Worshippers of the wild and dissolute drug culture of the 1960s gathered at their temple in Woody Creek, Colo., on an August Saturday night to pay tribute to the booze-and-drug-soaked journalistic legend Hunter S. Thompson, exactly six months after he shot himself in the head in the middle of a phone call with his wife. It was, in a way, a perfect ending to symbolize Thompson’s self-absorbed, self-destructive worldview. How pathetic is it that some people are actually celebrating this?
The next time you hear the biggest hearts in Hollywood railing against how the government or corporations waste millions of dollars on their "toys" rather than helping the poor, think of the Hunter Thompson memorial service. Actor Johnny Depp spent a reported $2 million constructing a giant tower (taller than the Statue of Liberty) to shoot Thompson’s ashes into the sky with some very loud fireworks. The New York Times described it as "a rocket-like structure embedded with a dagger. It was crowned by Mr. Thompson’s logo, a two-and-a-half-ton red fist with two thumbs and a psychedelic peyote button pulsating at its center, a Day-Glo sight visible for miles around." The Times respectfully called it the "complete canonization of Mr. Thompson."
Thompson devotees swarmed the area from across the country but were not allowed near the party. It didn’t stop them from hailing Thompson as a prophet. "It’s a pilgrimage of sorts," said one man who flew in from Wisconsin in a tuxedo he’d worn for four days straight. "This is the wailing wall of the freak kingdom."
Johnny Depp mumbled about how it was "nice to give a little something back." Depp played Thompson in the 1998 movie "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." (The opening line is: "We were somewhere around Barstow when the drugs began to take hold," followed by an inventory of all the hallucinogenic drugs and alcohol in the car.) Also present was actor Bill Murray, who also played a loopy Thompson in the 1980 movie "Where the Buffalo Roam." The fact that there were two studio movies devoted to this drug- and paranoia-fueled writer says a lot about Hollywood’s odd eye of admiration.
Other luminaries who were allowed into the very exclusive yet infantile ceremonies — graced with "Academy Award-level" security — were actor Sean Penn, musician Lyle Lovett, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, CBS News man Ed Bradley, failed Democratic presidential candidates George McGovern and John Kerry, and liberal historian Douglas Brinkley, the literary executor of the Thompson estate. In an example of the event’s outlaw chic, Brinkley called Thompson "the Billy the Kid of American literature." (If true, writers should feel free to steal from his work despite Brinkley’s copyright-protecting job title.)
Like the Times, the Washington Post also portrayed these brief yet gaudy "blast rites" as a major cultural event, celebrating the "poet laureate of a drug-fueled American counterculture." The Post placed its Hunter homage on page A-3, while the new pope speaking to millions of young people at World Youth Day in Germany — talk about a counterculture — were relegated to A-20.
The Post remembered Thompson lovingly as a "New Journalist" to whom truth was a secondary consideration, noting he conceded that "much of his reporting was fictional, but his admirers said he used imaginative touches to get close to the truth." McGovern called Thompson’s reports on the 1972 campaign "inaccurate and irreverent and truthful," proving that bizarro logic is not limited to the literary community.
Wenner of Rolling Stone, easily overstating his own historic role in American letters, called Thompson not only the "DNA of Rolling Stone," but "one of the greatest writers of the 20th century." You can grant that Thompson was an iconic figure for some, or that he was an "experimental stylist," but his prose is often just Beat Generation pulp. One writer boasted of Thompson’s "art" with some of his reportage on the Hell’s Angels, who were "like Genghis Khan on an iron horse, a monster steed with a fiery anus, flat out through the eye of a beer can and up your daughter’s leg with no quarter asked and none given." That might be unique, but it’s not likely to be viewed by history as a 20th century classic. You have to wonder if you need to be drunk or stoned to think of placing him next to Ernest Hemingway or Mark Twain.
How perfect this event was to demonstrate how Hollywood and much of modern popular culture has been devoted not to lifting men up but dragging them down into a fuzzy world of addiction and self-absorption, and ultimately self-pity. The libertine elite at Woody Creek came to celebrate a man whose creed wasn’t about loving or giving or helping or holiness: "I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me."