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Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
Last night, the night that Hunter S. Thompson was apparently shooting himself (an exit somehow befitting the self-styled anarchy and insouciantly godless iconoclasm of the man) my friend “Dirty Bobby,” a magazine photographer, and I were in the kitchen of my house discussing a road trip he’d taken on a journalism assignment in Nevada. Suffice to say there was a lot of crystal meth involved, a rental car with a V-8 engine, a half-naked, semi-conscious female basketball player from UNLV, and a remake of an automatic Nazi “grease-gun,” which was fired repeatedly out the window at 80 mph.
It was the first time in my life I have ever considered the possibility that Dr. Thompson’s work might have had a questionable impact on the youth of today. This was certainly not the first of such stories I’d heard.
While there is a lot to be said for this kind of self-consuming, skid-marks-on-the-lawn-of-the-establishment behavior, most of the kids who imitated Thompson didn’t really get that he wasn’t simply depraved for the sake of depravity. Thompson may have seemed to be merely flailing violently among the vultures and wolverines wafting up from the spilled ether in his Buick floor mat, but he actually had a point: He was searching for the American dream. The twisted style in which he conducted this crusade was a reflection of how twisted he felt that dream had become.
If artists are the uninsulated emotional conductors for the rest of society, Thompson was a one-man power grid of paranoia, revulsion and defiance. He was a canary in our collective coal mine, an ulcer on our societal tongue, a warning. He was physically a big and strong enough man to recklessly embody the idea that we should all Beware of Where We Are Headed. A shuddering red flag.
Alienation was a big part of Thompson’s voice, but not (I believe) because he wanted to be alienated. HST wrote very movingly about participating in the thrillingly inclusive group energies of the 1960s. He just didn’t really fit in very well to anyone else’s scene. He was a bit too charismatic, clean-cut and bizarre on his BSA, with his cigarette holder, to blend in with the Hell’s Angels. He needed to be the center of attention too much to comfortably share the spotlight in rooms where other luminati of the day were having their moments — rock stars, politicians, the various and infamous. Thompson was trapped, somewhat, in the limbo between Journalist and Personality: the neither-nor underworld of the rock-star scribe, who wields a little too much personal gravity to yield the focus to a subject other than himself.
But nobody wanted Thompson to stop talking about himself — we loved living vicariously and seeing the world through his yellow target-range aviator lenses. He was our reluctant superhero of ultra-decadence. The contexts in which Thompson was placed (in a younger, finer world, when Rolling Stone had the balls and decency to trust the untrustworthy for the sake of Thor’s whipsong, faxed to the editor on paper napkins in scrawls illegible) were really just an excuse to hear more of him, commenting on anything. It wasn’t that his subjects were so terribly important, or even timely — his deadlines came and went — it was the verbal synapse-connections — poison flowers that could only blossom from an overheating brain: Teeth like baseballs, eyes like jellied fire … shoot the pasties off an 8-foot bull dyke and win a cotton-candy goat …
Sure, the man had been dehydrated since 1971; he needed electrolytes and proteins and Thorazine and antidepressants and probably something for his ailing joints because he probably had no cartilage in his knees or hips at all, and a whole host of other difficulties that comes of applying a lifelong scorched-earth policy to your mind and body. Thompson was old, and life had finally become sufficiently uncomfortable for him to check out.
I think it is improper and disrespectful to whine about this suicide. Thompson was in the game for a very, very long time, and I think it is a safe bet that he was never comfortable. This was a profoundly tortured guy, the smoke from whose ears always made a whole lot of exciting colors that we all enjoyed. It was a great brain to watch but you wouldn’t want to live in it, I’d aver. He was a butch motherfucker and I’d bet cash he stuck it out significantly longer than he really wanted to. Let’s face it, HST was not one for the nursing home — he’d have just stolen everyone else’s barbiturates and hurt people trying to arm-wrestle.
May the kindly trickster gods collect you, Hunter Thompson, and drive you to where the buffalo roam, where your mind can unspool itself forever and your spirit can go on groping unsuspecting tits and trashing hotel rooms. You have earned it, Golden and Immortal Son of Classic Letters. Rest in Whatever You Would Prefer to Peace. We, the filthy and leaderless children who cherish your legacy, salute you, and will honor you with every bullet fired out of our car windows toward the unmarked desert sky.
Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton. More Cintra Wilson.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)