A Look Back At: A Savage Journey

Author Douglas Brinkley talks about his cover story on the late Hunter S. Thompson

Hunter S. Thompson, American gonzo journalist and author, April 14th,1996. Credit: Neale Haynes/Getty

THE COVER OF THE MARCH 24TH, 2005, ISSUE OF "ROLLING STONE" - appearing on newsstands sixteen days after Hunter S. Thompson's suicide - is a pose from Hunter's quixotic 1970 campaign for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado. He is just thirty-three years old. The serene portrait, taken by Hunter's friend, Aspen photographer David Hiser, showed Hunter in his prime: a romantic figure, with head shaved and eyebrows raised, tranquil in self-confidence. There's no hint of the cartoonish Doonesbury caricature he would embody in later years. He is handsome in a white polo shirt, slightly frayed at the collar. There's something evocative and haunting in the way Hunter's smoke envelops him, swirling around his eyes like ethereal wisps of bordello opium. Mostly, I think the photo shows the man behind the image: the thoughtful, serious artist who was already, even in those early Gonzo days, living on the edge - and forming intense identifications with the other writers and artists who traveled there with him.

None more so than Bob Dylan, who was a friend and spiritual touchstone for decades. When Hunter finished the first draft of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in a motel room in California, he dedicated the book, in part, to Dylan for writing "Mr. Tambourine Man." On Labor Day 2002, he had a "summit" with Dylan in Snowmass, Colorado. They discussed how all their mutual friends were dying and that they had become the "New Old." They spoke about the Vegas book and Hunter's letters, which Dylan used as a model for his memoir, Chronicles. Dylan asked if Hunter had any requests for that night's show. The answer: "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Quinn the Eskimo" and "Masters of War." That evening, Hunter was stationed at the mixer onstage, letting out unnerving Geronimo-like screams. Afterward, Dylan handed Hunter his harmonica as a gift. Hunter kept it next to him at all times during his last days, as if a talisman.

Reciprocation was in order. Just months before Hunter committed suicide, he instructed his wife, Anita, to ship his red IBM Selectric II portable typewriter to Dylan. She balked: It was too precious to send away willy-nilly. But when Hunter died, she reconsidered. "He still has the harmonica you gave him that day in his drawer," Anita wrote to Dylan. "In return, he wanted you to have his red Ibm Selectric II typewriter. He started a letter to accompany it on a few occasions, but got distracted by various deadlines, and didn't want to send you a distracted letter. So anyway, here it is, and I am sorry the letter has to be from me, but it is important to him that you have the typewriter and use it for Chronicles. (I guess it would be Chronicles II now, right?)"

Hunter S. Thompson is larger in death than in life. And that's saying a lot. Johnny Depp is working on a film version of The Rum Diary - Hunter's late-Fifties novel of journalistic debauchery in Puerto Rico. Alex Gibney, fresh from his Academy Award nomination for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, is working on a documentary titled Going, Going, Gonzo, about Hunter's career. And practically anybody who ever downed whiskey with Hunter has a memoir in the works. Lost in all the mania over Gonzo Hunter, however, is the more poetic, brooding, contemplative Thompson - the one on this final ROLLING STONE cover, the man who read Revelations weekly, memorized Coleridge and listened regularly to "Mr. Tambourine Man" as if it were a gift from heaven.