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March 22 - 29, 2005
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The Doctor is gone...
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (1937 - 2005)
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THE WORLD HAS LOST A GREAT MAN
the tragic news of the suicide of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson first hit,
I have been thinking about the man a lot. He was, in his words, the
father of "gonzo" journalism, and he had many fans the world
over, from his writings in Rolling Stone magazine
and his many uniquely entertaining books, the most popular being "Fear
and Loathing in Las Vegas". I had the distinct pleaure of an encounter
with the good Doctor many years ago. I have replayed that event in my
mind a lot these past weeks, and at first thought that I should just
keep the incident to myself.
After reading the latest issue of Rolling Stone, and hearing from friends all over the States who have talked about Thompson, and the numerous tribute articles online and off, and while sitting at a locals saloon in Vegas not far from where he used to hang, it dawned on me that this man touched so many, and he left a legacy in print and in the minds of those who had the chance to meet or know him. With that in mind, I have decided that on this day, my birthday, I would share with you my lucky and fateful encounter with the gonzo man himself...
AND LOATHING IN WOODY CREEK - MEETING THE MAN
I must begin by saying how much I loved Hunter Thompson long before I had the experience I am about to tell. I read everything he ever wrote, devoured his articles in Rolling Stone, and read The Vegas Book (his description of the best selling Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) three times (so far). His style was like nothing I had ever encountered. He broke all the rules. And, as a writer who is constantly trying to find my own inner voice, I have always been fascinated by other writers. Thompson touched me through his craft, and I like to think that his influence on me is evident in my writing today. But I digress.
Many decades ago, while plying my trade as a traveling magician, working as an opening act a lot, and writing screenplays in between gigs, this story begins.
Back in 1976, I was booked to play in Chicago as the opening act for the one and only Tony Orlando. This began a long, cherished friendship with the man we all know from the "Tony Orlando & Dawn" TV show days and "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" song. To this day, Tony and I remain in touch, we see each other whenever our paths cross, and I regard him as a friend and mentor in so many ways.
I mention this, because as a result of that first show together, Tony brought me to his agency, the famous William Morris Agency, and told them I should be working through their offices. As a result of this kind gesture, I found myself being represented by the world's largest talent agency, and I was immediately booked as the opening act for many of the big stars of the time.
As the years lfew by, one of the many bookings I had was in Denver at a place called Turn of the Century. The agent told me that this joint was a dinner theatre, very upscale, and the patrons were used to seeing a Vegas-type show. My contract called for a five week stint. Each week I would be the opening act for a different headliner. I remember the first was Charo, followed by The Temptations, Bill Cosby, Carol Channing, and finally, The Mills Brothers. We worked shows on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, then the place was dark from Sunday until the following Thursday.
was during these breaks that I would take the opportunity to get out
of Denver, and drive off to some mountain top to write. I'd go to Estes
Park mostly, or Aspen, and just hang around, soak up the crisp clean
air, the wildlife (human and non-human) and work on those screenplays
I knew I would be directing some day.
I got his bright idea that I would drive to Aspen the next day, and stop at the Woody Creek Tavern to see the place where Thompson allegedly spent a part of every day, drinking, smoking, writing and sometimes shooting guns. I never expected to encounter him....okay, that's a lie. I FULLY expected to encounter him. I somehow KNEW I would seee him there and I imagined having a conversation with him, if he didn't shoot me first. He hates strangers, I knew, and he was known to be over-the-top violent for no reason whenever he felt the urge to shake things up. But, I am, after all, the world's greatest sleight of hand man, and I figured that just might be my ticket to staying alive long enough to have a chat.
I was somehow drawn to the location, I figured. I drove for about an
hour, thinking I must be lost, and as I searched for a safe spot to
turn around, I found myself in the small parking lot - really just a
clearing in the trees - of the Woody Creek Tavern.
If you blink, you'd miss this place, which sits in a flat clearing among
lots of tall trees, almost hidden from the huge piles of snow that plows
have pushed out of the parking area. I parked. I got out and stretched
my legs. I took a deep breath of that cool mountain air and thought
about what I might expect inside.
I pulled the big old wooden door open, the smell of smoke and whiskey
filled my nostrils. Or was it beer? Maybe a little of both. It was dark,
smoke-filled and cozy. The noise level dropped sharply as I walked in,
and I could tell the locals inside were checking out the stranger. I
smiled, walked to the large bar and sat down in a spot where there were
a few empty stools, by myself, as I looked around, squinting in the
darkness and waiting for my eyes to adjust to the atmosphere. A big,
crusty guy behind the bar appeared in front of me with a smirk. "You
lost?", he asked. "What makes you say that?"
"Well, we don't get many hippies in these parts."
Is that what I look like? I guess the long curly hair, tie-dyed shirt
peeking out from under my leather jacket and the earring marked me as
a stranger in these parts. A quick look around at the patrons, obviously
locals, and I'd say I was the only one not wearing torn and worn-out
jeans and jackets, and I was clearly the only one in the place that
had shaved or showered within the last few days.
I scoured the place, wondering if the man was there. Hiding, sipping his Whiskey, cleaning his guns. I decided he wasn't. I knew I couldn't really ask anyone. I figured I would have to be satisfied with knowing I was actually there, in the very place where Doctor Hunter S. Thompson hangs, sipping a brew, waiting for inspiration to hit.
Right: Benicio Del Toro, Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp (who played
him in the movie) at CeneVegas.
Suddenly, as if on cue, the bright light from outside lit the room up as a figure appeared in the doorway. I squinted, tried not to stare, and as the door closed, the darkness returned, and the shadow of a man walked in, stopping at a few tables to talk briefly, then heading to a spot at the bar, an empty seat in the corner, obviously a familiar spot for this person. When he sat down, I immediately recognized the long cigarette holder dangling from his mouth and the hat pulled down to the rims of his glasses. There he sat. Hunter S. Thompson in the flesh. Looking just like I had anticipated from the photos I had seen of him. Eyes darting about and immediately landing on me, the stranger at the bar. He took a long puff, then looked away as the bartender dropped a drink in front of him. They talked a bit, then the barman walked off, and Thompson nodded, it seemed, in my direction.
I gulped down my beer, took a deep breath, and got off the stool. I looked around. Nobody seemed to be looking at me, it was if I was not there. I glanced at Thompson, and he was gazing away. I decided this was the moment I was secretly waiting for, so I slowly and deliberately walked around the bar and over to the man himself. Thinking carefully about what I was going to say, I was suddenly shocked as Thompson swung around, looked right THROUGH me and said, "Get your candy-ass out of here before I have you thrown out."
Well, that's not what I was hoping for.
"Uh, right. I'm not here to bother you, sir, I just wanted to thank you for your writing. I'm a big fan, that's all."
I turned to walk away. My encounter was over. "Hold it". I stopped and look back at him, fully expecting to be staring down the barrel of a shiny handgun.
are obviously a man of incredibly good taste. Sit down, let me buy you
a libation, then you can get the hell out."
smiled. My opportunity had arrived. I shook his hand, thanked him, and
sat down next to him, my heart racing a million beats a minute. I had
met a lot of great people in my life at that point, people like Milton
Berle, Bob Hope, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, lots of world-class folks,
and I was always amazed that I was never once nervous.
He ordered me a drink. Jack, straight up. I figured I should be manly now. Show him I was not a mamsy-pamsy wierdo who happened upon him this sunny afternoon. I admitted that I had stopped in on purpose, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. "So, what do you think this is, a fucking zoo? Stop in to see the animals, maybe feed 'em some peanuts and be on your way?"
After explaining that I was working in Denver, and revealing my profession, his eyes lit up. "I just love a good magic trick. Not the bullshit stuff that long-haired freak does (his impression of Doug Henning), the real stuff with the hands. Go ahead, show me something."
that's what it was. I was probably nervous because I didn't know when
and if I would be able to show his a trick, and if I did, if he would
respond favorably to it. Now the moment was actually upon me. I threw
my drink down, stood up and pulled out a coin. I turned it into two.
Made one vanish and join the other, he nodded. I clearly remember his
comment: "Fuck, that was good."
Next it was sponge balls. I figured I should hit him with the "A material" while I had the chance. He flipped. When he opened his hand and saw two where there used to be one, he nearly fell off the stool. He was reduced to uncontrollable laughter. He hugged me and said I was spooked. He beged me to promise not to put any wierd spells on him. I assured him I would not. "You do anything with cards?" Ah yes, the perfect question...
When I had him select a card randomly from the deck and caused it to fly across the bar and land under my glass at the far end, he nearly stopped breathing. He insisted - no, make that DEMANDED - that I repeat that, or else he would have his friends who had gathered around us, kill me and bury me outside. I smiled. This was the easy part. I told him I would do one better. I would show him something that he would be talking about for years. I gave him the deck, told him to remove any card, sign his name to it, and return it into the deck. (Yes, I still have that card. I'll have it on eBay next week...kidding, it will remain in my celebrity autograph collection until I pass it on to my son, Jesse. Then he'll probably sell it on eBay.)
I don't have to fill in all the details her, but you can just imagine
what happened when I slowly unzipped my fly and reached in and removed
"If that's my card, I'll shit." I said, "please don't do that", and with a sly grin, I slowly revealed the card with his signature. The entire place exploded in cheers and applause. But not Thompson. He just sat there, smiling and nodding and puffing. When the noise subsided, and they all seem to quiet down and wait for the expected comment from the man, he said, "you are an amazingly talented and sick individual."
spent about an hour with the man. Or maybe it was three hours. I lost
track. I probably showed him a dozen tricks, and whenever I stopped
and we sat and talked, he was asking about the practice methods, the
sources of these tricks, the origins of the moves I had perfected, and
other extremely technical aspects of the art of magic. He was doing
research. He was learning.
When it came time to leave, I stood and shook his hand. Before I could speak, he got off the bar, hugged me one last time and said these words. "You are a freak of nature. It was a pleasure to know you".
No, Doctor...it was a pleasure to know you. I shall never forget my special day in the Woody Creek Tavern with the gonzo man himself. I am a better person as a result of my brief time with him. He lived and ultimated died by his own plan, in his own way, in control right up until that final second. Friends that knew him, those lucky few, knew it was never IF he would do it, it was always WHEN. And because his writings and books are all around us, it is nice to know that even though he came to the end of his own physical journey among us, his memory will live on for generations to come.
on, Dr. Thompson.
Gerry & The Pacemakers
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