Before His Time: How Gonzo Journalism Invaded Our Lives

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We all know the story. August 2005 outside of Aspen, Colorado, Hunter Stockton Thompson’s ashes were fired out of a cannon. This was his funeral, and how he wanted to go out. We all know he took his own life with his gun. Though his suicide and passing are sad, I find his funeral to be more depressing. Johnny Depp, a longtime friend and collaborator, helped to fund this extravagant request, because Thompson died without a lot of capital to his name. This little fact is the most tragic tidbit to this story in my opinion, when considering how influential he still is to our culture. In this column, I plan to address how Hunter S. Thompson and his Gonzo style journalism invaded all types of media. First, I will speak on some of his failures and earlier endeavors; I plan to touch on some of his odd intricacies and quirks; but mostly I plan to focus on the evolution of journalism due to the path he took.

Thompson first wrote a lesser known work titled, Prince Jellyfish, which was never published. His second book, Rum Diary, is one of my favorite pieces of all his work. Rum Diary almost never got published itself. After working on the cult-classic film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1998, Johnny Depp became good friends with Thompson. Depp in film, was portraying one of Thompson’s alter ego, Raoul Duke. This was the second time Thompson was depicted in film, the first being Bill Murray in Where the Buffalo Roam in 1980. While Depp studied and learned from Thompson, he stumbled upon Rum Diary. Depp helped encourage Thompson to tighten it up, and get it published. Thankfully Depp was successful. The book, and subsequent movie are both amazing. Critics and many fans have their various issues with the movie, as it veers away from the book. This always happens, and as a filmmaker myself, I find this film to be extremely underrated. Within Rum Diary, reveals to us a story about an earlier version of Thompson. Most importantly, it reveals his first attempt at what we now know as Gonzo journalism.

Gonzo journalism, is a term coined by fellow journalist, Bill Cardoso. “Gonzo” is defined by Merriam-Webster as:

  1. of, relating to, or being a style of journalism marked by a lack of objectivity due to the writer’s immersion in the subject and often participation in the activity being documented
  2. outlandishly unconventional, outrageous, or extreme
  3. very strange or unusual: bizarre

The definition alone, paints a vivid picture for you. The two keywords in the definition are, “immersion” and “objectivity.” Thompson grew up in an era of staunch rigid objective journalism. He wanted to break free from the shackles of this narrow type of thinking. He inserted himself into the story. He ditched objectivity altogether and to just call him subjective, narrows the scope of everything he did. In Rum Diary, he wrote a semi-autobiographical tale of his experiences working in Puerto Rico at a newspaper called The San Juan Star. Instead of writing about Hunter, he made an alter ego he named, Paul Kemp. Technically this is only a novel (and later a film.)

This is common technique for many authors. To write stories about their lives and to change the details and names, and suddenly you have fiction. Like myself, Thompson was huge fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Both men, lived a philosophy about writing. That you have to live life to the fullest and go on adventures. Fall in love and break your heart. Go to war and come back home. It is only after you have lived, can you begin to truly be a writer. There are the George R. R. Martin’s and J. R. R. Tolkien’s of the world. The type that can sit in a basement and write novels for thirty years about a world of fiction they never experienced. It is a brilliant skill, and I am not marginalizing their work. I just have trouble relating to this type of writing. Therefore, I relate to Thompson, because he also feels the same way about Scott and Hemingway that I do. You must spit in the face of adversity and put yourself in harm’s way to achieve what must be done.

While writing this novel, Thompson read The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald repeatedly. To improve as a writer, he even typed out this novel numerous time on his typewriter. William McKeen in his book Outlaw Journalist, recalls Thompson telling him how much The Great Gatsby influenced Rum Diary. I once wrote an article on how the 1996 novel Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, is a post-modern remake of The Great Gatsby. Tyler being the titular Gatsby role; the narrator being Nick Carraway; Marla being Daisy. I never even realized how Thompson had done the same thing in Rum Diary. As I learned this fact it all came rushing into my consciousness so clearly. Gonzo journalism has a weird way of putting you into the story. Not only, does the author put himself into the tale, as you read, you feel yourself reeled in. It sometimes takes years and multiple reads before you can see how you were personally affected by this insightful personal take on journalism. Once the objectivity was removed, the lines of reality began to blend. In the film they removed the character Yeomon from the book, and Depp had to play both personalities of the narrator. This mirrors the interpretation that Palahniuk did in Fight Club.

Most people know about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the drugs, the guns, and all the debauchery. The original articles, the novel, and the subsequent film are all amazing pieces of work, no doubt. I would rather focus on Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, as this was Thompson in his absolute Gonzo form. The first time we learn about his politics, and he holds nothing back. Slightly undercover, investigative reporting that might not have been on the level of Woodward and Bernstein (the journalists that brought down the Nixon administration through the Watergate scandal,) but was still special in its own unique right. Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, a title Thompson wrote a few years prior, is another example of great Gonzo journalism. He went so deep that eventually he took a misstep with them and found himself the victim of a brutal assault.

These works have inspired journalists for decades now. You can see its influence in many contemporaries. Countless literary journalists, Steven Colbert and his caricature of himself in The Colbert Report, Jon Stewart with The Daily Show, Sasha Baron Cohen with Borat, Bruno, Ali G, etc. In today’s America with Donald Trump as President, some journalists call for more Gonzo, while others argue we need less of it. I happen to fall into the latter category. It is one thing to be inspired by Thompson or Andy Kaufman, it is another to try to recapture their essence. The aforementioned performance-artist-journalists have their own personal flair to them, that made these shows work, but we already have an abundant level of subjectivity in today’s highly sensitive political climate. Blogs, podcasts, YouTube channels, etc., are all overflowing with millions of people all over the world, imposing their subjectivity into journalistic endeavors.

In a world, with abundant opinions about the minutiae of every single moment, we could stand to bring back some objectivity to the field. There may always be a time and place for gonzo journalism. As a huge fan of Thompson and this style of reporting, I wish we could bring him back because he is the only one who could successfully pull it off in this era. For everyone else? (and I am speaking to myself as well, as I just wrote a highly subjective piece,)  I think we need to tone it down on the satirical, self-referential, meta-subjective reporting, and let us get back to some objectivity.

 

References:

Barnett, David. “Guns, Booze and Drugs – The Life and Death of Hunter S Thompson.” The Independent, 22 Jan. 2018, www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/hunter-s-thompson-death-suicide-kill-himself-how-die-gonzo-journalism-warren-hinckle-a8161841.html.

Gilliam, Terry, director. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. 1998.

Hoover, Steven. “Hunter S. Thompson and Gonzo Journalism: a Guide to the Research.” Reference Services Review, vol. 37, no. 3, 2009, www.digitalscholarship.unlv.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1106&context=lib_articles

Thompson, H. S. (1998). Rum Diary. London: Bloomsbury Paperbacks.

Linson, Art, director. Where the Buffalo Roam. 1980.

Luce, Clayton. “Gonzo Today.” GonzoToday, www.gonzotoday.com/.

Merriam-Webster. “Gonzo.” Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gonzo.

McKeen, William. Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson. Aurum Press, 2014.

Phillips, Mark. “Why Gonzo Journalism Is Not the Answer to Trump.” Medium, 20 Feb. 2017, medium.com/@read_about_it/why-gonzo-journalism-is-not-the-answer-to-trump-22fddbc59145.

Shoard, Catherine. “Johnny Depp Spent $3m Blasting Hunter S Thompson’s Ashes from Cannon, Ex-Managers Claim.” The Guardian, 1 Feb. 2017, www.theguardian.com/film/2017/feb/01/johnny-depp-spent-3m-blasting-hunter-s-thompson-ashes-from-cannon-ex-managers-claim.

Undead Music Company. “Johnny Depp Reads Hunter S. Thompson Pt.1.” YouTube, 3 Dec. 1996, www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jUxjhSSOnY.

Wood, Jennifer M. “8 Gonzo Facts About Hunter S. Thompson.” Mental Floss, 18 July 2017, www.mentalfloss.com/article/502805/8-gonzo-facts-about-hunter-s-thompson.

 

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