by Johnny Depp
"Buy the ticket, take the ride." These are the words that echo in my skull. The words that our Good Doctor lived by and, by God, died by. He dictated, created, commanded, demanded, manipulated, manhandled and snatched life up by the short hairs and only relinquished his powerful grasp when he was ready. There's the rub. When he was ready. That is what we are left with. We are here, without him. But in no way are we left with nothing, far from it. We have his words, his books, his insights, his humor and his truth. For those of us lucky enough to have been close to him, which often meant rather lengthy and dangerous occasions that would invariably lead to uncontrollable fits of laughter, we have the memory of his Cheshire grin leading us wherever he felt we needed to go. Which, by the way, was always the right direction, however insane it may have seemed. Yes, the doctor always knew best. I have, seared onto my brain, the millions of hideous little adventures that I was blessed enough to have lived through with him, and frankly, in certain instances, blessed to have lived through. He was/is a brother, a friend, a hero, a father, a son, a teacher, a partner in crime. Our crime: fun. Always fun.
In December 1995 I was vacationing in Aspen, Colorado... The fucking town is just lousy with "beautiful people." My first instinct was to stay inside and drink grog, or as the twinkling jet set refers to them, "hot toddies." My time in Aspen was spent as far from the madding crowd as humanly possible until, in spite of my self-induced seclusion, I ran into Alan Finkelstein. Alan, being no stranger to fun, sprang the news on me that Dr. Hunter S. Thompson lived nearby, and would I like to meet him that night at Woody Creek Tavern?
A few of us wandered out into the snow and waited for lightning to strike. Somewhere around 11 PM, an unusually loud noise stole my attention and then demanded the room's attention - a hush on one side, fearful murmurings on the other, were replaced by mounting screams, as what appeared to be an electric saber swung wildly near the entrance of the bar. A deep, raspy voice was hollering for people to get out of his way, threatening to shock the living shit out of any swine who lingered in his path.
Tall and lanky, wearing a woolen Native American-looking knit hat that trailed down past his shoulders, the ubiquitous aviators tight to the face attached to that smile - a massive hand shot toward me. I placed my hand in his firm hold and gave back what I got. The beginning, I knew, of a long and deep-rooted friendship.
He plopped himself into a chair, laid his armaments on the table - a giant cattle prod and a hefty Taser gun. We had a few rounds, talked about this and that and connected on more than a few levels, not the least being the discovery that we both hailed from the same dark and bloody ground, the great state of Kentucky. That fact alone sent Hunter into eloquent tirades ranging from Southern chivalry to hillbilly moonshine-running to our fellow Kentuckian Cassius Clay. Within no time, the group was invited back to Owl Farm. Hunter's fortified compound just up the road from the tavern. Upon arrival, we were greeted by Hunter's assistant, Deborah Fuller, who would later become known as the Vitamin Queen, because of her painstaking and meticulous nursing of Hunter - and myself when I moved into the house. Her daily delivery of B's, C's, D's, and E's and general TLC kept us as healthy and alive as was within reason, bless her.
Hunter and I hunkered down in the kitchen, better known as the "command center," babbling ourselves silly, when I paid him a compliment concerning a smart-looking nickel-plated shotgun hanging up on a rack. Before I knew what was what, I found my hands wrapped around a rather large propane tank, and he was meticulously instructing me to duct-tape a fist-size box to the side of it. While in the process of this bizarre ritual, I inquired as to the box's contents. "Oh, yeah... that??? Uh... nitroglycerin." Panicked, I instantly and deftly heaved the cigarette I was smoking into the kitchen sink and continued the job.
At roughly 2:00 AM, we strolled out to Hunter's back yard. My larger-than-large propane bomb sat approximately fifteen yards dead ahead. The Good Doctor was off to my right coaching and coaxing, giddy with anticipation. Shotgun firmly in hand, I pumped a shell into the chamber and leveled the beast at our preposterously explosive target. Pitch-black night, a thousand million stars in the sky, dead calm, the neighbors safely tucked in for a pleasant nighty-night and then, BLAMMO! A direct hit and the target exploded into an eighty-foot fireball. "Good shooting, man!" Hunter feverishly screamed. "That was one hell of a shot... Hot damn! Yes!"
Sometime later, I was working in New York City. One morning at about 5:30 AM, slugging it out with a treadmill on a radical incline, huffing, puffing, sweat roping off me, training like a bastard for the film Donnie Brasco. The phone rang. Hmmm. Odd time for someone to be calling, I thought. "Hello?" "Johnny.... Hunter. What's wrong with you, you sound sick!" Good God, there was no way in hell that I could've explained a treadmill to him at this time, far too mortifying. I jumped into the conversation: "Nothing, no... just getting ready to go to work. How are you?" "Fine, fine... listen, if they were going to do a film of the Vegas book... would you be interested? Would you want to play me?" I was stunned. I hopped off that dastardly whore of a treadmill and tried to gather myself. "Well...what about it? Are you in?" Of course I was. Who wouldn't have been? I was beyond interested. We spoke a bit more about it, the hows, the whos, the whens, the whys, etc. It was then that I learned that there really weren't any - no script, no director, no production at all. It simply didn't exist. Not yet, anyway. He'd inquired for his own edification. He did that sort of thing a lot. Hunter was always way ahead of the curve - even in what appeared to be absolute chaos, he was all too aware of exactly where the chips would fall.
After a gathering in New York to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or as he called it, "the Vegas book," a handful of us ended up at Hunter's hotel suite for several nightcaps. I took advantage of the opportunity and cornered the Good Doctor to say that if I was to do the film, I would first need his blessing - if he was comfortable giving it - and that if I did even a remotely decent job playing him, there was a damn good chance he might well hate me for the rest of his life. Bang. Those black eyes shot into mine, twinkling like stars. I remember the smile on his face like it was yesterday. Cheshire. "Well, what the fuck ... buy the ticket, take the ride, eh?... And let's hope for the best, hee, hee... for your sake."
The "Vegas film" finally got set up, and the time had come for some serious soul-stealing. I flew into Aspen and was greeted at the airport by Hunter in his '71 Chevy convertible, a.k.a. the Red Shark. I was sporting a woolen toque on my head, having already done the initial razoring to my skull. Hunter was leery to see what I was hiding under my cap. "Oh, Jesus... Let's see it," he reluctantly said. I whipped the fucker off and felt the wind on my bald pate. "Holy Christ! You look terrible... Fuck man... put that hat back on, it's making me sick!"
We serpentined our way through the mountains and arrived at Owl Farm, where I was swiftly invited to put my things in the basement. Hunter and Deborah had, very kindly, set up a room for me and gave me access to pile after pile of manuscripts, work notes, trinkets, bars of soap from Vegas and other holy relics. I lived in that basement for much longer than was planned and grew to be kind of comfortable with the brown recluse spiders I shared the room with.
One night I was sitting on my bed having a smoke and going through some of Hunter's notes from the Vegas days and brilliant scenes that, for some reason, were edited out of the book. I placed my cigarette in the ashtray that was sitting on the nightstand. For some reason, I began to examine the nightstand, a barrel of sorts... wooden slats, steel bands, the whole bit. As I scrutinized it a bit more, a wave of fear hit me, the likes of which I'd never experienced. My nightstand was a keg of gunpowder. Sprinting up the stairs as fast as a cheetah, I located Hunter sitting at command central. "Hunter... you've gotta come with me... I need to know if... come on, come downstairs!" He looked confused but humored me and walked down to my room. "What's gotten into you, Colonel? Is it those filthy little brown recluses again?" "No. It's that thing!" I pointed to the offending object and begged him to tell me if it was actually full and active. A look of recognition came across his face. "Oh, God, that's where it is! I've always wondered what happened to it."
"YIKES! Is it full?" I was flipping.
"Fuck, yes, it's full! Holy shit, that goddamn thing could've blown us all off the map, especially with you smoking near it! Ye gods, man. What's wrong with you?" He giggled for weeks, even years about that. So did I. I'm still giggling.
For days and nights on end, we would sit in that command center, and talk about anything and everything from politics to weapons, our home state, lipstick, music, Hitler's paintings, literature, sports. Always sports. We were talking one night about which ones he preferred and didn't. We were watching plenty of basketball and loads of football, so I asked him if he was ever a baseball fan, to which he replied flatly, "No. Baseball is like watching a bunch of angry Jews arguing on the porch." Once, a year later, we'd made a bet on the World Cup soccer tournament, France vs. Brazil. He was positive that Brazil was going to cream France. I took that bet, one thousand dollars. We teased and prodded each other for weeks leading up to the match. The outcome bent in my favor; he promptly wrote me a check and sent it with this letter:
WELL, COLONEL, I TOLD YOU THE FUCKING GAME WAS FIXED. I just didn't think those prissy quadroon boys would go totally into the tank. They acted like stupid animals. They shit all over themselves and disgraced a whole nation of gutless whores in the eyes of the world. And it taught me another good lesson in WHY amateurs shouldn't fuck around with gambling on games they know nothing about.
His generousity was astounding. Never once did he try to wriggle away from my never-ending barrage of questions. He was always exceptionally patient and very giving. He was totally open regarding the details of his exploits and personal experiences, even the more intimate particulars of his past. The more time together, the more intense the bond. The connection was profound and becoming more so.
I used to tease him that we were becoming a perversely twisted version of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, which really made him uncomfortable. I had, by this point, purloined an impressive amount of his clothing from the Vegas period and adopted the same mode of dress: the aviator shades, a bush hat, short pants, athletic socks, Converse sneakers, cigarette holder clenched tightly between the teeth. We'd saunter out of the house to take a drive in the car like freakish twins.
So, for good or ill, there we were, a pair of deviant bookends on the prowl.
Truly, the man should be sainted for putting up with my continual scratching away at the layers of his life. He stuck it out like a champion and couldn't have been a better friend.
When the film was done, a fresh print was put on a fast horse to Aspen for Hunter's consumption. This was it, the moment of truth. I feared that our friendship would come crumbling down as a result of my interpretation of him and his work. I pulled up my bootstraps and made the call, more than half expecting him to either not pick up or chew me out in a hideous finale that would've crushed me. "Well, Doctor... do you hate me?" His diagnosis was calm and dazzling. "No, no... Colonel, I feel good. Watching the film was like an eerie trumpet call over a lost battlefield." My elation at not letting him down shot skyward.
There are endless other moments and experiences that I was fortunate enough to have gone through with Hunter, far too many to write about at this time. I cherish the seconds and milliseconds I shared with him. I was well aware that it was all going to happen only once in a lifetime. These were fantastic experiences. Some of the best moments of my life were happening to me and, luckily, I knew it.
Speaking as a fan: You owe it to yourselves to not be cheated, or shortchanged, by believing merely the myth. Read the work. Read his books. Understand that his road and his methods were his and only his. He was, in no way, irresponsible when it came to his writing. He lived it, breathed it - twenty-four hours a day. There are those of you, based on Hunter's journeys and the mad stories that surround his life and memory, might think that because of his lifestyle, the excess and the wild rantings, he was simply some hedonistic lunatic, or as he always put it, "an elderly dope fiend." I promise you, he was not. He was a Southern gentleman, all chivalry and charm. He was a hilarious and rascally little boy. A truth seeker. He was a hypersensitive medium who channeled the underlying currents of truth, concealed in veils of silken lies that we have become accustomed to swallowing.
Hunter was a genius who revolutionized writing in the same way that Marlon Brando had done with acting, as significant, essential and valuable as Dylan, Kerouac and the Stones. He was, without question, the most loyal and present friend I have ever had the honor of knowing. I am privileged to have belonged to the small fraternity of people in his life who were allowed to see more than most. He was elegance personified. I miss him. I missed him when he was alive. But, dear Doctor, I will see you again.