Cry of the Broken Romantic

How Hunter S. Thompson saved me from the 70s.

By Steve Burgess 1 Mar 2005 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Fear of imitation is something writers and composers share. Outright theft is one thing, but the neurotic writer will constantly worry about George Harrison Syndrome, the kind of subliminal plagiarism that transmutes He’s So Fine into My Sweet Lord. When I was starting out as a writer, I used to worry about the shame and embarrassment that would result if I were ever caught inadvertently channeling my writing hero, Hunter S. Thompson.

As it turned out I couldn’t have written like Hunter S. Thompson anyway because, luckily for me, I wasn’t Hunter S. Thompson. I feel luckier about that all the time as new details of the gonzo journalist’s suicide emerge—his widow has now reported that he shot himself during a phone conversation with her. Nice touch. A lighter note emerged with the news that he wanted his ashes fired from a cannon. Pretty cool, but it would be even better if they skipped the cremation and fired the bloody corpse instead. Perhaps through the living room window of some hated local greed-head.

I discovered Thompson not through his emblematic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but via his election chronicle Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. It was a magical discovery. Thompson’s book followed the dogged, inspiring, miraculous, but ultimately cataclysmic presidential campaign of South Dakota Senator George McGovern. Thompson had been serendipitous enough to hook up with McGovern when he was at 5 percent in the polls, only to see him revolutionize the Democratic Party system on his way to capturing the party nomination.

Turning fury into laughs

By happy chance I too had glommed onto McGovern early, albeit from a safer distance. As a precocious 13-year-old follower of U.S. elections I had chosen the anti-war crusader as my early champion, watching him ride to glory and then straight over the cliff with banner flying, defeated by the poisonous political paranoid Richard Nixon. The fact that McGovern’s crushing defeat would eventually rebound to crush its author was some solace, but by that time McGovern’s words were largely forgotten. No one wanted to admit they’d been warned.

So the discovery that some Rolling Stone journalist has watched the ride from the front row was enough to hook me into buying Campaign Trail ‘72. Then I started reading. Naturally I had never read anything like it—there was nothing like it to read. Thompson turned fury into comedy. Never had a scalding stream of vitriol made me laugh aloud until I read lines like “Hubert Humphrey is a gutless old ward-heeler who ought to be stuffed into a bottle and sent out with the Japanese current.” Forgive me if I have that a bit wrong—I’m quoting from memory. The book burned into my young brain at a very impressionable age.

For a young teenager afflicted with an all-too-common early 70s malaise, the feeling of having been born just a few tantalizing years too late to join the party, Hunter S. Thompson was the perfect voice. He’d been to the party, confirmed for us that it was great, and was now spitting with rage at the tawdry way in which it had all ended. Thompson watched it all happen with that dark horror he dubbed “fear and loathing”—the rise of the inexplicable Nixon, the cold fear that, as an American, he walked amongst the placid, terrifying drones who had voted him into the Oval Office. The drug-induced paranoia that makes one feel alone in a sea of dumbly hostile suits dovetailed neatly with the sense that something truly sinister had taken political control of the nation. Thompson’s drug-induced angst seemed a sane response to the times.

Chest beater in chains

His fury and his methods were often over-the-top. I particularly loved his straight-faced fabrication that mainstream Democratic presidential candidate Edmund Muskie was hooked on an obscure Brazilian drug called Ibogaine. Thompson backed it up with photos of a normal-looking Muskie, a wide-eyed, open-mouthed Muskie, and a sleeping Muskie, labeling the photos “Before,” “During,” and “After.” Thompson expected his readers to understand that he was singling out targets for their political nature. Like Bible stories, many of Thompson’s attacks were meant to be interpreted, not as facts, but for the larger truths they spoke to.

Thompson’s fury was righteous. He wasn’t some political Don Rickles, tossing out insults for fun. His rage was the rage of angels, the cry of a broken romantic. Nixon was every bit as bad as Thompson said he was. Thompson had credibility with me, so that when he poured invective on Hubert Humphrey, a man I knew until then only as the genial “Happy Warrior” of Democratic politics, I was inspired to dig deeper and discover how Humphrey had alienated the left by embracing the Vietnam War as Lyndon Johnson’s vice–president. I didn’t have to sign on to every Thompson vendetta, but at least I knew where they came from.

Like so many beloved rock and roll acts whose later albums disappoint, Thompson’s writing began to lose its luster. Eventually he came to seem depressingly like his many imitators, a man ranting by rote. Like King Kong in chains, he growled for the applause of a pleasantly frightened crowd.

Was he for real?

I had often harboured the fantasy that “crazy Hunter S. Thompson” was merely a character—after all, who told us that Hunter Thompson was a drug-addled madman? Hunter Thompson did. But while his stories of insane behaviour were clearly embellished (at the very least), Thompson’s drug and alcohol intake seems to have been pretty much as described. Many witnesses confirm it. On his rare talk show appearances he mumbled like the Pope. He was not slated to age well.

Which is in no way an endorsement of shooting yourself while talking on the phone to your wife. But the man had a fine grasp of his own myth. Unlike the weasels he despised, Hunter S. Thompson never lied to us. As a young fan I hope I absorbed something of his truth-telling style. There are worse role models.

Steve Burgess filed this from somewhere deep in Vietnam.  [Tyee]

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