NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Remembering Journalism’s True Outlaw

Hunter S. Thompson Was Last of a Breed

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

He was cursing, kicking the elevator door and trying to heave his huge duffel bag into the elevator car. “C********r!” he finally said triumphantly with another solid kick from his size 13 or so black Keds tennis shoe. Hunter S. Thompson (aka Doctor Gonzo) and I were attempting to exit the Rolling Stone magazine offices to try to get him checked into New York City’s venerable Plaza Hotel, just across Fifth Avenue from Rolling Stone World Headquarters.

After a long front desk adventure, we finally got settled into a suite at the Plaza. Hunter first turned on the TV up loud, called room service for a case of cold Heineken and a fifth of Wild Turkey, opened a fifth of Turkey he had in his overflowing olive drab duffel bag, produced a boom box from within the duffel and slapped on a Stones tape — louder than the TV — and poured us each a hefty water glass full of Turkey. After room service — wide-eyed — departed, Hunter pulled out a gram of coke and a razor blade and began chopping. A knock at the door. The first Hunter groupie — a young female art department assistant from Rolling Stone — came strolling in, to “discuss the story’s layout.” There would be more. Managing editor Harriet Fier began making routine visits to Hunter’s suite to “peel them off,” as she later said.

Hunter was on deadline, a deadline he would narrowly make.

Fellow Rolling Stone editor David Felton often interpreted and polished Hunter’s stuff and whipped it into linear shape for him, but he was unavailable, so I was deputized to keep a sort of Hunter watch to make sure that the level of madness stayed fairly civilized and to ensure that he had what he needed and stayed out of jail and remained within sightline of the office. On his previous deadline visit to New York, he had been holed up in an office at Rolling Stone and the spectacle was rather unsettling, especially to the younger staff members who were unaccustomed to the sight of a grown man, a famous writer actually, locked up in an office — locked in from outside — with bottles of Wild Turkey shuttled in and a wastebasket to urinate in, with alternate howls and growls and dark mutters being heard from within, over spells of ear-shattering Stones music.

Occasionally, a typewritten manuscript page would be whooshed under the door, in those pre e-mail days of typewriters. “What the hell is this?” someone, obviously uninitiated, would say in trying to decipher the pell-mell text on the page.

I lasted for 18 hours before Felton finally relieved me at the Plaza.

“You deserve combat pay,” I said, shaking his hand as I unsteadily left.

“Oh, you got the easy part,” Felton said, laughing, “Now we’ve got to really try to lash this f****r together. Jann [RS editor Jann Wenner] has threatened to cut off his room service charges till he starts filing copy. Then you’re really gonna see some trouble.”

That incident from the late ’70s is all true, but — like all journalism — it’s not the whole truth about Hunter S. Thompson, who checked himself out of this life on Sunday (Feb. 20). Hunter was a brilliant writer whose persona sometimes overwhelmed him. He was onstage literally throughout his life once celebrity hit him. And he obviously felt he owed his audience something. Every encounter with him turned into an adventure. Everything he did became an Event. I know he pretended to be amused but was touched that Texas outlaw Jerry Jeff Walker named his Lost Gonzo Band in honor of Hunter. He attracted like-minded free thinkers as well as hordes of the wannabes and sycophants, and sometimes it was hard to keep them apart.

In many ways, Hunter has always reminded me so much of Waylon Jennings, another creative genius whose inner spark drove him to excesses. Sometimes to try to prolong the spell of creation, to push it past all mortal limits, they would push themselves through days and days of staying awake and being wired to try to capture the vision they could see somewhere just ahead. Sometimes they would try to find ways to try to shut down the constant mental turmoil, to try to just get some rest. Physically and mentally and emotionally, Waylon and Hunter were, in many ways, the same man. They were both tall, rawboned, innately smart, self-taught, tough Southern men of the same generation who looked like natural athletes and whose bodies possessed incredible stamina. Both were questioners, both challenged the status quo, and both suffered for their rebellious stands.

Both were guarded and private, and both zealously tried to protect their privacy, not always successfully. Both were gentle men at heart, at once cynical but highly idealistic to the point of martyrdom. Both were seekers of the truth through their art, and both were incredibly loyal as friends. And in the end when their bodies became frail and could no longer keep up with them and began to betray them, I think both men sought release. Many friends of Waylon believe that he willed his death; Hunter obviously caused his own. As far as I know, they never met, although I was glad to know that they appreciated each other’s work. Both were true Outlaws, and they didn’t need to hire publicists to tell you that. By word and by deed, they walked their own strong, independent paths.

One of Hunter’s last compiled personal tapes included the version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s epochal 1972 album of the same name. (Hunter had also put that cut on a 1999 commercial release compilation album titled Where Were You When the Fun Stopped?, which also included cuts by Rodney Crowell, Lyle Lovett, Jimmy Buffett, Dwight Yoakam, Kitty Wells, Tanya Tucker and the Allman Brothers Band). Jimmy Ibbotson of the Dirt Band was a neighbor of Hunter and loved him until the end, even though Hunter once shot Ibbotson’s dog. Hunter had warned him that if his dog kept coming on his property and messing with his peacocks, he would shoot it. The dog kept it up. Hunter shot it. The dog survived and so did Ibbotson’s friendship with Hunter. After all, in his mind, Hunter was just keeping his word.

Although politics was Hunter’s favorite target, he once trained his eye on music and I will always treasure his assessment of the music industry: The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.

As usual, he figured the bastards out pretty quickly.