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.
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.
Bankrate: Is there anything you wouldn’t bet on?
Hunter S. Thompson: Well, I don’t do much betting when I go to Las Vegas. I don’t like the machines. You know what’s going to happen when you go in there, on the numbers. If you bet every roll of the dice, if you can live through your bad times, the odds are you’ll come out pretty close to even, but if you don’t bet on all of them, you never can tell how you’re going to come out. You bet on, well, not hunches; I’ve been in this business a long time, you’re bound to learn something.
(At this point, Thompson takes another call, also on speakerphone, from a friend who tells him he just saw Hunter’s appearance on an old episode of “To Tell the Truth.”)
Hunter S. Thompson: Holy s—! No, that was my second appearance. I was on an earlier afternoon show, really early, like 1961, and Johnny Carson was the interviewer. I thought I was pretty cool; I saw an ad in the New York Times. It was a show where you paired up with a strange woman, in my case, but the point of it was, you made $50. If you have a good story and you want to tell it on TV, come on.
Bankrate: Sounds like “Who Do You Trust?”
Hunter S. Thompson: Yeah, that must be it, I guess. And when the cameras came on, my knees began to knock. I had read about that and heard about it, people’s knees knocking, and goddamn they actually were. And I looked over at the host, and I didn’t know Carson from Jim Baker, and he saw that I was trembling and shaking and he calmed me down. But I still lost the main prize.
Bankrate: Among your many bizarre encounters, your limousine ride with Richard Nixon during the 1972 presidential campaign was surely a high point.
Hunter S. Thompson: Oh, boy. The Raiders were playing against the Packers, which was Nixon’s team, and nobody else on the press bus could talk about it, they were afraid of Nixon on football. He was known to be a hard rocker and very involved. And (press secretary) Patrick Buchanan — I’ve always liked Patrick Buchanan — he was looking for somebody to ride with the boss and talk football, and these other guys, political wizards, nobody volunteered. I was the only one on the press bus who volunteered.
Bankrate: You’ve been pretty outspoken in your dislike of our current commander in chief.
Hunter S. Thompson: I was candid about Nixon, too.
Bankrate: Yet you say Nixon pales in comparison to George W. Bush.
Hunter S. Thompson: Oh, yeah, he looks almost like a liberal. You look at the Clean Air Act and several others back then. Nixon was a crook but at least he operated off of an individual base. But this yoyo, this stupid little … It’s cheap opera. Take a look at your pocket. Take a look around you. It’s a hold-up, a looting of the national treasury, and that’s what they’re doing. The combined spending of the Kerry campaign is far less than $5 million for advertising. Five million dollars, that’s like a goddamned Susan Anthony dollar compared to $60 billion that is just routine going out to Halliburton. We might lose if we went to war with Halliburton.
Bankrate: You are neighbors with Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador and longtime Bush family friend featured in Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
Hunter S. Thompson: I can see him from my front porch. He’s been a pretty good neighbor; that counts for a lot out here. He will shoot some skeet now and then. I don’t want to say anything really ugly about him. He’s an enlightened plutocrat, I guess you call it. Michael Moore is dead right on that, and it’s even worse than you think. Bandar. All kinds of roads cross out here. Networks and wires.
Bankrate: The Bush Administration seems to have lit your fuse. Are you angry again?
Hunter S. Thompson: Very angry. I’m very angry. That’s why I guess I have to write this (campaign) piece for Rolling Stone. This is the darkest hour that I have seen in my long experience as an American. This is evil.
Bankrate: As a betting man, what to you think of John Kerry’s chances?
Hunter S. Thompson: If there is an election on schedule — if — I would say 60-40 Kerry right now. I think if we can get the sportswriter’s vote, the dope fiend’s vote and the Grateful Dead vote, that would make a big difference. Hating Bush is not enough. You’ve got to vote now in self-defense. If we have another administration like this, it will be so bad that what’s happening now will look like a small breakfast for what’s coming next.
Bankrate: Are you surprised at where you find yourself in life?
Hunter S. Thompson: No. Not at all. I mean, the fact that I’m here at all, yeah. But since I’m here, I’m not surprised. If you’re going to be crazy, you have to get paid for it or else you’re going to be locked up.