Sunday, February 20, 2005

Notes on the Passing of an American Giant

It is with great sadness...
It is just about a quarter after 10 on a stormy night here on the Pacific Coast. I have only known about the apparent suicide of Hunter S. Thompson for about 15 minutes.

It is with a deep sense of sadness and regret that we here at the Wire must join with others in announcing the passing of an American Giant. It is hard to accurately put into words the personal sense of loss I am feeling at this moment. Since high school, Thompson's writings have been part inspiration, part sacred wisdom, part taboo cultural meme, part call to arms against the forces of evil and dumbness.

But to do the Doctor any real justice I would have to start by quoting Voltaire, as Hunter did when he penned his obit of Richard Nixon: "To the living one owes respect, to the dead, one owes only truth."

With that in mind, I must say that it had occurred to me recently that Thompson might not have long left. Between his nearing 70 years old, his nearly obsessive self-destructive streak, and his penchant for making enemies in high places, I was starting to worry that this news might be coming at some point.

It is not easy to take in any context, but I am sad that he apparently took his own life. There were obviously other circumstances that pushed him to this extreme. But in the end, he died as he lived; completely on his own terms with no apology or explanation, because friends don't need it and enemies won't believe it.

There is a need for the Human mind to ascribe a reason to a senseless act like this. Many scenarios crowded my head immediately. My inner conspiracy theorist immediately jumped to several versions of the "assissinated" scenario, others that quickly suggested themselves were terminal/chronic illness diagnosis, drug induced psychosis, untreated manic depression...

The truth is that we may never know why Hunter took his own life, and if that's how he wanted, I am compelled by a strong sense of respect to leave it at that... "res ipsa loquitor" as the Doctor might have said; "the thing, it speaks for itself."

Whatever the reason, I want -- no, need -- to believe that Hunter is in a better place. If I am saddend, it is more for those of us now left behind.

An American Giant
Who will fill this void? Hunter Thompson was a giant who cast his shadow long across a generation of American news reporters, who at once were inspired by him and simultaneously feared what he represented.

Thompson was a Titan who trod on a road of bones, absolutely fearless of anything -- editors, sources, political enemies. If there was a truth out there that needed to be said, or even if he just thought it needed to be said, Hunter said it. Many American news reporters admired that, but at the same time felt a sense of dread and shame when they heard it.

His style of journalism, although professionally eschewed in mainstream newsrooms, was envied by most journalists as a the righteous unleashing of a lethal writing machine fueled by an audacious combination of guts, brains and compassion in a relentless, ruthless pursuit of the truth about the Ameircan condition; an unflinching chronicler of our times ... the truth, no matter what.

In spite of whatever drug or neuro-disease fueled mania drove some of Thompson's wilder ramblings and made him seem less a reporter than a self-obsessed drug addict constantly bemused and amazed at his own survival, the truth was that he was doing what many of us instinctively felt we should be doing, but lacked the testicular fortitude to lace 'em up on a daily basis and get after it like Thompson did.

I never got to meet Thompson, or see him in a public appearance, but his influence over my work, my choice of career, my personal politics, are a constant subtext to who I am. Not that I tried to be a Thompson clone, there are far too many of those; but his writing talent and his relentless pursuit of a story were talents to be emulated.

Because you always knew if you fell short of the true religion, there would be Thompson casting his judgements upon you from his highly fortified compound, heaping his contempt upon those fakes, rubes and fools who were not pure enough to join in a noble pursuit, now corrupted by whores, pimps and simpletons unworthy of the name "journalist."

Thompson once wrote about the dynamics of a biker funeral. He said that their funerary rites were an affirmation among the tribe that their numbers were now lessened by one and that for those who keep score, like journalists and bikers, that their their circle was now smaller and the forces arrayed against them pushed in a little closer today than yesterday...Our world is a little darker today than yesterday, and we are poorer for it.

Reading through his ersatz obit of Oscar Acosta, I often wondered if the same kind of left hand whipsong might not be made of Thompson's passing. As he said of Acosta, Hunter was a preacher, and it was that basic instinct that ruined him for anything else. Cranking himself so full of acid that he could properly walk with the King, coming closer to finer, higher truths, which he could then bring back, to exchange for more acid, indeed the full circle...

He was a high powered mutant, one of God's own prototypes, never even considered for mass production. It can, and will be said truthfully and with great respect that he stomped upon the terra.

And when you think about it, was it likely to end any other way? No, no "prolonged illness" bed ridden in a hospital for Hunter Thompson, no cheesy dope-influenced car crash, or sleazy homicidal love triangle... Those would have been too easy, too cheap. This way, it wa poetry, however dark and sad...

He bought the ticket and took the ride...

And in many corners he will be missed, especially in Woody Creek, where it is said that every light in town dimmed when we heard that Hunter had cashed his check.

Mahalo, Hunter ...

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