Acid Heroes

October 17, 2014

Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson: A compare-and-contrast thing

 

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It’s interesting to compare Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson.  They have a lot of similarities as well as differences.

Both came into prominence through the ’60s counterculture press.  Bukowski writing a column for the Los Angeles underground newspaper Open City in the late ’60s.  And Thompson writing for Rolling Stone magazine in San Francisco a couple years later.

Both would become just as famous (and notorious) for their larger-than-life personas, as they would for their writing.  Both were kind of self-styled “outlaws.”  Both were famous for their chemically-altered states:  Bukowski, mostly on booze; Thompson on booze and a wide variety of drugs.  Both were macho kind of “man’s man” writers, reveling in booze, broads and barroom brawls.  Both had an affinity for violent sports: Bukowski as a boxing aficionado, and Thompson with his love of football.

Both were wildly admired by Hollywood actors.  Johnny Depp became close friends with Thompson, while Sean Penn was close to Bukowski for awhile.  In part because the two writers embodied the two traits most revered by actors:  They were both outrageously original characters.  And they could both write the kind of words that made actors look good when they performed those words.

Both Thompson and Bukowski saw themselves as “outsiders.”   Thompson had a life-long chip on his shoulder from growing up as a poor Kentucky hick from the wrong side of the tracks, who viewed the Louisville high society with both envy and contempt.  Bukowski was raised in a grim and loveless household, his alienation from mainstream society further heightened by a terrible case of adolescent acne that left him permanently disfigured and turned him into, in his words, “the ugliest man in Los Angeles.”

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One key difference:  Hunter S. Thompson was almost an instant success.  His first two books — Hells Angels and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas — were not only smash hits, they were cultural sensations that rocketed Thompson to superstardom.  Whereas Bukowski’s road to success was a smoother, more gradual ride.  He didn’t begin to gain real prominence and fame until he was in his 50s.  And his career — and his output — would continue to grow right up until his death at age 73.

Thompson, on the other hand would spend most of his life striving (and failing) to come up with a second act after his initial success.  His third book, Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail, ’72, showed promise that Thompson could develop beyond merely writing about America’s subterranean underbelly (biker gangs and drug subcultures) to that of a keen observer of mainstream America.  But it would be pretty much downhill from here on in for Thompson as a writer.  His subsequent books would mostly be slapped-together attempts at rehashing his former glory.

Rolling Stone writer, David Felton, probably pin-pointed the reason for Thompson’s lackluster second act when he pointed out:  “Being a celebrity is easier than being a writer.  One thing Hunter does not enjoy is writing. He hates it and he fears it.  He would rather do anything than write, even be a celebrity.”

Unlike most writers — who tend towards being introspective and solitary, and have the kind of personality that lends itself to sitting alone in a little room with just a typewriter for long stretches of times — Thompson was an extremely outgoing and sociable person who liked to constantly be surrounded by people.  He liked to have a court of people around him at his Colorado home, with him as the center of attention, performing for an audience.  To get him to sit alone at a typewriter was like pulling teeth.  Editors and publishers soon realized that in order to get anything out of Thompson they had to ply him with a full-time assistant who would badger him and bribe him, 24 hours a day, in the hopes of pulling some words out of him.

Bukowski, on the other hand, loved nothing more than to be “sitting alone at the typer, with a bottle of good red and classical music on the box.  It’s the best party in town.”

Another difference between the two men:  In my opinion, Thompson’s basic personality had a deep streak of infantilism to it.  He was like a super-brat that needed to be constantly indulged and pampered.  One friend maintained that Thompson’s love of drugs was primarily an offshoot of his deep fear, and low threshold, of pain.  The smallest injury — a stubbed finger, anything —  would send Thompson running for his medicine cabinet.  And the slightest discomfort would inspire the most violent outburst of childish temper tantrums.

Whereas Bukowski always struck me as more of a fully developed adult.  Bukowski largely saw human life as a grim and painful affair. But fancied himself as the great battler.  No matter how tough life was, Bukowski would always be tougher.  Fighting to his very last breath.  “I judge a man by how he walks through the fire.”  And on his tombstone, Bukowski would have a silhouette drawing of a boxer.

Thompson, on the other hand, would commit suicide at age 67, for the reason that life was “no longer fun” — words that one could easily imagine a child uttering.

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4 Comments »

  1. If you read Thompson’s letters, he hardly hardly made any money out of Hell’s Angels because he took a small advance then only got a few cents per sale, basically the publisher screwed him. At the time, he foolishly signed some petition about taxes that led to an IRS audit causing him to almost loose everything, but Hell’s Angels boosted his rep so he sold almost every magazine article he wrote. Fear & loathing was published in a series in rolling stone & to everyone s surprise was a big hit. When he off’d himself he was in bad shape. He had pretty much lost his mind & required 24 hr nursing, some of which required restraints due to terrible fits. He was also in significant pain due to hip surgery (his tolerance to any meds too high).

    Comment by Jon — October 17, 2014 @ 11:04 pm | Reply

  2. Thompson was one of those drunks who discovered the speed/alcohol thing and most of gonzo is, in my opinion, attributable to that particular grandiose combination. Someone should write the book on speed in the 60s and 70s. You don’t hear it mentioned as much as LSD or weed, but it was the engine of cultural production.

    Comment by hardears pickney — October 17, 2014 @ 11:36 pm | Reply

    • Thats interesting what you say about speed. Its like the secret, rarely mentioned, drug of the ’60s. According to the official ’60s history, it was all groovy pot and LSD at the ’60s lovefests. Then that darn heroin ruined evrrybody’s buzz in the ’70s. Followed by the Me Decade’s decadent descent into cocaine. . . .In fact, Kesey and his Pranksters liked the combination of speed and pot in between their acid trips (which could be psychically exhausting) to keep the party going. . . . Hunter Thompson, of course, drank non-stop all his life (“His head was a bucket of cheap booze,” as one friend put it). He claims the “Vegas” book was written on the combination of speed and pot. You can see the merits of the combo — speed to stimulate the body and pot to stimulate the head. . . Course, that magic formula suffers deeply from the laws of diminishing returns.. He bottled lightning in the short term. And then faded badly. His other “stimulant” while writing the Vegas book was listening to the “Beggars Banquet” album by the Stones virtually non-stop.

      Comment by Ace Backwords — October 18, 2014 @ 12:59 am | Reply

  3. Reblogged this on Acid Heroes: the Legends of LSD.

    Comment by Ace Backwords — July 18, 2017 @ 9:30 pm | Reply


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