PsychoGeography #76: Farewell, Dr Gonzo

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The Independent Online

We were near Stevenage on the outskirts of London when the drugs began to take hold. Hmm... somehow this doesn't quite have the right ring to it, anymore than the serious drug collection my buddies and I rounded up for our end of lower-sixth road trip in 1978 bears comparison with that of Dr Gonzo and his Samoan attorney. We had an ounce or so of red seal Pakki black hash, forty-odd amphetamine blues, a bottle of amyl nitrate and few blotters of acid - they had a "multicoloured collection of uppers, downers. Twisters and screamers." Hunter Thompson's alter ego was in search of the American Dream - we were trying to escape what we fondly imagined was a suburban nightmare. Thompson piloted a succession of outrageously flamboyant rental convertibles - we'd managed to borrow somebody's mum's Triumph Toledo.

We went to Suffolk where we hung out with ageing (they must've been about 25) hippies on the beach. One of them, Bob, got us to impale nuggets of our hash on a safety pin and then inhale the captured smoke from a milk bottle. After these shebangs, he'd pilot us on trips, walking our astral bodies out of the tent and into the village. There we'd convene in the pub for pints of old ale - the noumenal world didn't seem that frighteningly different. Bob made stews using puffballs, samphire and rabbits he'd shot with his .22 air rifle. These he cooked in a biscuit tin buried underneath a beach fire. I've never tasted anything better.

Next we drove to Exeter because the summer before I'd had cardinal knowledge of a girl who lived there, but amazingly, when she saw the state of me and my mates - let alone the borrowed Toledo - she lost all interest. We didn't care, we had each other, the drug collection, the wheels and the unshakeable faith that by combining these elements we would somehow induce a reevaluation of all values - not just in ourselves but in the entire western world. The key thing was to place oneself at the very centre of the story and then ride the thing into the ground - that much I understood. No prisoners could be taken, the prose must have the quality of a hit-and-run driver, rage was the fuel; rage, youth and a satiric impulse the size of petrol tanker. I let the other two do the driving - I had to take notes. Copious, disordered notes.

Now, nearly 30 years on, and with Thompson dead by his own hand, I look back on this time with frank amazement. I don't imagine Thompson's gonzo journalism had this effect on everyone who read it - but it did on me. But then I was primed, cocked, and ready to go off. I'd been snaffling a high-calorie diet of On the Road prose, and begun hitchhiking around free festivals when I was just 13. Punk had addled my pate, hallucinogens - which had been the bus ticket to an artificial paradise the decade before, now seemed purpose-synthesised to expose contemporary society for the laughable charade that it was.

I don't gainsay the power or the efficacy of that fundamental impulse - it worked for Thompson and, for a while, it worked for me too. Drugged derangement translated the space-time continuum, and made it painfully clear that reality itself was some strange transmogrification. But solipsism is a young solipsist's game, and with age the ego - like most toys - needs to be put away in a box. I couldn't manage that, and as I grew older the drugs became a necessity, shutting out the truth about the consequences of their use, rather than imparting any fresh insights. Then, the stupefying irony arrived, when my most Gonzo exploits - Prime Ministerial press junkets and smack spring to mind - were undertaken unthinkingly and involuntarily, rather than as part of some masterwork of subversion.

It's not for me to judge Thompson's life, or his chosen way of ending it, but all I can say is that when I heard the news I was only saddened. Any man's death diminishes us, but when a man dies who has given us much joy, many laughs, and a devastating critique of this power-crazed world, then we are triply diminished. The saddest thing I saw among the encomia was an interview from the mid-Seventies with Thompson, in which he observed that "I'm in the way, all they want now is the myth, it would be better for the myth if I were to die now." I fear that he lived out the back half of his life knowing that just as there are no second acts in American lives, so it's in everyone's interest to ensure that the first act is prolonged indefinitely. Rest in peace Dr Gonzo.