Gonzo gone

Sonny Barger, Rosalynn Carter, Ben Fong-Torres and others remember the wild life and times of Hunter S. Thompson.


Ralph “Sonny” Barger, Hells Angel. “All show and no go”

Hunter S. Thompson wrote an article in the May 17, 1965, issue of The Nation about the Hells Angels and called it “The Motorcycle Gangs, Losers and Outsiders.” I actually liked the way it was written, even though some of the facts were exaggerated. After the article received a good reaction, Thompson came back to Oakland and hung around the clubs favorite biker bar hangouts until he and I finally met face-to-face. He told me he wanted to ride with the club and me and write a book about us. Since I liked the way he wrote, the Oakland and Frisco chapters I let Hunter hang out with the club for a price, two kegs of beer. But as time went by, Hunter turned out to be a real weenie and a stone fucking coward. You read about he walks around his house now with pistols, shooting them out of his windows to impress writers who show up to interview him. Hes all show and no go. When he tried to act tough with us, no matter what happened, Hunter Thompson got scared. I ended up not liking him at all, a tall skinny, typical hillbilly from Kentucky. He was a total fake. Hunter got along with some of the members better than me.

From “Hells Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, by Ralph “Sonny” Barger with Keith and Kent Zimmerman (William Morrow, 2000)

Charles Kuralt, broadcast journalist. “Bail”

…I knew him from Rio, where I had once lent him bail money to get out of jail after he had slugged a guy who had kicked a dog in a bar…. (1960s)

From “A Life on the Road,” by Charles Kuralt (G.P. Putnams, 1990)

Ben Fong-Torres, journalist. “Pills of unknown make and effect”

… to Palm Springs, where most of our top editors, along with a few people from advertising, and the magazines book division, were gathering at the summer home of millionaire Max Palevsky, whod become an investor in Rolling Stone two years before…

Hunter S. Thompson arrived on the second day, a Saturday. He showed up with his usual duffel bag of high-tech writing and rock and roll equipment. While the cooks and servants prepared dinner, he made the rounds, handing out pills of unknown make and effect. Thinking hed already taken a couple, the dozen or so in our party played good sports and downed ours.

By the time we made it to the dinner table, we were uniformly wasted. At one point, I held my knife and fork over my prime rib and asked for directions.

Hunter, meantime, was sober for perhaps the first time in his adult life. He hadnt taken any of the pills. We abandoned dinner and staggered into the living room to watch some films…Whatever the film was, it was sensory overload for some of us, and we escaped to the pool. There, the last sight I remembered was Hunter, in Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts, carrying a case of Roman candles in his left arm. With his right hand, he was trying to light a match, so that, in the darkness, he could read the directions on the box. (early 1970s)

From “The Rice Room: Growing Up Chinese American–From Number Two Son to Rock n Roll,” by Ben Fong-Torres (Hyperion, 1994)

Sally Quinn, journalist. “Shit, I’ve already sold this story”

Hunter Thompson was at the [CBS Morning News] studio when we arrived…

Hunter Thompson is the “political correspondent” for Rolling Stone. He is a brilliant writer and what you might call a “new journalist.” Hunter is legendary for his personal brand of journalism, where he made his name by getting “inside” Las Vegas, the Hells Angels, and American politics.

…he wasnt supposed to be there at 1 a.m. He had brought a friend, to whom I was never formally introduced, and several six-packs “to last them through the night.” Hunter was wearing his usual short-sleeved Hawaiian-print shirt, heavy-duty Keds, and his head was closely shaved, as usual.

I have an image of Hunter flapping around, but I cant really remember much else about what he did except that at one point Hughes [co-host Rudd] gently reminded him that he was here as our guest and that we just assumed he understood he was not to write about this experience.

“Shit,” said Hunter, looking bewildered. “Ive got to. Ive already sold this story to a magazine for several thousand dollars.” (New York, 1973)

From “Were Going to Make You a Star,” by Sally Quinn (Simon and Schuster, 1975)

Jerry Jeff Walker, folk-country singer. “Gonzo-ism defined”

…in honor of old friend Hunter S. Thompson, I nicknamed the band the Lost Gonzos.

I had become a fan of Hunters writing, and Rosalee Sorrells once told me, “You need to visit my friend Hunter in Woody Creek, Colorado. He loves Wild Turkey, too.”

So I did, and we spent a couple of nights roaring our tits off around Aspen and wound up singing in his living room to his peacocks.

I decided that what the band and I were doing musically, he was doing in his books. That night at his house we discussed Gonzo-ism: “Taking an unknown thing to an unknown place for a known purpose.” (mid-1970s)

From “Gypsy Songman,” by Jerry Jeff Walker (Woodford Press, 1999)

Rosalynn Carter, first lady (1976-1980). “Taken with Law Day speech”

[At] Law Day ceremonies at the University of Georgia …Jimmy…made some impromptu remarks about our system of justice as he saw it working in Georgia. He described several cases in which people had been cheated or sent to prison just because they were poor and lacked influence, and he criticized the legal establishment soundly for looking the other way while these things were occurring in front of them….

What we did not know at the time was that writer Hunter Thompson, who was visiting that day, was captivated by what Jimmy said. He had been sitting in the back of the audience, quietly sipping Wild Turkey bourbon disguised as iced tea. When Jimmy began speaking, Thompson began to ease toward the exit for a refill, but when he heard the names Reinhold Niebuhr and Bob Dylan he stayed to listen. He immediately asked the university to send him a taped copy of the speech, and for months afterward he played the tape over and over for anyone he could force to listen. Later, he came to Plains to visit us, and wrote a long article in Rolling Stone with the Law Day speech as the focal point. (Atlanta, 1974)

From “First Lady From Plains,” by Rosalynn Carter (Houghton Mifflin, 1984)

Robert Sam Anson, journalist. “His special curse”

…past midnight, in a townhouse on New Yorks fashionable East Side, a rock magazine publisher [Rolling Stones Jann Wenner] is hosting a party for his staff…

The hour is late…he is doing his best to get drunk. Standing off in a corner, trademark shades in place, stoned as usual, he looks oddly depressed. This is not his kind of crowd. Everyone appears to be over thirty. They are wearing suits and ties. None of them is stoned. And they are all so calm. That is the real problem: none of them is crazy. They wouldnt understand the demons that live in his head. He drains his glass in a gulp and orders another drink. And then another. Buy the end of the evening, he will have had many drinks, and will still be sober. It is his special curse: to be able to fill his body with alcohol and drugs, and always have it function; never to be able to blot out what he has seen, what he knows. And looking around, he knows that it is over: the revolution, the fighting, the chance to be different. The counterculture has become The Culture, and out there in the streets is the proof…. (1976)

From “Gone Crazy and Back Again: The Rise and Fall of the Rolling Stone Generation,” by Robert Sam Anson (Doubleday, 1981)

Peter Whitmer, author. “Off-duty split end”

I have been hermetically sealed inside a motel room in the Florida Keys, waiting for Hunter Thompson for nearly two days….

The tornado has passed. The spark-fest and crunching sounds subside. The silence is deafening. The auxiliary generator begins thump, thumpa, thumping, and soon everything electric starts us again, except the television. The TV just sits there glowing…

A few moments later, Hunter Thompson walks in. “What the fuck was that?” He snaps. He is tall and lean and tanned, wearing tennis shoes and an aloha shirt; he looks like an off-duty split end for the Miami Dolphins. He strides over to the television, slopping a little beer from his Heineken bottle, and stands starting at the phosphorescent set, as if its lobotomized blue eye could possibly help make order out of chaos.

“Tornado,” I say.

“Yeah. Shit, the lights were out all the way down here. Lets get some dinner.” He turns and heads out the door toward the restaurant, with all the arrogance of a guy who has just caught the winning touchdown pass against his former teammates. (early 1980s)

From “Aquarius Revisited: Seven Who Created the Sixties Counterculture That Changed America,” by Peter O. Whitmer with Bruce VanWyngarden (Macmillan, 1987)

Joe Eszterhas, screenwriter. “Not an hallucination”

I was in [agent] Guy McElwaines outer office

Hunter Thompson arrived.

Hunter Thompson? Here?

In Guy MeElwaines outer office? Wearing his Hawaiian shirt and shorts and safari hat and carrying his doctors bag? Was I hallucinating? I hadnt seen him since I left Rolling Stone.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” I said.

“In the building,” he mumbled, “heard you here. Wanna beer?”

He took out a cold Heineken from his bag and handed it to me.

“Fuck motherfuckers,” he said. “Dont take any shit, vultures, jackal screenwriters, Sunset Marquis, call me,” and Hunter was gone. (Hollywood, early 1980s)

From “Hollywood Animal: A Memoir,” by Joe Eszterhas (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)

Dana Cook is a Toronto freelance editor and literary ambulance chaser. His collage portraits of Marlon Brando, Johnny Carson, Saul Bellow and Hunter S. Thompson have appeared previously in Salon.

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