Thursday, September 8, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson was a Friend of Mine, but John Denver was not

I first encountered Hunter S. Thompson through his seminal work in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (F&LILV). Since you, dear reader, are either too young to have been born when the book was published, or too addled to remember the 70's, I should explain: F&LILV was the story of Thompson and his "lawyer" as they attempted to cover a motorcycle race in Las Vegas for Sports Illustrated magazine while carrying every form of the deadliest, most noxious and toxic "recreational" drug known to exist at the time. A bottle of ether rolled around on the floor of the front seat of the convertible they drove in, but neither Thompson nor his driver could probably have told you who was actually behind the wheel. Hallucinations drove the trip, mostly.

It wasn't so much the drug use that attracted me to the story though, it was Thompson's style. His blatant disregard for the publisher, his editor, and even for his reader. He invented "Gonzo Journalism" and perfected it, all in one slim paperback volume (or two part story in Rolling Stone, if you read the original story in the magazine in 1971, as I did).

I was so fascinated by Thompson, that in 1976, when I was a few years out of high school and seemed hell-bent on trying to beat Thompson's record for "most illegal pharmaceuticals consumed by someone passing as a citizen," that I took a ride with a few friends to Aspen, Colorado.

Those last precious days in Aspen before it became the place for the rich and stupid to hang out were a perfect place for a vagrant minor to try to score some beer, some smoke, some 'shrooms, or some freaking food, at least, man. I traveled with my paramour Carol, who later became the woman who still tolerates me when I'm out of my mind, and our two friends Joe and Marty. We arrived in a broken-down van Joe had bought from the gas company for a hundred bucks that only he could drive, because the steering box was so out of alignment that only he knew when to correct the wheel to keep us from tipping over or running completely off the road.

Our evenings consisted of hanging out in the town mall playing guitar (Carol and Marty) and Blues Harmonica (me) for whatever coins we could scrape up to buy a shower at the public pool the next day, and maybe some food. Usually there would gather a loose congregation of guitar players, fiddlers, mandolins, drums, and whatever other hand-made acoustic instruments were around. Inevitably a crowd would show up. Marty was a great guitarist, and Carol was no slouch at keeping up with him.

Me, well I was in Aspen, a mile and a half straight up from my usual oxygen supply, wheezing with bronchitis or whatever illness we'd all picked up that week. I was a pretty good harmonica player, but I played softly when I wasn't pulling a solo, and only loud enough to be heard by those folks close to me even then.

One individual in particular seemed to take a liking to my style and kept prodding me from behind to "play a little louder". He wanted to encourage me to let it all out and overpower the ten or twelve other musicians in the square for his personal enjoyment.

"Play a little louder, dude. You're pretty good"

Aside from the two miles of altitude between me and a deep breath, there was also the pack and a half of Marlboros I smoked every day that were making me a little dizzy as I tried to cater to my one and only fan.

"C'mon on, man, that was far out!"

That's when I snapped. I turned to the guy with his little wireframed glasses and bowl-shaped haircut and yelled, "Man, I'd play a thousand times better if you would just kindly fuck right off!"

The poor schmuck slunk away, and all the music came to a sudden halt. As the guy turned the corner around the drug store, every musician and local Aspenite in the square burst out with wild applause and laughter.

"I don't get it. What's the joke?" I asked.

"Man, You just told John Denver to go fuck himself! That was SOOOOOOOOO COOL!!"

Aw crap. My one big shot at stardom. Oh well.

Now, that's a pretty good story right there, and you're probably wondering what that has to do with Hunter S. Thompson. Well, the week we were in Aspen, so was the democratic primary debate. The ecological, hippy-friendly mid-70's pinpointed Aspen as the best place to get all the candidates together to debate the issues of the day.

I happened to hear that Hunter S. Thompson was going to be there to follow the candidates on another assignment for Rolling Stone magazine (a sequel to 1972's "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail"), and there was no way I was going to miss meeting him in person. I wanted to tell him what a great inspiration he'd been for me, or at least what a great hallucination he might turn out to be for me. It probably would have depended on the time of day, and the number of mushrooms we'd ingested by then...

I wandered over to the press area. A long series of tents had been set up, and there was no way I was going to be able to get in, since I certainly didn't have credentials. Mind you, this is decades before 9/11, but only a few years post-MLK and RFK, so there was at least some security in place. I laid eyes on an older, tall, bald guy with a bunch of badges hanging off a lanyard on his neck and asked him straight out if he'd seen Hunter.

"Well," he said, "the last time I saw Hunter was this morning as we were all preparing to board the press plane to fly up here to Aspen. We all turned right to the gate, and he turned left to a bar. I couldn't hear what he was saying, since he mumbles so much of the time, but it was something about not flying with bison at the controls and taking a train with an emu in charge instead."

Oh yeah. That's my guy.

Mr. Credentials continued, "Are you with the press?"

"Oh yeah," I flat out lied, "I'm with the Lansing Star. I came to interview Hunter for the paper."

"Hunter may catch up with us in Albuquerque tomorrow, but I wouldn't bet on seeing him today. If you'd like, I can get you an interview with my candidate."

"Your candidate?" I asked.

"Yes, I'm [Oh yeah, like I'm gonna remember this guy’s name 30 years later as buzzed as I was then], I'm the campaign manager for Morris Udall."

I'm thinking to myself, "Morpheus Uhaul? Wha' th' huh?" but I managed to actually say out loud, "Thanks, but I'd better stick with my assignment." And walked away.

At the time, Morris Udall was the democratic front-runner for the nomination. His campaign would later falter and he would lose the nomination to some peanut farmer from Georgia named Jimmy Carter, who would then go on to beat the only president of the United States who was never elected to be the president of the United States, my home town boy, Jerry Ford.

So I never met Hunter S. Thompson on that trip. I never met the guy who wanted to be president of the United States, and while I did get to meet John Denver, he probably didn't think it went all that well. I'm pretty sure he wasn't going to invite me to play on his next album then.

It makes it all the sadder now to read Hunter's suicide note. Thompson was in a lot of pain from back surgery, a hip replacement, a broken leg, and all the accompanying pain and misery that comes from a life lived well, or at least lived hard.

"No More Games. No More bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun -- for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax -- This won't hurt."

You were wrong, man. It did hurt. It does hurt. You know, no matter how bad it hurts every day, there's always tomorrow. Now you missed your chance to meet me. You blew my chance to meet you, and thank you for making me laugh, and giving my writing style little wings to make my readers laugh and cry.

Yeah, it hurts to get up in the morning. It hurts when there are so many things you love to do that your body just won't let you do any more. I'm not 50 yet, but I don't care how many years I get, I'm not ever going to give up. IF I live to be 50, or 67, or 90, I'm gonna do what us humans do: Keep trying.

You listen to the little black box of the planes that crash. All those pilots keep trying to do their job, right up to the last moment. I bet John Denver was working on doing the job when his little plane hit the surface of the Monterey Bay and sank.

So, Hunter, you were a friend of mine. John Denver wasn't. Maybe you'll get to meet John Denver before I do. Tell him I admire him for going out doing what he loved to do instead of giving up and taking the easy way out. And tell him I'm sorry I was so rude, would ya?