Cash & HST—Honest men outside the law
Last Saturday at 10:00 p.m. Eastern time, 7:00 p.m. Woody Creek time, Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes were shot out of a giant cannon, full of fireworks and in the shape of a fist. The invite for the official send-off at Thompson’s Owl Farm in Colorado was restricted to 350 of Hunter’s closest friends, including actors Johnny Depp, Bill Murray and Jack Nicholson. Music was provided by Lyle Lovett. Two Democratic presidential candidates, George McGovern and John Kerry, were reportedly on hand to pay their respects, which might say more than a raft of textbooks about the real difference between the parties.
Across the continent, a small group of friends gathered on the roof of Owen Brennan Round’s house in Alphabet City to send off the good doctor with a glass of his favorite whiskey, Chivas Regal, on ice. We listened to “Walk on the Wild Side,” and at 7 p.m. Woody Creek time, as a giant full yellow moon ascended above the rooftops, we offered a toast, then poured the last drops from the bottle on the roof, in the spirit of an Irish wake.
There are not many authors, let alone statesmen, who inspire this sort of solemn celebration on the half-year anniversary of their death, but there’s something deeply personal about the passing of Hunter S. Thompson that persists six months to the day after he dispatched himself Hemingway-style in the kitchen of his ramshackle fortified compound near Aspen.
After I first heard the news of his suicide in February, I sat down and rewrote my regular column in the New York Sun as a tribute. It began, “The bastards are winning.” That was my first thought, but it was inexact and incomplete. My sense of loss was caused by one more legendary American outlaw biting the dust.
With the passing of Johnny Cash in September of 2003 and of Hunter S. Thompson earlier this year, we are steadily losing our authentic American rebels, members of the loyal opposition.
To some eyes, Hunter and Cash might have both seemed like 1960s refugees, out of date in an era defined and shaped by Bill Gates and Bill Frist. But in reality they were both veterans of the Air Force and children of the 1930s—sons of the south who’d grown up on stories of Pecos Bill and Bonnie and Clyde. They were the elder statesmen of the baby boom generation, bridging the gap between the Beats and the Hippies by recalling a tradition far older than either group. There was a frontier toughness to them, a rugged individualism at odds with all brands of conformity, whether it was wingtip apparatchiks or the spineless, whining, self-appointed representatives of the counterculture. Their message was, think for yourself, be willing to stand on your own, and you’ll find yourself in good company. Both men were admirers of Bob Dylan, and both lived in accordance with Dylan’s great aphorism that “to live outside the law you must be honest.”
They were a call-back to the idea of the American outlaw who broke laws while still possessing a deep respect for the eternal America, a patriotism that ran far deeper than allegiance to any specific government or president. Beyond the occasionally titanic bouts of self-abuse, there was a surprisingly sturdy foundation: Hunter’s wonk-ish love of politics; Johnny Cash’s love of redemption as promised in the gospels. This is the romantic ideal of America, the dissident but sincerely patriotic journalist, the Bible-toting Man in Black who doesn’t give a damn for the people in power, but would rather inspire hope in the hopeless, because he has been there as well. No condescension. No Depression.
Each time a Hunter S. Thompson or Johnny Cash passes, we lose a little bit of the old, weird America, and we are poorer for it. We rally around their memory because it is through them we get a whiff of something authentic, the spirit of the eternal American War for Independence, patriotism not caught up in the stiff anthems of John Phillip Sousa, but the rowdy, sometimes angry country music that celebrates American Indians and old blues musicians, the same strains that can be heard through the British filter of the Rolling Stones on Exile on Main Street.
We all feel exiled at times, and that’s why the idea of these outlaw figures gives us courage and comfort. They animate our frustrations and offer an example of real fidelity to the revolutionary principle that a country could be based around the idea of individual liberty. Not freedom as an all-purpose bumper sticker but the old, eternal revolutionary promise that we are given the birthright of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
So now the torch—though hopefully not the shotgun—passes to a new generation given the chance to see if we can be more faithful to the deeper spirit of America. On the rooftop that night I wondered how many other parties around the country were being held in honor of the Gonzo sherpa and his odd combination of absolute confidence and disarming insight. It’s appropriate that we’d gathered to celebrate, but also as a reminder. “Take no guff from swine,” as Hunter would say. “Stomp on the terra.” May we all keep the faith through the dying of the light until a new day dawns.