Five days into his stay with Hunter S Thompson, Johnny longs to sleep. Thompson, the self-styled King of Gonzo journalism and noted author of 1971’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas is not a man noted for keeping regular hours. Like some kind of nocturnal vampire, he would live by night and then, finally, late afternoon, trail off to bed for a few hours shuteye before rising again. At that moment, Johnny would escape to the basement room, or “the dungeon” as its known, at Thompson’s isolated Aspen retreat, still exhausted from Hunter’s display of tireless excess, knowing that in a very short time, the writer would be hammering on the door, yelling for him to get up.
After a couple of days, Johnny recalls, ‘I began to appreciate more and more that sleep was my friend. I was staying in the dungeon and it was the darkest room in the house. I’d go down there and lie on the bed, just rest up and read a book and smoke a cigarette. I really needed that time just to recharge before facing Hunter again.’
All the same, Johnny continues, ‘he was incredibly generous to let me live in his basement. I spent the first week absorbing as much as I could by staying holed up with nothing but his books and my roll-ups for company. On the sixth day I suddenly realised the room was packed with gunpowder kegs and I was smoking. I was lucky not to have blown the whole house up. Hunter just laughed when I told him.’
That was two years after the two men first met. At the Woody Creek Tavern in Aspen, Colorado, Thompson’s favourite drinking haunt. Johnny’s, too, during his Christmas stay when taking a break from filming, he journeyed out to the ski resort with Kate, Kate’s mother and some others for a few days off. What he didn’t expect was for Thompson to walk in, Johnny recalls, `with a Taser gun in his left hand and a huge cattle prod in his right hand, swinging them around getting people out of his way.’
Neither did he expect him to take a seat at Johnny’s table. To talk about their Kentucky roots. Johnny on Owensboro; Thompson on Lousiville. He was even more surprised when he invited Johnny and his party back to his home to carry on drinking, or as Thompson put it, for some `fortified compound.’ That compound, it turns out, was enough explosives, small fire arms, canned food, bottled water and alcohol to survive even the worst aftermath of a nuclear war.
It was where Johnny’s intense interest in the nickel-plated shotgun hanging on Thompson’s wall turned to sheer delight. Surprisingly, Johnny recalls, `he took it down and is led me into the kitchen. He had a couple of big tanks of propane in there and handed me some nitro-glycerine capsules. We taped them to the side of the tank, took it out back, and I shot it. I’ve shot guns since I was eight years old, so I knew I could hit something.’
He elaborates. ‘The target itself – a tube of nitro-glycerine was pretty small, but the shotgun sprays, so I knew I’d hit something near. But I was kind of like, “I hope I don’t miss”. And bang! Boof! Bullseye! I got it first shot.There was this seventy five foot burst of fire, an enormous explosion. It was great fun. I was a little worried about shrapnel, but no one got caught, thank God. Mrs Moss was a little freaked out, but she did well. She hung in there, and when we left, she was kinda like, “Who is that man?” ‘
That man, it turned out, would be the man Johnny would portray next on screen, or rather Thompson’s alter-ego Raoul Duke in the movie version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Thompson novel that was also Johnny’s favourite book. The same one that assumes an almost decidedly exaggerated account of a personal odyssey careening between the hilarious and the horrifying.
Indeed, the book was based on a journey that Thompson took with a friend, lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta, to cover a road race, the Mint 400, for Sports Illustrated. My idea, Thompson explained later, ‘was to buy a fat notebook and record the whole thing as it happened, then send in the notebook for publication, without editing. But this is a hard thing to do and in the end I found myself imposing an essentially fictional framework on what began as a piece of straight/crazy journalism. As true Gonzo journalism, this doesn’t work at all, and even if it did, I couldn’t possibly admit it. Only a god damned lunatic would write a thing like this and claim it was true.’
First published in Rolling Stone magazine under Raoul Duke’s byline, the magazine promptly gave the game away by revealing Thompson as the author. The initial piece, and the book that followed was a landmark. A dark and idiosyncratic commentary on what Thompson called “The Foul Year of Our Lord, 1971”.
By this time, of course, the sixties had already ended. Nixon was in the White House, the war in Vietnam was still grinding on, the aftermath of the Beatles break-up was prolonged by one of the most disruptive earthquakes in the history of southern California, and it seemed the spirit of free thinking, free love and free drugs, once the buzzwords of a generation, were dead and buried.
Indeed, the decade that followed the one before had already began to undo everything its predecessor fought so hard for. Even the sacred iconography was pronounced dead at Altamont during a free Rolling Stones concert, at a motor speedway arena just outside San Francisco, where a young coloured man was stabbed to death by Hell’s Angels, stage centre, to the tune of Sympathy For The Devil, and captured in Gimme Shelter, a movie “coming to a theatre near you in 1971”. The peace, love and innocence of Woodstock was history.
Dead too were Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, three twenty seven year old icons of rock’n’roll, gone within the space of one year, all attributed to drug overdoses, and in a secret meeting with President Nixon, Elvis Presley offered his personal services as an undercover narcotics agent.
Good news for many was the death sentence for Charles Manson and three of his girl-gang members for the Tate-LaBianca murders, which had augured the apocalyptic end of flower power in 1969. The sixties idealism had fast turned to cynicism, and the American dream was swiftly becoming the American nightmare…