Thursday, February 24, 2005
There is still a shot of whiskey on the bar in Woody Creek. It's been there for years, at least in my mind.
I played it out a thousand times since I moved to Colorado.
I would order a shot for Hunter S. Thompson and order one for myself. Somehow -- and these details are fuzzy -- I got him to join me for a drink.
We would throw back the shots and slam them down on the bar. Then Hunter would turn to me and say, "So what did you want to talk to me about?"
And that was it. That was where the whole thing unraveled.
We would sit in uncomfortable silence for a while as I tried to compose the right question.
Why do you torture Ralph Steadman so much?
What did Nixon smell like?
Tell me something that would make me interested in football.
How much of your writing is just that persona that you invented and how much is really you?
Invent a persona for me.
But everything I thought to say was stupid, stupid, stupid.
So I never drove to Woody Creek in the middle of the night. I never braved the shotgun firing at my tires from the porch. I never bought a shot of whiskey for Hunter S. Thompson.
And that is why, on Monday morning, my phone started to ring. When the word spread that Thompson had taken his life, anyone who knows me knew it was time to offer their condolences and say something like, "I guess you won't be going to Aspen."
No. I guess not.
My best piece of advice for anyone is, "Never take advice from anyone." But somehow I thought that Thompson might have something to tell me. He had figured out what I have been trying to figure out for years. He could write, and he could write whatever he wanted and people would buy it and publish it and read it. And he did it all from a small town in Colorado.
I thought he might have something to tell me, but I never made that drive.
My second best piece of advice is, "Never meet your heroes."
Those people whose personalities pour out of the pen onto the page rarely have the same ability in real life.
Gifted artists can express themselves for hours in an empty room, but watch them walk into a crowded party full of strangers and it's a completely different story. Especially when those strangers' heads are full of odd ideas about who that artist is from what they've read or seen in the movies.
Advice No. 3, because I'm on a roll, "Be careful who you pretend to be, because you will eventually become that person."
I read an article years ago about Thompson's early career. He was struggling in obscurity with the rest of the small-time, small-town journalists and he needed a way to get noticed. According to this article, Thompson purposely crafted the drug- and alcohol-crazed man who tore through the world with his pen flying as a vehicle for his intelligent, thought-provoking journalism. It worked. Before long, people were reading and admiring.
Like guitar players who latch onto Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton or Robert Fripp to learn their first chords, I think journalists around the world latched onto Thompson.
He wrote with guts. He taught us that it was OK to be in the story. In fact, the story can be better if you are in it.
Since he died, the shelves of bookstores have filled with his writings, and people who have never read him will pick up his articles and his essays and his hundreds of pages of ramblings. (Try "The Rum Diary" or "The Great Shark Hunt.")
He was writing right up until the end. In fact, he's probably missing a deadline as we speak.
Bye, Hunter. Hope there's something interesting to write about up there. Thanks for everything, and I'll buy you that shot in heaven. Selah.