BY DAVID AMRAM
For Hunter S. Thompson, February 2006 By David Amram for his forthcoming book Nine Lives of Musical Cat
I first crossed paths with Hunter S. Thompson in 1950 when he was working for the Middletown Record, a small paper in upstate New York.
Hunter was staying on the West side of Route 209 in Cuddebackville, New York. All that was there was a tiny road-side store called the Huguenot Superette. I used to come a mile from where l lived to the store, to get provisions for the week. The owner finally spoke to me confidentially one afternoon about seeing flying saucers and saucer people in the field across the road, and how he had never dared to tell anyone, except two people. Those two people were myself and someone else he described as that crazy writer up on the hill in the cabin close to both his store and my place.
That crazy writer turned out to be Hunter, who had moved up North to write, and to find work as a journalist. By all accounts, he was doing excellent work for the Middletown Record, until he left his job at the paper after attacking and nearly demolishing the soda machine in the building where he worked, when it failed to refund his change.
I was reminded of all this over 30 years later, when Louisville poet Ron White-head and author and historian Doug Brinkley organized a tribute to Hunter in Louisville on December 12, 1996. He and Johnny Depp, both Kentucky natives, were to be given awards as Kentucky Colonels.
I was invited to come down to organize a group of players into some kind of tribute band, as well as create all the mu-sic for the evening to accompany readers. The unusual group of musicians who had been asked to participate included master songwriter-pianist Warren Zevon, the great Kentucky singer Suzy Wood and her bluegrass band, with Johnny Depp sitting in with us playing slide guitar. None of us in our tribute band had ever met one another, and everyone showed up at different times all afternoon. As I was hard at work getting this unlikely ensemble together, a few hours before the show, Hunter made a grand entrance into the theatre.
I heard his familiar staccato bellowed greetings as he roared into the backstage of the theatre dressed like a Viet Cong paratrooper, replete with an Aussie hat, a meerschaum pipe, and a flask of fine Kentucky brew. “Come back here, Amram, after you rehearse, and we will reminisce,” he said.
When we finished rehearsing whatever was possible to plan in advance, I told everyone I would give them signals, to go with the spirit of the evening. They all loved Hunter and his work, and were wonderful players.
While the musicians went to get supper, I went back into one of the empty dressing rooms and sat down with Hunter. He told me how amazed and excited he was that his hometown of Louisville was honoring him after all these years.
“My mother will be here,” he said. “I hope she approves of my behavior. She is a librarian, as you know. She always encouraged me to keep reading all the books I took out as a kid. I guess my early days were similar to Kerouac’s. I tried to read practically everything I could get my hands on. I always knew I wanted to be a writer. It is so nice you all came down here for this, my son Juan will be here too, as well as old friends I grew up with.”
It was a real treat to be able to spend some quiet time with him, as he spoke about all the things that had happened over the years since we first met so long ago. As all his friends can tell you, when you were with Hunter in a room alone, he always acted in a completely different way than he did when a lot of other people were around.
He was often shy, sometimes reflective, always witty, and genuinely com-passionate. I saw as I listened to him talk that over all the years, and through the turmoil of his life, he had somehow kept his roots as a Southern Gentleman, even though in public it was obvious that he kept this hidden from others. He indicated to me that he found out early in life, after leaving Louisville, that many often perceive as being a sign of weakness graciousness, good manners, and modesty.
Ironically, he found out that, to his amusement and occasional despair, his wild, crazy, and often outrageous public persona was adored by many, and being a wild man in public allowed him to retain most of himself, to draw upon when he retreated to the solitude of writing each day, I think he sensed that if he really allowed other others to see him in his moments of gentility and kindness, they would be disappointed or feel that this was an act.
That memorable night during the tribute to Hunter in Louisville, there was a mini-marathon of performances, which included Johnny Depp reading Kerouac with my accompanying Johnny, musical selections that we hoped Hunter wanted to hear, and a host of speakers all giving their heartfelt speeches honoring Hunter.
During all of this, Hunter stood off-stage by the curtain in the wings of the theatre, cradling a fog machine, taken from the wall backstage, which was supposed to be used in the theatre for emergencies, to contain fires.
Hunter stood silently, crouching like a commando, clutching the fog machine he listened intently to the music, the readings, and every word being said bout him by all the speakers who came to pay tribute to their native son.
Whenever anyone who was giving their testimonial to Hunter began praising him excessively, Hunter would bound onto the stage, and with perfect theatrical timing, as if on cue, spray them with the machine, filling the whole stage and front rows of the theatre with fog, like a production of the famous Witches Scene in Macbeth, until they cut their speech short, all of which was accompanied by gales of laughter and applause from even the most conservative members of the audience.
“This isn’t the Academy Awards or a Presidential Inauguration,” he whispered to me backstage, between sprayings. “I’m simply a writer. These windbags have to learn to cut it short and get to the point.”
Later that night, after the music was over and the last public speaker had been sprayed, we all went out to celebrate some more, and Hunter told me how much Kerouac’s work had always meant to him, and wanted to know how Jack could stand dealing with the pain of instant notoriety and deal with being an overnight success following the publication of On the Road, which instantly made Jack into the last thing any serious writer ever wants to be: an American Celebrity, i.e. a person who is famous for being famous, rather than someone whose work is read and respected.
Hunter, like Jack, always knew since he was a teenager in Louisville that he was a writer and an artist first and foremost, and that whatever outrageous events he took part in over the course of his life, he always remained as serious about his work as he was about life itself.
We also talked about music, writing, sports, and our shared love of the South, and the beauty of the small towns and farmlands and the old inherent values of what seemed part of a vanishing America, which both Steinbeck and Kerouac had written about.
In the wee hours of the late night/early morning, as we were imbibing some fine Kentucky Bourbon, I reminded Hunter of the old Huguenot Superette and the flying saucer-loving proprietor from Route 209. “l remember him,” said Hunter. “Does he still sell the same stale week-old loaves of bread? ls he still there? ls he still there? Is he still alive?”
“He’s gone now, Hunter,” I said. “He has left us.”
“Well, we all have to leave eventually,” said Hunter. Let’s have another drink and play on staying around for a long time. Here’s to many more. There is still a lot of work to be done.”