Unlikely Allies – Uncovering the Friendship of Hunter S Thompson and Allen Ginsberg
Though they were both icons of the counterculture in the latter half of the twentieth century, it is still somehow hard to believe that Hunter S. Thompson and Allen Ginsberg were friends. Their lives, personalities, and works could hardly have been more different. Thompson was a writer in the mould of Ernest Hemingway – an egomaniac with a penchant for guns and a determination to prove his machismo – while Allen Ginsberg was the poet-philosopher progenitor of flower power and crusader for gay rights. Ginsberg’s poems were filled with his deepest desires and innermost thoughts, whilst Thompson’s literary journalism maintained a constant distance from personal truths. They walked different paths in different ways, yet somehow became friends and collaborators, and held each other in high regard.
Thompson, eleven years Ginsberg’s junior, was in his late teens when Ginsberg burst onto the literary scene with “Howl” and it was not long before he was infatuated with all things Beat. Shortly after the publication of On the Road, Thompson moved to New York and attended Columbia part-time, where he smoked pot at hipster parties, discussed orgone accumulators, and generally lived the bohemian lifestyle in Greenwich Village. But this, of course, was all a decade after Ginsberg and co. had left the scene. The real Beats had long since spilled out into the wider world and what Thompson found was more akin to the beatnik trope.
He soon grew weary of the bohemian archetype, but he maintained an appreciation for the literary innovations of Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg. Although he was more influenced by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and J.P. Donleavy, some of the literary innovations of the Beats stayed with him as he tried his hand at writing novels, short stories, and the occasional poem. However, it was journalism that offered Thompson money, experience, and – more importantly – adventure. In the early sixties, whilst traipsing across America and the Caribbean, he took the first steps towards developing a hyperbolic reporting style that would, in 1970, finally morph into Gonzo.
Thompson had had his finger on the pulse of the counterculture since his teenage years and in the mid-sixties he realised that San Francisco would likely be the hub of any great new cultural movement. After a successful stint in South America (again a decade removed from his Beat forebearers), he moved to the Haight-Ashbury to write his breakthrough book, Hell’s Angels, and whilst there he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Ken Kesey and Grace Slick. Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that he would bump into Allen Ginsberg, just back from an epic round-the-world trip that had culminated in his stay in India and the subsequent processing of this experience that became “The Change.”
According to Thompson, their meeting came at the apartment of a pot-dealer whom they both knew:
I met Allen in San Francisco when I went to see a marijuana dealer who sold by the lid. I remember it was ten dollars when I started going to that apartment and then it was up to fifteen. I ended up going there pretty often, and Ginsberg—this was in Haight Ashbury—was always there looking for weed too. I went over and introduced myself and we ended up talking a lot. I told him about the book I was writing and asked if he would help with it. He helped me with it for several months; that’s how he got to know the Hell’s Angels.
Of course, this story has all the hallmarks of Gonzo mythmaking. It is overly convenient, with a hint of badboy charm, and is seemingly verifiable only by him. Establishing facts about Thompson’s life is phenomenally difficult given that most of what he wrote or said in interviews was at least partially fabricated, and much of his biography, unless backed up with various other sources, should be taken with a few grains of salt. Indeed, when I recently dug up a hitherto-unpublished interview Ginsberg gave in 1993, I was not exactly shocked to see him directly contradict Thompson’s story. The first question was “When did you first meet Dr Thompson?” Ginsberg replied:
If you look at the poem, “The Party at Ken Kesey’s with Hell’s Angels,” there’s a description of a party where Kesey invited the Angels down to La Honda, his house. I was there and Thompson was there. So that’s where we first met.
Ginsberg recalled Thompson as a serious young man, “moderate in demeanor.” He claimed that they went out together to buy beer at a local shop and had a chance to talk. Thompson was terrified that the Angels would develop into a wider phenomenon that would take over America, but Ginsberg disagreed. “They weren’t smooth enough,” he explained.
The party that Ginsberg is talking about, of course, is a famous event in countercultural lore. It features prominently in Hell’s Angels and Thompson, who taped the whole thing on his portable tape recorder, lent his recordings to Tom Wolfe, who then wrote about it in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. As noted above, it was also described by Ginsberg in “First Party At Ken Kesey’s With Hell’s Angels.” (He appears to have gotten the title incorrect in the previous quote.) This was a two-day event that saw the meeting of Kesey’s pranksters and the notorious biker gang, all whilst Neal Cassady roamed naked and his ex-girlfriend had sex with several dozen bikers. Though Thompson had predicted catastrophe and had been reluctant to attend, the party was a roaring success. The Angels were evidently sedated by the copious amounts of LSD and free love, and did not engage in random acts violence as they usually did. The bikers and hippies became temporary allies.
During this party, in a tale recounted in Hell’s Angels and elsewhere, Ginsberg and Thompson managed to nearly land themselves in trouble with the local police department. Once again, it is hard to pin down the precise details because Thompson spun many versions of the story, each a little too carefully crafted to be true, but one amusing version went like this:
Allen at the very sight of the cops went into his hum, his om, trying to hum them off. I was talking to them like a journalist would: “What’s going on here, Officer?” Allen’s humming was supposed to be a Buddhist barrier against the bad vibes the cops were producing and he was doing it very loudly, refusing to speak to them, just “Om! Om! Om!” I had to explain to the cops who he was and why he was doing this. The cops looked into the backseat and said, “What is that back there? A child?” And I said, “Oh yeah, yeah. That’s my son.” With Allen still going, “Om,” we were let go. He was a reasonable cop, I guess, checking out a poet, a journalist, and a child. Never did figure Ginsberg out, though. It was like the humming of a bee. It was one of the weirdest scenes I’ve ever been through, but almost every scene with Allen was weird in some way or another.
In Hell’s Angels, there is a more realistic version of events wherein the two men calmly discuss with the police how to extricate a young partygoer from a nearby jail. Indeed, Thompson recorded most of their encounter and these tapes (which are unfortunately heavily edited and of poor quality due to his hiding the mic from the police) show his Hell’s Angels story to be closer to the truth than the above version, though he seems eager to present Ginsberg as weirder and more exotic than he really was. On the tape, we can hear Thompson and Ginsberg chatting civilly with a police officer. There is no “Om” and Ginsberg only hums what appears to be a pop melody for several seconds.
Whilst Hell’s Angels is more factual than Thompson’s other books, he still made up a lot of details about the bikers and included invented quotes using made-up names to put forward his own opinions. It was part of a lifelong interest in fusing fact and fiction. Years later, Ginsberg said of Thompson’s books:
I couldn’t tell where fantasy and fact got separated. I really would be interested in knowing the facts. The extravagance of the fact rather than the extravagance of the imagination, unless it’s labeled quite clearly, was difficult.
He attributed this to the influence of his Beat peers, saying “Gonzo Journalism […] does have roots in Kerouac’s personal narrative. I think most of the New Journalism [is] very much influenced by the shift toward the personal exuberance and subject, Whitmanic self-confidence of Kerouac’s writing.” This is interesting because Thompson himself had once remarked that Kerouac’s writing was “personal journalism,” a term he used for his own burgeoning style in the sixties, and acknowledged that Kerouac had paved the way for Gonzo by redefining what could be published as a novel. Ginsberg then compared Thompson’s writing to Burroughs’ “total savage satire,” saying, “They are similar to the same territory of taking the every day scandals of the government and looking at them closely, extravagantly, and seeing the real horror & loathing & fear & delight & insanity & surrealist craziness of officialdom and the viciousness and the addiction of otherwise supposedly respectable people.”
Several weeks after the La Honda party, when the brief friendship between bikers and hippies came to an end and the prospect of violence loomed, Ginsberg stepped in to heal the division. The Hell’s Angels had threatened to break up a planned protest and so, along with Cassady and Kesey, Ginsberg and Thompson met with the Hell’s Angels leader, Sonny Barger. Again, they all took acid and smoked pot together whilst listening to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. The Angels respected Ginsberg and, shortly before the planned peace march, he recited a long poem, later published in the Berkeley Barb, called “To the Angels.” Speaking directly to Angels’ representatives through poetry, he explained the protestors’ fears and asked the Angels to identify with pacifists as another misunderstood minority group. Later in the poem, he asked them to be renounce violence, saying “stop hating yourself / stop hating people who hate you / stop reflecting heat.” He highlighted similarities and common causes between “Beatniks” and bikers, and asked why they could not stand side by side against “moralistic rigid types” rather than turning on one another.
Incredibly, the Angels called off their attack and the march was not beset by violence. Ginsberg and Thompson had been successful in averting bloodshed, and it was in no small part due to the bikers’ respect for the two writers and their bravery. In Hell’s Angels, Thompson quoted one of them as saying, “That goddamned Ginsberg is gonna fuck us all up. For a guy that ain’t straight at all, he’s about the straightest son of a bitch I ever met,” but he later admitted to a friend that he had made up the quote. Thompson’s journalism was composed to a startling extent of entirely fabricated quotes like that, but he generally aimed to capture a true sentiment even if the words had not really been said. Indeed, Kesey reported the same Angel as saying something rather similar: “That queer little kike ought to ride a bike. […] He’s a dude worth helping out.”
One night in late 1965, when working on his book, Thompson showed up at Ginsberg’s apartment “in a jabbering pill frenzy” and Ginsberg gave him permission to use “To the Angels,” which had been printed in the Berkeley Barb. Although this appears to have been a gift, Thompson wrote several letters over the following year attempting to give Ginsberg $100 for the use of his poem, which was inserted in its entirety into his book. He did not have that much money to his name, so he worked out a deal with his publisher to take the cash from future royalties. Given Hunter’s poverty at that time, it highlights just how much he respected Allen and his work.
Throughout the sixties, Ginsberg popped up frequently in Thompson’s writings. He is mentioned in both of Thompson’s next books: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, and he appears in one of Thompson’s most important articles: “The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy,” as well as various others. Mostly, these were references to Ginsberg as a cultural touchstone, testament to his importance in the counterculture during this era rather than their friendship. In the latter article, Thompson jokes that Ginsberg would sell out and work as a spokesperson for General Motors. It is a deliberately absurd image, intended to speak to Allen’s integrity. (There is no record of what he thought about Allen’s 1994 GAP advert…)
Shortly after writing Hell’s Angels, Thompson left San Francisco and moved to Woody Creek, Colorado, where his life took a very different direction. From then on, the two men saw each other infrequently. They seem to have spent time together in the late sixties somewhere in California, during which time Ginsberg perhaps did something to embarrass or offend Thompson, and a few years later the poet visited Aspen and sought out his old friend, but Thompson ignored him. He would not say why, but he was keen to dodge Allen and Ginsberg took the hint. Two decades later, however, Thompson flipped the story around and claimed that Ginsberg had been avoiding him for years, embarrassed after getting outrageously drunk one night. “It’s a little-known fact […] that Ginsberg was a horrible drunkard,” he said. They were also both at the tragic 1968 Democratic Convention, but there is no evidence that they met.
Asked whether they spent much time together over the years, in 1993 Ginsberg said “On and off we’ve met” and then recounted a very amusing tale. When Thompson did a talk in Boulder in the eighties, Ginsberg attended, remarking that Thompson “spoke quite brilliantly, extemporaneously.” He then accompanied Hunter back to his hotel room, where they talked about Neal Cassady and Naropa. Allen explained:
[…] we talked quite a bit and he had a girl friend there. But he had all this coke. And so he gave me a whole bunch of coke and I sniffed coked with him for quite a long time. Actually, I’m not used [to] it, and I really haven’t had much of it since.
He claimed that “it really blew my body” and caused him to become so dehydrated that he gulped down vast quantities of fruit juice. Already hypoglycemic, he “wound up with full-blown diabetes mellitus from […] all the fruit juice I drank.” He blamed his diabetes on Hunter Thompson but spun it positively, noting that this had forced him to adopt a healthy diet: “So in a way, he was a catalyst toward a purification of my food.”
In that same (sadly unpublished) interview, Ginsberg talked extensively about Thompson, discussing their friendship and praising the Gonzo journalist, tying him into the Beat lineage and comparing him often to Kerouac and Burroughs. He claimed to have read “most of his books” but admitted “I don’t know if I sat down and read [them from] beginning to end.” Amusingly, when asked “How does Thompson survive,” he replied “God knows. He survived a lot of legal assault and a lot of physical assault. I hope he takes care of his health,” noting that “I was always kind of a moderate wimp.” To the final question, “What keeps him going,” Allen laughed and said “Cocaine.”
The following year, after a Beat Generation event in New York, the two managed to find time for dinner together. Thompson claimed that they “both slid into the abyss of whiskey madness and full-bore substance abuse.” Sadly, this was their last meeting before Ginsberg passed away in 1997. Thompson, who claimed to have spoken with Ginsberg on the phone several days before his death, wrote an odd eulogy that he gave to Johnny Depp to read at the memorial service. It was brutal and offensive, but that was normal for Hunter S. Thompson. It was similar in tone to the quasi-obituary he had written for Oscar Zeta Acosta twenty years earlier – another stoic’s lament intended to avoid platitudes and sentimentality:
He was a monster. He was crazy and queer and small. He was born wrong and he knew it. He was smart but utterly unemployable. The first time I met him in New York he told me that even people who loved him believed he should commit suicide because things would never get better for him. And his poetry professor at Columbia was advising him to get a pre-frontal lobotomy because his brain was getting in his way. “Don’t worry,” I said, “so is mine. I’m getting the same advice. Maybe we should join forces. Hell, if we’re this crazy and dangerous, I think we might have some fun . . .” I spoke to Allen two days before he died. He was gracious as ever. He said he’d welcome the Grim Reaper because he knew he could get into his pants.
Such words were an odd form of affection from a man like Thompson, and this is doubly true when followed by these lines:
He could talk with the voice of an angel and dance in your eyes like a fawn. I knew him for thirty years and every time I saw him it was like hearing the music again.
Thompson avoided sentimentality at all costs. He never wrote about emotions and seldom issued words of praise. Only a choice few were given such a luxury: Acosta, of course, and the Beat trio of Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac. Notable also is his use of the phrase “utterly unemployable.” These were words Thompson had used to describe himself long before, during his early Beat phase, and they hint at the fact that in Ginsberg Thompson saw a kindred spirit. They were incredibly different as human beings and as writers, but they had fought the same battles on their paths through some of the most turbulent days of the modern era. Thompson looked to Ginsberg as a friend, ally, and a hero. Shortly after Ginsberg’s death, he told an interview: “Allen was a particular friend, one of my heroes, really. I knew him almost as long as I’ve been writing […] He was a big help to me.”
A wonderful film compendium here