Going, going, gonzo: Hunter S Thompson blasts off

The last wish of Hunter S Thompson, the 'enfant terrible' of American literature, was to have his ashes shot from a cannon. His request has been fulfilled. By Andrew Buncombe
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The Independent US

For more than 25 years, it was also apparently Thompson's wish that once he was dead he should be remembered with a final loud bang, namely in the form of his ashes being blasted out of a cannon while his friends raised their glasses in a toast. No simple urn, no simple eulogy, would suffice for the man who invented so-called gonzo journalism.

So it was, late on Saturday evening in a valley five miles outside the soulless resort town of Aspen, that Thompson's final request was granted. On a calm, still night lit by an almost full moon, a combination of fireworks and the writer's ashes were blasted into the sky from the top of a 153ft tower in a series of red, white, blue and green flashes.

The private pyrotechnic party was attended by a host of celebrities, including the actors Johnny Depp, Sean Penn and Bill Murray as well as the failed presidential contender Senator John Kerry. Initial reports that members of the Black Panthers were also present at Thompson's Owl Farm to cause a "riot" could not be immediately confirmed.

Thompson's demand that his mortal remains be scattered by explosives was first made during a 1978 television interview with the BBC, though family members said that he regularly repeated the request throughout his life.

As such, Saturday night's $2.5m (£1.4m) extravaganza paid for by Depp and from which the media was barred, was, depending on your perspective, either a huge success or a preposterous sell-out.

Ed Bradley, a veteran television newsman and close friend who attended the party held exactly six months to the day that the writer committed suicide, told the Aspen News that "Hunter would have loved it".

But this view was clearly not shared by the 50 or so Hunter fans forced to stand outside the writer's farm, kept back by up to 100 security guards and who started chanting "Hunter, this is fucked" shortly before the fireworks detonated at 8.46pm.

One woman, Nancy Cohen, who had travelled from New York to stand with other Thompson fans, said: "This is bogus. These are not Hunter's fences. Of course, writers have a thing for celebrity so he would be happy to see all these people. But the line being drawn between them and us is too big. It's crazy."

Indeed many of Thompson's fans, most of whom it seems were first attracted to Thompson when they read his seminal work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, while still at school, suggested the writer, who often focused on "outsiders" versus "insiders", would not have approved.

There was plenty of speculation among his fans that had Thompson himself been covering the event he would started off by drinking a quart of Wild Turkey bourbon and swallowing a pocketful of pills. ("Holy Jesus! Did they really just fire my ass out of a cannon? Damn you Johnny Depp, I was just bullshittin' about the explosives. I really wanted an urn.")

Thompson's son, Juan, asked how his father might himself have covered such an event when he was a young reporter in his prime, declined a proper answer. "That's hard to say," he said. "I'm not going to speculate."

But Thompson's long-time collaborator, Ralph Steadman, the illustrator who first worked with him for a 1970 piece about the Kentucky Derby - the piece, incidentally in which Thompson famously joked about the Black Panthers planning a riot - said he believed his friend would have approved of the send-off.

Over an afternoon beer at the Hotel Jerome in Aspen with The Independent and the actor Bill Murray several hours before the memorial blast-off, Steadman said his friend, who once affectionately referred to him in print as a "scum-sucking foreign geek" might have looked on with a "smirk or a grin". "I think he would have liked it," he said.

Murray, who played Thompson in the 1980 film Where the Buffalo Roam almost 20 years before Depp repeated the part in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, said: "This was like his life. It's gonzo. He wrote about this and it's happening. It was what he predicted." Murray said one of the lessons of Fear and Loathing was that however chaotic and crazy one might anticipate a huge event being, things normally worked out.

Murray said he believed Thompson had chosen to live in this peaceful part of Colorado, close to the Roaring Fork River, to find a refuge and achieve in some balance in his life. "Your life cannot be the same as your work," he said. Most of Thompson's neighbours in what is now a rich and wealthy neighbourhood, appeared to tolerate his eccentricities. At the Woody Creek Tavern, where Thompson was once a regular, his drinking buddies remembered him as a generous friend.

But Judy Sunski, who drives a school bus in Aspen and was this weekend visiting a friend's farm in Woody Creek, said she had little time for Thompson or his celebration of drink and drug binges. Neither was she impressed by the circumstances of his suicide, shooting himself as he sat at his typewriter only moments after hanging up the phone to his wife.

"I don't agree in glorifying all that," she said, adding that she considered Thompson something of a trouble-maker and that on half dozen or so occasions she had seen in the local tavern that he was causing bother. "I don't know, I only saw him five or six times. Maybe he only caused trouble on those five or six times."

But trouble or no trouble, nothing was going to get in the way of Thompson's Hollywood-backed "cannonisation", organised by his son and his 32-year-old wife, Anita. Locals had been warned in advance by police that parking would not be allowed on the road leading to Thompson's farm and that "skittish horses and puppies" should be put in the barn so they were not scared by the 34 fireworks that would blast his ashes into the night or the searchlights that would shine Thompson's gonzo "fist" logo into the sky.

And when the moment came to finally fulfil Thompson's wishes, things went without a hitch. A kimono-clad Japanese band brought their drumming to a pitch and the fireworks blasted off from the tower, leaving the writer's ashes to float slowly down on to his farm, and presumably on to his guests, enjoying their champagne and mint juleps.

As his invited guests got into taxis, his uninvited fans started the walk back down the hill, back towards the Woody Creek Tavern for one last wake. And all across the valley, the 153ft tower pulsated and flashed while the searchlights continued to shine the clenched fist into the sky.

One last act of defiance for all to see.