Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, in his best piece of writing, describes how the hope and promise of that land of myth called the 1960s began recede, how “with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” Thompson’s terrain, of course, is that sand exposed when the water returned to that far-off sea. A beach-comber of the wretched and depraved, Thompson digs into the sand and shares with the rest of us.
The key insight of Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, is that before Hunter, the LSD brand was of this kind of Tim Leary bullshit, lying on your back while the music of India plays, being greeted by warm and benevolent visions. Hunter comes along and doesn’t unlock the madness, he exposes it, and gives a vocabulary to the rest of us. To borrow from Baudelaire, Hunter didn’t just feel the wind of the wing of madness, he rode the fucking thing.
In Gonzo, there is a scene familiar to anyone who has watched documentaries treating that fabled decade. In this particular scene, we witness scenes of chaos: marches, cops beating kids, bombs falling in Vietnam, madness. To contextualize the chaos, director Gibney gives us Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower. Watchtower closes:
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.
The figure of the rider offers some insight not merely into Thompson, but into the visions of the 1960s. Dylan envisions two riders approaching. Jerry Garcia addresses the rider directly: I know you, Rider. Garcia, of course, is interpreting traditional song. The song opens:
I laid down and I tried to take my rest
But my mind it just kept wandering like some wild geese in the west
These lyrics, however, probably come from a song popularized by Skip James, “The Devil Got My Woman.” As James sings it, “I’d rather be the devil, to be that woman, man.”
Garcia plays with an image, Dylan owns it. Sort of. Digging back a ways deeper, we come to Tennyson, who wrote:
There came a rider to the castle gate.
The night was stormy and the hour late,
The horse had wings and would have flown
But that his heaver rider held him down.
Dylan sees Tennyson’s rider and doubles it. Tennyson’s night was stormy, in Dylan’s night, the wind howls (with that wonderful rhyme, the howl like the wildcat’s growl).
These horses, however and of course, come to us from that clichéd book of Revelations, and we must remember that there are four horsemen of the Apocalypse, each bringing their own pestilence. Their faces, not seen. As in the crazy-popular-in-the-1960s Lord of the Rings, one imagines the rider with dark hood cloaking everything and nothing.
This image of the Rider has a long lineage, and in thinking about Thompson specifically and the visions of that mad decade generally, it is worth considering what it means when the Rider approaches.
Back to Thompson. In later life, his muse has deserted him like a departed lover. The crisp edges of reality are becoming blurred. So when cowboy Bush rode into town on his high horse, one imagines Hunter Thompson with a sinking feeling: I’ve seen this movie before. (Tennyson again: There is confusion worse than death, Trouble on trouple, pain on pain). This whole America thing, these cycles where one year we’ve got the guy whispering promises of hope and change, the next we’ve got a total criminal gleefully tearing the guts out of this rotting country with impunity. It’s enough to drive a man insane. Hunter Thompson, always insane, and in typical fashion, just took it one step further.