To casual readers, Hunter S. Thompson is best known for those drug infused days in Las Vegas that he turned into a now legendary novel, but to anyone who wants to really understand what the man was about, the writings he contributed to Rolling Stone magazine over a period of more than 30 years are the true heart of the legendary Gonzo journalist.
Gonzo journalism, when it’s done right, is a first-person hand grenade of experience, insight and often simple, unfiltered chaos. Thompson was the form’s original master, and its original advocate was Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone’s editor who brought Thompson on board in the publication’s early days and sent him to follow the dueling campaigns of Richard Nixon and George McGovern in 1972, the fallout over Nixon’s Watergate scandal, and finally – in his final report – the results of the 2004 presidential election.
These are the elements that tie together Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone – lovingly edited by Wenner himself – and in between are many smaller stories, including Thompson’s memories of shooting with fellow counterculture legend William S. Boroughs, and a large collection of memos, letters and other correspondence between Thompson, Wenner and the staff at Rolling Stone.
Together these elements build a picture of a true American storyteller, bending and often breaking the rules of journalism to get to the heart, the real truth, of whatever he was writing about, and then telling it with unabashed mad joy alternated with vicious fury. Working with Thompson could not have been and was not always easy, as Wenner’s letters pleading with Thompson for copy often reveal, but the end result was something magical.
Thompson helped define the scope of Rolling Stone’s political writing throughout the 1970s, a tradition carried on today by writers like Matt Taibbi. But more than that, he defined journalism for a new age. It was no longer about standing at the steps of City Hall in a coat and tie, scribbling in a notepad as someone talks from a podium. It was no longer even about rooting out corruption through meticulous paper sifting. Those things all still have their place, but Thompson refused to play by those rules.
He launched himself into the story, became a character literally and figuratively in his pieces, charged headlong into whatever was happening. People have analyzed and mirrored his methods for decades since, and today those methods are legendary, but as Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone proves, it wasn’t a matter of technique. For Thompson, it simply couldn’t happen any other way.