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.
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.
he work here?" the moron asked me.
I was so enraged, I
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
The traffic began to pick up. More cops were circling
and the shuttles from the hotel or racetrack were coming in fast.
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.
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").
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?
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 . . .
A line of explosions
in red and white shot into the sky. Then a second line.
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."
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
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
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
The scare tactics had worked.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.