A compendium of hard-worn advice that Thompson was writing for Playboy when he died from the May 2005 issue
This article was originally published in the May 2005 issue of Playboy magazine.
What follows is the final collaboration between Hunter Stockton Thompson and Playboy, based on a series of interviews he gave to Assistant Editor Tim Mohr last December. The two spent the better part of a week at Owl Farm analyzing a variety of subjects, from firearms to physical fitness, all of which interested Thompson deeply. “To live outside the law you must be honest,” Bob Dylan wrote, but you must also possess great sensitivity to your environment and a wide range of esoteric skills and wisdom. In his 67 years on earth Thompson made himself an expert in matters great and small and loved nothing more than to expound on what he had learned. This assignment was interrupted by his death on February 20, but we could think of no better tribute to a great American writer than to present this small storehouse of vital knowledge in his own words. This is for old fans as well as those who may have come to the party only recently. - The Editors
Freedom is a challenge. You decide who you are by what you do. It’s like a question, like a fork in the road. An ongoing question you have to keep answering correctly. There’s a touch of the high wire to it. I’ve never been able to walk high wires, but I get the feeling.
The only way to drive is at top speed, with a car full of whiskey. It takes commitment, especially out here with so many deer and elk around. Car lights paralyze deer. You’ve got to lean on the horn, brace on the wheel and stomp on the accelerator. When you hit the brakes the front of the car dips down—that will put the beast into your windshield. Now, the significant impact will still occur if you step on the gas, but you’re not helpless. It’ll still destroy your grille and lights, but—unless it’s a bull elk—it will kick the animal out of the way. Hitting the beast head-on will move it instead of popping it up onto the windshield.
It’s the swerving that gets people killed.
You know how powder snow is great for skiing? It’s great for driving, too. You just have to know the limitations of the car if you’re going to drive on snowy roads. Once you’ve done 360s and drifts, you know what the road is like. And I always test the brakes, just to be sure I’m not going to go 400 feet when I think I have a grip. Once you get yourself into a full-bore drift, just downshifting won’t get you out of it. A combination of things can, but downshifting alone can get you out of it only on asphalt. And Jesus, driving on “all-weather” tires… I can’t imagine driving on those. I use studded snow tires. The metal studs sound like a tank and wreak havoc on the roads, but they are like bear claws. The difference between hitting your brakes in a blizzard with snow tires and the all-weather tires they put on rental cars? Goddamn.
I set the speed record on Saddle Road—in Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii—in a heavy rainstorm. There are always going to be things like monsoons when you’re trying to set a speed record. What do you do? Think better of it? Come back another day? Your life will change on decisions like that. I take a street-fighter mentality, an Ohio riverboat gambler attitude: It’s out of the question to go back or turn around.
Never hesitate to use force. It settles issues, influences people. Most people are not accustomed to solving situations by immediate and seemingly random applications of force. And the very fact that you are willing to do it—or might be—is a very powerful reasoning tool. Most people are not prepared to do that. You can establish the right reputation in this regard—you might, right in the middle of a conversation, just swat some motherfucker across the room. Make his blood shoot out in big spurts. I’m giving away trade secrets here.
I’ve been beaten worse in New York City than I ever was by the Hells Angels. I used to go out looking for punch-ups in New York. It was worth it just to see an oncoming mob of angry preppies. These weren’t fights. There was nothing personal about it. I didn’t hate the people. I was just a brawler. It was good American fun. It was all frivolous. There wasn’t any right or wrong. Just fucking Saturday-night whoopee.
I’m doomed all my life to violent actions. I’m closely associated with the gods of the underworld—not crime so much but the underworld.
My parents weren’t gun people. Growing up I didn’t know much of anything about guns except that my parents didn’t want me to have a .22. A BB gun was okay. But I found a .22 anyway. I would shoot at lights out of the back of my house, out my bedroom window. There was an alley between the houses. There were light bulbs on the brick garages in the alley. They had metal grilles protecting them, like jail bars, so it was kind of a trick to hit the bulbs.
It was extremely dangerous. Some kid who shouldn’t have had a gun, experimenting, shooting out of his bedroom, shooting down into the alley. I had no intention of doing anything other than putting out light bulbs. But I think about it now and think about what could have happened. The odds are going to catch up to you sometime if you keep shooting into the same passageway.
When I got to the military all I knew was the .22. The most accurate weapon in my house is an Olympic pellet gun—single shot, .17 caliber, pneumatic. I can hit a dime across the living room with it. It was given to me by the Mitchell brothers. I would pack it when I worked at their cinema. At the time it was the standard for Olympic shooting competitions.
For conditioning gunstocks, linseed is a good natural oil, but it has a tendency to be sticky. Tung oil is the thing.
I used to get most of my meat from game. A wild boar running out in the open is kind of rare. But it makes for a hell of a hunting day. All this fear of cooking pork rare? Shit on that. With wild boar you just cut it into steaklike slabs, more like pork chops, and cook it on a grill. It’s delicious. One of the best things I’ve ever had. Dressing the animal is a huge part of it. First kill it by surprise so the adrenaline doesn’t get released from the glands. A frightened animal tastes a lot worse than a peaceful one. You want to take it when it’s grazing, not when it’s running or panicked.
With a good rifle it’s the shock more than the tissue damage that kills them. The shock sends out death rays all through the body. The animal can’t operate. It’s too much trauma on the nervous system.
I took all the Hells Angels photographs. Those were all mine. But I learned after trying for years that I could not keep the same focus as a photojournalist. The myth of “take your own pictures, write your own story” didn’t work for me. As a photographer I had to keep getting longer and longer lenses. I didn’t like to get up close. I didn’t want to get in people’s faces because you couldn’t talk to them much after that.
I don’t play cards much. Only once in a while for fun, to play around. I like to gamble where my own knowledge helps me—where if I’m smart about my betting I can affect my chances of winning. Unlike slot machines or dice games.
With sports betting it’s always better to strike at the partisan, the home crowd, the emotional bettors. Go into a hostile town at night, visiting, and bet against the desperate, emotional bettors—they’ll give you points, and that’s the way to win at gambling. And the way to lose is to be one of those emotional bettors.
As a kid I played football, basketball, baseball. I was very much into it. I didn’t start gambling until after I quit playing. But about halfway through high school I decided to fuck football and become a criminal. I made my choice between the sports life and the criminal life. Once you quit playing, you need that competitive factor. I don’t give a fuck about a game unless I have a bet on it. You have to see it as an opportunity. Nongamblers see it as a chance to lose—and often feel they can’t afford to lose. A gambler sees it as an opportunity that can’t be passed up. Hell, go into debt.
Ed Bradley came out here one day and beat me for about $4,000 on a basketball game. I think it started as a hundred-dollar bet. But we kept doubling up. I paid him, of course. After all, I would have looked askance—and mentioned it in public—if he hadn’t paid me. That’s what makes it fun: the reality of it, having to pay up. It’s good for it to hurt. Being labeled a cheater or a welch is much more painful to a gambler than getting beat up in the parking lot.
It’s extremely bad karma to brag about things you’ve gotten away with. I’m a great believer in karma in a profound sense: You will get what’s coming to you.
All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren, is one of my all-time favorite books. If you don’t know the book you should grab it and read it as soon as possible because it will teach you a lot of things. The Ginger Man, by J.P. Donleavy, was one of my seminal influences. It was kind of a password in certain circles. The Ginger Man got the piss beat out of him more than a few times, as I recall. The reading experience is important: All the King’s Men, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Gatsby is 55,000 words long—amazing economy in a book like that. With Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas I was determined to make it shorter than that. I may have failed. I think I beat it. But it’s like the speed record on Saddle Road: I’m not sure I still hold it. In fact, I’m sure I don’t if I could do it just by getting my hands on a Ferrari.
I get tremendous pleasure from reading aloud and having other people read to me. I like to hear how other people hear things. I like women’s voices, foreign accents. There’s a music to it.
When you’re reading aloud, just remember that you want to understand it yourself. You have to hear it. That’s the key to other people comprehending. You’ve got to hear the music. You need to hit each word. Not the way journalists read but with a dramatic rendering. It takes awhile. It’s easier to comprehend when you creep along, like driving in second gear. The listener should be impatient for what’s coming next.
For the better part of two years, while I was working as a copy boy at Time magazine—after my time in the Air Force—I took courses at Columbia and the New School. I had the fiction editor of Esquire, Rust Hills, as a creative-writing professor at Columbia. I still have a note from him saying, “Never submit anything to Esquire ever again. You’re a hateful, stupid bastard. Esquire hates you.” It was kind of a shock at that age.
In Orwell’s 1984, rigidity is imposed by the will of the state. Whereas with soma, in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, it’s the will of the people. I’ve always operated on that second theory. Nobody is stealing our freedoms. We’re dealing them off. That’s the dark side of the American dream. I’ve always seen myself as a carrier of the torch against that urge. I always took it for granted. Just like I always took it for granted that if I wanted to run for president I could. I could do it. It’s a nice way to think for most of your life, to be able to sustain that. Attitude counts for a lot.
When you push a car off a cliff and blow it up, be sure to roll the windows down to avoid shrapnel. Also, strip the license plate so you’re not billed for the cleanup.
My class in high school was the first one in the history of Louisville Male High to have girls in it, though still no blacks. I fell in love with a cheerleader. I can’t say it was distracting—I was just not in the habit of going to class. But I wasn’t cutting school to go back and jack off in an alley and eat cotton candy. My friends and I would go drink beer and read Plato’s parable of the caves. We would go to taverns and read things like All the King’s Men. Yes sir, it was a smart gang. When a judge at juvenile court sent me off to prison, I saw there was not a lot of future in jail. That is a vital piece of knowledge. I’ve never been back. I’ve been in holding tanks and such, but they’ve never convicted me.
My original job in the Air Force was repairing avionics and electronics. We were like the candy man: If your machine was out, you had to wait for us. And 90 percent of the problems were vacuum tubes. This was before solid-state engineering. So you’d replace a tube or two and they thought you were fucking Einstein. Machines would come back to life; planes would fly. Just pull a tube and stick another one in there. It was a cinch.
The military was kind of your friend in those days. You could jump a ride on military air-transport planes. If the plane was empty you could take people with you –even a girl. You could travel with the base football team, sitting on those paratrooper seats along the sides of the aircraft, against the tin walls.
At my station, Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, we had Bart Starr as the starting quarterback of the base football team. Everybody served. We had a bunch of all-Americans on the team. People went from the Eglin Eagles to the Green Bay Packers.
The draft civilized the military. It wasn’t a permanent status; it was service. It has a civilizing effect—you have a whole different attitude when you’re in there for two years. And so does the top brass. The abolition of the draft was a momentous event. When you abolish the draft you’ve got mercenaries.
When I was in the Air Force I would take classes on the base. One of the classes I took was for something that terrified me more than anything in life: public speaking. It was terrifying. I don’t know how I ever became a sought-after speaker.
When the Hells Angels book came out I was forced to go out and do publicity for it. It was still hard for me. They told me that if I could write a convincing article I could write a speech. I’d seen senior officers try to master public speaking in order to get promoted to field-grade positions—it was like survival for them. Succeed or die. Public speaking was a required skill. But when I got the sports editorship at the base newspaper—because the guy who was doing it was drunk, busted for the third time for pissing in public—I never had to master it.
One problem I have with public speaking is the sound system—I rarely get there in time to do a sound check. So the sound ends up distorted or you lose the bass.
Grapefruit is vital to my lifestyle. I eat grapefruits, oranges, lemons, kiwis. I also need something green with every meal—some vegetables on the plate. Even if it’s just some sliced tomatoes and green onions in a pinch. It’s both aesthetic and healthy. If I take a look at a plate and see brown, gray, white, I can’t eat it. I want to see some red and green.
Drink six to eight glasses of water a day. When you don’t drink enough water you lose your taste for it. When you’re chronically dehydrated the body misses it, but it has a self-fooling mechanism where you don’t think about it. Then you have to reeducate your taste buds for it. At first you can’t drink much pure water. I’ve worked up to five or six glasses a day. At first I could barely do one.
I had started the hydration process before I broke my leg in Hawaii at Christmastime in 2003. Everybody had been telling me. I was going into the Aspen Club—to the sports medicine department—to learn to walk after my spinal surgery earlier that same year. I wasn’t supposed to recover from that.
I’ve really enjoyed my body. I’ve used it. One of the things I’ve been most impressed with in my life is the resiliency of the human body: They did both my spinal surgery and my leg surgery without putting any metal in me. No metal, Bubba.
A lot of doctors are reluctant to take responsibility for me. Nobody wants to be the doctor who killed Hunter Thompson. I don’t trust the medical establishment, but I do trust individual doctors. I’m straight with doctors. They have to learn that they can talk to me straight, too. There’s no point in trying to conceal anything. I appreciate the ones who take risks on me, and I have to look out for the chickenshits.
Most physicians are quacks. In Hawaii, when I broke my leg, they wouldn’t give me any painkillers because I’d been drinking. Alcohol is supposed to be dangerous with painkillers. But depending on the person, that can be unnecessarily dogmatic. Body weight makes a big difference. If I sit around here doing hit for hit of almost anything except acid with a 100-pound woman, she’ll get twice as ripped as me.
Anyway, the doctors wouldn’t give me painkillers. They wanted me off the island. Nobody wanted responsibility. The doctors, the university where I spoke, the organizers of the marathon I was covering, the hotel where I stayed—they all wanted me out. It was hell. When they tried to load me onto a full commercial flight, they jammed my broken leg into the fuselage of the plane. I was the last to board. Imagine the wonderment of the other 200 passengers upon hearing this incredible uproar at the front of the aircraft—my ever-increasingly violent screams. All those passengers delayed 45 minutes, unable to see what was going on and unable to get up from their seats. Finally the airline had to give up. I’ve learned that when you get that mean, most people try to get away from it. And if they are assigned to handle you physically, they really want to get away from it.
I was helpless when I got back from Hawaii. I had to shit in buckets. I had to learn how to move between wheelchairs. I had to learn to walk for the second time in one year. That was survival. It’s very hard controlling your environment when you’re in a wheelchair. Or in pain.
There are some advantages to being in a wheelchair but only when you can get out of it. It can be a wonderful way to travel. But not as nice as in a private jet. I’d do just about anything in this world to avoid flying commercial.
Most drugs have been very good to me. I use drugs, and if I abuse them, well, show me where. What do you mean abuse them, you jackass? What’s abuse? Like most anything else, it’s about paying attention. It’s simple. It’s not some exotic school of thought I picked up somewhere; it’s paying attention. Concentrating. It’s something you have to do your whole life.
I watch it and make sure people can handle things. You have to be super aware of who is fucked-up, who is angry. Not at you necessarily, but who is dangerous. Who is not the same friendly guy you were talking to yesterday. See how different things affect different people. Then avoid them if you have to, or keep an eye on them. You can help people at some stage of their anger, but there’s a point beyond which you can’t do anything.
Steroid-based nasal spray can turn you into a monster.
The worst side of drug use is getting the drugs. Yeah, the police are my drug problem. You just can’t travel with drugs anymore. That forces you to get your drugs from the local market when you go to a strange town. That affects the people you spend time with.
I’ve never made a nickel or dime off drugs. Never sold them. That’s vital to the karma. Keeping a balance—not getting greedy. I would also feel somehow responsible for my clients. And most full-time dealers I’ve known have spent time in prison. It’s part of the bargain. You have to put some of that profit away—probably half of it—against the day when you have to make a big bail or pay a lawyer. The one thing the Hells Angels did religiously was pay their bail bondsman. Every month, every bill. He’s the guy who would be right there when anybody got busted. Call him anytime day or night, anywhere. He’d always come get you.
I don’t advocate drugs and whiskey and violence and rock and roll, but they’ve always been good to me. I’ve never advised people who can’t handle drugs to take them, just as people who can’t drive well should not drive 80 miles an hour on any road. That’s a point.
I have no patience for malevolent drunks. No patience. Drugs, drink, it’s no excuse. Booze is probably the most dangerous substance—it’s so available, and it’s easy to get really wrecked. I felt a sense of amusement when I first read a book called Nation of Drunkards. It’s a beautiful book—in the rare-book category. It’s a history of alcohol and the forming of America. The nation really was conceived in a river of booze.
There’s a basic difference in consumers of whiskey or any other substance, and that is the difference between being a binger and a chipper. I have understood for many years that I’m a chipper. The binger sets time aside to get wasted, to go on a binge. The chipper, like me, just does it all the time. It takes awhile to get settled in your patterns like I am—if you live that long.
Taking on groups of people was the ultimate fun. And then running off with their women. The Genghis Khan approach. It was romantic. I got the shit kicked out of me a lot. But it was fun. That’s an unhealthy attitude—which is why I don’t recommend it to other people.
Getting into rumbles without having any idea what you’re doing is dangerous. I did it, but I learned. There are some basic rules. For one thing, any crowd or gang can murder you—no matter what kind of crowd. A crowd of schoolgirls can kill you.
Fighting gangs of people is very risky. If you ever get caught trying to defend yourself, attack one person in the crowd. Just try to kill that person. Concentrate, like a shark. Don’t attack randomly. I’ve found that’s about the only way to fight a mob. Kill one of them, or try, or seem eager or willing to. People will want to kill you for doing that, but it usually turns the momentum of a senseless brawl where you’re just a soccer ball. When the soccer ball can attack you and bite your cheek off, the game changes.
I was ahead of the game when I realized that if I tried to kill one person the rest would back off.
You want to take on a large one. Take on a symbolic leader, the spokesman, the bully. A swift and violent kick to the nuts after a glass of water to the face is always good—and I mean a crotch twister, boy. There’s a big difference between a sort of snap-kick to the nuts and one with a follow-through, where you go all the way through the crotch with force. Use the leg—hit with a higher part than the foot so there’s a narrow point of impact.
Though it’s probably better to stay out of rumbles, I miss it in a way. I hate bullies and like to take them on. There’s that red line. It becomes like a two-minute drill in a playoff game. There’s no reason, just survival. It’s game time. I’ve frightened myself and other people with the extremes to which I can carry it.
Just because you give up fighting with your knuckles doesn’t mean you give up fighting. That’s the deadly serious underbelly of gonzo—the fist inside the glove. I’m still every bit as willing to take on a fight. You just have to figure out where and when. You need to know by gut instinct when the numbers are against you. You need to choose your battles—and your battleground—carefully. You don’t want to volunteer to be destroyed. Pick your spots.
And there’s no reason to see it all as a battle anyway.
That old thing about “this kid has a lot of talent” will take you a long way. But eventually it has to pay off. Potential will run out—and it can run out suddenly.
I’m usually not sensitive to pain. I have a high tolerance for it. But I’ve never thought of pain as an option in any kind of dentistry question. Pain has always been a given. An assumption. Pain? Of course you’ll have pain if you do a root canal. I’ve never had dentistry without pain—until a recent epiphany that is going to be one of the main clinical discoveries of our time.
I don’t fear the dentist. It’s just not someplace I’d choose to go. You don’t look forward to a root canal. They put that rubber dam across your mouth. You can’t talk to the dentist. You can’t say, “What the fuck are you doing?” One of my problems is that I’m too conscious of what he’s doing. I kind of critique him as he’s going along. I make the classic mistake of dumb people: I think I know more than the dentist.
I want as little pain as possible. My dentist—a half-bright quack; not a bad dentist but a simple one—will not give anybody pain pills. He hates giving me the gas. I don’t have much use for the gas anyway, though the first whiff or two can be nice.
Turns out music is really the best remedy for pain. Not just music but dominant music, top volume. I hadn’t fucked around with headphones since the 1970s, but recently I introduced music on a scale that I had not thought of before. It was with a little CD Walkman. I finally figured out how to turn it up to top volume. I used this Discman properly for the first time. Boom. I had my own studio, my own speakers.
I did have a normal quotient of whiskey. But I wouldn’t say the whiskey was a factor. Another ingredient was the weed I thought I’d try. When I finally told the dentist, “Goddamn it, your stuff sucks. I’m going to go out and smoke some weed in the car,” he said, “Yeah, that’s the way to do it.” It’s not like he’s a goddamn Jesus freak of some kind. Now they say, “Of course you should have self-medicated. You should have done it all along.”
Be sure to self-medicate. I used to think of needing painkillers after dentistry. Ho-ho.
I could barely get into the dentist’s chair. I was as high as four dogs. In a good mood. But it was hard to get to the chair and socked in. I felt like I was in command of the world. I had my sunglasses on. I had the CD player in my crotch. I had a strong drink of Chivas Regal and ice in easy reach to my left.
None of the things you’re normally conscious of—probes, sticking cotton in your mouth, the pain of the injections—mattered once I turned the music on. At top volume you can’t ignore it. The music is louder and more intense than the pain. And then when he brought in the drill—which you can normally feel even if it’s not always painful… nothing.
Hot damn! I was so excited about my discovery that I tried to tell the dentist about it while I was in the chair. But I had that rubber in my mouth. So I just put the fucking headphones back on.
When addressing a former president, Mr. President is the proper form. But I also call one Jimmy. Of course, some of them are best addressed as Swine.
Humor is important—I can’t think of anything much more important. Not necessarily to make people laugh but to make them smile. I find that if I can laugh with someone or get them to laugh with me, that’s an immediate bond. It’s not something I write down or memorize before I go out. It becomes a habit, a survival technique.
Making your enemies laugh once is no big trick. But making them laugh twice, three times, against their better judgment, makes them notice.
It’s like when you shoot a gun in public. The first shot doesn’t get people’s attention. Hell, I don’t notice a shot unless it’s right outside my window. But the second shot gets everybody’s attention.
When it comes to clothes, it’s easier to talk about the dark side of the American dream in a clown’s garb than a clergyman’s. But dressing with a sense of humor has its drawbacks. I have a shirt covered with fishing lures—they’re silver rubber minnows. Sometimes when I’m wearing it I’ll reach down to scratch my rib and feel this scaly shit. God, what a shock. I’m used to finding weird things wrong with me—what the fuck is that?—but not scales.
I like the way sunglasses look, but I seldom wear really dark glasses. I’ve found that if people can see my eyes through the lenses it’s more comfortable. I try not to have my costume be a problem for me or other people.
I’ll wear Chucks with a tuxedo. Is that confrontational? There are times when I’ll wear a blazer for no particular reason. They have good pockets. It’s easy, comfortable.
I love what people call my Coat of Many Colors, which I bought at Abercrombie & Fitch in the early 1970s. Every once in a while I wish I had bought the pants, too. It’s a hunting outfit, sort of a precursor to those blaze orange outfits. It’s a very well-made coat—it has a game bag that folds out of the back. The bag’s waterproof, plastic lined—you can shoot a duck and pop it into the pouch. It’ll carry ice for drinks. And it doesn’t leak blood. Somewhere in there are loops for shotgun shells.
I’ve always bought, been treated to or stolen the highest-quality clothing I can. Shit, it saves a lot of money not having to go out and buy new shirts every year.
When I carry a gun it’s always in a shoulder holster. That’s when you want to have looser-fitting coats. There are times when it’s better not to be obvious with your gun—most of the time, really. Unless you’re out shooting with people or doing something where other people have guns, it’s better not to advertise it.
Total darkness and no clothes is the only way to swim. Swimming in clothes seems almost obscene to me.
Choosing the right friends is a life-or-death matter. But you really see it only in retrospect. I’ve always considered that possibly my highest talent—recognizing and keeping good friends. And you better pay attention to it, because any failure in that regard can be fatal. You need friends who come through. You should always be looking around for good friends because they really dress up your life later on.
In the end, it’s not so much how to succeed in life as it is how to survive the life you have chosen.
I’m too old to adopt conceits or airs. I have nothing left to prove. It’s kind of fun to look at it—instead of a personal challenge to the enemy out there, just enjoy the evidence. I can finally look at it objectively. Not “Who is this freak over here?” but “Who am I?” I’ve gotten to that point where it’s take it or leave it. Whatever way I’ve developed seems okay to me on the evidence. So what if the score is against me? I’ve been on the battlefield for a long time. I suppose I always will be—just my nature.