Tuesday, November 20, 2012

From the same volcano as Hunter Thompson

The Present Is Well Out of Hand - by artist Ralph Steadman

What's missing today is Hunter Thompson's voice. His searing wit and cutting edge writing was always a calming influence that told me there was an adult in the room. Without his countenance, we are in over our heads.

Below is a slightly revised piece I wrote following his death:

On February 20, 2005 (has it been that long already?) journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson, who unleashed the concept of "gonzo journalism" in books like "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," is alleged to have fatally shot himself in the head at his Woody Creek home near Aspen, Colorado.

I’m still thinking Hunter would have wanted a better exit. Despite the problems he was having with his health, he was still a dramatist who would have wanted a better ending. 

Most scribes have penned their versions of HST’s demise.  I did not know him. I moved in a different circle in Aspen, a town of 3,500 during the summer and 35,000 during the winter. He was the almost-Sheriff of Pitkin County. I was a newly hired journalist out of the University of Colorado in Boulder hired by the city council, more or less. The conservative citizens funded Aspen Today, a weekly to go up against Thompson's backers, who ran The Aspen Times

In 1970, I was a callow, timid newspaperman. My first job was to sell advertising. My second job was to write articles  and take photos to counter Hunter Thompson’s influence after his well-publicized run for Sheriff of Pitkin County earlier that summer. 

I also delivered the newspaper, and did what was necessary to project Aspen as tourist Mecca with a heart of gold.

I knew Aspen because our family vacationed each summer at nearby Glenwood Springs Resort, on the shore of the Roaring Fork and also the final resting place of Doc Holiday. 

Aspen in those pre-Hunter Thompson, days, was a sleepy modest town where if you were the father of a teen-aged girl you wouldn’t worry that she would come back from vacation with anything worse than a sunburn. The folk hero of the day was Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., the poster boy in town, who sang wholesome folk songs to fresh-faced kids around the campfire. 

Occasionally, a third rate-lounge singer from Vegas would come to town and croon show tunes for summer tourists in a circus tent pitched near the gazebo in a glade made into a park. 

European tourists showed up with tennis rackets, wearing fur on the hottest days. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band backed up Steve Martin who played banjo in a pub. A touring band called the Eagles would play for beer in a small labyrinthine den. The only famous writer in Aspen at the time was Leon Uris (Exodus), who became a friend and taught me how to ski.

Guys arrived in old pickup trucks with their Husky mixed breed in the back barking. Some girls drove from Boston on their way to Berkeley in a VW van full of weed.  Later, I was to marry one of them at Ashcroft, near Aspen.

Many were transplanted and came to Aspen just to hang out selling real estate in the summer and ski lift passes in the winter. Most people never settled. They just carried their lives in boxes for all the places they would be moving to. 

The town was made up of the rootless, restless and in-betweens. For those who wintered and summered it was a status thing to actually own ZG license plates because you knew you were at the right moment in history.

By 1970, the town was split down the middle between the “greedheads” and the “hippies”. There was little middle ground in a town of misplaced characters who watched local politics like most regular people watched sports.

The Aspen Times, our rival community paper, had supported Hunter Thompson and other left-leaning candidates who very nearly pitched the land-owning, right-leaning merchants out on their lederhosen. This was well described in Thompson's The Great Shark Hunt.

The Times ran smart social commentaries and pithy political diatribes about class war in Aspen. What we wrote about was hard to determine because the ink ran so badly it was hard to tell where we stood on issues. Compared to the Times we looked like the poor country cousins who rode into town on a melon truck. Our paper was supported by the greedheads, and privately we called our paper the Aspen Toady

I read the Times to find out what was really going on in town. This meant being in touch with what Hunter Thompson was doing or saying. As the Roaring Fork Valley’s most celebrated politician, he made the news, he didn't write about it. Back then, few of us imagined he’d become the writer he did or that his books would become treasured totems for us.

By 1972, Hunter Thompson had left local politics for the national campaign trails and Rolling Stone, which would make him famous. Occasionally he would come back to Aspen, which I think, was his Muse, an unrelenting and ambitious god who gave him the privilege of remaking journalism in his own image. Here, he was living the script we wished we had written for ourselves. In Aspen, his life was sprawling, epic, tormented and comprised much of what eluded the rest of us.

Jack Kerouac, from a previous generation, said we’d run out of road in America in the 50s, but HST would take us the extra mile in the 70s. He defied the bright and shining lie of the American mythology. Hunter Thompson would ride that comet further into the darkness of the next several decades. 

By 2005 we were minted and coined as dross and far removed from Aspen. Hunter had become a truculent man at Owl Farm, luckless Hunter S. Thompson, who, at the end of his life, succeeded in becoming a cartoon but failed at becoming a brand.

Today, workers in Aspen are bused into town like apartheid workers or third-class Irish in steerage. The town has been divided into dozens of gated “green zones” separating the super-rich from the under-class. 

The former grocery store is a fur coat shop. Pitkin County is one of the ten richest counties in America, safe harbor for ultra-right greedheads and presidential candidates who make Richard Nixon look like the day manager of  a small town bank.

The worst possible fear Hunter S. Thompson could have devised for “Fat City” in 1970 had become manifest in 2005. 

More than once Hunter must have looked out from the Owl Farm toward the horizon where George W. Bush led the country into ruin.  I imagined him shouting his last words, were something like “We are utterly fucked!”

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