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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 February, 2005, 10:05 GMT
Bedtime for Gonzo?
By Andrew Walker
BBC News

The death of Hunter S Thompson has brought a whole raft of tributes to the founder of "Gonzo journalism". But what exactly is Gonzo, where did it come from and how has it changed the face of writing?

"The gig," as Hunter S once so famously wrote, "is finished."

Aged just 67, the often drunken, drug-addled chronicler of the dark side of the American Dream has gone the way of all flesh, by his own hand, in the manner of his hero, Ernest Hemingway.

Obituarists from Wapping to Sydney have hailed Thompson as, among other things, "a great American", "explosive, shocking and frequently funny" and "a supernova of chaos, conspiracy theory and beautifully phrased bile".

Thompson credited Bill Cardosa with coining word
He said it was "some Boston word for weird, bizarre"
It possibly comes from the Italian gonzo or Spanish gonso, both meaning fool
And all have spoken of him as the inventor, and ultimate practitioner, of Gonzo journalism, that compelling and outrageous amalgam of reportage and literature, held together by an intoxicating emulsion of drink, drugs and sexual excess.

As a literary style, Gonzo has a number of roots, most notably the so-called New Journalism of the late 1950s and 60s.

Championed by Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Thompson himself, New Journalism blurred the old distinctions between journalism and creative writing.

Hunter S Thompson
Lasting legacy: Hunter S Thompson
It was the time of "love-ins" and "happenings", of flower children, surfers and hot-rod racers.

The tone was resoundingly colourful and experimental and, horror of horrors, the writer's own feelings and experiences often formed a cohesive part of the story.

Fellow-travellers also played a role in defining Gonzo. Most notable among these was Terry Southern, satirist and screenwriter on Dr Strangelove, Barbarella and that hippest of all hippy odysseys, Easy Rider.

Southern, whose sunglass-framed face graces the cover of the Beatles' Sgt Pepper album, was scurrilous and frequently pornographic - witness his novel, Candy - and was feted by the New York Times as "the hippest man on the planet".

But where Tom Wolfe politely declined an acid tab in his iconic Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Hunter S Thompson denied himself nothing.

Excess... and then some

As Wolfe put it: "He was something totally new in journalism and in literature."

From now on, all bets were off. The writer became the story. Structure was thrown out of the window, replaced by a shambolic, yet magical, rollercoaster ride of artless hedonism.

This from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-coloured uppers, downers, screamers, laughers and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.

Must have been one heck of a picnic.

Tom Wolfe
Tom Wolfe: New Journalism's urbane paladin
The UK had, after a fashion, its own exponents of Gonzo writing, confessional scribblers fuelled by drink, terrified of women and constantly in thrall to the Siren-call of the race course and the bookie.

There was the late, lamented, Jeffrey Barnard, the Coach and Horses' own writer/boozer, and the extraordinary novelist, Julian Maclaren-Ross, the template for Anthony Powell's X Trapnel, whose warning to fellow creative drunks echoes down the years:

"Only beware of Fitzrovia," Tambi said... "It's a dangerous place, you must be careful."
"Fights with knives?"
"No, a worse danger. You might get Sohoitis you know."
"No I don't. What is it?"
"If you get Sohoitis," Tambi said very seriously, "you will stay there always day and night and get no work done ever. You have been warned."

Back in the States, writers like PJ O'Rourke took up the baton of Gonzo. His bitingly waspish works, including the groundbreaking Holidays in Hell, thrilled a generation.

New horizons

Today, though, even O'Rourke looks neutered. The Republican Party Animal espouses the virtues of British Airways in a series of anodyne, if well remunerated, television adverts.

But 33 years after Fear and Loathing, and with technology opening-up new avenues of expression, Gonzo journalism has gone from strength to strength.

Weblogs allow writers unfiltered access to the internet and some bloggers, like the celebrated London call-girl Belle de Jour, have taken the process full-circle, pulling-in lucrative publishing deals.

Supersize Me poster
Films like Supersize Me embrace the Gonzo spirit
On the big screen, Michael Moore is pure Gonzo. Bowling for Columbine, for instance, featured Moore as director, star and protagonist, successfully campaigning for K-mart to remove bullets from its shelves.

More recently, satire, experimentation and polemic came together in Morgan Spurlock's chillingly hilarious Super Size Me, in which he ate nothing but McDonald's products for a month, with predictable consequences.

But not everyone is taken with the idea of journalist as agent provocateur.

The highly-rated US blogger Billmon Billmon recently voiced his disillusion at the genre: "What began as a spontaneous eruption of populist creativity is on the verge of being absorbed by the media-industrial complex it claims to despise."

The truth of the matter may well be that, in its purest form, the only real Gonzo journalist was Dr Hunter S Thompson himself.

To the end, more extreme than the rest, he died, as he had lived; recklessly and defiantly unrepentant.

Let the final words, then, be his.

If I'd written all the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people - including me - would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today.

Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.


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