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Hunter S. Thompson's 'Hell's Angels' Turns 50 This Year

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga - the nonfiction book that launched his career as a professional writer. It also marks the beginning of a type of writing that Thompson would later call gonzo journalism, a lurid form of first-person reporting that blends fact and fiction as readily as the many combinations of drugs and alcohol that fuelled Thompson's creative process.

However "Hell's Angels" is gonzo in its infancy. There are no catalogues of excess as in the beginning of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), in which Hunter - through the persona Raoul Duke - recalls the quantities of marijuana, LSD, ether and other illicit substances that he collected for a frenzied romp in Sin City.

But the "Strange and Terrible Saga" does feature one significant trademark of the gonzo style. Thompson discarded the concept of journalistic objectivity by immersing himself in the outlaw biker lifestyle for a year: buying a bike so that he could ride, party and crash with his subjects. And he nearly lost himself in his first-hand research.

"I was no longer sure whether I was doing research on the Hell's Angels or being slowly absorbed by them," he wrote.

Yet that problem became the point Thompson was trying to make in his book's un-romanticized and unflinching look at the Angels. He viewed outlaw bikers not as aberrations in American society but a microcosm of American life.

During a 1967 interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Studs Terkel, Thompson said,

"If people insist on saying, 'I am a very gentle person and only these little bad gang of hoodlums over there is ugly and mean,' then it's just putting off the recognition that the same venom that the Angels are spewing around in public, a lot of people are just keeping bottled up in private."

He added that those who find themselves becoming obsolete due to technological advances are the most susceptible to this sort of violence.

"The people who are most affected by this technological obsolescence are the ones least capable of understanding the reason for it, so the venom builds up much quicker. It feeds on their ignorance."

He proved his point later that year during a televised interview with CBC, in which Thompson was confronted by Skip Workman, an Angel who was angry with Thompson's portrayal of the club. Workman recalled Hunter's falling out with the group after Thompson called out Junkie George, a member who had a violent altercation with his spouse and their pet. "Only a punk beats his wife and dog," Thompson said before getting jumped for meddling.

Workman defended George's actions saying, "To keep a woman in line, you have to beat 'em like a rug once in a while." And what's even more shocking is that the studio audience laughed and applauded the remark. You know things have become particularly twisted when Hunter S. Thompson seems like the only sane person in the room.

It makes you wonder what Thompson would say about violent Trump rallies. Here's the full CBC segment from 1967.

h/t Blank on Blank, Bloomberg


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