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A Quietus Interview

An Unpublished Interview With Hunter S. Thompson
Ian Johnston , February 17th, 2011 05:41

To mark the anniversary of Hunter S. Thompson's death - and with a film adaptation of his novel The Rum Diary due later this year - The Quietus is thrilled to bring you this previously unpublished interview, conducted in 1998. The great man discusses the Clinton scandal, fraught film adaptations and his own battles with the establishment

On 17th October 1998 I was highly fortunate to conduct a telephone interview with the late, great Doctor of Journalism Hunter S. Thompson for an article for the long defunct movie magazine Neon. What follows below is a straight transcript (never before printed) of the whole phone conversation with Thompson at his heavily fortified home Owl Farm, Woody Creek, Colorado. It was at Owl Farm, on 20th February 2005, that Thompson took his own life with a gunshot after a long period of illness.

During the 1960's and 1970's, as an anti-establishment writer Thompson famously championed all the freedoms of the era. From his first book in 1966, the bike gang expose Hell's Angels, through his viciously funny drug fuelled satire Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas: A Savage Journey To The Heart Of The American Dream (1972) to Fear And Loathing: On The Campaign Trail '72 (1973) and The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales From A Strange Time (1979), his collection of political essays, Thompson had his finger on the pulse of the American way of life and death – Nixon, post-'Nam/Watergate politics, rock music, sports, firearms, sport, flaming youth and the 'drug culture'.

Thompson's bold and innovative strategy was to place the journalist at the very heart of a story, until he becomes the central protagonist. It was this perspective that inspired Thompson to coin the term 'gonzo journalism'. 'Gonzo' is a word with two possible derivations: the Italian word for simpleton, or a South Boston Irish phrase used to describe the winner of an all-night drinking session. Thompson never proffered any comment either way.

In 1967, as "an ordained doctor of divinity in the Church of the New Truth", Thompson moved to Colorado, where in 1970, he ran for Pitkin County on a 'Freak Power' ticket. Thompson shaved his head so he could refer to his fellow candidate Carrol Whitemire, the standing, clean-cut sheriff, as "my long haired opponent". Thompson was defeated. If we can't win in Aspen,' he lamented to the New York Times, "we can't win anywhere." It was Thompson's disappointment with the "counterculture experiment" that informed the hallucinatory Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas neon-fever nightmare novel, which was very loosely based on a recent trip, with attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta (aka Dr. Gonzo), ostensibly to cover the local Mint 400 motorcycle race for Rolling Stone magazine. Rather than celebrating his characters' narcotics-fuelled hedonism, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas mourned the idealistic losers and drug-culture casualties of the 60s.

When it first appeared, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas would only fuel the numerous myths and misconceptions about Thompson, eclipsing his work as a very solid journalist, as evinced in perhaps his finest book Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail '72. These collected writing from his time as Rolling Stone's 'home affairs correspondent' covered the McGovern/Nixon presidential campaign, establishing his credentials as an ace political reporter looking beneath the smooth surface of an event and focusing on the image-makers, press agents and speech-writers. This volume, together with Fear And Loathing In America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist 1968-1976, the second collection of his letters published in 2000, are far more representative of Thompson's talent as a political writer than the more celebrated Las Vegas saga.

He was born Hunter Stockton Thompson on 18th July 1937, in Norton Infirmary, Louisville, Kentucky. "I've always felt like a Southerner," Thompson told his unauthorised biographer E. Jean Carroll. "And I always felt like I was born in defeat. And I may have written everything I've written just to win back a victory. My life may be pure revenge.

Thompson's father worked at the First Kentucky Fire Insurance Company and the family were not affluent. His mother Virginia was an alcoholic and maintained little control over him, leaving discipline to be exerted by his father Jack, who died in 1952. Three years later, the 17 year-old Thompson was in court accused of robbery. Previous convictions for drinking and destruction of property were taken into consideration, and the juvenile court judge ordered that he spend 60 days in the county jail. His attorney pleaded to work things out, adding that Thompson wanted to join the air force.

Upon his release from Jefferson County Jail in July 1955, Thompson enlisted. By September 1956 he was the sports editor of The Command Courier, the newspaper of the Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. This was the beginning of his career in journalism, a vocation he grew to resent. "I have spent half my life trying to get away from journalism," Thompson ruminated some thirty years later in his 1988 volume Generation Of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80's, "a low trade and a worse habit than heroin, a strange seedy world of misfits and drunkards and failures."

Honourably discharged from the air force in 1958, Thompson began freelance writing, working as the Caribbean correspondent in San Juan, Puerto Rico for the New York Herald Tribune, also reporting from South America in 1962 for the National Observer. During this period, an argument with the National Observer editors over an effusive review of Tom Wolfe's The Kandy-kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamlined Baby left him out of work. Thompson used his enforced leisure time to write a novel, The Rum Diary – the story set in San Juan and narrated by a semi-autobiographical character called Paul Kemp. Thompson spent much of the 60's writing and rewriting the novel, based upon his experiences as a freelance journalist in Puerto Rico during the late 1950's. The Rum Diary, heavily influenced by Thompson's literary heroes Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and Faulkner, remained unpublished until 1998. It was this novel, finally released as a motion picture later this year starring Johnny Depp and directed by Bruce 'Withnail & I' Robinson, that I was meant to be discussing with Thompson on 17th October 1998. There was also the Proud Highway, his recently published first collection of letters spanning 1955 to 1967, and Terry Gilliam's film of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas to discuss.

However, Thompson had completely forgotten that he was supposed to be conducting an interview at the appointed time. He had much more important matters to consider. Thompson was frantically trying to complete a very long profile of the disgraced President Bill Clinton for the magazine that had made his name, Rolling Stone. The huge Starr Report, an exhaustive investigation by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr into the affairs of Bill Clinton, had recently been published in September 1998. At first conceived as an enquiry into a disastrous land deal, which was termed Whitewater, instigated by the 1993 suicide of deputy White House Council Vince Foster, Starr's enquiry also raked over Clinton's alleged misuse of FBI files, abuse of White House travel agents and the president's performance during a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a former Arkansas government employee Paula Jones.

During the case, Starr's team were given a tape by Linda Tripp of phone conversations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky talking about having oral sex with Bill Clinton. With the Lewinsky tape, attempts were made in the Paula Jones lawsuit to portray Clinton as a serial adulterer, but under sworn testimony Clinton denied having "sexual relations" with Lewinsky. Starr, armed with the tapes and a dress of Lewinsky's, provided by Tripp, splattered with Clinton's semen, and surmised that Clinton had perjured himself. Clinton's defence at the Starr Grand Jury rested upon the definition of the term "sexual relations". The Starr enquiry would ultimately lead to Clinton's impeachment in December 1998 but despite this the president was acquitted in his trial before the United States Senate. Regardless of the fact that the Republicans then dominated the Senate, they were unable to raise the two-thirds majority in order to convict Clinton. Yet on 17th October 1998 it looked like The Comeback Kid was finally down for the count.

The Clinton/Starr case had also obviously stirred Thompson's memories on 17th October 1998 of his own major trial on 22nd May, 1990, in Pitkin, Aspen, when the author was charged with the following: "Misdemeanour, sexual assault and felony charges of possession of illegal drugs and dynamite." Thompson's major problems began on 21st February 1990, when 35-year old Gail Palmer-Slater '"self-employed writer" and producer of hit porn pictures such as Erotic Adventures of Candy, visited Owl Farm, high in the Colorado mountains. Palmer-Slater claimed Thompson punched her and grabbed her left breast when she declined to interview the author in his jacuzzi. Thompson counter claimed that Palmer-Slater was seeking publicity for her sex aid business venture.

On 26th February 1990, a team from the office of Milton Bradley, the district attorney in Colorado's Ninth Judicial District, arrived at Owl Farm with a search warrant. Thompson had been warned of their impending arrival, but during a 11 hour search of the ranch the team found various vials, containers, a "round green canister" containing a "a white powdery substance", a 22. Calibre machine gun, a 12-gauge shotgun, explosive blasting caps, "unknown pills", a bronze hookah, a "possible" amount of hashish and a "baggie containing a small quality of a green substance." Thompson claimed that the drugs discovered were probably years old as "every freak in the world" had been through his home in the past 24 years. Thompson even tendered his own headline to the press: "LIFESTYLE POLICE RAID HOME OF 'CRAZED' GONZO JOURNALIST. 11-HOUR SEARCH BY SIX TRAINED INVESTIGATORS YIELDS NOTHING BUT CRUMBS."

By 30th May 1990, Thompson stood victorious on the steps of Pitkin County Courthouse on Main Street, Aspen. All charges of sexual assault, possession of drugs and dynamite had been dropped by District Judge Charles Buss, who denounced the DA for negligence, malfeasance and criminal abuse of police power. Thompson told the assembled crowd of photographers, reporters and his supporters that his victory was a triumph for all Americans, for the constitutional right to privacy in one's own home and not to be subjected to unwarranted search and seizure. But from that point on, Thompson would become much more wary of intruders into his private domain.

As I anxiously waited for the Owl Farm telephone to answer, I recall fervently hoping that I could actually understand Thompson's curious fast mumbling manner of speaking, which Johnny Depp so successfully mimicked when he portrayed the writer's Raoul Duke alter ego in Gilliam's Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. If Thompson ever picked up the damn phone to begin our interview. Luckily, Thompson did and he was aware of the transatlantic comprehension problem.

Hunter S. Thompson: "Ah!"

Doctor Thompson?

HST: Yeah, I just heard something. Holy Christ, I forgot about that. What is it?

I'm ringing to do the interview for the magazine.

HST: Well, well, well… let's just see how we can take these things over the fly, over the shoulder. I'd actually forgotten about this I'm sorry. It is 2 o'clock on Friday night isn't it?

It's nine o'clock in the morning here.

HST: You're right on schedule. What's your name?

Ian Johnston.

HST: Ian Johnston. Well OK. Let's see. Trying to think, ah. If we do this we have to think about infliction. Having to do a thirty-minute interview and you having any fucking idea of what I've said. Let me give you another line and I'll plug you into the speakerphone. In two minutes.

[Two minutes later]

HST: [pretending to be an answerphone message] Today the market tip is …. Sell Clinton. The stock will not go any higher. Repeat; sell Clinton.

Hello sir.

HST: I had no idea. This had slipped my mind and my assistant had killed herself. It's been bloody rough. This is very fortuitous that you should call out of nowhere. Yeah, I'm spacing out, as they say in some cultures.

You obviously lead a nocturnal existence. Do you find it better to write at night?

HST: Oh yeah, it's too busy during the day. There are too many plumbers and salesmen driving around. It's like writing in a crowd, in the street.

Has it always been like that for you?

HST: As a matter of function, yeah. I wasn't born a vampire bat. As a matter of, take a look around you. I can't handle it. There's no way I can work as a writer during the day. There's just too much happening.

Your farm is quite a communications never centre, isn't? You've got just about every communication device known to man. How many televisions do you have?

HST: I try, yes. Oh, four, five around the room. It's great to have them side-by-side for various time zones. You have a sense of being on top of the world. A big target. You're at sea level, right?


HST: Well. I'm a mile and a half high.

That must be a secure feeling.

HST: [Laughs] Not really, no. They're still after me.

They tried in 1990, didn't they?

HST: Once, they've tried many times. They've made several serious moves on me, but that was a big time bust. That was like having Kenneth Starr after you. That was a controlled, organized war, attack, on me. I don't want to seem melodramatic here, it's a matter of fact, and it's been documented. It was the Fed's, and the local people, the DA. Just like Starr is doing to Clinton.

Because they saw you as a subversive element?

HST: Yeah, I think that's exactly it. What I stand for, what I seem to, is becoming increasing difficult ground to hold.

Just to get on with your own life, in your own way?

HST: Well, that's basic but I am also involved in politics. I'm writing a piece right now, that's why we're a little amok here. I'm writing a terminal judgement on Clinton for Rolling Stone.

Do you think he's had it?

HST: Yeah, yeah, I think so. I see this as one of the people who is going to have to pick-up the pieces, when that crazy, low-rent bastard is gone. I care about that, it doesn't matter what he does. I don't like the man, and he doesn't like me."

Clinton is from a generation that might have read Fear and Loathing…

HST: Oh, he did, yeah. He worked for McGovern. If you don't care about what's going to happen in this country, it's easy to dismiss Clinton and Starr as just a bunch of Nazis. Which is true, in a way. I've already said this in that book Better Than Sex that I wrote. There are some very harsh judgements on Clinton in there. I've been through the attack on me and my response was to fight like a wolverine. I'm a professional writer and journalist, and without friends and constitutional lawyers and people like that who came to my aid, I would have gone down the tubes with that. It was a big time assault on me, but I had the added leverage that I knew that I was right. I knew they were going to come after me, just as Clinton knows they are coming after him. It was a monumental struggle but it was good, good for everybody. It cost me about a hundred and thirty thousand dollars, but it was worth it. But Clinton isn't really fighting.

See, I was innocent. Not innocent as the driven snow but… I know how Clinton's got himself into this goddamn mess. He's been doing it his whole life. But he's not fighting back, he's just weaselling around. That's going to make him a weak president. That's why I say he's finished.

Do you think if Clinton is impeached and Al Gore steps in that the Democrats will be re-elected?

HST: Well, we're getting into the technical aspects here. I think Gore will be president, one way or another. It's a matter of timing. Gore is really the guy's who's on the hot seat here. He's going to have to pay for Clinton's low-rent foulness. It's like some slime, primeval slime.

It's a surreal situation when the most powerful man on earth has to argue about whether oral sex constitutes a sexual act…

HST: His position is, according to the law as he saw it at that time, and according to his Baptist upbringing, and according to his mother, he was not having sex. Sex is for procreation, right. This kind of stuff is an abomination to the Lord, but not a sin. He didn't have sex with her, but she had sex with him. That's really nuts. He was a good politician, now he's a bad politician.

In that people of Middle America have seen behind the image?

HST: Yeah. Clinton's failure drags down the whole party, everybody who voted for him and everyone who cares about politics. Call yourself a Democrat, a liberal, a radical, whatever; he's wet them with tar. The Democratic Party are not trying to save Clinton; they are trying to save themselves. I'd just like to add, the election is in the year 2000. There will be no year 2000, just remember I told you that. There will be no point in even voting.

I ain't so disturbed by what he did, but he let the mask slip. Just like your Royal Family over there. I mean, I can identify with oral sex with a telephone, I can identify with a lot of weird shit, a lot better stuff than what he's talking about.

But you've never lied under oath have you?

HST: Exactly. I'm not discussing it every day on TV for nine straight months. It's a shit rain, that's what it is, a shit rain. I think we should get rid of him, but he can't leave before January 20th, or he will cheat Gore out of being a two-term president, ho, ho. Clinton's one of those people who stinks on the street, people run away from him. I have no sympathy for him, and I know that Starr is a Nazi.

Whatever happened to all the evidence about Whitewater?

HST: He didn't need it, that's what happened to it. It's buried in that other thousand pages. It's an ugly thing…. I believe in England you've had some wonderful scandals... Christine Keeler, Christ that was high style scandal. The difference is that those were better people, from Christine Keeler to Profumo. They were all better people than Clinton. My editor has been banging on my shoulder here, saying that we just got a copy of my novel The Rum Diary.

Yes, the novel. Why has it taken so long to present it to the public? Why now?

HST: Err, I was offered six hundred thousand dollars.

Hadn't you been offered that kind of money before?

HST: Oh well, no, err, not that much, no. I've got a lot of stuff I never sold. Every real writer has, not just a desk full, but rooms full of the stuff that wasn't sold.

Are there any more novels then?

HST: Not complete, I don't think. This one just happens to be complete. This was my Holy Grail. I was a novelist when I wrote this. This was hard work, confronting myself, what, 40 years ago? Having to edit it without changing the points of view was very strange. It's before the 60s, that's the eerie thing about it. It's before Kennedy, the end of the 50s. Before drugs really hit - in my life, anyway. Before Kennedy, before Castro, before Cuba, before the moon walks, before, you know, missiles. It was like discovering a weird Sanskrit book from another time. I hadn't looked at it in twenty years.

I believe it was the Proud Highway, the letters book, that caused a lot of people to demand it. And suddenly I was offered money for it. I was not eager to do it, I wasn't thinking, 'Hot damn, man, finally I'll get this novel out.' But now I'm looking at it, right here in front of me, the first time I've seen it. Christ, I'm looking around me at all this stuff about Clinton and all the rest that's happening, and this novel is a very pure piece of work.

Is the Paul Kemp character your only alter ego in The Rum Diary or do some of the characters reflect…

HST: They all do, really. See when I wrote it, I was right in the middle of it, it was my reality. I made sure not to have the same Romans-a-clef kind of figures. There is nobody here who is purely anybody. But I can see parts of myself in Kemp and Yeamon. It's a really good piece of journalism, if you look at it. If you look at it as journalism, it's a classic.

The novel captures the tension that builds in a tropical climate "where men sweat twenty four hours a day", to quote The Rum Diary.

HST: Hot damn! What else do you remember, right off the top of your head, any scene that comes to mind? And thank you for that.

The beating by the police. Did that happen to you down there?

HST: Yeah, yeah, oh yes. That's why I say, if you look at it from a different angle, this could be very good journalism. You can't expect people to look at it that way, and they shouldn't, so it becomes a story. But I could call everything in this book journalism and it would probably pass.

The newspaper's editor and proprietor is a remarkable character, isn't me?

HST: Lotterman, oh yeah. We were thinking of having Jack Nicholson play Lotterman in the movie.

So a film is coming?

HST: Oh yeah, that's rolling. Nicholson would be perfect. Nobody laughs in this movie at any jokes. That's why Nicholson would be perfect. And Johnny Depp probably as Kemp. We are having fun with it. I never thought I'd get to this point, sitting around here deciding whether or not Jack Nicholson would be right for this part. [To his editor] Ok, I'll get off. [Back on line] I have to come to some sort of conclusion about Clinton, and I reckon he should go. It's weird; I'm living really two lives. I have in front of me here my book Better Than Sex, a very, very political book. One of the most accurate political books ever written. It's scary to read. It might have been written last week. But I also have in front of me The Rum Diary, which is a completely different world. Very weird. I see different pictures of myself on the covers. One is a bald, Freak Power person; the other is this handsome youth drinking a beer on a beach. It's kind of funny. And I still have to deal with the president.

It's been a very long, strange journey, hasn't it?

HST: Very good, yeah [laughs].

Do you still see Johnny Depp socially?

HST: Oh yeah, yeah, definitely. He's going... Well we are talking about this film, but he's been over in Paris for a long time. In fact, this is a tip for you, this is horrible, but he's going to be in London in the next few months. He's making a film with Tim Burton.

What happened with the Fear And Loathing movie when director Alex Cox came round to your place?

HST: Funny you should ask about that, we have a movie of it. Yeah, well, it's a tasty subject. Made by this famous underground filmmaker Wayne Ewing, who is right here now, helping me on this Clinton story. We were just talking about it this afternoon. It's a really heinous piece of work. Yeah, it's a documentary. It should be used in film study school to show how bad things can go when you don't approach a subject correctly.

Does it have a title? [It was eventually released as Breakfast with Hunter in 2003].

HST: Not yet, but it's the ultimate documentary. It's a piece of work and a total accident. But it's involved in various litigations, so we've kept it under wraps.

Did you like Terry Gilliam's film of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas?

HST: Err, yeah. I like it. It's very hard to look at films in which you are literally a participant, or… and it's impossible to make any sort of judgements. Yeah, I liked it but it's not my show, but I appreciated it. Depp did a hell of a job.

You got on better with Terry Gilliam than you did with Alex Cox?

HST: Yeah, yeah, you could say that [laughs]. I had my flares with Gilliam. I hold no… Alex Cox is fine, he just happened to be at one point in time. It was a crystallised situation. I got an education in film, that's what I got on the movie. It was definitely in the small direction. Johnny is really good to work with, yeah, he's fun.

His performance was perfect for the style of the film, isn't it?

HST: Yeah, definitely. His narration is what really held the film together, I think. If you hadn't had that it would have just been a series of wild scenes. It was hard to do a movie that was as faithful as possible to the book. There is a melancholy humour in the book that was missing from the film, but in fact it's a story about two professionals who were taking a break on the road. I was a political journalist and Oscar Acosta [Dr. Gonzo] was a very prominent lawyer. This wasn't a bunch of bums wandering into Vegas, but that was unexplainable, so yeah, I liked it. Maybe I should eat some acid watching it. People who have read the book will watch the movie, and people who have watched the movie will read the book. Yeah. It's very hard to compare books to movies, and I don't pretend to have any of the wisdom or skill of the director. For instance, The Rum Diary is a lot easier to deal with.

Ian Johnston is a freelance writer and author of BAD SEED: The Biography of NICK CAVE, published by Little Brown, and THE WILD WILD WORLD WORLD OF THE CRAMPS, to be republished in the USA in the near future. Johnston has contributed feature articles and interviews about film, popular music and literature for GQ, Esquire, Total Film, Neon, Telegraph Magazine, Arena, Scotland On Sunday, Guardian Guide, Nude, Japanese Playboy, UK Penthouse and John Robb's Louder Than War website. His recent interviews have included Grinderman, Richard Hawley, author James Ellroy and director Olivier Assayas. He was also one of the original DJ's at London's Lady Luck club and has spun discs at gigs and after-show parties for The Bad Seeds, Grinderman, Richard Hawley and Jon Spencer's Blues Explosion.