High Times Greats: Hunter S. Thompson
The good doctor tells all in this 1977 interview.
In the September, 1977 issue of High Times, Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) discussed Carter, cocaine, adrenaline and the birth of Gonzo journalism with interviewer Ron Rosenbaum. In honor of Thompson’s birthday July 18, we’re republishing it below.
The first time I met Hunter Thompson was back in 1970, at the America’s Cup yacht race where Hunter had chartered a huge power yacht and was preparing to sail it full steam right into the middle of the race course. (This was shortly after his spectacular but unsuccessful run for the office of the sheriff of Aspen, Colorado, on a mescaline-eating “Capitalist Freak Power” ticket.) When I arrived on board the huge yacht, I found Thompson ensconced on the command deck, munching on a handful of psilocybin pills and regarding the consternation of the snooty Newport sailing establishment with amusement.
We never did manage to cross the path of the cup contenders and Scanlan’s magazine went bankrupt before Hunter wrote up the whole fiasco, but I did learn one thing: this is a guy who understands the importance of perspective. He rode with the Hell’s Angels—and got himself a nasty beating in the process of getting a unique perspective on them. He loaded his car, his bloodstream and his brain cells full of dangerous drugs to cover a conference of drug-busting D.A.s and turned that experience into Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a brilliant exploration of the dark side of the drug scene at the peak of Nixon’s power.
When he covered the 1972 presidential campaign as national affairs editor for Rolling Stone, Thompson’s special deadline-and-drug-crazed “Gonzo” journalism—his own patented mix of paranoia, nightmare, recklessness and black humor—would fill nervous secret service agents with fear and loathing on the campaign trail. Ever since then, Thompson’s become a kind of national character with millions of people following the exploits of “Uncle Duke”, in the “Doonesbury” comic strip.
This year too, Thompson had another very special but very different perspective: he’s widely reported to have become close to Jimmy Carter and to Carter’s inner circle from the time back in 1974 when he heard Carter’s now-famous Law Day speech. But curiously, there have been more articles speculating about Thompson—his relations with Jimmy Carter and Jann Wenner—this year than by him. He’s never put his own role into perspective until now.
High Times: How have your attitudes toward politics changed since you wrote about the ’72 presidential election in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail?
Thompson: Well, I think the feeling that I’ve developed since ’72 is that an ideological attachment to the presidency or the president is very dangerous. I think the president should be a businessman; probably he should be hired. It started with Kennedy, where you got sort of a personal attachment to the president, and it was very important that he agree with you and you agree with him and you knew he was on your side. I no longer give a fuck if the president’s on my side, as long as he leaves me alone or doesn’t send me off to any wars or have me busted. The president should take care of business, mind the fucking store and leave people alone.
High Times: So you developed a tired-of-fighting-the-White-House theory?
Thompson: I think I’ve lost my sense that it’s a life or death matter whether someone is elected to this, that or whatever. Maybe it’s losing faith in ideology or politicians—or maybe both. Carter, I think, is an egomaniac, which is good because he has a hideous example of what could happen if he fucks up. I wouldn’t want to follow Nixon’s act, and Carter doesn’t either. He has a whole chain of ugly precedents to make him careful—Watergate, Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs—and I think he’s very aware that even the smallest blunder on his part could mushroom into something that would queer his image forever in the next generation’s history texts…if there is a next generation.
I don’t think it matters much to Carter whether he’s perceived as a “liberal” or a “conservative,” but it does matter to him that he’s perceived—by the voters today and by historians tomorrow—as a successful president. He didn’t run this weird Horatio Alger trip from Plains, Georgia, to the White House, only to get there and find himself hamstrung by a bunch of hacks and fixers in the Congress. Which is exactly what’s beginning to happen now, and those people are making a very serious mistake if they assume they’re dealing with just another political shyster, instead of the zealot he really is. Jimmy Carter is a true believer, and people like that are not the ones you want to cross by accident.
I’m not saying this in defense of the man. but only to emphasize that anybody in Congress or anywhere else who plans to cross Jimmy Carter should take pains to understand the real nature of the beast they intend to cross. He’s on a very different wavelength than most people in Washington. That’s one of the main reasons he’s president, and also one of the first things I noticed when I met him down in Georgia in 1974—a total disdain for political definition or conventional ideologies.
His concept of populist politics is such a strange mix of total pragmatism and almost religious idealism that every once in a while—to me at least, and especially when I listen to some of the tapes of conversations I had with him in 1974 and ’75—that he sounds like a borderline anarchist…which is probably why he interested me from the very beginning; and why he still does, for that matter. Jimmy Carter is a genuine original. Or at least he was before he got elected. God only knows what he is now, or what he might turn into when he feels he’s being crossed—by Congress, the Kremlin, Standard Oil or anything else. He won’t keep any enemies list on paper, but only because he doesn’t have to; he has a memory like a computerized elephant.
High Times: Did you ever have any ideology in the sense of being a liberal, a conservative…or were you an anarchist all along?
Thompson: I’ve always considered myself basically an anarchist, at least in the abstract, but every once in awhile you have to come out of the closet and deal with reality. I am interested in politics, but not as ideology, simply as an art of self-defense—that’s what I learned in Chicago. I realized that you couldn’t afford to turn your back on the bastards because that’s what they would do—run amok and beat the shit out of you—and they had the power to do it. When I feel it’s necessary to get back into politics, I’ll do it, either writing about it or participating in it. But as long as it’s not necessary, there are a lot of better ways to spend your time. Buy an opium den in Singapore, or a brothel somewhere in Maine: become a hired killer in Rhodesia or some kind of human Judas Goat in the Golden Triangle. Yeah, a soldier of fortune, a professional geek who’ll do anything for money.
High Times: You’ve received a lot of flak for your enthusiasm about Jimmy Carter’s Law Day speech in Athens, Georgia. Do you still like Carter?
Thompson: Compared to most other politicians, I do still like Carter. Whether I agree with him on everything, that’s another thing entirely. He’d put me in jail in an instant if he saw me snorting coke in front of him. He would not, however, follow me into the bathroom and try to catch me snorting it. It’s little things like that.
High Times: In that Law Day speech, Carter quoted Bob Dylan. Do you really think Carter cares about Bob Dylan’s music the way we do?
Thompson: I listened to Bob Dylan records in his house, but that was mainly because his sons had them. I don’t think he goes upstairs to the bedroom at night, reads the Bible in Spanish while listening to Highway 61.
High Times: Why haven’t you written anything about Carter and the ’76 campaign trail?
Thompson: I was going to write a book on the ’76 campaign, but even at the time I was doing research, I started to get nervous about it. I knew if I did another book on the campaign, I’d somehow be trapped.
I was the most obvious journalist—coming off my book on the 1972 campaign—to inherit Teddy White’s role as a big-selling chronicler of presidential campaigns. I would have been locked into national politics as a way of life, not to mention as a primary source of income….And there’s no way you can play that kind of Washington Wizard role from a base in Woody Creek, Colorado. I’d have had to move to Washington, or at least to New York…and, Jesus, life is too short for that kind of volunteer agony. I’ve put a lot of work into living out here where I do and still making a living, and I don’t want to give it up unless I absolutely have to. I moved to Washington for a year in 1972, and it was a nightmare.
Yeah, there was a definite temptation to write another campaign book—especially for a vast amount of money in advance—but even while I was looking at all that money, I knew it would be a terminal mistake. It wasn’t until I actually began covering the campaign that I had to confront the reality of what I was getting into. I hadn’t been in New Hampshire two days when I knew for certain that I just couldn’t make it. I was seeing my footprints everywhere I went. All the things that were of interest last time—even the small things, the esoteric little details of a presidential campaign—seemed like gibberish the second time around. Plus, I lost what looks more and more like a tremendous advantage of anonymity. That was annoying, because in ’72 I could stand against a wall somewhere—and I’d select some pretty weird walls to stand against—and nobody knew who I was. But in ’76, Jesus, at press conferences, I had to sign more autographs than the candidates.
Through some strange process, I came from the ’72 campaign an unknown reporter, a vagrant journalist, to a sort of media figure in the ’76 campaign. It started getting so uncomfortable and made it so hard to work that even the alleged or apparent access that I had to this weird peanut farmer from Georgia became a disadvantage.
High Times: You became a public figure?
Thompson: Thanks to our friend Trudeau.
High Times: Did Garry Trudeau consult you before he started including you as the Uncle Duke character in “Doonesbury”?
Thompson: No, I never saw him; I never talked to him. It was a hot, nearly blazing day in Washington, and I was coming down the steps of the Supreme Court looking for somebody, Carl Wagner or somebody like that. I’d been inside in the press section, and then all of a sudden I saw a crowd of people and I heard them saying, “Uncle Duke.” I heard the words Duke, Uncle; it didn’t seem to make any sense. I looked around, and I recognized people who were total strangers pointing at me and laughing. I had no idea what the fuck they were talking about. I had gotten out of the habit of reading funnies when I started reading the Times. I had no idea what this outburst meant. It was a weird experience, and as it happened I was sort of by myself up there on the stairs, and I thought: What in the fuck madness is going on? Why am I being mocked by a gang of strangers and friends on the steps of the Supreme Court? Then I must have asked someone, and they told me that Uncle Duke had appeared in the Post that morning.
High Times: So all this public notoriety was a burden in trying to return to the campaign?
Thompson: It was impossible because there was no way for me to stay anonymous, to carry on with what I consider my normal behavior, which is usually—in terms of a campaign—either illegal or dangerous or both….It was generally assumed that I was guilty—which I was.
High Times: So eventually you found that refuge in a kind of band of brothers?
Thompson: What? No, I have never had much faith in concepts like “a band of brothers”—especially in politics. What we’re talking about here is a new generation of highly competent professional political operatives and also a new generation of hot-rod political journalists who are extremely serious and competitive during the day, but who happened to share a few dark and questionable tastes that could only be mutually indulged late; at night, in absolute privacy….
Because no presidential candidate even wants to know, much less have to explain at a press conference, why rumors abound that many of his speech writers, strategists and key advance men are seen almost nightly—and sometimes for nine or ten nights in a row—frequenting any of the two or three motel rooms in the vortex of every primary campaign that are known to be “dope dens,” “orgy pads” and “places of deep intrigue.”
They simply don’t want to hear these things, regardless of how true they may be—and in 1976 they usually were, although not in the sense that we were running a movable dope orgy, right in the bowels of a presidential campaign—but it was true that for the first time, there was a sort of midnight drug underground that included a few ranking staff people, as well as local workers and volunteers, from almost every democratic candidate’s Staff, along with some of the most serious, blue-chip press people…and it was also true that some of the most intelligent and occasionally merciless conversations of the whole campaign took place in these so-called dope dens.
Hell, it was a fantastic luxury to be able to get together at night with a few bottles of Wild Turkey or Chivas Regal and a big tape deck with portable speakers playing Buffett or Jerry Jeff or The Amazing Rhythm Aces…yeah, and also a bag of ripe Colombian tops and a gram or two of the powder; and to feel relaxed enough with each other, after suffering through all that daytime public bullshit, to just hang out and talk honestly about what was really happening in the campaign—You know, like which candidate was fatally desperate for money, which one had told the most ridiculous lie that day, who was honest and who wasn’t.
In a lot of ways it was the best part of the campaign, the kind of thing I’d only be able to do with a very few people in 1972 and ‘68. But in ’76 we were able—because there were enough of us—to establish a sort of midnight-to-dawn truce that transcended all the daytime headline gibberish, and I think it helped all of us to get a better grip on what we were really doing.
I could illustrate this point a lot better by getting into names and specific situations, but I can’t do that now for the same reason I couldn’t write about it during the campaign. We all understand that, and the very few times I even hinted at this midnight underground, I did it in code phrases—like “tapping the glass.”
High Times: Tapping the glass. I wonder if you could explain that?
Thompson: Well, that’s one of those apparently meaningless code phrases that I use in almost everything I write. It’s a kind of lame effort to bridge the gap between what I know and what I can write without hurting my friends—sort of working on two or three levels at the same time.
High Times: So if you go back and read your stories, a scene where you talk about “tapping the glass” with Carter campaign staffer “X”…
Thompson: Right. That means chopping up rocks of cocaine on a glass coffee table or some mirror we jerked off the wall for that purpose—but not necessarily with one of Carter’s people. The whole point of this wretched confession is that there were so many people tapping the glass in the ’76 campaign that you never knew who might turn up at one of those midnight sessions. They were dangerously nonpartisan. On any given night you would meet Udall and Shriver staffers, along with people from the Birch Bayh and Fred Harris campaigns. Even George Wallace was represented from time to time; and, of course, there was always the hard corps of press dopers.
High Times: That’s amazing. You were covering this media-saturated presidential campaign during the day, then snorting coke at night with all those hotshot politicos?
Thompson: They weren’t very hotshot then.
High Times: OK. But since we’re talking about drug use during the ’76 campaign, it’s obvious we’re talking about people who are now in the White House, right?
Thompson: Well…some of them, yes. But let’s get a grip on ourselves here. We don’t want to cause a national panic by saying that a gang of closet coke freaks are running the country—although that would probably be the case, no matter who had won the election.
High Times: Times are definitely changing, eh? But since Carter won the election, let’s focus on him for a moment.
Thompson: Well, why not? Let’s see how thin a wire we can walk here, without getting ourselves locked up….Indeed, and meanwhile let’s rent a big villa in the mountains of Argentina, just in case my old friend Jimmy is as mean as I always said he was. Anyway, yeah, we’re talking about at least a few people in the White House inner circle; not Cy and Ziggy and that crowd, the professional heavies who would have gone to work for anybody—Carter, Humphrey, Brown. Shit, they’d even work for me, if I’d won the election.
High Times: The inner circle of Carter’s people are serious drug users?
Thompson: Wait a minute, I didn’t say that. For one thing, a term like serious users has a very weird and menacing connotation; and, for another. We were talking about a few people from almost everybody’s staff. Across the board….Not junkies or freaks, but people who were just as comfortable with drugs like weed, booze or coke as we are—and we’re not weird, are we? Hell no, we’re just overworked professionals who need to relax now and then, have a bit of the whoop and the giggle, right?
High Times: Weren’t they nervous, or were you nervous, when you first started doing coke together?
Thompson: Well, I suppose I should have expected the same kind of difference between, say, the ‘72 and ’76 campaigns as I saw between ’68 and ’72. When I went to New Hampshire in ’68 I was a genuine unknown. I was the only person except for Bill Cardozo who would smoke weed, ever. I mean in the press. In ’72 it was a revolution in that sense, and people in the press openly smoked hash and did coke. So I should have expected it in ’76, but I hadn’t really thought of it. It stunned me a little bit in ’76 that coke was as common as weed had been in ’72 and almost right out in the open, used in a very cavalier fashion. As I say, in 1972 it was a fairly obvious consistent use of the weed by McGovern’s people, in ’68 it was McCarthy, but this time it was across the board.
High Times: In a way, what you’re saying is that it was a kind of truth-telling substrata of drug users, and that’s why you couldn’t write stories about it.
Thompson: Yes, for the first time I was really faced with the problem of knowing way too much.
High Times: Was this a good or a bad thing?
Thompson: I think it was good. It allowed people who would never under the circumstances have been able to sit down, get stoned and talk honestly about whether they should even be working there.
High Times: People are always asking how did you get away with it. Why aren’t you in jail with all the stuff you write about drugs on the campaign trail? Do you feel that the secret service was specifically tailing you after you started writing these articles about all the dope you had taken?
Thompson: No. I made my peace with the secret service early in ’72 when I went to a party in the Biltmore Hotel here in New York after McGovern’s primary victory, and there were about ten agents in a room. Three of them were obviously passing a joint around. The look on their faces when I walked in there…all of them turning to look when I walked in…it was a wonderful moment of confrontation. I didn’t want to be there, they didn’t want me in there. Immediately they just crushed the joint and tried to ignore it. But the room was obviously full of marijuana smoke.
High Times: And everybody knew that you knew.
Thompson: Oh yeah, of course. But I decided not to write about it—at least not right away.
High Times: Was there ever any kind of trouble with the secret service after that?
Thompson: No trouble at all, except when they tried to bar me from the White House during the impeachment thing. I called the guards Nazi cocksuckers or something, and in order to get in the White House I had to promise not to call anybody Nazi cocksuckers. I just waved my hand at the White House itself, you know, with Haldeman inside. I kind of got off that hook. And then I promised not to call anyone Nazi cocksuckers, and they let me in.
High Times: Some of your fans wonder if you ever make up some of the bizarre incidents you describe. You’ve said that all the outrageous drugs you did and things you did in your Las Vegas book were true, except the notorious incident where you supposedly paralyzed yourself with adrenochrome extract from live human adrenal glands.
Thompson: If I admitted that it was true, it was tantamount to admitting that I was a first-degree murderer of the foulest sort, that somebody would kill a child in order to suck out the adrenaline.
High Times: But in the book you didn’t say that you killed the kid. You just said that you got it.
Thompson: That’s right. I said that my attorney had gotten it from a client of his. What I was doing was taking what you normally feel from shooting adrenaline into the realm of the extremely weird.
High Times: Have you ever had that feeling? Shooting adrenaline?
Thompson: Oh, yes. Whenever it was necessary. Sometimes nothing else works. When you really have to stay up for the fifth day and fifth night…and nothing will work, not even black beauties. Then you shoot adrenaline. But you have to be very careful with it. First, don’t ever shoot it into a vein. That’s doom. But even then, you’ve got to be very careful because you can drive yourself completely berserk, and I’m sure it would be just the way I described it in Las Vegas.
High Times: I always thought you were talking in metaphorical terms when you said, “I like to work on the adrenaline.”
Thompson: Yeah, but usually my own. I’m really an adrenaline junkie; I never get anything done without the pressure of some impossible deadline.
High Times: How would you describe the adrenaline high?
Thompson: At its best it’s one of the most functional of all the speed sort of drugs in that it has almost no rush unless you overdo it, and almost no crash. I never considered speed fun. I use speed as fuel, a necessary evil. Adrenaline is much smoother and much more dangerous if you fuck up. I fucked up one time in a motel in Austin, Texas. I was very careless, and I just whacked the needle into my leg without thinking. I’d forgotten the vein thing, and after I pulled the little spike out, I noticed something was wrong. In the bathroom the tile was white, the curtain was white—but in the corner of my eye in the mirror I looked down and saw a hell of a lot of red. Here was this little tiny puncture, like a leak in a high-powered hose….You could barely see the stream. It was going straight from my leg and hitting the shower curtain at about thigh level, and the whole bottom of the curtain was turning red.
I thought, oh Jesus Christ, what now? And I just went in and lay down on the bed and told the people in the room to get out without telling them why; then I waited 20 minutes and all I could think of was these horrible Janis Joplin stories: you know, ODing in a motel…Jim Morrison…Jimi Hendrix…needles. And I thought, oh fuck, what a sloppy way to go—I was embarrassed by it. But after 20 minutes nothing happened. Then I really began to get nervous and I thought, oh God, it’s going to come all at once. It’s a delayed thing, like those acid flashbacks they’ve been promising all these years.
High Times: When are we going to have them?
Thompson: I’ve been waiting for a long time.
High Times: Once I asked a friend of yours why you are so attracted to Carter, and this guy says, well, Carter’s basically in a lot of ways a conservative good old boy and so is Hunter. Do you think that’s true in some ways, or that you’re a good old boy that’s gone weird?
Thompson: That sounds better. Good old boy gone weird. That’s a good line anyway. I wouldn’t deny that; I would just as soon admit it.
High Times: You had a fairly straight upbringing in Louisville, Kentucky, didn’t you?
Thompson: Well, I was a juvenile delinquent, but a straight juvenile delinquent. The kind that wore white bucks, buttoned-down Oxford cloth shirts, suits. It was a good cover to use to rob crowded liquor stores. I discovered then that it helps to have a cover. If you act as weird as you are, something terrible is bound to happen to you, if you’re as weird as I am. I mean if I looked like I thought, I wouldn’t be on the streets for very long.
High Times: Were you ever busted?
Thompson: Yeah, repeatedly. I learned about jails a lot earlier than most people. On about ages 15 through 18 I was in and out of jails continually. Usually for buying booze under age or for throwing 55-gallon oil drums through filling station windows—you know, those big plate glass windows. And then I was expelled from school once—for rape, I think. I wasn’t guilty, but what the hell. We were in the habit of stealing five or six cases of beer on weekends to drink. That night was the Friday night after my expulsion. We did our normal run and stole about five or six cases. We took one of them and put it on the superintendent of schools’ lawn at one o’clock in the morning and very carefully put 20 whole bottles right through every pane in the front of his house. We heard them exploding inside, and they must have gone mad—you hear them in the bedrooms, in the living room, every window was broken. I mean, what kind of thugs would do that? Twenty-four hand beer bottle grenades…to wake up and hear the whole house exploding! Which window is going to be hit next? We deliberately took about ten minutes to put them through there because we knew they’d never get the cops there in ten minutes.
High Times: Makes you feel someone’s out to get you. Twenty-four bottles of beer, that’s heavy. So you were into overkill when making statements?
Thompson: That wasn’t overkill. It was massive retaliation, the court of final resort. I was expelled for something I hadn’t done or even thought about doing.
High Times: What is your favorite drug experience?
Thompson: Well, there are very few things that can really beat driving around the Bay Area on a good summer night—big motorcycle, head full of acid—wearing nothing but a T-shirt and a pair of shorts and getting on that Highway 1 going 120 miles an hour. That’s a rush of every kind—head, hands—it’s everything put in a bundle. Because first of all, it’s a rush, and also it’s maintaining control and see how far I can go, how weird I can get and still survive, even though I’m seeing rats in front of me instead of cops. Rats with guns on…
High Times: How do you handle something like that?
Thompson: I never know. It’s interesting, always a different way. Mainly it’s figuring out real fast whom you are dealing with, and what their rules are. One of the few times I ever got in trouble, I wasn’t drunk or pumped up. I had a loaded .44 magnum in the glove compartment, a bottle of Wild Turkey open on the seat beside me, and I said, well, this is a good time to try that advice a hippie lawyer gave me once—to pull down the window just a crack and stick out my driver’s license. So I started to do that. I was just getting it out, when all of a sudden the door on the other side opened. I looked around, and here was a flashlight glaring right in my face, and right beside the flashlight was a big, dirty .57 magnum pointed at me. They didn’t give a fuck about my license. They jerked me out of the car and pushed me up against the side. I said something about my constitutional rights, and they said, “Well, sue us” or something and kicked my legs. So I gave it up and eventually I paid a $35 fine, because it’s easier than arguing. I had just bought the car. It was a Saab. The night before I had pushed my English Ford off a cliff in Big Sur, 400 feet down to the ocean, to get even with the bastard for all the trouble it caused me. We filled it with gasoline and set it on fire just before it went over the edge.
Ever since then I have made it a point to be polite to the California Highway Patrol. I have a National Rifle Association sticker on the back window of my car, so that any cop on the driver’s side has to pass that and see it. I used to carry a police badge in a wallet, and that helped a lot.
High Times: I reread Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas last summer. I loved it, but I felt it was really a sad book filled with regret for the passing of the San Francisco scene.
Thompson: No, not really. But I think almost any kind of humor I like always has a touch of melancholy or weirdness in it. I seem to be alone, for instance, in considering Joseph Conrad one of history’s great humorists.
High Times: Were you also down on the drug experience in that book?
Thompson: No. I kind of assumed that this was sort of a last fling; that Nixon and Mitchell and all those people would make it very soon impossible for anybody to behave that way and get away with it. It wouldn’t be a matter of a small fine. Your head would be cut off.
High Times: So it’s a real exploration of terminal paranoia.
Thompson: Well…It was kind of a weird celebration for an era that I figured was ending.
High Times: Maybe you can tell us the true story of the birth of Gonzo journalism. It was the Kentucky Derby story you did for Scanlon’s magazine in 1969, right?
Thompson: I guess it’s important to take it all the way back to having dinner in Aspen with Jim Salter, a novelist who had sort of a continental style. It was one of those long European dinners with lots of wine, and Salter said something like, “Well, the Derby’s coming up. Aren’t you going to be there?” And I thought, well, I’ll be damned. That’s a good idea.
I was working at the time for Warren Hinkle at Scanlon’s magazine. So I immediately called Hinkle and said, “I have a wonderful idea, we must do the derby. It’s the greatest spectacle the country can produce.” It was 3:30 in the morning or something like that, but Hinkle got right into it. By that time I’d learned to hate photographers; I still do. I can’t stand to work with them. So I said we’ve got to get an illustrator for this, and I had Pat Oliphant in mind. Hinkle said fine, you know, do it.
In an hour’s time the whole thing was settled. Oliphant wasn’t available, but Ralph Steadman was coming over on his first trip to the U.S. and it was all set up that I would go to Louisville and do the advance work, and Ralph would meet me there later.
I think I took off the next day. The whole thing took less than 24 hours. I got there and of course found that the place was jammed, there were no rooms and it was out of the question to get a press pass. The deadline had been three months earlier. It took me about two days to get two whole press kits. I’m not sure exactly how I did it. I traded off the outrage, which was so gross, that somebody from a thing called Scanlon, which we told them was an Irish magazine famous all over the world, was sending a famous European artist to illustrate the derby for the British Museum, weird stuff like that. They agreed to give me two of everything except passes to the clubhouse and the drunk tank—I mean the blue-blood drunk tank at the center of the clubhouse. That’s where Goldwater and all the movie stars and those people sit. The best seats in the house. They wouldn’t give us those. So I think we stole those.
In any case, we got total access to everything, including a heavy can of mace…Now this is bad, this is ugly. The press box is on the roof, directly over the governor’s box. And I had this can of mace, I’m not sure why…maybe for arguments; mace is a very efficient way of ending arguments. So I’d been fondling the can in my pocket, but we couldn’t find any use for it—nobody threatened me. I was kind of restless. Then just before the derby started we were standing in the front row of the press box, up on the roof, and just for the hell of it I blasted the thing about three times about 100 feet straight down to the governor’s box. Then I grabbed Ralph and said let’s get out of here. Nobody maces the governor in the press box. It’s not done. It’s out of the question. I have no idea what the hell went on in the box when the stuff hit because we took off. That was sort of the end of the story.
About two days later. Ralph had all the drawings done, and I stayed on to write the story, but I couldn’t get much done. That goddamned Kent State thing happened the Monday after the derby; that was all I could think of for a while. So I finally flew up to New York, and that’s when the real fear started. Most of the magazine was either printed or on the press out in San Francisco—except for my story, which was the lead story, which was also the cover story, and I was having at the time what felt to me like a terminal writer’s block, whatever the hell that means.
I would lie in the bathtub at this weird hotel. I had a suite with everything I wanted—except I couldn’t leave. After three days of not writing more than two pages, this kind of anxiety/depression syndrome builds up, and it really locks you up. They were sending copy boys and copy girls and people down every hour to see what I had done, and the pressure began to silently build like a dog whistle kind of scream, you know. You couldn’t hear it but it was everywhere.
After the third day of that horrible lockup, I’d lie in the tub for three hours in the morning drinking White Horse scotch out of the bottle—just lying in the tub, feeling like, “Well, I got away with it for a while, but this time I’ve pushed it too far.” But there was no alternative; something had to go in.
Finally I just began to tear the pages out of my notebooks since I write constantly in the notebooks and draw things, and they were legible. But they were hard to fit in the telecopier. We began to send just torn pages. When I first sent one down with the copy boy, I thought the phone was going to ring any minute, with some torrent of abuse from whoever was editing the thing in the New York office. I just sort of sat back and watched TV.
I was waiting for the shit to hit the fan….But almost immediately the copy boy was back and wanted more. And I thought, “Ah, ha, what’s this?” Here’s the light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe they’re crazy, but why worry? I think I actually called Hinkle in San Francisco and asked him if he wanted any more pages and he said, “Oh, yeah. It’s wonderful stuff…wonderful.’’ So I just began to tear the fucking things out. And sometimes I would have to write handwritten inserts—I just gave up on the typewriter-sending page after page right out of the notebook, and of course Hinkle was happy as 12 dogs. But I was full of grief and shame; I thought this was the end, it was the worst hole I had ever gotten into. And I always had been almost pretty good about making deadlines—scaring people to death, but making them. This time I made it, but in what I considered the foulest and cheapest way, like Oakland’s unclean touchdown against Miami—off balance…they did it all wrong…six seconds to go…but it worked.
They printed it word for word, even with the pauses, thoughts and jagged stuff like that. And I felt nice that I hadn’t sunk the magazine by failing to get the story done right, and I slunk back to Colorado and said oh fuck, when it comes out I’m going to take a tremendous beating from a lot of people.
But exactly the opposite happened. Just as soon as the thing came out, I started getting calls and letters. People were calling it a tremendous breakthrough in journalism, a stroke of genius. And I thought, What in the shit?
One of the letters came from Bill Cardozo, who was the editor of the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine at the time. I’d heard him use the word Gonzo when I covered the New Hampshire primary in ’68 with him. It meant sort of “crazy,” “off-the-wall’’—a phrase that I always associate with Oakland. But Cardozo said something like, “Forget all the shit you’ve been writing, this is it; this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling.” Gonzo. Yeah, of course. That’s what I was doing all the time. Of course, I might be crazy.
High Times: Is it sheer intelligence?
Thompson: Well, it’s more than that…Let’s not forget now I’ve had at least ten years of paying dues. I know I have some talent, whatever that means. Some people are good at money and some people are good at basketball. I can use words to my advantage, which is a great trick to have.
High Times: Are there some things in your notebooks you can’t put in your stories?
Thompson: All the best stories are unwritten. More and more I find that I can’t tell the whole truth about events. I have one book I’d like to write, and the rest will have to be done to pay the fucking rent. That’ll be the one where there’ll be no question if anybody’s lying. Well, there will be some question, but the truth is usually a lot weirder than anything you can make up. I’ll make sure that it dooms as many people as possible—an absolutely true account, including my own disaster and disappearances. To hell with the American Dream. Let’s write it off as a suicide.