Ancient Gonzo Wisdom

Savage Journey: Hunter S. Thompson and the Weird Road to Gonzo BY Peter Richardson. Berkeley: University of California Press. 296 pages. $27.
The cover of Savage Journey: Hunter S. Thompson and the Weird Road to Gonzo

During the mid-1970s, Hunter S. Thompson was a central figure at Rolling Stone magazine. Although he did not write about music, he was its most popular contributor, and Abe Peck observed his primacy at close range. After editing an underground newspaper in Chicago, Peck worked for Rolling Stone in the mid-1970s and later taught journalism at Northwestern University. In his estimation, Rolling Stone was one of the most important American magazines of its era, and Thompson defined its nonmusical voice during the 1970s. In particular, Thompson linked readers to their youthful iconoclasm even as their tastes changed. “He kept the sparks flying when the readership was starting to settle down,” Peck said. As he did so, Thompson turned his growing renown to advantage. He began to lecture on college campuses, and though the work was easy and lucrative, he never enjoyed it. Rather than delivering speeches, Thompson limited himself to answering questions, which were often submitted in advance. Sensing that audiences were drawn to his alter ego, Raoul Duke, he played that role onstage. That approach, one of his friends noted, had the added benefit of masking Thompson’s shyness in public.

Even as Thompson flaunted his penchant for drugs and alcohol, those appetites were beginning to hamper his literary production. The Dexedrine he relied on to maintain his literary output was no longer producing the desired effect, and he began using cocaine after the campaign book appeared. Before that time, editor David Felton said, Thompson considered cocaine “a bullshit drug.” In short order, however, it became part of his writing process. It sometimes turned his brain into cement, Felton said, and he began to struggle with flow and continuity. No one described Thompson as a drunk—indeed, he was famous for holding his liquor—but he had been drinking all day, every day, for decades. Despite his amazing constitution, his habits were finally taking their toll—not only on him, but also on the colleagues who worked with him. “When Hunter had problems,” Felton said, “they became your problems. And they could be quite excruciating.”

Thompson’s lifestyle affected his professional decisions as well his writing process. At one party, Joe Klein suggested that Thompson write a novel. Gesturing to the drugs, Thompson replied, “Well, if I did that, I’d have to give those up.” Other colleagues also tried to offer advice. During one of Thompson’s slumps, Rolling Stone editor Paul Scanlon suggested he put Raoul Duke behind him and start producing again. By way of reply, Thompson pulled a tab of LSD out of his wallet, tore it in half, put one half back in his wallet, and washed the other half down with his beer. The gesture signaled an unwillingness both to check his drug use and to refashion his public image. Although he felt constrained by that image, much as Fitzgerald felt trapped by his Jazz Age persona in the 1930s, it was now his most valuable asset. Rather than abandon it, he would seek new ways to monetize it, especially as writing became more problematic.

Oscar Acosta persuaded Thompson to cover the Chicano movement in Los Angeles. While Thompson was researching “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan” the two men drove to Las Vegas, and Thompson returned with the beginnings of his Gonzo masterpiece.
Oscar Acosta persuaded Thompson to cover the Chicano movement in Los Angeles. While Thompson was researching “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan” the two men drove to Las Vegas, and Thompson returned with the beginnings of his Gonzo masterpiece.

The editorial support Thompson received at Rolling Stone reflected his stature as well as his diminishing attention to literary craft. He later admitted he had not produced a second draft of anything after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Every subsequent assignment, Wenner noted, became “a full-out siege.” Wenner had to be available to read copy and talk to Thompson for hours before the story came together.

Generally the lede was easy, describing the invariably dramatic weather wherever he was writing from. Then a flurry of headlines and chapter headings and the transitions he had to produce on demand to create the flow and logic, and always, sooner or later, the conclusion which we always called “the Wisdom.”

“Editing Hunter required stamina,” Wenner added, “but I was young, and this was once in a lifetime, and we were clear on that.”

The magazine supported Thompson in other ways as well. Office staff lined up hotel reservations, airline tickets, and rental cars. They found locations for Thompson to finish his stories, preferably somewhere isolated and with a good bar. In addition to hiring researchers, handlers, and assistants, the magazine flew in IBM Selectric typewriters with the correct typeface.

Back at the office, Thompson’s copy arrived in eight-to-ten page bursts over the Xerox telecopier, which he called the Mojo Wire. Each page took seven minutes to print. When the transmissions were complete, editors spread out the fragments and assembled them into a cohesive piece. In some cases, his wife Sandy retrieved discarded drafts from the waste basket, ironed them, and fed them into the telecopier. Thompson was usually grateful for the editorial help, but one Rolling Stone staff member recalled waiting for his copy to burble slowly out of the telecopier, only to discover the transmission’s full content: “Fuck you.”

The most detailed description of Thompson’s modus operandi was produced by Robert Love for the Columbia Journalism Review in 2005. Love, who edited Thompson for three magazines over more than two decades, noted that Thompson’s process “was utterly idiosyncratic and unique.”

Other writers more or less turned in manuscripts that were more or less finished, or needed some editorial tweaking. If further revisions were required, we sent them back for rewriting. With Hunter, these deadline sessions were part Mardi Gras, part falaqua. And that’s not even mentioning that there were just as many feints and false starts during these twenty-three years as there were pieces that worked out.

The Mardi Gras aspect was signaled by “little multimedia creations that he controlled entirely, like an auteur.” Those transmissions arrived on customized letterhead, including some that Thompson had acquired from Congress. Thompson added handwritten heralds at the top: URGENT, BEWARE, BONUS: 4 PAGES TO FOLLOW, HOT DAMN, STAND BACK BUBBA, INSERTS XXX TO FOLLOW. He also decorated them with heart-shaped valentines or other drawings. These productions, Love wrote, “were like the legendary live performances of a band that were never to be captured in a recording.”

Thompson’s process was seldom smooth or efficient—indeed, it was almost always protracted and theatrical—and editors paid the physical and emotional price. “I don’t think there’s an editor that’s worked with Hunter that hasn’t at some point in the process of a story, broken down in tears,” Felton said. Some of that despair was due to exhaustion. Editors had to work on Thompson’s schedule, which Felton thought was partly determined by his cocaine use.

He would mojo stuff in—a page or half page—and you’d have to spend that time working on it as it was coming in. And he would be up for three solid days. You’d be up three solid days, getting the stuff and trying to work on it. But then he would crash, but you’d have to stay awake in order to try to assemble the pages into a piece, and edit and sketch questions that you’d have to ask next time you talked. So he’d be sleeping, and then he’d be up again, so you would go a full week without any sleep and be pretty brittle by the end of it.

Thompson taxed his editors in other ways as well. If he was unhappy with the art direction, he might threaten to pull the piece. Love learned that such threats were “just a necessary step in the process.” Although that process demanded time, energy, and patience, it was not always productive. “People have worked on stories with him and failed to get them,” Felton said. “Even if it was a cover story, it might not come in. So if you could get a piece in, it was a victory, no matter how much you might have cried over it.”

Excerpted from Savage Journey: Hunter S. Thompson and the Weird Road to Gonzo by Peter Richardson, published by the University of California Press. © 2022 by the author.