Hunter S. Thompson, the godfather of Gonzo journalism, novelist and writer-extraordinaire, enjoyed an intrinsic relationship with music, one that ran parallel with his literary endeavours.
Part genius, part troubled artist and part creative madman, Thompson positioned musicians onto the same pedestal as writers, painters and poets. Of course, as a writer and journalist, Thompson’s life strikes an obvious comparison to the most hedonistic of rock and rollers. He pushed himself – and those around him – to the very edge, both creatively and personally.
While Thompson has never been one to shy away from voicing his opinion, both in the negative and the positive, he would often detail a selection of bands and artists that helped manoeuvre his own creative vision. In 1970, with the swirling psychedelia of the ’60s falling something of a hazy blur, Thompson wrote to Rolling Stone editor John Lombardi: “I resent your assumption that ‘Music is Not My Bag’ because I’ve been arguing for the past few years that music is the new literature,” he said, adding: “That Dylan is the 1960s’ answer to Hemingway, and that the main voice of the ’70s will be on records and videotape instead of books”.
Of course, Thompson’s adoration for Bob Dylan is no surprise to those that have followed his career. However, when naming his ten favourite albums of the 1960s, it was another outfit that the writer was keen to highlight; the Grateful Dead. When considering that Thompson was so keen to explore the world of counterculture, to shine a light on those operating on the outskirts of societal normality, Jerry Garcia and his gang of noise-makers fit the bill.
In his letter to Lombardi, Thompson continued: “But by music, I don’t mean the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band,” he added. “If the Grateful Dead came to town, I’d beat my way in with a fucking tyre iron, if necessary, I think Workingmen’s Dead is the heaviest thing since ‘Highway 61’ and ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (with the possible exception of The Stones’ least [sic] two albums… and the definite exception of Herbie Mann’s Memphis Underground, which may be the best album cut by anybody.)”
Workingman’s Dead, the fourth studio album by the Grateful Dead, is a record that, on reflection, cemented their place into the annals of rock and roll history. Recorded at the very beginning of 1970, the album ushered in a new dawn for alternative music, propelling the band to cult status in the process.
When discussing the new material for Workingman’s Dead, bassist Phil Lesh once explained: “The song lyrics reflected an ‘old, weird’ America that perhaps never was. The almost miraculous appearance of these new songs would also generate a massive paradigm shift in our group mind: from the mind-munching frenzy of a seven-headed fire-breathing dragon to the warmth and serenity of a choir of chanting cherubim. Even the album cover reflects this new direction: The cover for Aoxomoxoa is colourful and psychedelic, and that of Workingman’s Dead is monochromatic and sepia.”
With the idea of a colourful, psychedelic take on an “old, weird America”, it’s little surprise that this album spoke to Thompson on so many levels.