March 23, 2014 by billysparrow
I suppose it is not too late for me to receive some sort of high honor for my writing (fingers crossed regarding the Pulitzer for my “Saved by the Bell”-related work). But whatever that accolade might be, I can’t imagine it would top this: Hunter S. Thompson once told me he thought I was some kind of a loose cannon.
This historic occasion took place within seconds of my first meeting with the Good Doctor, at the Union Square Barnes & Noble event for his book “The Proud Highway.” And though I assumed that might be my only shot at meeting the man, I actually wound up going to several other Hunter events and seeing him outside a couple of TV studios, too. All in all, I wound up with six signed Hunter S. Thompson books, which you can pry from my cold dead hands. All I ask is that you wait until they’re cold. And please be respectful of other people engaged in the same pursuit.
June 12, 1997–Union Square Barnes & Noble, NYC
I think the first Hunter S. Thompson piece I read was for a class in college (Feature Writing is my best guess; could’ve been Literary Journalism) “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” is an article Dr. Thompson wrote for “Scanlan’s Monthly” (I read a photocopy taken from “The New Journalism,” a collection of literary journalism that I later wound up buying at the legendary Friends of the Library Book Sale in Ithaca) ostensibly about the race at Churchill Downs but really about the madness going on around the race. When “Rolling Stone” editor Bill Cardoso read it, he wrote, “This is it, this is pure Gonzo,” and thus Gonzo Journalism was born. When I read it, I thought, “Hmmm…this is interesting, and not as dry as most of the other garbage we’re reading,” and thus a journalism snob was born.
Anyway, by the time “The Proud Highway” came out, I had read “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and was definitely interested enough to want to delve in much further (I’d probably put “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” as my favorite. And I knew an opportunity to meet Dr. Thompson on a day when I had nothing at all to do was something worth taking advantage of.
The night before the Barnes & Noble event, I stayed up to watch “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” after an unsuccessful attempt to catch Dr. Thompson after his appearance on the show. But it wasn’t because he turned me down (and I did get 1997 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Mike Vernon to sign two things, so it wasn’t a total waste of time); rather, his segment was pretaped, and it stands as one of my favorite television moments.
That only heightened the anticipation of the next day’s event. And I keep calling it an event, because it was advertised as such. Actually, the full title was “Bookplate Event,” which was a new concept to me, but I was told it meant that they would hand you a book with the signed bookplate attached to it, That seems awkward, I thought.
And indeed when I arrived in the afternoon to take my place in line and was told how the event would work, it seemed like it would be incredibly awkward. We were told that we could walk past the seated Dr. Thompson with our book, say hello or shake hands or whatever, and then proceed to an area where someone would affix the bookplate to our book. So I guess that meant I had to think of something to say to Hunter S. Thompson in this brief, awkward interaction we were going to have. I decided on bringing up the “Conan” appearance, since I figured everybody else would be going on about his books.
I was pretty close to the front of the line, so when Dr. Thompson arrived (pretty late, as I recall, and a safe bet anyway) I only had a few more minutes to get whatever I was going to say right in my head. And then the line started to move and the few book collectors in front of me had no interest in any interaction with Dr. Thompson and just walked right past him and got their bookplates affixed. So just like that it was my turn.
Me: “Um, hi, Dr. Thompson [I might’ve extended my hand]. Saw you on ‘Conan’ last night and it was really great.”
[Dr. Thompson turns away without shaking my hand and starts talking to somebody else in his entourage.”
Me: “Um, OK…thanks.”
And that was that.
Boy, that was a letdown. Never meet your heroes, I guess. Oh well. Yes, here’s my book…
“Wait, wait, wait…”
Someone in the Doctor’s entourage is trying to get my attention. There is an apology, and then she tells me to come back to the table. So I do. And find myself again in front of Hunter S. Thompson.
Me: “Oh, I was just saying I saw you on “Conan” last night and thought it was great.”
HST: “Oh, right, sorry, man. I thought you were some kind of loose cannon.”
And so, one of the better compliments one could get from Hunter S. Thompson landed in my ears. I’m not sure why I looked like a loose cannon (I look much more like a loose cannon now if you ask me), but I’m grateful for whatever vibe I was giving off that day.
By the spring of 1998, Hunter S. Thompson was in the public eye a lot more, due to the movie version of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” starring Johnny Depp that was released that May. The day before it hit theaters, Dr. Thompson and Johnny Depp did an appearance on the lower level of the Virgin Megastore in Times Square (is it possible I am feeling wistful for the Virgin Megastore?). I’m a little surprised at the date, because it would’ve been less than a week after I graduated college, but I have seen this date a few times on the Internet, and if you can’t believe the Internet, who can you believe?
Anyway, this wasn’t a Bookplate Event, but there were rules. Each person could either get Dr. Thompson and Mr. Depp to sign a movie poster OR a copy of the Modern Library edition of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” No other items would be signed. Or at least that was the plan.
I’m not sure why I didn’t show up super-early for this one, but I remember being a fair distance back, and I only have a dim recollection of Ed Bradley being there, as detailed in this odd account of the evening. But I do remember girls squealing from the main floor as they gazed upon Johnny Depp, and him looking a little embarrassed about that. And I vividly remember the scene at the signing table when the line got a little backed up because people were more interested in meeting Johnny Depp than the Good Doctor.
Though the rule was that no outside items would be signed, Dr. Thompson clearly wasn’t interested in abiding by that rule. I hadn’t thought to bring any other books with me (assuming what the rules would be), but plenty of people did and if you were able to put a book in front of Dr. Thompson without the security guy seeing you, he’d sign it. But if the security guy caught you, Dr. Thompson would lunge at you with his retractable-blade knife and yell, “Get away from me, you animal!” It was the most entertained I’ve ever been at a book signing.
October 29, 1998–Outside the Ed Sullivan Theater, NYC
Working in midtown after college afforded me the opportunity to still collect autographs outside of NBC Studios and the Ed Sullivan Theater after work. Because I was only a few months into my job at this point, I didn’t think it wise to sneak out to try to get Dr. Thompson on his way in to the taping of “Late Show with David Letterman” that night (this sort of behavior would become much more common later). So I pinned my hopes on getting Dr. Thompson on his way out.
When I arrived, one of the other collectors said he had signed some stuff on the way in, which could either be a good sign (because he was in a signing mood and would also sign on the way out) or a bad sign (because he was done signing). Hoping for the former, and vaguely paying attention to the collector talking about how Dr. Thompson wouldn’t take a photo with him, I got my book ready. And when he came out, Dr. Thompson seemed to be in a good mood and soon signed my copy of “Songs of the Doomed.”
But the collector still wanted a photo with Dr. Thompson (I’m not sure he was even that big of a fan; he just liked having celebrity photos). Dr. Thompson agreed to the photo on one condition: he had to sign the guy’s face. The collector wasn’t crazy about that idea, so he asked Dr. Thompson why he would want to do that. The Good Doctor mumbled, “Well, I gotta have my fun, too,” and then wrote an “X” on the guy’s cheek prior to the photo being taken.
I would’ve been thrilled if that happened. The collector was a little less jazzed. But it was another fun night with Dr. Thompson.
October 31, 1998–Union Square Barnes & Noble, NYC
A few days after the Letterman appearance was the official Bookplate Event for Dr. Thompson’s long-lost novel, “The Rum Diary.” I recall this being much more chaotic than the one for “The Proud Highway,” but I was further back in line this time, so maybe I just had more time to soak in the chaos. A lot of people brought bottles of alcohol with them, either to give directly to Dr. Thompson or in the hopes that he would do a shot with them. And, much like the Virgin Megastore, the rules of no posed photos and no other books signed were pleasantly flouted by Dr. Thompson when he wasn’t being told by store staff and members of his entourage (which I think included Benicio Del Toro for this one) to not do so. I figured this was my chance to get a picture with him, so I handed off my camera to, I guess, the person behind me in line, and the result is the excellent photo you see at the top of this post. Best photo ever.
February 5, 2003–Union Square Barnes & Noble NYC
This was the last Hunter S. Thompson book signing I went to (and the last in New York, I assume). I was way in the back for this one (and this was during the Miserable 18 Months of Unemployment, so I don’t know why I didn’t make more of an effort) and the only thing I remember about this one is seeing Lou Reed come in the back while we were in line. And it was also a long night (another very late arrival by the Good Doctor). Ed Bradley might’ve been at this one, too.
And the last time I saw Hunter S. Thompson was after his second appearance on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” which was in-studio this time. I had a hard time trying to figure out what to ask him to sign. I finally narrowed it down to a poster for an NYU talk he gave in 1984, my copy of “The New Journalism,” or my Modern Library edition of “Hell’s Angels.” I figured I’d have the best shot at “Hell’s Angels” (authors being more likely to sign books they’ve written), so I went with that and waited for him to come down off the elevators at 30 Rock. There were a few other collectors there, too, one with a copy of the “Rolling Stone” that “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” first appeared in., but, in general, it was a relatively docile gathering of collectors.
So when Dr. Thompson came off the elevators with his wife Anita (and maybe a publicist, too), the group of us respectfully walked up to him but were told he would only sign once he got into his car. So we walked with him as he went to his car, and this was the first time I realized how much pain walking caused him. I think up to this point I thought his limp was mostly for show, but as he labored to his car, which was not far away, you could tell he was in pain. I obviously didn’t sense that he’d kill himself a little over two years later, but I could sense that life was catching up to him.
True to his word, he signed anything given to him (one per person) once he sat down in the car. He gave me a nice bold signature on “Hell’s Angels” (I think he signed the guy’s “Rolling Stone” too) and soon he was on his way.
When his next book, “Hey Rube,” came out in 2004, I had hoped he would come back for a book signing, but he didn’t (I have a vague recollection that one was scheduled but cancelled). At that point, thinking about how cross-country travel would take a toll on a guy who had such trouble walking the last time I’d seen him, I figured I might’ve had my last chance to see the Good Doctor in New York.
And then on February 20, 2005, my friend Bryan called me and asked if I’d heard. “Heard what?” I asked. “Hunter killed himself,” he said. “Turn on the news.” Sure enough, I turned on the TV and there were the reports of Dr. Thompson’s demise. Details were still sketchy at that point, but it seemed like a suicide. And, indeed, it was.
Our “loose cannon” exchange was the most interaction I ever had with Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, but I am glad to have “met” him the times that I did. I’m still a little stunned that I was able to do so. I’ve been lucky enough to meet most of the writers and musicians I admire (hey, did I ever tell you about the day I met Bob Dylan? Oh, I have? Wanna hear it again?), if only for a few seconds, and this “loose cannon” is more grateful than I could tell you for that, especially when it comes to someone like Hunter S. Thompson.
“I have no desire to do anything. I am afraid of nothing and I want nothing. I wait like a psychopath in a game of dodge-ball: breathing quickly while the fools decide which one will throw at me next, and jumping aside for no reason except that I like being in the middle. And there is really no reason for being in the middle. Why not quit altogether and be down outside the circle?
I have no idea what to say, I don’t know when I’ll see you again and I don’t believe in anything beyond the next ten minutes. People keep calling me and telling me what a great friend I am. Everybody is looking for someone who can stand up in the wind. It is lonely standing up and crowded lying down. I refuse to be an anchor for other people’s dreams–but then I refuse to anchor mine to anyone else. So I have no choice but to stand up and piss into the wind. Pardon my vulgarity.”
–Hunter S. Thompson, “The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman (The Fear and Loathing Letters, Volume I)”