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Suitable sendoff for HST

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Ashes-to-Fireworks Send-Off for an 'Outlaw' Writer


Published: August 22, 2005

WOODY CREEK, Colo., Aug. 21 - Hunter S. Thompson indulged in numerous hallucinogenic fantasies over the years, but this weekend, one of them morphed into reality: his ashes were blasted into the sky over his farm here, carried by red, blue and silver fireworks in front of a 153-foot monument that Mr. Thompson, the writer and avatar of "gonzo" journalism, designed himself almost 30 years ago.

Associated Press via Thompson Family, Peter Mountain

The ashes of Hunter S. Thompson were blasted into the sky amid fireworks during a star-studded gathering at the journalist's Colorado home.

Former Senator George McGovern, the protagonist of Mr. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72," was among the 350 invitation-only guests who paid him tribute before liftoff.

"I'm not quite sure where he's going," Mr. McGovern, 83, mused in his flat South Dakota prairie voice during two hours of alcohol-free tributes. "But I salute you and wish you a happy journey in that land of mystery."

Mr. Thompson's family and friends - including Senator John Kerry, Lyle Lovett, Bill Murray, the musician David Amram, Ed Bradley and locals like Bob Braudis, the sheriff of Pitkin County, Colo. - watched Saturday night as his ashes exploded with fireworks, lingered in great puffs of milky smoke, then vanished.

"When the going gets weird," Mr. Thompson once wrote, "the weird turn pro."

Thus, six months to the day after Mr. Thompson shot himself to death at age 67 at his home here, did his family and friends produce a highly professional show, staged and choreographed by Hollywood and underwritten by his friend the actor Johnny Depp for more than $2 million.

"It's nice to be able to give a little something back," Mr. Depp, who played Mr. Thompson in the film version of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," told the crowd as the ceremony began solemnly about 6:30 Saturday night. "Hunter, this is for you."

What unfolded here in the Rockies just outside of Aspen was the complete canonization of Mr. Thompson.

At the entry to what could only be called the set, his portrait was hung at the center of his personal literary solar system, surrounded by the planets of Samuel T. Coleridge, Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, John Steinbeck and Mark Twain.

Jann Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone, whose early history was entwined with Mr. Thompson's emerging career, said that Mr. Thompson was "the DNA of Rolling Stone" and called him "one of the greatest writers of the 20th century."

Douglas Brinkley, the historian and Mr. Thompson's literary executor, said that beyond Mr. Thompson's persona as an outlaw journalist, "Hunter wanted to be remembered as a writer." He called him "the Billy the Kid of American literature."

Throughout the tributes, the monument, sheathed Christo-like in a silky red fabric, loomed in the gloaming, becoming ever more prominent as the natural light faded and spotlights illuminated it against a backdrop of darkening cliffs.

The service was private and laced with what was called "Academy Award-level" security. Mr. Thompson's fans were kept at bay, as were most of the news media, and guests were barred from bringing cellphones, cameras and recording devices. Orange cones marking a tow-away zone extended for three miles beyond Mr. Thompson's home off a narrow strip of rural roadway. Black-clad security guards, aided by a dozen county sheriff's deputies, patrolled the 40-acre property, which Mr. Thompson bought in 1968 for $50,000 and is now worth millions.

By nightfall, scores of fans had gathered at the nearby Woody Creek Tavern and outside the gate to the property. Sheriff's deputies said that "numerous people" tried to crash the scene but were escorted away.

The pavilion for guests, constructed in the last several weeks, was a vast stage set under a glass ceiling. To set a somber tone, everything, including the bar, was initially draped in black velvet. After the service, the black was lifted to reveal couches and Thompson memorabilia like stuffed peacocks and a gong. Above the bar were chandeliers and swatches of red velvet, evoking a frontier bordello.

His widow spoke first.

"We've been through a lot together," Anita Thompson, 32, told the guests. She sobbed her way through Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," which she said was Mr. Thompson's favorite poem.

Earlier in the day, Mrs. Thompson took a brief ride, accompanied by a reporter, high over the property in a crane used to construct the monument. She had flown with his ashes the week before to Pennsylvania, where she delivered them to the Zambelli fireworks company. Technicians encased the remains with the fireworks in mortar shells, which were driven back to Colorado in an armored car.

"Hunter just wants to come home," she said, gazing out on the sharp peaks surrounding the valley.

At the ceremony, Mr. Bradley of the CBS program "60 Minutes" described first learning of Mr. Thompson through his writings in 1972 and thinking of him as an "off-the-wall madman"; eventually Mr. Thompson became one of his closest friends. Like others, he spoke of his grief at losing Mr. Thompson, saying he thought he had finished his crying until he started writing his tribute.

Mr. Wenner recalled his drug-crazed exploits with Mr. Thompson but spoke of his feelings as well, saying at one point that he had been jealous of how close Mr. Depp had become to Mr. Thompson.

"Now those days are gone," Mr. Wenner said. "Once I had Hunter all to myself, and now I don't have him at all. And none of us do."

Mr. Thompson's son, Juan Thompson, 41, closed the tributes, a reminder that the ceremony was not only about a counterculture legend but also a father. He said he was not seeking "closure," dismissing that as "a Dr. Phil word."

"I don't want closure; I want to remember him," he said. "Missing him is a way of loving him."

As Champagne was served, Juan Thompson declared: "The king is dead. Long live the king."

His father then appeared on screen from a 1978 BBC documentary, describing how he wanted his ashes dispersed. He drew up plans that looked remarkably like the steel monument a few hundred feet away.

Norman Greenbaum's 1969 anthem "Spirit in the Sky" then rose from the sound system, with the lyrics: "When they lay me down to die/ Going on up to the spirit in the sky."

The silky red dressing around the monument slowly unpeeled itself, revealing a rocket-like structure embedded with a dagger. It was crowned by Mr. Thompson's logo, a two-and-a-half-ton red fist with two thumbs and a psychedelic peyote button pulsating at its center, a Day-Glo sight visible for miles around.

The final send-off began with Japanese ceremonial drummers and Buddhist readings in Tibetan. Then, with a bang that Matt Wood, a Zambelli fireworks designer and producer, described as just below the level of a sonic boom, 34 lines of fireworks streamed from the ground. The whole display lasted less than a minute, after which a recording of Bob Dylan wailed with "Mr. Tambourine Man" ("I'm ready for to fade/Into my own parade"). The partying then commenced, with jam sessions into the wee hours.

The monument, taller than the Statue of Liberty, is temporary because it violates local ordinances. Mrs. Thompson said she hoped to keep it up for two weeks, then would build a pond nearby as a permanent sanctuary, with a government-issued tombstone. (Mr. Thompson was an Air Force veteran.) She plans to inscribe it with a Thompson saying: "It never got weird enough for me."

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I miss the articles from the ESPN Page2.

He used to have a new one every Monday, usually very gonzo-style, tying in politics with his gambling stories and whatnot

always entertaining and if you could decipher the context, enlightening as well

my favourite was HST & Bill Murray inventing "skeet golf." One guy hits the ball off the tee, his partner tries to blow it out of the air.


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agreed, brilliant... especially since it was devised at 3:00am, HST called Murray and woke him up outta bed

i had forgotten that part of it...it all feeds in to the HST myth though, Hunter up at 3am full of bourbon and various stimulants cranking out a column...

in retrospect, i'm amazed that he made it as far as he did. there was a flurry of HST books written about 5 years ago, the first thing that i thought when i saw the display at he bookstore was oh no! hunter kakked! but no, he was just rallying and stoking his career...there was a brilliant quote arributed to the doctor, paraphrased "there's no point dying young and beautiful looking. better to come skidding in to the grave on two wheels, parts falling off."

i like to think that hunter at least used up all his parts, and now he has violently exploded whatever was left :)

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