Hunter S. Thompson has become a lot of things to a lot of people since his death in 2005. While he was alive, it wasn’t much different. He was a public figure so controversial, that went so against the grain of civilized society, and was so litigious that pitchforks and torches materialized, then vanished. He became revered as a drug-fueled wordsmith gun nut of the absolute highest order — as he always deserved to be.
The man was mired in drugs, booze, the highest forms of journalism, violence, and general insanity for the better part of his lifetime. As he said in a quote that’s been emblazoned on posters adorning dorm-room walls for decades, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”
But there was a well of kindness in the accomplished writer. Those who knew him best speak of him fondly and most miss him in a profound way. He had a code and a sense of fairness and justice that was nigh unflappable, even if it was particularly his own.
There’s no dark underbelly to Thompson or his writing because he wore his underbelly on his sleeve. If we can be sure about anything, it’s that the man knew who he was and that he thought about the way his time on this spinning blue ball would ultimately end at various stages in his life.
He once told his dear friend and longtime illustrator, Ralph Steadman, that he would feel trapped if he didn’t know he could commit suicide at any moment. Many years before his death by his own hand, he laid out detailed plans for his own funeral that involved the construction of an enormous tower topped with his signature double-thumb fist holding a peyote button.
His cremated remains were to be launched from a cannon atop the tower in a magnificent display of explosions. Steadman drew up the eminent author’s vision of his ultimate farewell and it was filed away. After Thompson took his own life with a shotgun on Feb. 20, 2005, another good friend, Johnny Depp, spent about $2 million to give the gonzo journalist the final sendoff he demanded.
Like his utter and open disdain for those he disliked, Thompson was emphatic about his love of firearms and saw them as crucial to the American way of life. A visit to Owl Farm — Thompson’s secluded hideaway in Woody Creek, Colorado, where he moved in the late 1960s — often included mandatory shooting sessions. The farm became a mecca for a specially selected in-crowd of celebrities, artists, authors, and friends — a rotating cast of drinking partners willing to talk with him about everything and anything through the night and to blast away at something on his property when the mood struck.
During a 2003 CNBC interview, Tim Russert asked the father of gonzo journalism about his affinity for firearms and how many shotguns he owned.
“[I have] maybe seven or eight shotguns. Ten. But they’re all the best of the best,” Thompson said. “Like motorcycles, I enjoy the precision and how they work. I don’t consider them weapons; they’re just tools. Or toys.”
Thompson said he believed he was a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, and Russert proposed that he challenge then NRA president Charlton Heston for his seat.
“Yeah. But that’s a lot of work, too. Yeah, that would be some kabuki theater. Yeah, I wouldn’t mind that. Michael Moore did it. That’s an idea, there. My home out there (Owl Farm), I [moved there] because I wanted to have a chartered rod and gun club so that we could legally keep weapons there.”
All that said, Thompson was many things, but he was not what we would think of today as a responsible gun owner. There are plenty of stories about his mixing drugs, booze, and guns at Owl Farm and of Hunter threatening various individuals with firearms that may or may not have been loaded. Yet there are no stories about him actually shooting anyone, purposefully or otherwise. Perhaps that was just another facet of his multi-layered gonzo literary persona.
Regardless, Thompson’s fondness for firearms yielded some great moments over his career, especially in his later years. These are some of the best.
Peacock Death in the Wake of 9-11
One of my favorite HST gun stories comes from some of his last writing when he was pounding out his “Hey Rube” column for ESPN.com in the wake of 9/11 (when it was not yet cool to write for the web). The weekend after the terror attacks, he recounted a phone conversation with Depp, who called to tell Thompson he had tried to fly home from France, but there were no flights to the US. He inquired about the Jets-Colts game, to which Thompson replied that all sports had been canceled, even Monday Night Football, and that the stock market had been closed for six days.
Just then I heard the lock on my gas tank rattling, so I rushed outside with a shotgun and fired both barrels into the darkness. Poachers! I thought. Blow their heads off! This is War! So I fired another blast in the general direction of the gas pump, then I went inside to reload.
“Why are you shooting?” my assistant Anita screamed at me. “What are you shooting at?”
“The enemy,” I said gruffly. “He is down there stealing our gasoline.”
“Nonsense,” she said. “That tank has been empty since June. You probably killed a peacock.”
At dawn I went down to the tank and found the gas hose shredded by birdshot and two peacocks dead.
So what? I thought. What is more important right now — my precious gasoline or the lives of some silly birds?
Indeed, but the New York Stock Exchange opened Monday morning, so I have to get a grip on something solid. The Other Shoe is about to drop, and it might be extremely heavy. The time has come to be strong. The fat is in the fire. Who knows what will happen now?
Not me, buster. That’s why I live out here in the mountains with a flag on my porch and loud Wagner music blaring out of my speakers. I feel lucky, and I have plenty of ammunition. That is God’s will, they say, and that is also why I shoot into the darkness at anything that moves. Sooner or later, I will hit something Evil, and feel no Guilt. It might be Osama Bin Laden. Who knows?
If you ever have a chance to watch the independently produced documentary Breakfast With Hunter, do it. You not only get to see some great footage and an honest, inside look at Thompson’s everyday life, but you also get to see him stride into the New York offices of Rolling Stone magazine, through publisher Jan Wenner’s door, and blast him with a fire extinguisher he grabbed on the way in as Wenner desperately screams, “No, Hunter, no!” It’s beautiful.
Thompson long held a grudge against Wenner and told people for years that the publisher had canceled his life insurance while he was on assignment for RS in a chopper on his way to Saigon to cover the collapse of South Vietnam as other journalists were fleeing.
Thompson made it out in time and, as revenge, refused to file his report for a full decade. When the fire extinguisher incident occurred, the grudge had faded and Thompson had started writing for RS again on occasion, but that didn’t mean he stopped fucking with Wenner.
Conan O’Brien, the Gun Bar, and Bill Buckner
Conan O’Brien wanted to have Hunter on as a guest in 1997 to promote his new book of collected correspondence, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967. Thompson refused to travel to Los Angeles. The only way he would appear on the show was if O’Brien met him on a farm in upstate New York to “shoot guns and drink hard liquor.”
O’Brien shows up to find Thompson in his standard garb for the 1990s: a safari shirt and Zubaz pants topped off with his trademark white boonie hat, glasses, and a Tar-Gard cigarette holder clenched in his teeth with a smoldering Dunhill stuck in it. In the middle of a field, there’s a full bar of rich mahogany complete with a bartender in a tux, who serves up glasses of Chivas and whatever gun Thompson and O’Brien choose off the wall.
This fucking guy knew how to live.
“I’ll have that huge shotgun over there,” Thompson says as the bartender hands him a SPAS-12. “I never shot this fucker.”
There’s an RO in the background loading the guns as the two men drink. But it’s the targets that complete the scene. First up is a cutout of Uncle Duke, the Doonesbury comic strip character Gary Trudeau based on Thompson — something he never really cared for. It’s adorned with paint-filled balloons that the men blast with the 12-gauge to “make art.”
Then it’s time for the machine guns. They set up a bunch of copies of Thompson’s new book in front of the berm alongside some other promotional materials for it, an NBC logo, stuffed animals, and a large cutout of much demonized Boston Red Sox first baseman, Bill Buckner. Conan is a huge Sox fan.
“Mr. Thompson, today we have M60s, M16s, and MP5s. Which would you like?” the bartender asks.
Hunter chooses the M60.
After he and Conan get done blasting books apart with belted .308s, Hunter lets out an ungodly howl of panic after not finding his pack of Dunhills in his shirt pocket where it should be.
Conan gets out some of his pent-up Buckner rage before Thompson gets on a 1990s-era M16A1 with what looks to be a genuine M203 grenade launcher mounted under the barrel after his requests for a propane-tank target are denied. He pumps a few bursts into Buckner.
“You dirty animal!” he screams between shots before putting a round in the effigy’s throat.
By the end of the day, Conan is sore from the recoil — especially from the single-shot .50 BMG rifle — and looks a little harried. Hunter is smiling and laughing, filled with pure glee.
Big Goddamn Wheelguns and Bombs With Johnny Depp
While Johnny Depp was preparing to play Thompson in the film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the two men forged a lasting friendship. Depp actually moved into Owl Farm for weeks and shadowed Thompson constantly, learning his mannerisms and ways. Thompson even gave Depp some of his clothes from the 1970s to wear in the movie and shaved Depp’s head for the start of filming. In the dark. With a straight razor and a miner’s headlamp.
When the two men met, Depp was waiting at a bar in Aspen as instructed. Suddenly, he heard a terrible commotion by the door and people screaming.
“Out of the way, you bastards!” someone bellowed as Depp saw a shower of arcing sparks over the heads of the rapidly parting crowd. It was Thompson, with a cattle prod in one hand and a stun gun in the other.
“We shook hands and then we went back to his house and built a bomb,” Depp later said of the meeting. “And I shot it with a shotgun. 80-foot fireball. Huge.”
Documentary footage from Breakfast With Hunter captured a really interesting backyard range session at Owl Farm after Depp had been living there for a while. Hunter unveils what looks like a new tricked-out, custom, long-barreled Ruger Super Blackhawk Bisley in .454 Casull with a stainless steel scope to match the gun’s finish. As Hunter loads it, a female voice in the background says, “Someone has called here six times and hung up.”
“Trace it,” Depp says, starting to sound like Hunter a bit.
“Why would they do that?”
They proceed to shoot the beast of a hand cannon off a bag on a picnic table until their hands are swollen.
“I hit all five of them, but at a great price,” Thompson says in astonishment.
A Neighborly Gun Fight for Democracy
And who could forget the video-documented gun battle between Thompson and his neighbor?
The unidentified neighbor lobs in some birdshot from a good distance after screaming, “How do you like this?!”
The pellets land all around Hunter and the camera like dead bats falling from the sky. Hunter returns fire with what looks like a Luger.
“It’s a good place, and here we are right in the middle of it. Up on the mountain. If this son of a bitch wants to bitch about his cows over here, and shoot at me, well — it’s our country. It’s not theirs. It’s not a bunch of used car dealers from Southern California. In Democracy, you have to be a player.”