1988: Dr. Gonzo and Mr. Thompson

By Mike Martinez
Published February 11, 1988
UCSD Guardian Opinion

BACKSTORY:  As a lifelong fan of Hunter S. Thompson, dating back to “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” I was quite delighted to see his syndicated column picked up by Guardian Opinion editor, Jeff Beresford-Howe in the winter quarter of 1988. Coincidentally, he also appeared in town that January as part of a Super Bowl event weekend as San Diego hosted the NFL championship game between the Denver Broncos and the Washington Redskins.  My brother-in-law Buzz and I caught his “lecture” and the related spectacle.

When the word hit the streets that the syndicated column of Hunter S. Thompson would be appearing in the Guardian, I asked one of our writers what he thought of the Doctor of Gonzology.

“I’m not comfortable,” he admitted, “knowing that that Hunter Thompson is on the same continent.”

Well, yes – and here we go again. This sentiment aptly defines the tragic flaw in the legend of Hunter Stockton Thompson. The fine line that separated the grotesque caricature Dr. Gonzo from the legitimate journalist Hunter Thompson has been blurred for so long that much of his current audience, and especially his detractors, are unaware a line ever existed.

Even in his early sixties work, Thompson’s view of the world seemed to be from an orbit all his own. His later involvement with the Hells Angels, the Haight-Ashbury scene and the Chicago demonstrations at the ’68 Democratic Convention further shaped his alienation from the world of straight journalism.

His much heralded invention of “Gonzo journalism” at the 1970 Kentucky Derby was inadvertent, born out of writer’s block and chemical abuse. Gonzo didn’t allow for drafts and rewrites, and might devote as much space to personal consumption, exaggerations and marginal tangents as to the subject at hand. Try to imagine a writer who could expose the transparency of the “new” Richard Nixon with the same effort and eloquence he devotes to describing his afternoon breakfast of margaritas, mushrooms and cocaine.

Once Hunter built this monster, he continued exploiting it throughout the ‘70s. His stream of consciousness savaged the guilt, fear, loathing and other foibles of our politics, pro football, the Rich and Greedy, and many other foes. Here was truly a Don Quixote who tilted at more than a few lousy windmills.

It’s been often noted that Hunter Thompson’s large and devoted cult consists mostly of people who were attracted to the gossip about his lifestyle and then explored his work. Unfortunately, the gossip remained the substance for many. An interesting footnote to the legend is the inevitable, almost subconscious use of Hunter-style prose by writers profiling him. “Pacing the stage like a caged tiger on Benzedrine” is how the San Diego Union described him.

Illustration by Buzz Rodriquez
With Thompson’s recent appearance at Symphony Hall and the obligatory skewering in the Union, the beat does indeed go on. With the crowd screaming for the Monster, Hunter shambled onstage late and insisted on speaking in a high-velocity mumble. He was bombarded by hecklers, tossed a football, stalked around in a huff, talked about cashing his paycheck. In short, vintage Hunter.

A snazzy blonde and her well-heeled fixer couldn’t translate his gibberish and left in their own snit. Others strutted in period costumes from the Legend of the Monster like at some kind of rock concert. It was Circus-Circus, and even Thompson called it “feeding time at the zoo.”

Some of the questions were certainly a revelation. Giddy waterheads wanted to know if he really took acid with John Chancellor or shot Linda Ronstadt’s poodles. A few self-righteous Sixties diehards insisted on using gratuitous profanity and demanded to know what Thompson was doing with his life, and why he was selling out by writing for the San Francisco Examiner.

Unfortunately, not many of those in attendance seemed to exhibit a grasp beyond the obvious. Hunter S. Thompson is not, strictly speaking, an aural experience. Anyone who dishes out fifteen bucks for a “lecture” by Hunter gets what he deserves. He’s an intangible sensation, whether by his presence in a room or the cumulative effect of his words and metaphors after you’ve read them.

It’s not important that you believe Ed Muskie took the drug Ibogaine, or that Richard Nixon was eaten by white cannibals. That’s typical Hunter hyperbole. It is important that you feel the despair of Muskie’s 1972 presidential campaign, or sense the void in America’s passion for democracy after the Nixon years.

Hunter S. Thompson is an enigma – his name should be one if its’ definitions in Webster’s Dictionary. He may be too outrageous for some tastes, or hopelessly anachronistic, or a raving, greedy hustler in his own right. I don’t care if he’s living with wolves – as long as he still possesses ideas and motivation and the motor skills to put pen to paper. If he’s out there screeching in the wilderness, I’ll be listening.