David S. Wills on Hunter S. Thompson and the Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism
Photo courtesy of the author
High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism is the new Hunter S. Thompson biography by David S. Wills, longtime editor of Beatdom literary journal. While another biography of a well-tread icon might seem superfluous, High White Notes is perhaps the most essentially human account of HST, one that dares to actually dissect his writing rather than his outlaw lifestyle. Establishing a well-balanced critique of a man who built a career from failure, Wills commits to an fine-toothed academic approach; cutting through the pop-culture assumptions and half-truths (often perpetuated by HST himself) without sacrificing the most fascinating aspects of this once-in-a-lifetime pioneer. A fantastic writer in his own right, Wills stick to the facts, removes/flips the self-mythologizing romance, and still delivers a read so engaging, you'll feel you're truly meeting HST for the first time.
As big a fan as I am of HST, I feel he also tends to be one of those Boomer-Heroes who fans believe can do no wrong — like the Beatles, he’s so iconic that he’s become a caricature, so omnipresent and insidious to our counterculture, that he’s difficult to assess fairly. Though I guess what makes HST even more slippery, is that he was often trying to make a caricature of himself, at times from multiple personalities. What specifically drove you to write a biography on HST, given that there’s been many already written? What did the other attempts fail at in their study?
Thompson has a sort of toxic, semi-literate fanbase that I would say is partly to blame for the lack of credit he gets as a serious artist. They are attracted to the chaotic, juvenile surface text and don’t really seem to understand that there was so much more to his work than the drugs and guns and madness. I don’t think most of them can differentiate between Thompson and his creation, Raoul Duke, or for that matter between them and Johnny Depp. They just like the famous quotes and to boast about their own drug consumption. But Thompson was a dedicated writer who wanted to be the Hemingway or Fitzgerald of his era, and indeed he created something astounding and totally original – Gonzo. Unfortunately, he just got pigeonholed because he’s a popular choice as a Halloween costume or dorm room poster.
I wanted to write this book more than a decade ago when I realized how much depth there was to his work, but I lacked the skills and resources to do so. About three years ago, I decided to go for it and quit my job to dedicate all my time to studying Thompson and his work. I would personally not call it a “biography,” though most others seem to. That’s because I wanted to look at his work rather than his life, but I did so chronologically and examined how his life impacted his work.
There are a few biographies already out there, including William McKeen’s excellent Outlaw Journalist, and I am indebted to all those who did the groundwork of piecing together Hunter’s life. It’s no easy task because the man had a pathological determination to mythologise. He simply could not seem to get the truth out. They had a hard task putting together his life story and they’ve all contributed immensely. However, they also fell into that trap of believing some things he said, and in my research I was able to disprove a lot of that. Thompson’s life was made up of these incredible stories that he repeated over and over, but not many of them were true. It’s a big challenge to research something like that, and whilst I tried to not write a biography, I did have to wade into those waters and set the record straight on a number of occasions.
Ultimately, this book is meant to be the first comprehensive study of his work, not his life. The only decent book that came before this was Freak Kingdom, but that just looked at a short period when Thompson was at his most prolific. I wanted to ask how he got there and why he could not sustain that level of output.
Because you’re not afraid to critique HST, the biography paints a far more human portrait of him, especially in the way you highlight his failures. People forget that Gonzo Journalism was actually intrinsic to failure — beyond the digressions in his work and chaos he would stir up on location assignments, often due to his alcohol and drug consumption, there’s the argument that he created Gonzo from the collateral damage from simply not being able to write linear narratives. As writers, do we tend towards history revision by not being more forthcoming with our mistakes?
He realized very early on that failure was his schtick. In his first sports reports at Eglin, he presented himself as this comic loser, always getting things wrong, and it worked for him. He would make predictions about sports events and then laugh at his disastrous choices, or tell a story about some failed adventure he had. Later, he developed this as a young journalist. I recall one of his first reports from South America, where he describes himself arriving in this foreign land, set loose amidst the locals, and he is eager to show what an ignorant buffoon he is. It worked as comedy, and over the next decade he developed that into what eventually became his literary persona. When he was with other people, like Ralph Steadman, and everything just went horribly wrong, he would be delighted because he knew it would make a funnier story. I think he approached his writing like a stand-up comic does his set. If you went to a show and the comic just recounted stories where everything went well and he triumphed in the face of adversity, it wouldn’t work. We laugh when things go badly wrong for them.
Whilst much of the failure was deliberately written into the stories for a more amusing tale, Gonzo was indeed partly about stirring up events to write about. As you mentioned, he was not good at planning and plotting narratives, so he would just wander into the middle of a situation, give it a little prod, and then write about what happened, with his usual embellishments. The obvious examples are events from Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, where he gave away his press pass or started bizarre rumours, then reported on the chaos that ensued almost as though he hadn’t caused it.
As for your question… I don’t know. I think most people re-write their own pasts to make themselves sound a bit better. Thompson tended to make himself sound worse, though it was all a part of being an outlaw, which in his mind was the greatest thing. Still, it is important to note that he wasn’t really writing about his mistakes exactly. He was making up his own life story, saying what he wanted to be true. Any “mistakes” he wrote about were usually invented or exaggerated for one purpose or another.
I found it interesting that the name Hunter S. Thompson appears nowhere on the front cover, only his stylized image under the title High White Notes. Can you explain why you chose that title to represent him?
The book was always meant to be about his writing, not his life, so the title reflects that. There are already enough books and articles about his wild and crazy life, and this was supposed to be the serious one that examined his place in the literary canon. To that end, I chose High White Notes because it is a favourite quote of his and comes from Fitzgerald. He had various interpretations, but basically he always wanted his work to have “high white notes” of some kind – i.e moments of beauty or brilliance. The subtitle alludes to the creation of Gonzo, his one-man literary genre, and the fact that the book is half about how it came to be and half about why he lost his talent or motivation.
I was also quite keen to avoid the clichés and tropes that surround him. Most of the stuff people write about him makes use of words like “weird” and “twisted” and “crazy,” etc. To me, it again just plays into the image I wanted to dispel – the juvenile surface mythology that needed to be pushed aside so we can finally take the man seriously as he deserved. I could’ve called this The Strange and Savage Journalism of Dr Hunter S. Thompson: An Atavistic Journey Through the Death of the American Dream and it would sell 10 times more, but I would hate myself for it.
Tell us about the graphs you constructed around HST’s “wave passages.”
My educational background is in literature and I’ve taught grammar through most of my professional life, so I had this idea that I wanted to examine Gonzo Grammar – that is, to dissect the language Thompson used. Again, it’s about going beyond all this drugs and guns bullshit.
I noticed many years ago that you could open any of his books or articles and read a paragraph and just know, “This is Hunter S. Thompson.” Strip away his catchphrases and references to LSD and Nixon, and you still get the same effect. You wouldn’t mistake his words for anyone else’s. Why?
That bothered me a lot, so I began dissecting his work and looking for patterns. I have an awful memory for most things, but I’m good with patterns of words. I read everything Thompson ever wrote and everything by his heroes – Conrad, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Donleavy, etc – and I began to see where he took his words and phrases and rhythms from. I could see he took “swine” from here and “atavistic” from there… or re-used his own lines in this article or that. But there was more to his writing than just catchphrases.
There is the famous story about him typing out The Great Gatsby as a young man. Actually, he only typed a few pages, but he did it to get the rhythm of the prose. He felt it was music as much as literature. Sort of like Kerouac’s jazz prose. The typewriter as a horn or drum.
Thompson always aimed to replicate Gatsby, his favourite book, updating it for the sixties, seventies, eighties, and so on. He was consciously competing with Fitzgerald. It became obvious to me that he had tried to take the most famous paragraphs – the last two pages in my edition of the novel – and used it as a template for his most famous passage – the “wave” section of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I began stripping them down to clauses and breaths and punctuation marks and noticed that they were very similar. So similar in fact that it could not possibly be a coincidence.
Of course, I could write this out, which I did, but I felt that a visual representation would help convey my idea a little more clearly, so I turned them into line graphs. It was a risky choice, I suppose, but it’s been the part of the book that I’ve gotten the most positive feedback on. I think it’s because everyone knows that’s his greatest literary achievement but no one could quite put their finger on why. This sort of codifies it a little. It’s probably the only part of the book that Hunter would’ve liked.
Since he often relied on his far-out imagination and hyperbole rather than fact and research, do you think HST was able to be more prescient than your average journalist? Is there something to be said for the validity of gut feelings over statistics to navigate the future? You mention an excerpt from Fear and Loathing on The Campaign Trail ‘72, where he describes a proto-Pizzagate theory, even though it might have just been pure dark whimsy, a worse-case fantasy; the way politicians made him feel. But now, many are convinced it is fact. Is this sort of like a cultural game of telephone we could trace back to Gonzo?
Keep in mind that his fact-fiction fusion and his outrageous statements regarding politics were all intended to cut through the PR bullshit that was hiding the grim reality of, for example, a presidential campaign. He looked and saw these men presenting an obviously false image and then created a form of journalism intended to pierce that and reveal what he felt was the truth. I don’t know about prescience, but I certainly think he was on to something there. If you have, for example, Richard Nixon, who we now know with absolute certainty was a monster, able to appear so lovable and reliable on TV thanks to his PR people, Thompson reasoned that you needed a new form of journalism to bypass that. Regular journalism just couldn’t do it at that time.
It is problematic, of course, because what’s to stop some right-wing journalist mixing up fact and fiction to “prove” that one of our progressive politicians today is really hiding something? I think we can easily see how emotive, vitriolic language can be used to manipulate people, particularly when you are pitting one group against another. So perhaps Gonzo opened a Pandora’s Box there. I’m not sure. But it certainly worked at the time and has been tremendously influential, for better or for worse.
On the subject of striving for the High White Note, there’s a great quote in the book: “I don’t know about you,” he told a friend, “but in my own mind I value peaks far more than continuity or sustained effort.” Do you think HST really believed this to be a goal, or did he merely find a way to settle for his inconsistencies?
That’s a good question! It’s one we’ll never know the answer to, though. I think he probably believed it when he said it, but possibly he used it at other times to justify his struggles.
On page 348 you mention: “With Nixon gone, Thompson had lost his number one enemy — another of his reasons to write.” Did he always require an adversarial environment? It seems like without that focal point to grind against, he would then turn against himself as his own worst enemy. If he was still alive, how do you think he would have reacted to the Trump administration — with more disdain than Nixon, or more of a resigned “I told you so”?
Firstly, I do think he required an enemy of sorts. All of his best writing was positioned against something, even if not a person. He was fundamentally an outlaw and liked to view himself as having his back against the wall. He was anti-establishment to the core. Maybe that’s why he struggled so much after achieving fame and respect. But of course the Nixon thing was just one element. I would lay the blame for his decline largely at the feet of addiction. He just destroyed himself with cocaine.
As for how Thompson would feel today about the political environment… Well, I paraphrase his son, Juan, who was asked the same thing in a recent interview, in saying that it is a very dangerous game to assume what he would have thought. Thompson was a difficult guy to pin down and his opinions would surprise you. After finishing my book, I got an email from someone who has some of Thompson's unpublished writings (faxes or letters, I think), and he told me that Hunter really respected Trump. It’s a hard thing to imagine, but there we go… Would his opinions have changed when Trump became president and demonstrated a monstrous and murderous incompetence? I like to think so, but it is certainly impossible to say for sure. I think, though, that his disillusionment in those final years probably indicates that he would have grown even more depressed given how awful the world has become since 2005.
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