Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die - Why Fear & Loathing Shouldn't Kill Hunter S. Thompson

11/11/2011 00:03 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

On February 20th, 2005, the world lost one of its greatest minds. He might not have solved complex mathematical equations, offered solutions to world peace or discovered solutions to deadly diseases, but what he did manage during his 67 years on the planet was to perfect the art of the written word to a point where it was utterly enthralling, encompassing and magnetic.

His name was Hunter Stockton Thompson, and this week sees the release of a long-awaited film that could - and should - set the record straight about a man whose biggest success to date has also cast a shadow over his work as a terrifyingly brilliant wordsmith, journalist and social commentator.

Let's get this out of the way early: I love Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. The film is a near perfect romp through reckless rebellion; a shrine to hell-raising in its purest form. It's hedonism personified. Johnny Depp, too, is sublime as the book's lovably wayward main character: Raoul Duke.

But that's where the problem with the great man's legacy lies. Ask most people who Depp portrays in the 1998 movie and the instant response is almost unanimous: Hunter S. Thompson. But that's simply not true. While there are some inescapable similarities between Thompson and his alter-ego, the great man struggled for the rest of his days to escape the image that his life was an early version of The Hangover, lived with care-free abandon and guzzling drugs like...well, like Raoul Duke.

Of course, wherever Hunter went, drugs and carnage did inevitably follow. He was, after all, the man who wrote that "life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming 'Woah! What a ride!'"

And skidding broadside into everywhere he went was something of a speciality. Johnny Depp tells how the first time he met Hunter, he waited in a Colorado bar until a sea of people began to part, only for a hulking man in a cowboy hat to come stumbling through shouting "get back, you animals" while clutching a cattle prod.

But Hunter's true skill was his ability to turn the mundanity of a journalist's life into the most exciting, thrilling ride. He was an exceptional social commentator and traveled America aboard the president's plane during elections (before, in true Hunter style, causing a scene and being thrown off to travel with the 'pigs' on a following aircraft). He was blunt, abrupt, scathing and rude - all the things that too many journalists today are forced to pussyfoot around in order to ensure their next big exclusive.

Fear And Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 saw Thompson's hatred for Richard Nixon boil over into unprecedentedly vicious - but, of course, beautifully written - vitriol.

"Nixon has never been one of my favourite people anyway," he wrote. "For years I've regarded his existence as a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosomes that corrupt the possibilities of the American dream; he was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad."

Don't hold back, Hunter. But he had more: "He was absolutely humourless; I couldn't imagine him laughing at anything except maybe a paraplegic who wanted to vote Democrat but couldn't quite reach the lever on the voting machine."

In Rolling Stone in September '73, he went even further, asking "how much more of this cheap-jack bullshit can we be expected to take from that stupid little gunsel? If there were any such thing as true justice in this world, his carcass would be somewhere down around Easter Island right now, in the belly of a hammerhead shark."

The image that Fear & Loathing inadvertently created around Hunter - that he was a chancer who skuttled through life ignoring his bills and popping pills - couldn't actually be further from the truth. This was a man who cared so deeply about the bigger things in life that it drove him to the edge of insanity and, in equal measures, into the arms of some monumentally exciting drug-binges.

He was a thrill-seeker, sure, but also the kind of man who had seething anger running deep in his veins - about everything from the state of his country to the profession into which he'd fallen.

"The only other important thing to be said about Fear & Loathing", said Thompson, "is that it was fun to write, and that's rare - for me, at least, because I've always considered writing the most hateful kind of work. I suspect it's a bit like fucking - which is fun only for amateurs. Old whores don't do much giggling.

"Nothing is fun when you have to do it - over and over, again and again - or else you'll be evicted, and that gets old. So it's a rare goddamn trip for a locked-in, rent-paying writer to get into a gig that, even in retrospect, was a king-hell, highlife fuck-all from start to finish... and then to actually get paid for writing this kind of manic gibberish seems genuinely weird; like getting paid for kicking Agnew in the balls."

But for Hunter, the work kept coming in and he traveled the world writing for various sports magazines, Rolling Stone, Pageant and a host of newspapers - including a stint in Puerto Rico which formed the basis of The Rum Diary. But throughout it all, he maintained a stoic hatred for the professional world in which he'd found his feet.

"Journalism is not a profession or a trade," he wrote. "It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits - a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage."

And he was brave, too - not just for pushing the limits of the human body with alcohol and narcotic consumption - but for going face-to-face with fear and refusing to back down.

In '66, a young Thompson embedded himself into the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang and rode with them as they raped and beat not only their enemies, but also their own.

"They rode with a fine unwashed arrogance, secure in their reputation as the rottenest motorcycle gang in the whole history of Christendom," he wrote. But as he delved further into their ways, and uncovered the beating of women within the ranks of the Angels, he himself was beaten and left for dead by the gang he'd joined.

"My face looked like it had been jammed into the spokes of a speeding Harley, and the only thing keeping me awake was the spastic pain of a broken rib. It had been a bad trip... fast and wild in some moments, slow and dirty in others, but on balance it looked like a bummer.

"On my way back to San Fransisco, I tried to compose a fitting epitaph. I wanted something original, but there was no escaping the echo of Mistah Kurtz' final words from the heart of darkness: "The horror! The horror! Exterminate all the brutes!'"

But far from hiding out of the way of his thuggish assailants, Hunter went on to appear face-to-face with the man who beat him up, live on American TV.

It was during the late '60s that Hunter came to find his true passion and something that would shape the rest of his work - the death of the American dream. Having lived through the swinging '60s and sampled all they had to offer, Hunter saw the America he loved melting away into the USA we see today, and it lit the fire in his stomach - he got angry, and the public loved him for it.

"We have become a Nazi monster in the eyes of the whole world - bullies and bastards who would rather kill than live peacefully. We are whores for power and oil with hate and fear in our hearts."

And it culminated in the release of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, and in particular a passage that Hunter himself recognised as the finest moment of his career - albeit one hidden among the bolshy bravado of a drug-fueled Las Vegas romp - as he wistfully looked across the Nevada desert, hankering after the good old days of the early '60s.

"There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda... you could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.

"And that, I think, was the handle - that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting - on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.

"So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West; and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark - that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."

Hunter had those eyes - he had eyes that could light a spark in the darkest room and make it seem beautiful. But ultimately he was a man troubled by his surroundings, a man who couldn't fathom what America was doing - to itself and to the rest of the world. And that's a side of him that Hollywood has so far been unwilling to show. The man who loved, worried and cared doesn't sit well with the Raoul Duke we've grown to love.

He wasn't afraid of death, either. In fact, he embraced his inevitable passing with gusto. In an interview just days before he departed, he told a reporter: "My concept of death for a long time was to come down that mountain road at 120mph and just keep going straight right there, burst out through the barrier and hang out above all that... and there I'd be, sitting in the front seat, stark naked, with a case of whiskey next to me and a case of dynamite in the trunk, honking the horn, and the lights on, and just sit there in space for an instant, a human bomb, and fall down into that mess of steel mills.

"It'd be a tremendous goddamn explosion. No pain. No one would get hurt."

But on that day in February, as the final games of the US football season played out, it all got too much for him. Wheelchair-bound, disgusted with the outcome of the 2004 elections and facing the prospect of months without his beloved sport to watch, he decided now was the time to go - not on a mountain road or as a human bomb, but with a shotgun, in his writing shed.

His suicide note was as uncompromising as his life had been:

"No more games. No more bombs. No more walking. No more fun. No more swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No fun - for anybody. 67. You are getting greedy. Act your old age. Relax - this won't hurt."

Over the top of his note, he'd scrawled in thick, black ink: "Football Season Over."

So if you're heading to the cinema this weekend to catch The Rum Diary, and hoping for two hours of Raoul Duke cavorting and snorting his way across Puerto Rico, I sincerely hope you're disappointed. For while The Rum Diary might also take on the form of another alter ego - in this case, Paul Kemp - it's a book that offers so much more of the real Hunter, the man behind the drug-guzzling facade.

Having spent this long gushing over Hunter's work, it seems churlish of me to try and sum him up in my own words. So, it seems fitting to steal one of his own descriptions - written about the mysterious 'attorney', but scarily fitting for the author himself:

"There he goes, one of God's own prototypes. Some kind of high powered mutant never even considered for mass production.

"Too weird to live, and too rare to die."