Greg Palast on HST
It was Princess Di’s photographer who told me to shave the hair on top of my nose. That was when I was famous, famous for a whole week. I was famous only in England, an island off the coast of Ireland, but it was fame nonetheless. The entire front page of the Mirror, a London tabloid newspaper, was splashed with a ghastly photo of my head (hair on nose, not on head), an attack on my investigation of Tony Blair. My own paper, the Guardian/Observer, wanted to give a different impression of me, so the editors spent an ungodly sum of money to hire Princess Di’s photographer to make me pretty for a large photo spread of their own. But there was nothing much the lens man could do. “Get rid of the nose hair,” he suggested, working, without success, on the 200th snap.
I met Hunter Thompson when I was twenty years old — that is, saw him from the back of a crowd at the gym at my college where he was performing. I say “performing” because that’s what Thompson did, even three decades ago. He’d become an astonishing success as a writer — and his writing was astonishing. Then he became very accomplished at success and stopped accomplishing much as a writer. That’s when I decided not to become a journalist.
If that’s what a journalist does, I thought, I’d rather do something a little more interesting with my life. I switched to the hospital administration program with a plan to open a community health center in Woodlawn, then the hardest of the hard-core poverty troughs in Chicago.
Things didn’t work out as planned; and twenty-five years later I ended up a reporter. Thompson ended up as a cartoon character — not just the “Doonesbury” send-up, but the humorless and hagiographic fantasy of “Transmetropolitan” comic books, “Spyder Jerusalem,” drinker, druggie, smart-aleck scourge of bad guys and editors.
That was the comic book; then there’s the man. Thompson the writer kept writing in bits and snips, but it was always a parody of Thompson. His later compilations (he couldn’t sustain a book) like “Generation of Swine” were brilliant one-joke rants. You’d read them and you didn’t know a goddamn thing you didn’t know before you read them.
Thompson stopped taking on the big topics — after all, what topic could measure up to him?
It wasn’t always that way. What impressed me about “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” is that it was written as a coda, a needed break, from Thompson’s grueling investigative report on the death of Chicano activist Ruben Salazar. And this I also know: all that cool fear-and-loathing patter was not written on acid in a Ghia doing 140; it was typed alone in a quiet room.
Alone in a quiet room. No school gyms of adulating audiences on their feet to cheer the genius, no comic book figures dropping bon mots could press those keys.
And then came the satanic sucker-punch, celebrity. Poor Mr. Thompson.
When I think of how my one goofy week of offshore stardom twisted my head (I’m still neurotically plucking hairs off my nose), I can only imagine what Thompson’s daily dose of fame cocaine did to him.
When I go off track, when I catch myself obsessing about my number on the Times’ paperback nonfiction list, I wrestle my thoughts back to Tundu Lissu. Tundu’s the lawyer who followed up on my investigation of the deaths of 50 Africans in George Bush Sr’s gold mines. They were buried alive and Lissu brought back the evidence — for which he was arrested and charged with sedition by the government of Tanzania. Released from prison, he refuses to seek refuge and safety.
Tundu Lissu is a giant. I barely reach his knees, that is, as a moral being. But I can do one thing: tell his story to the world — and keep myself out of it.
When a writer gets bigger than his subjects, he’s dead — though not yet buried.
This morning, I heard that Thompson faced this intractable truth, and completed the job; suicide with one of the guns he toyed with for the cameras.
Goodnight, Mr. Thompson.
And thanks for those astonishing words, no matter what they cost you.
Read Greg Palast at www.GregPalast.com
And an appreciation by Oliver Shykles, researcher at www.gregpalast.com
Hunter was my hero. He saw right through the establishment and established behavior: the bullshit, the lies and the politicians who stumble around on their own bad acid trips — all the more scary for the fact the only thing they’ve dropped are their morals.
Yes, it was only a matter of time before Hunter blew his brains out — I was surprised he made it this far. Was he sane? Probably not, but that depends on how you look at it, in a world that is insane maybe Hunter was the sane one.
Let us just hope that wherever he is now he saved a few bullets for Nixon.