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The Hunter S. Thompson Interview

BY ADAM BULGER
03.09.2004 | CULTURE

This interview took place in early March 2003, shortly after the publication of Kingdom of Fear.

(To Answering Machine) I had an interview scheduled with Hunter Thompson--

(Explosion of music over the telephone.)
Hey hey hey hi. Sorry, this thing is just dragging on longer than I thought. I'll call you, I'd imagine, in like ten minutes.

OK. Sure.

(TWENTY MINUTES LATER.) Hello?

I got caught up in some goddamn weird old English romance of some kind.

Was it something you were writing, or reading?

I was watching a movie. (Yelling to someone in the room.) Sense and Sensibility, I think. I couldn't believe it, I was wrapped up in this ancient goddamned thing.

Jane Austen, right?

Yes, it is.

I've never seen it, I think I've read the book, though.

Goddamn, I must be in a unique mood of some kind because I got completely into it.

Really. I wouldn't think you'd like that.

I wouldn't either. I've never been into Jane Austen, particularly. But that was well done. A nicely done movie.

OK, then. What is the state of the American dream today?

Oh, god. That's a pretty pre-thought out, written-on-a-list kind of question. Not very good. Yeah, I would say not. The American Dream ran out with the American century. I'm still figuring it out. That's a pretty strong statement. I'm still putting the pieces together right now.

What do you think Horatio Alger would do if he was alive today?

He'd probably be a terrorist.

Do you think its possible for a man to be free in present day America?

Well, it depends on who it is. I'm doing pretty well. I don't know about you. I have a feeling it's going to be more of a struggle than it's been for a while.

Why's that?

Look around you. The military state we're being sort of formed into--shit, I wrote about this last night, I forgot what I said. The military structure--did you read the book I just wrote?

Yeah. Kingdom of Fear. I thought it was a very apt title.

Yeah, more so than I realized when I came up with it.

What do you think of how the Bush Administration is cracking down on civil liberties?

The Bush administration is a heap of Nazi shit. Bullshit. Yeah, you can put it that way. I don't know what your audience is ready for. What kind of target...

In the 70s you had a meeting with Richard Nixon and you talked about college football. What would you say if you had the same face time with G.W. Bush?

Oh, ahhh. To put this on realistic lines. I was the only person in the press corp who could talk about football, and Nixon wanted to talk about football. I don't know. I don't think Bush would want to talk to me. I'm a journalist, of course I would talk to him.

But the impression that I had was that Nixon probably didn't want to talk to you that much, either.

Well he sure as hell wanted to talk about football. Once I got into the car we became instant buddies. He was good company. I enjoyed him. He got me on the plane, showed me all around. I almost dropped a zippo into the gas tank of his Lear jet.

On purpose?

No, no, no. I liked him, at the time there. He was good company. That's all we talked about was football. I was warned that if I mentioned wars or tear gas or protests or anything like that he'd [inaudible].

Do you think you'd be able to talk baseball with the former owner of the Texas Rangers?

Well, I don't know baseball that well. I met Bush at some point, long ago and I don't know what the hell I'd talk to him about now. I mean, Nixon wasn't honest about anything but football. And Bush? I don't know. I'd be curious to talk to him, I'd like to ask him what the fuck he's doing. But I know I wouldn't ask that either. I'm a professional journalist. I would conduct a professional interview. I don't know. We'd probably find something to talk about.

What do you think of the state of political journalism?

Very bad. Very lazy and almost cowardly in its obsequiousness.

What important questions are they not asking?

God damn, man. Who wrote these questions for you?

I did.

Well, they're all kind of pertinent, but let's take a break and kind of work up to some of these.

OK. I'm going to ask you some more softball questions. What are you driving these days and what's its top speed?

Oh Jesus, you really are one of these, aren't you? It's snowing out. I drive a Jeep Cherokee through the snow.

If they offered you the post of the governor of Samoa today would you accept it?

Oh. That's interesting. Well, yeah, if I thought I could really have free hand. It would be an adventure. I'd try it for a year.

You're the last public figure to use a cigarette holder. What's the deal?

For one thing, it is not a holder. It is a filter. A big difference. A filter clears a full ounce of scum and tar a day, keeps it from ruining my lungs. The first time I used it, I saw what came out of a filter and I never stopped.

How does that compare with your double life as a character in the Doonesbury comic strip?

Well that's a horrible piece of shit. I got used to it a long time ago. I used to be a little perturbed by it. It was a lot more personal. The bastard was, well, I don't read it or follow it. It no longer bothers me.

What's the best drug to write on?

You've got dumb questions.

Um, sorry. Have you ever done ecstasy?

Yeah. It seemed kind of mild and talky. I didn't mind it. It's not in the nature of the kind of drug I am normally accustomed to, it was a quasi-drug, I guess.

What kind of music are you listening to?

Let's see. I just got the new Bob Dylan box set from the Rolling Thunder tour from 1975. It's kind of a big package with a book and several CDs in there. It's maybe the best rock and roll album I've ever heard.

You don't think that was after his peak?

Shit. You really are dumb. You have to listen to it and find out. If you think that, you really are ignorant. What do you want to talk about--Eminem?

Is writing still fun for you?

Yes.

What's the best firearm for home security?

Twelve-gauge short-barrel shotgun.

And what's the best for just fucking around?

Machine guns are kind of nice. You can have a lot of fun with them. It's like watering the lawn. I don't get to play with them very often.

Ralph Steadman said that you almost killed him in a gun-related explosion while he was visiting you in Aspen. What happened?

I don't know that story, but no doubt it's right. I can think of several times. Ralph is well acquainted with my lifestyle.

He also said that you claim that you are one of the few people who should be allowed to own a handgun, and he said that you definitely shouldn't be allowed to own one.

(Laughs.) Ralph is one person who definitely shouldn't be allowed to drink whiskey.

Why's that?

I'll wait for his reason why I shouldn't have handguns. Whiskey is not beneficial for Ralph.

You were a very vocal critic of the Clinton administration, but you were in correspondence with Sandy Berger, Clinton's Defense secretary. Are you guys still friends?

Oh, yeah, definitely, he's a good boy. I disagree with a lot of my friends. Just because he's my friend doesn't mean he has to agree with me.

Are you still in touch with Patrick Buchanan?

Occasionally. We're still friends. Patrick is a libertarian, or at least in that direction. I think of politics as a circle, not a spectrum of one line not just right and left. Patrick and I are often pretty close. Patrick's an honest person. He's a straight guy and very smart guy.

His magazine, the American Conservative, is really interesting. It's all anti-Bush, basically.

I'm pleased with that. I frequently agree with him. He's an intelligent--you might call him a politician.

He did run for President a couple of times.

Yeah, he's a politician.

Why exactly did you try to deliver an elk's heart to Jack Nicholson's house?

I thought it would be fun and it's in the spirit of our relationship. A little humor. I don't know, it just came to me tonight. I had a few bombs, you know. We do that pretty frequently, exchange bizarre presents. I couldn't have foreseen the horrible circumstances around it. He had just gotten in from LA. I didn't know it, but he had a stalker. I saw him the afternoon he got in. I said I'd see him later. I figured, shit, I have some presents for the kids. I was supposed to get there a little earlier. I feel a little queasy looking back on the night. Of course it was all in good humor. It went wrong in so many weird ways. I went out there and sort of did my thing and left, feeling rejected sort of. Bear in mind I was pretty much wanked up, in the mood I frequently get in with Jack. He's pretty fast. He's one of the natural aristocrats of our time.

He's fast?

Oh, yeah, we have a good time talking. Jack is quick. One of the smartest people I know.

What do you think of how the Hell's Angel's have gone mainstream?

Don't confuse the Hells Angels that I wrote about with what the Hells Angels are now. I consider Sonny Barger to be a friend of mine.

Really. Even after his boys beat you up?

Shit, he didn't do it. You swim with sharks, you're going to get bit once in a while. I wasn't surprised by that. In fact, I thought it was long overdue by the time it happened. I always got along fine with Sonny. I haven't seen him in a while. He's an extreme case of a sociopath, but I like him.

After Altamont, too.

That was way over the line. I've seen stuff like that before. Not kill people in that sense, but I wasn't surprised at all at the Angel's behavior. That's what they do. The Stones and Rock Scully, the people who decided to have the Angels as their personal security, I would blame them.

You would blame the incident on whoever chose the Angels as security.

Right. I don't know who I would have chosen, but that's a guarantee of an explosion and a disaster.

Do you ever watch Fox News?

Very rarely.

What do you think of their level of discourse?

I think it's low and dumb.

I heard that you and Allen Ginsberg had the same weed dealer in the 60s.

That's an obscure and arcane story, isn't it? But yeah, yeah. I had met him before in New York during his poetry readings and things. In San fransicisco, it turned out that we did have the same weed dealer. That's when you bought weed in tins, tabacco tins. Ten dollars, fifteen. I lived in an apartment right next store to the guy he was buying it from. I was working on the Hells Angels book. I got to talk to him about it, and he was a big help. Allen was a good one.

You liked him a lot.

He was the real thing, in the way. He was involved in everything. Allen was a gentleman and an honest man. He was fun, wonderful sense of humor. He helped me with the book. He took some time.

How was he in a crisis?

He did that ohm thing [starts chanting] OOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHM. He just tried to hum it away. I first saw that in La Honda. There were Cops, he was trying to get people out of jail. I was being a journalist I had, more or less a neutral zone pass. I could go back and forth between the Angels and the cops. I could negotiate. I had gone down there. My son was two years old at the time.

In La Honda?

No, I was out in Sonoma. I went down to La Honda for a little fun. I took my kid with me. Fun, you know. Allen and I got in a police chase. I was driving. The cops had pulled some people over. It was a madhouse over there, that whole La Honda scene. Blinking, blazing, lights going on all the time. I know that I've described that some place else, so I won't get into it. We stopped to intercede on some other arrest the cops were making. As a journalist I could do that.

You have claimed to be the most accurate reporter people could read. A lot of people would disagree. How would you defend that claim?

With the exception of typos, I have some ungodly types in my work. In terms of my...I might not get the dates right every once in a while. I try to be more accurate than other journalists, which is not that difficult. You have to distinguish between what happened and what the situation was. I'm not doing a very good job of this. And imagination.

Do you think that's due to your willingness to put objectivity by the wayside?

Well, you can't be objective when you're dealing with passionate situations, politics and so forth. I guess you can, I never have. For instance if you were objective about Richard Nixon, you would never get him or understand him. You had to be subjective to understand Nixon. You have to be subjective to understand the Hells Angels. Would you be objective about Altamont, I guess. A million people gathered, a riot started. I was supposed to be there.

Oh yeah?

I took one look at it on the last day and figured fuck this. Like a million people. Guaranteed explosion and disaster. Imagine having gone in there early and going down by the stage and not having a helicopter to get you out? I know people who were trapped under there for eight hours! Just horrible... then I don't know... it [inaudible] of police brutality. I can't really be objective. I can claim I am. Well, I mean, free press, street press, it's the goddamned street press right now that's the only, that's doing this job with us, on us, with Bush and passing propaganda. Just, uh--disgusting!

The mainstream press, you mean?

Yeah, the mainstream press is uh, is uh, in the bag, in the pocket of Bush and the military and they seem to like it there! Not all of them, I've got a lot of good friends, good people in journalism, that feel more strongly than I do, or at least as strongly.

Right.

The uh, New York Times, eh, yeah, it's a different animal. There's not too many papers like that. But the press in general, the media, the TV, is doing a disgraceful job in covering this situation in this country and around the world. This is where I have to bring some subjectivity into it that I believe is right! A president that came in here, uhhh... about two years ago...

Right, barely elected.

Barely elected, yeah, and I guess it's only been two years, and he's taken this nation from a, uh, um, let me think looking at it from a, uh, just objectively, from a prosperous nation at peace to a broke nation at war.

Right, but I mean, there were those assholes who flew the plane into the World Trade Center.

Who were they indeed? Now, [cough] do you believe that, that a bunch of Arabs jumped up from some kind of a campfire and fucking mountains over there and snuck into this country and hijacked those planes and did that by themselves?

Well what are you proposing? I mean I think they were funded years ago by the CIA and it was a blowback, but, I don't think there was any direct... Are you saying there might be some other American agency or some international agency that directly supported them in that?

Uhh, this is tricky territory, but yeah, that's what I'm getting at.

Really.

I can't sit here and jerk up documents like Joe McCarthy, there's no proof of that. But I'm sure there is. And the idea that we're getting the whole story, uh, through the uh, the media, or from the president, is absurd on it's face because you never do, for one thing. And there's so many unanswered questions and loose ends and uh, lets see, well, lies! Yeah, about what happened. That they, in the run-up to that day, the years, I wrote a column about it right after it happened.

Yeah, I've read it. I thought that was great, the thing about your phone conversation with Johnny Depp, right?

Yeah, that was one of them. Yeah, that one and the one right before it. I was just finishing my sports film for ESPN when, I was about to go to bed, and I had been up all night, you know the usual, you know struggle, deadline...

Mmhmm.

And sort of on my way to bed, I saw something on the, heard or saw, something about a plane hitting the World Trade Tower. The first reports were of the "small plane"--like one of those things that sometimes hits buildings around the world. That got my attention just enough not to go straight to bed. I turn around and have a look at the TV set, just in time to see that other one go straight in. Jesus.

Um...

Hang on a second there... there's so many things about who uh, oh boy, this is a dangerous area. But I talked to witnesses, I'm just thinking of one in particular, a guy, a driver who watched the, just happened to be taking uh, maybe the owner of the Giants, I forget who he was, but he was out at the Meadowlands. But he saw both of them hit.

Right.

Direct line of sight. The first one, he didn't get really get a line on, but it got his attention, though he hadn't seen the approach. But the second one, he said, uh, and I heard this from other people, but very few, really, calm and sane accounts the moments of insanity. I happened to see the second one go in, but just the last few seconds, as it came out of the left, stage left, and then plowed right into the front of the center of the TV picture and the center of the building, uh, perfectly. And I wrote that it was one of the most efficient, uh, most skillful and just about impossible um, acts of piloting... That's a very rare, uh, uh pilot... can take a big plane and plant it right as if a target or bulls-eye was on the side of the building. Apparently that second plane approached, and veered off, and made sort of a half-loop and then sort of came back and aimed again and then hit the building.

Right.

Have you heard this, or did you see that, or do you know about it?

Yeah, well I've seen the tape so many times.

But have you seen what would be before the tape that we see, like a minute before the hit?

No, I haven't.

Well, I haven't either, really. But there were eyewitnesses. And several people have said that, but you had to be watching. This guy happened to be at the Meadowlands. Cause I've kind of seen it as something that's really horrible and atrocious but not that hard to pull off. I mean it just seems like they got some box-cutters and they hijacked a plane and they flew it into a building. It doesn't seem like there was that much skill or that much preparation really. It's pretty broadly assumed that there's is a lot more to that story than the uh, the simple, kind of evil guys who just wanted to learn enough about flying to take a plane off but not land it.

Right.

Remember, everything we know about that, that incident, and it was a horrible thing, I mean tragedy! Uh, and about Iraq and about Afghanistan and the people allegedly inside those countries, you know, Bin Laden... Everything we know in this country is spun through the CIA or NSA, but lets call it the CIA.

Do you think that the foreign press is any better off?

Well the foreign press is not necessarily...don't agree with us, do they? No, I would say that, the, just the round-the-world feeling about our invasion of Iraq using, I'm not sure what the hell they're using now as a pretense. Did they say the World Trade Towers?

What, the pretense for invading Iraq?

Yeah, is it more of that stuff or is it...?

No, they want to spread democracy now, that's the message.

Well I've been dealing with these guys for forty years. I've been covering politics and I was in the air force and kind of around that stuff. I know... something about the structures and behavior of the military and politics, the White House. And uh, it gives you a certain perspective, at least to ask questions.

Yeah, your depth of knowledge and personal experience...

Well, plus if you go back and read some of the things I've written, I don't stand by that first column I wrote on the World Trade Tower, uh, tragedy. Like I said, I was just going to bed, and they called back and said, 'you gotta write another column about the bombing in New York.' Nobody really knew what it was. And I wrote a column, and it's in the book.

What newspapers and magazines are you reading right now?

Well, I mean lemme look here, umm... New York Times, New York Observer, The Nation, uh, Consumer Reports, Sports Illustrated. Now I look up and I see the Statistical Abstract of the United States... I see Legal Affairs, uh, let's see, Time, National Geographic, Foreign Affairs Quarterly, uh, The Progressive, The Economist. It goes on and on. It's a, it's a load. But I find that I really stay uh, more, certainly not more knowledgeable out here than I would be if I were in Washington, but the people I know and can call and then see frequently, I stay pretty well informed out here. There's a network that has taken me forty years to cultivate and build.

The end of your ESPN columns it says you live in a fortified compound in Aspen. How exactly is it fortified?

Well it's not really fortified, it's, I put that in there I guess, it helps me keep gawkers away. And it helps to--somebody gets shot out here every once in a while.

You get shot out there?

There was a story about me shooting my secretary a while ago. It was bogus. But now I have, it keeps me a little bit, it keeps people from being too eager to rush in here and knock on the door. I had a lot of that. Huge amount of kinda curiosity seekers.

Ok. What do you think of um, I'm sorry, I'm getting back to my list of questions.

You can tell that right away, 'what do you think of...'

Yeah I know, I'm sorry man.

Go ahead.

What do you think of the state of America today vs. when you were writing in the 60s and 70s?

Ho, it's a whole different game. Yeah, this is a, uh, oh, a corporate, uh state, really. Pretty much on the order of uh...

Like the Weimar Republic, kinda?

Yeah, yeah, exactly. There we go! And it's, ah, I don't know, National Socialism in a way, that would be a good conversation. Let's, wait, let's say something about that. Let me hear, what do you think about that, just, I'll go on, I just want a little, uh... lets see, the thing that fascinates me is, I've been reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich again. I see parallels throughout the Third Reich to the extent where I often refer to this as the Fouth Reich.

The post-American Century then.

Well it's a convenient break you know, the new century. And it just happens to be that we started off with, well, you might call it a bang, you know? Why the voters in this country continue to vote for the same people who plunge them into economic doldrums and real trouble?

Why do you think that is?

That is what brings us I guess to the uh, Third Reich and that comparison. It baffles me, enrages me. And I can't, it seems to me like simple stupidity.

You think people are just dumb?

Well, the education [in this] country, the patriotism, the boom boom boom drum, and the propaganda, and the cooperative media, yeah. That, well come to think of it, the Germans were economically stricken, weren't they?

Yes, that's why they weren't so opposed to getting the Nazis in.

Exactly but, the country on paper, in a state of prosperity. And we know better about who was, you know, what stocks were really worth what. But, it was a prosperous country, seemingly, people weren't wheeling wheelbarrows of dollar bills through the streets to buy a loaf of bread. And, just to watch the quality of life in this country go down and down, and lesser expectations of happiness and freedom and discretionary income, leisure, all the things that seemingly defined this country uh, in the past let's say 50 years. It has been... moving forward and upward, a lot of quarrels in there, a lot of things to argue about, but I don't think it has been, in most peoples eyes, a nation where the current generation of children can, and does look forward to a standard of living lesser and lower than their parents. You know, not live as well.

What's that?

What, excuse me. I, I didn't hear you.

No, I didn't catch your last comment, I'm sorry.

Oh, well it's the diminishing of personal expectations in this country. And the uh, the hope, the feeling of hope. I talk about this all the time to a lot of people: Are you more optimistic about the next ten years than about the last, when you started?

Who, me?

Yeah.

No! I... man, to rip you off, I'm full of fear and loathing. I am a citizen in the Kingdom of Fear. I'm scared every waking moment, man.

Well, uh, Jesus, that's horrible! That's a kind of, uh, prevailing sentiment.

Yeah.

And you know, you look at fear and people, a population that's uh, just riddled with fear and confusion and, uh, loathing, goddamn. Never did it occur to me when I came up with those words that I would be using them to describe the state of the nation 30 years later or whatever.

Yeah, you said that 30 years ago, and fear keeps coming through in your works. I mean it's so powerful, like your use of it. And I was just kinda wondering what you're fearing right now.

Well I don't, I'm past, uh, fearing things. I'm old enough to, not really uh, worry about some of the things that maybe I once did. I'm a successful writer, I'm out here, I'm you know...

I just had one last question, and it kind of plays into what we were just talking about. Your friend Warren Zevon was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. [Warren Zevon died on Sept. 7, 2003 - ed]

Yep.

And I just wanted to know how you have reacted to this, if you've mellowed out at all, if this has kind of affected what you're fearing, or your concept of fear.

Well, no, I'm very sad about Warren's situation, but I think it's my job to, uh, console him, to ignore it. They're all quacks out there, and many people have come through fatal uh, prognosis. I assigned him to write the music for this movie we're working on here, the Rum Diaries.

I'm curious about why you're doing the kinda sports-centric thing with ESPN. I know you started as a sports journalist, but...

I got a soft spot in my heart for sports and what the hell, I bet on it, I'm into it all the time, I might as well make some money on it. One of the things I think I've learned over time is I have to make movie on, excuse me, money on, I have to get paid for my vices somehow, or else its gonna be destructive. If you're paid for being crazy, then you're not crazy, is that right?

And when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

I think the real difference is functional and dysfunctional rather than sane or insane. And John Walsh at ESPN is an old friend. And I like it, it keeps me, the column kept me kinda sane, a regular deadline every week. I gotta finish it and read it the next day. I like the regularity of it. I grew up in newspapers. And it just gives me a nice little break every week.

Well, that was my last question.

Well, that's, uh, good luck! And you're gonna need it.

About the Author
New Jersey native Adam Bulger currently resides in Hartford, CT. As a free-lance writer he has written numerous articles on booze, cops and robots.
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