“Who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?” – Hunter S. Thompson
Few writers, if any at all, have had the same stranglehold over the music industry as the aberrant maniac Dr Hunter S. Thompson. His pure daring and determination to stay well within the wild and groovy realm of the demimonde, whilst keeping his finger to the pulse of society, was a freak tenet that musicians have tried to follow forevermore.
As a writer, he engrossed himself in the world of pop culture rather than trying to observe it from afar, which stretches way beyond his Gonzo style of journalism. He wanted to be in and amongst what was happening, not just to place himself in the story or capture a moment from a ground-level perspective. He wanted to change what needed changing and celebrate what he thought was right. In short, this was reflected in the collaborative artistic milieu of the sixties and seventies, where artists became engines of reform rather than merely reflecting it retrospectively in their work.
There is, of course, no way to prove this, but I would be surprised to find a musician’s bookshelf that doesn’t include a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – it is pure kerosene for musical imaginations. This relationship flowed both ways, as Thompson put it himself: “Music has always been a matter of Energy to me, a question of Fuel,” he once said. “Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel. I have always needed Fuel. I am a serious consumer. On some nights, I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio.”
Added to this proposition is his impeccable taste in sonic sustenance. At the same time, this came to the fore in various ways throughout his career and works. Most notably coming in the form of his dedication to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; it is not penned in honour of a lover or family member. Instead, it reads: “To Bob Dylan for ‘Mr Tambourine Man’.”
This point is further galvanised in an unearthed letter that Thompson sent to Rolling Stone editor John Lombardi in which he lambasted his former boss, stating: “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, 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.” It was with this in mind that Thompson also tried to imbue his own work with something lyrical.
In fact, he even put in writing something that looks pretty befitting of Dylan’s back catalogue: “I want to make a promise to you, the reader. And I don’t know if I can fulfil it tomorrow, or even the day after that. But I put the bastards of this world on notice that I do not have their best interests at heart. I will try and speak for my reader. That is my promise. And it will be a voice made of ink and rage.”
Within his eulogy of musical greats, Thompson happened to list off his two favourite Bob Dylan albums, opting for the first two records in his initial electric trilogy. Bringing It All Back Home saw Dylan pair his folk introspection with the visceral edge of rock ‘n’ roll to produce a rousing era-defining masterpiece. The centrepiece of the album being Hunter S. Thompson’s favourite song: ‘Mr Tambourine’, which he referred to in a very sixties fashion as “the heaviest thing going”. Being Dylan’s first electric record, the album also exhibits the artistic-rebel attitude that Thompson held so dear.
Naturally, this same ethos spilt over onto Thompson’s second choice, Dylan’s all-American follow-up Highway 61 Revisited. As Mark Polizzotti once said: “A good ten years before the fact, Dylan was already out-punking Johnny Rotten.” This same daring, renegade reflection of society Thompson shared was perfectly illustrated by Bruce Springsteen, who wrote: “Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home were not only great records, but they were the first time I can remember being exposed to a truthful vision of the place I lived.”
Adding: “The darkness and light were all there, the veil of illusion and deception ripped aside. He put his boot on the stultifying politeness and daily routine that covered corruption and decay.” This same veneer was torn asunder in Thompson’s prose continually, showing that he not only had a love for Dylan, but they were, in fact, always singing from the same hymn sheet.