Death of the American Dream

by
Bob Oliver

 


Editors Note: The following is a first-hand account of the memorial service given for author Hunter S. Thompson this past August at his home in Woody Creek, Colorado. We realize this has nothing to do with Detroit music. We're running this because Hunter Thompson was the man most responsible for shaping the ideas, writing and attitude behind this magazine. His talent was undeniable, and he was a true warrior. We're running this out of respect.

Thompson committed suicide the week before our first issue came out, back in March. And the inaugural issue was dedicated to his memory. I remember calling Rolling Stone's California office--a magazine that reaped the rewards of Thompson's genius and name--seeking permission to use one of their photos of him. The man that answered the phone (a Rolling Stone employee) hadn't even heard of Thompson.

"Did he work here?" the moron asked me.

I was so enraged, I couldn't reply.

Yes, Thompson worked for Rolling Stone since the 60s, back when it was still a quality magazine. He ran the National Affairs desk and helped build its reputation. And the clods working there now don't even know who he is.

I suppose that's another reason for this article: to preserve his name and memory. If you've never read anything by the man, hopefully this will get you to try one of his books.

Enjoy.

INTRO

Hunter S. Thompson was one of a kind. He stood out from the crowd with both his unique writing style and his interesting tastes in lifestyle. So when his life ended it should have been no surprise to anyone that the excitement was not yet over.

Six months after Thompson killed himself a party was held in his honor. A large crowd of people from many different places assembled on his property to say good-bye in a ceremony at his home, Owl Farm, in Woody Creek, CO for what was to be a unique celebration.

Thompson, author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and many other books, was having his ashes shot out of a cannon. But besides the large collection of family and invited guests there was also a crowd of people standing just outside the property and even more in the city of Aspen waiting for the blast to take place. I was part of the group outside the house. In respect of the family's wishes for the event to be private, I drove to Colorado with two friends to see what we could while staying in the background, out of the way, not interfering. I had no intentions of trying to get into the event. I was perfectly willing to accept watching everything from miles away, me and my friends keeping to ourselves, sharing a somewhat quiet evening.

It just didn't turn out that way.

In almost every book published by Thompson, a short note about the author describes him as, "living in a fortified compund near Aspen, Colorado." This was not a lie. There were many guns kept around the Owl Farm (Thompson's name for his beloved property), and at least a few times Thompson placed fans' books up against trees and shot holes through them to their delight.

But on Aug. 21, the night of the farewell, this was not the case. The compound was no longer fortified by the owner. Instead the protection detail was headed by local cops and security guards, who lined the two main streets in Woody Creek. They blocked every driveway and side street and placed "No Parking" signs every 30 feet on both sides of the road. They also filed around the property to protect against any intruders from the surrounding hills.

I learned earlier from a security man down the street that there were about 80 security guards dispatched into Woody Creek for the evening, all of which were within about two miles and placed on only two or three roads. Add to that the extra police protection and you've got a horror show. These men were enforcing the Law, and the cracking voices over their walkie-talkies spoke of possible intruders, which were all taken very seriously. The guards questioned their nearest partner if the call over the line was near them, and they had high powered flashlights to comb the area with if something was spotted along the edges of the property.

Around 7 p.m. I took a walk to the front of the Farm. The sight of all the security felt eerie, especially when I thought about the contempt Thompson had for authority figures in general. Now his property was crawling with them.

Thompson would be grinning at this sight, I'm sure.

Where the crowd of uninvited people stood, the security checkpoint for incoming cars was only about 70 feet away. Inside that space was the road, which was only a two-lane country road typically inhabited by local residents and their guests. But on this day, because of Thompson's farewell party, there was a ton of extra traffic. Besides the constant cycling of cops there were the shuttles bringing in guests, cars full of uninvited visitors driving by for photos, and a couple news crews looking for shots of the crowd gathering on the street. The majority of traffic was shuttle buses from either the Hotel Jerome in Aspen where most of the memorial's attendees were staying.

The Jerome is famous for many reasons, but the most important for this evening was that Thompson ran his 1970 campaign for Sheriff of Aspen from that hotel. Early in the campaign the Freak Power ticket (Thompson's title for his political persuasion) was in the lead. It was also during this time that Thompson's Gonzo symbol, the double-thumbed fist (of which the canon at Owl Farm would be fashioned after) was created by a friend and artist. As the campaign droned on it looked as if Thompson would become the city's next Sheriff, but as it was (and as it would be for the rest of eternity) the people that should be running things never get in.

He lost. After the Democrats and Republicans in the city decided to join forces and pool together their votes, Thompson declared at the Jerome, "Unfortunately, I've proved what I set out to prove, and it was more of a political point than a local election… the American dream really is fucked."

He never ran for office again, and the Jerome would never see political excitement of that magnitude to this day. But during the years afterward, Thompson often got turned sideways on booze and drugs in the hotel bar.

The main street (there's really only one street with any businesses on it in this town) was packed with people. The gravel parking area for the local businesses was packed, and from this point began the barrage of cops and authority. There were about six or seven SUVs with cops in them and security men were on foot every 50 or so feet.

We broke free of the jam of cars and made the hair pin turn onto the road that ran past the writer's house. By now there was about 20 or 30 people who had lined up across the street. We began to think about joining them, but we had to find a place to ditch the rental car. Not only were there signs and security on this road, but also there were several tow trucks sitting around just waiting for some asshole to try and park where prohibited, which was everywhere unless you owned property on the street.

We turned around and drove back past the Woody Creek Tavern. This is a main attraction for visitors to the area. Thompson mentioned it in his writings, as he used the tavern as an away-from-home office. The walls are lined with hundreds of photos of local residents, and there are also several pieces of Thompson memorabilia inside, including a signed agreement between the owners and the writer that no smoke bombs were to be lit inside the restaurant again.

We had eaten there earlier that day. The mood was celebratory. Looking around I saw every table full. I wondered how many were there for Thompson. I joked with the waitresses and bus boy, as my friends drank Gonzo Beer. This is from a company in Colorado called Flying Dog Ale. Ralph Steadman did the artwork on the bottles and money from the sales of these drinks was going to the HST Foundation.

After lunch we drove around Aspen for a while. We saw the courthouse where Thompson stood trial for drunk driving in the late 90s. We also found a bar that dedicated the night to HST. My friend Jim found an ad for the event earlier in the local paper. They advertised that they were having a "nearly live" screening of the send off. Someone from the Thompson property was going to deliver a tape of the event to the bar shortly after it happened.

Leaving downtown Aspen, you re-enter Highway 82, which cuts in through residential streets and zig-zags to get back toward the open road. There is a golf course on the right. I wondered if this was the same course that got Thompson put on probation because he fired a shotgun over the head of an employee on a tractor.

By the time we hit the Aspen Airport a half-mile away from the golf course I started to get a clearer picture of the place where Thompson lived and worked. The stories I read from friends about driving at top speed to get home (or into town for a court hearing) all seemed fairly reasonable when considering these places were less than 10 miles from his house. He could function as a writer and have his fun here because it was so small and he probably knew most of the people who worked there.

But this doesn't explain any substantial percentage of the hi-jinks he performed in his life, so I only use it as a way to explain some of the myth that formed around him in Colorado. In his writing he spoke about how much he needed his hometown. He saw it as an "important psychic anchor" and with that place so near he went free to whatever he damn well pleased.

When driving through Woody Creek later we found a row of cars off the road a mile or so away from the Tavern, so we jumped out and decided to take our chances. We grabbed some gear and headed back toward the mass of people who were still gathering outside the restaurant. A few of the people were leaving their meals and heading our way up the hill to try to see what they could from in front of the property. Before entering the uphill portion of our walk we passed a couple kids hosting a lemonade stand at the end of their drive-way. I nodded at the father who was behind them and we managed to flag down a passing car for a ride the rest of the way.

When we all got up in front of Thompson's place, we found a place to stand along the side of the road opposite the barricaded farm. We all ended up waiting along a wire fence with a huge gate that opened up right behind us. The fence belonged to the neighbor across from Thompson's house. I didn't catch his name, but I did get to thank him for allowing us to watch the show from there. He sat with several other people about 20 feet behind us. It struck me as odd that they weren't invited. I got the same feeling earlier when I learned from the workers I spoke to at the Tavern that they weren't invited either.

Later in the evening, before it got dark, the crowd was still in good spirits. Some people hoped out loud we would be let in. Others traded stories of lore about Thompson and his work. The great thing to me was that a lot of the conversations I took part in dealt with the Work and how it affected those who had read it. Thompson complained that he was more often questioned about drug intake rather than his writing, so it was nice that his fans felt more like discussing his copy rather than how much cocaine he could consume.

Thompson's writing is always under debate, same as Hemingway's, Burroughs', Kerouac's, Steinbeck's, or any respected writer. A lot of the criticism for his books refer to his personal life. As the myth surrounding his life grew, the critics attacked him.

The most popular writing was from Thompson's early career. Books like Hell's Angels and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 and his more recent compilations of letters are regarded by many as genius. The latter were released only in the last ten years, but they dealt with the years from 1955-1976, the pivotal years when Thompson was at his most popular and his writing was read by a lot of people. Books like Curse of Lono were seen as mediocre publications brought out by a man with not much left to say in his work.

But that evening just outside the limits of his property, all books were discussed. This was a gathering of fans, not paid critics. The fans were what got Thompson so popular in the first place. Even those drawn to his counter-culture image and fascinated by the drug habits of his life were in awe of his work. Maybe they started by reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or his Rolling Stone articles. It didn't matter. There was something about the world of Hunter Thompson that made a lot of people stand up and take notice of the odd noises happening in the typically dull business of writing. Now a group of these fans were waiting for the last sounds from Owl Farm.

Admission to the farm seemed far-fetched, so I continued to talk and enjoy the odd mix of people around me. There were two fans from Texas who were vacationing nearby at one of the highway campgrounds. There was a girl passing around a Modern Library edition of Hell's Angels for everyone to sign. There was beer present and many people were smoking cigarettes, some in the infamous filter/holder that Thompson used. I read later about fans "toking on dope and mixing drinks," but the hardest liquor I encountered was whiskey and it was being passed around by a friendly young man who encouraged others to enjoy it. The only weed I heard about was the wanted kind. Most had either smoked their's already or left it home for fear of cops. There was nothing I saw that would prompt a quick and costly raid from the cops across the street.

No one seemed to be sure when everything was going to start, but dusk seemed like an opportune time. So as the sun began to fall, the excitement grew. The conversations turned to the expectation for the send off. I was told by one of the guys from Texas that the test shots fired a couple days before had rattled windows, so expectations were high.

The traffic began to pick up. More cops were circling and the shuttles from the hotel or racetrack were coming in fast.

Then a line was drawn. Things started to get a little crazy after that. Someone had wandered into the street and was trying to start a movement to storm the property. He jumped around a little and was trying to convince everyone that we should be inside the party. Over on my side the kid with the whisky took it upon himself to deal with the matter. He started yelling, "Hey, asshole, we got a front row seat to watch this, what more do you want?" and "Shut the fuck up and get off the road" and the situation ended with the guy going back into his group about 20 feet away, but he wasn't through yet. Somewhere inside that group a chant of "Hunter, this is fucked!" came out. This caused even more disruption on my side with many more people joining in to voice their opinions. No fists were thrown, but the peace was shattered temporarily.

I was able to see their point and I shouted "Attica!" toward the sky. A large man sitting against the fence looked at me and laughed. He understood. I wasn't saying they were wrong or right in complaining, just that I saw where they were coming from. My friend Jim felt the same way. Something about the whole affair didn't seem right. I think that the crowd down the street thought that the type of people in attendance forced the planners to glamorize the event. They cheapened it. It seemed too "Hollywood-ish" to the people down the fence, and they may have been right. They took the funeral of a guy who said in a BBC documentary that Hollywood was a "place to get out of a soon as possible" and trumped it up to a red carpet event. No press, no cameras, and no writing stories of the event (this was asked of those "invited guests").

Thompson had many friends in movies, TV, etc, but he always seemed to want to stay distant from that type of life. He was more of a rock star, if you like that horrible label. He drank, did drugs, listened to loud music, and trashed hotels, but he also continued to put out new material.

And he wasn't a diva. He may have been an ass to autograph-seekers at times, but then again, how would you feel if you were labeled as a dangerous drug addict and were constantly asked how much acid you used on a daily basis?

It was not hard to see both sides of the coin from my side of the street. Where would Thompson have been if he was assigned this story? The back row of our crowd taking down quotes, or inside the gates laughing it up with the rich and famous?

With order basically restored, the last few seconds passed, and the sound of drums came from the yard of Owl Farm. Slowly at first, but steadily building to a berserk pace. The drums then gave way to Norman Greebaum's "Spirit in the Sky" and then . . .

Boom!

A line of explosions in red and white shot into the sky. Then a second line.

At last a huge display of red, white, and blue fireworks combined with an enormous cloud of dust erupting from the tower. The peyote button was flashing colors and as the last blast was heard, the ashes began to descend and the radio blared once more. This time it was Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man."

These were the last sounds we heard from the property.

We stood in anticipation of a final boom at first. We weren't sure if the fireworks were done, but they were. And by the time we realized this, the ashes that had spread a grey fog over the sky before us had settled down around the backyard of Owl Farm. Now it was silent except for the music that could be heard from the party. I asked a few of the people left what they thought and found that most were generally impressed.

Within minutes the crowd began to thin as people started making their way back down the hill and into Woody Creek. We noticed that the spotlights that were pointing at the sky during the blast-off were now moving. They hit the tower and cast the shadow of the Gonzo fist into the clouds. It looked like the Bat Signal. A lasting impression for people from miles around to see. I looked past the clouds and saw the back-up of traffic on Highway 82 starting to move again. There were many people who pulled off or the road or had parked to see the show from those many miles away.

When we finally caught a ride in a pick-up truck back down the hill we saluted the glowing statue in the sky that was still hovering above the valley like a demented UFO. We went back to the Woody Creek Tavern and drank one last toast to the Good Doctor. The place was quieter than before. Not your typical funeral aftermath, I thought to myself. The quiet was punctuated by glasses chiming together in toasts and the murmurs of talk from other tables. The workers were still friendly and the smoking section outside was filled with conversation about the evening's event. Many of the people we met by the fence were there, and even a few of the tables inside began filling with people who had just left Owl Farm. The night was young by Thompson's standards.

Leaving Woody Creek, the statue flashed like a strobe light as we rode the curves back onto the highway. When we hit the straight road the trees no longer blocked our view and we got to see the illuminated monument in all its glory. The spotlights still highlighted its figure and the peyote button still rotated its lights. Below, whatever remained of the invited crowd continued their celebration.

The scare tactics had worked.

Through my own questioning I found that no cars were towed away and the shooting in the days before the event was all that had occurred between the Law and the rest of us. The party had gone as planned, for good or ill.

(Epilogue)

It was over before we ever got to Colorado. It ended back one day in February when Thompson stuffed a hand gun into his mouth and pulled the trigger. We still have his work, but the man is gone. Everyone who showed up for the memorial had their own reason for being there. Whether you were the drinking friend from Aspen or a college student from Oklahoma, you came down Woody Creek Road to pay tribute to a man. Some did it from the booze-filled enclosure in the yard, and some did it from a few hundred yards away across the street. Either way you celebrated you did so to honor a man who lived life on his own terms for 67 years. The settled ashes lay across a stretch of earth not nearly as wide or deep as the hole that has been left in the world.

A few words from Mr. Oliver

I first heard of Thompson with the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. After seeing it a couple times I got a copy of the book. I have since read it, the rest of Thompson's books, two biographies of him, and a good selection of articles and interviews from other journalism professionals and mindless myth-obsessed boobs alike. I don't consider myself an authority on the fucker in any way, just a fan.

That was what went into the trip to Colorado: being a fan and wanting to see him off. To me he represented a way to life however the hell you wanted.

He did things his way, and now that he's gone it will be missed by those who had to deal with it. That I didn't rub shoulders with a bunch of fuckers I didn't know isn't a bad thing in my opinion. It wasn't the purpose of my trip. I saw this as a way to prove that it was Over, and that there was to be no more writings from Owl Farm.

At least not new writing. There are to be more books authored by Thompson and I imagine more biographies, but they will not bring back what is done.

Hunter S. Thompson now takes his place with the other great writers in history, and in my view he can hold his own.

And while his writing may have suffered as his life went on, even from my point of view, I think his worst pile of shit was better than most other writer's best effort. He was original and daring. He wrote some things to get a laugh, so to inform, and a lot to get a rise or reaction out of the reader. He is irreplaceable.


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