Boulder, Colo.-based journalist Ben Corbett grew up near Clarion, Pa., and as a young man lived in Pittsburgh. In the early '00s, he met, interviewed and worked with Hunter S. Thompson. After the legendary writer's death, in 2005, Corbett found himself writing the intro to a new edition of "visual biography" of Thompson in collage and photographs. Gonzo (AMMO Books) was the last book Thompson himself helped produce. CP spoke with Corbett about his encounters with Thompson -- their first meeting was for an article Corbett was writing for High Times -- and about Thompson's legacy.
What was your first meeting with Hunter like?
I ended up getting thrown out of his house. I'd brought this girl up -- he'd needed an assistant [for Gonzo]. It was a normal night at Owl Farm, a bunch of people sitting around and reading from his [new] book -- and she started hitting the Chivas. Then all of a sudden she disappeared into the house, and Hunter started wigging out. He'd had problems with people coming up there before; he thought she was a spy. And here she was in the bathroom, throwing up. I had to get her out of there. So I thought the interview [for High Times] was blown. But I called up a couple weeks later and said, "Look, this is really important, can I come back up?" And he said "Sure, of course."
What was your mindset on writing the biographical sketch for Gonzo?
Most people get into the frat-boy aspect of Hunter S. Thompson. That's their gateway, but they never get deeper into his larger body of work. That was my mission: to get people through that doorway. He wasn't just some crazy guy with a tumbler of Chivas in his hand. He was a real scholar, he thought carefully about things, and I think he always wanted to be appreciated on that level -- not just the Uncle Duke, Doonesbury thing.
Thompson is settling into the canon of American literature. What do you think his legacy is?
If he had a mission, I think it was to challenge people and encourage them to be independent thinkers. Anybody who's into Hunter S. Thompson's writing is a romantic to some extent. His whole career was about trying to make the world a better place -- but I don't know if it's that obvious with him. When you're 19 or 20, you read Fear and Loathing and want to jump in a car and go cross-country with a suitcase full of drugs; that was just the entertainment part, though. Behind that was really deep social analysis.
Thompson outspokenly criticized the second Bush administration. What would his take be on the current administration?
He was so into the Kennedys. You can only assume that he would've loved Obama, too. Obama is also a romantic, and, I think, believes that America can be a better place; I don't think it's all rhetoric. I think in his heart he wants to improve the country, and that wasn't so with Bush. Obama inspired the country with his message. He had that same inspiring voice as John Kennedy. They speak the same language.
Ben Corbett reads and discusses Gonzo 1 p.m. Sat., April 10. Barnes & Noble -- South Hills, 301 South Hills Village, Bethel Park. Free. 412-835-0379
- Ben Corbett