1974. Kandahar, Afghanistan. Spozmay Hotel. Habib, the proprietor, has brought a tray of assorted varieties of hashish and kief to mi hermano Alabama Billy Messerschidt’s garden suite—a first-floor one-room that opens onto a field of opium poppies in brilliant bloom. He is almost to the dregs of his morning pot of black tea, as he surveys his options and tells Habib he’ll have a gram of black-slab Afghani, a vial of the local hash oil, and a chunk of that beautiful yellow kief that looks like bee pollen and is so much better for you. A pinch of this, a taste of that, a last dram of tea, and Billy is ready to step under the suspended steel water tank that Habib’s man has somehow, magically, made hot with a wood fire, and pull the chain for the rapid and brief cascade that passes for a shower in those parts. Habib has a neon sign that flashes “Spozmay Hotel” in alternating colors. He is inordinately proud of this sign, and spends his evenings gazing admiringly at it for hours on end. “Green,” says Habib, “red. Green. Red. Green. Red . . .”
August 20, 2005. Eight-something p.m. on a dark stretch of Colorado State Highway 82 overlooking the late Hunter S. Thompson’s Owl Farm. Soon will come the finale of the fiercely private public extravaganza that is the Godfather of Gonzo Journalism’s “funeral.” His ashes will be blasted from a custom-made “cannon,” a 153-foot phallic structure in the form of the now legendary symbol of Gonzo Power: the shaft a lighted dagger blade fronting 11 explosive-and HST ashes-packed chrome cylinders, topped by a fiberglass, clenched, double-thumbed fist clutching a peyote button that is allegedly “spinning.” The “glans,” if you will, is pulsing: “Red. Purple. Green. Red. Purple. Green. Red . . .”
This week of near-insane Hunterism here in Sow’s Ear, Calorado, which began on Tuesday afternoon past, when HST’s ashes, meticulously divided among 30 fireworks mortars—10 red, 10 white, 10 blue—
by the world-renowned Pennsylvania-based Zambelli family’s Fireworks Internationale, arrived in an armored car, according to a spokesperson for Thompson’s widow, Anita, “for the safety of the community.”
Pardon the tangent, but I was disturbed by Aspen Daily News reporter Troy Hooper’s serial use of the word “pulverized” in describing HST’s remains. Try as I might, I cannot find it within myself to equate that particular word with someone who has been cremated. They didn’t use a hammer, goddamit. It were FIRE!
On another front on that Tuesday, HST’s neighbor Jimmy Ibbotson, of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band fame and seeming heir apparent for Hunter’s sinecure as craziest motherfucker in Woody Creek, made the wire services when he opened fire with his shotgun on what he termed a “paparazzi,” who wanted to park on his property. “I wasn’t aiming at him,” said Ibbotson, known to one and all in these parts as Ibby. “I just wanted to scare his ass.”
Ibby, his good-natured maniacal hectoring of those assembled at the Woody Creek Tavern notwithstanding, was involved in one of the few bright spots in a week not noted for same. On Friday afternoon, he commandeered a guitar and joined noted composer, musician, and Beat scenester David Amram-—on pocket flute and mini-tabla—in a half-hour improvisational jam of “Mr. Bojangles” that brought a surprising dignity to one of the sappiest tunes ever penned.
Amram, a longtime pal of HST’s and, in the spirit of full disclosure, a friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen since 1972, was invited to come to “the event,” and planned to perform a special arrangement of “My Old Kentucky Home,” in homage to Hunter’s birthplace. Having been tossed onto the slag heap known in this neck of the woods as “The Press,” I was not able to actually hear his handiwork, but I know in my heart that when his rendition sailed into the crisp Rocky Mountain ether, grown men cried and women bared their breasts.
Brothers and sisters, space limitations—that, by the way, defy human comprehension—prevent me from detailing for you the extent of the sordidness that went down over the past five days here in Sow’s Ear, Calorado. The surprising thing about this is that Hunter’s fans were not the source of the above-mentioned. I take no joy in telling you that it was HST’s folks who were emanating the creepiest vibes.
I cannot say it any better than John Rothchild of Miami (Florida or Ohio, I do not know) did in his letter to the editor published in the Sunday, August 21, edition of the Aspen Daily News, so I give him the floor:
“Editor: Just rode up Lenado, past Hunter launch site. Rent-a-cops everywhere, some peering into hills with binoculars-—looking for invaders? Twice, I got stopped on my bike and told, ‘Don’t loiter, keep moving, don’t take any pictures.’ The guy who made his reputation opposing authority exits the planet completely surrounded by authority. Who’d have thunk it?”
Which brings us back to a dark stretch of Calorado State Highway 82, nearing 9 p.m. on a day after the full moon, August 20, 2005, where I am standing with a couple of pals who, like me, way back when, could not stand the wait for the second installment of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” in the Rolling Stone.
News reports relayed to me from various friends seem to run in an identical Party Line that read like this AP item: “With a deafening boom, the ashes of Hunter S. Thompson were blown into the sky amid fireworks late Saturday, as relatives and a star-studded crowd bid an irreverent farewell to the founder of ‘gonzo journalism.’ ” My wife read me this and I asked her, for reasons of my own, if they had capitalized the J in journalism. Her answer: “Neither the G nor the J.” See what I mean? If you’re saying yes, yeah you fuckin’ right! If it’s no, well, think about it; it’ll come to you. I hope.
I’m sorry to be redundant, but I take no, that’s NO, joy in giving you this news: Two weeks ago I was on the Alabama Gulf Coast with my four- and three-year-old grandsons, and I shot off $15 worth of Black Cat bottle rockets that was a better show. They say Johnny Depp, bless his heart, coughed up most of the reported $2.5 million “the event” cost. He got screwed. By my best calculations, I figure “they” spent $2.499 million on the booze for the party, and the Zambellis had to make do with the leftover.
As I stood out there on 82 for an hour waiting for a finale that had already happened, I thought of two young guys I had met at the Woody Creek Tavern, who had driven from north Washington State for “the event”: Chad, a toned athletic Park Service Ranger candidate, and his charmingly dissolute cousin Sean. Sean, on a dare, had eaten all the psychedelic mushrooms they had with them as Chad drove through Utah. “Except for digging a few cloud formations,” Sean said, “all I did was sweat and worry about Mormons.” The last time I saw him before zero hour, Sean was steady drinking rough alcohol and chasing it with reefer. And I couldn’t help but believe that Sean and his kin were the ones putting the grin on Hunter’s face. And I couldn’t help but think that “the event” would have made him bull goose loony.
To close on a personal note, Hunter: This is the shittiest place I have ever been in my miserable fucking life, and that includes the DMZ and Port-au-Prince in 1994. So long, pal. Stay on the Sunnyside.