about every play in a football game plus the outcome of the game, it will come out pretty close to even. We make bets here while the ball is in the air all the time.

Bankrate: Did you gamble during the lean years?

Hunter S. Thompson: Well, I hate to say it, but yeah. I wasn't taking the milk money, that sort of thing, but I'm kind of a believer in gambling. Sports and gambling are just my constant factor, a red thread through my life. That's sort of a background, sports.

-- Posted: Nov. 1, 2004




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