Don Meets Gonzo Writer Hunter S. Thompson

 

 

I was in San Francisco at the end of the 60's in the record business, because it was the most active Music Town pretty much in the world after, "The Summer of Love." I had a condo on Alameda, a kind of island in the Bay, where it was a few degrees warmer and a lot cheaper than The City. Coincidentally, one of the few commercial Jazz radio stations in the country was also located there, in a second floor former brothel above a century old bar.

 

Often on a slow day I'd leave early and stop at KJAZ on the way home. We carried the Blue Note Jazz line, and it was a good place to hang out and layback. So one day I walk in the door, and noticed a strange looking dude sitting in the corner. He was wearing a raincoat buttoned to the neck, with a cigarette holder and sunglasses. But it was the Bay Area, which was full of characters and eccentrics.

 

I gave the guy on the air a couple of new releases. The record of the moment ended, and he put my new record on and let it play all the way through – as usual. That didn't happen much at KFRC or KYA.

 

The jock said, "I think you guys should know each other. Hunter, this is Don Sundeen, he does record promotion for United Artists, and Don, this is Hunter Thompson, he's a reporter for the Oakland newspaper."

 

We exchanged hellos in whatever way hipsters did then, probably using the word "man," and started to chat. It was a little disruptive in the small studio, the former living room of a whorehouse, so Hunter suggested that we retire to the bar downstairs and have a beer. It was cool with me.

 

For the next three or four hours we sat and told each other stories. He was interested in the bands and players; I was fascinated with his infiltration of the Hell's Angels Oakland Chapter and its legendary President, Sonny Barger. It was an amazing feat, because Hunter had — I think, an Indian bike — and the Angel's wouldn't be caught dead without a Harley.

 

Apparently, Hunter had shown up at some of their events, not revealing his identity as a reporter, hung out and made friends with some of the club members. After a while they invited him to ride along on some of their runs and he became kind of a mascot.

 

He learned that all these men on Top Drawer bikes didn't have jobs, and didn't need them because they controlled the drug trade in northern California to finance their lifestyle. Sonny lived up on Golf Drive in the posh Oakland Hills and had a lion in the backyard. Hunter explained that the police and DEA and others kept trying to hop his back fence to surveil him, so he got the Lion to dissuade them, and sure enough one day the beast treed a Fed who was photographed in the branches with the lion down below.

 

He also learned that one of the nicest office buildings in downtown Oakland was owned by the Biker Gang, but by arrangement with the Doctors and Lawyers who officed there, the gang never entered during business hours… it scared the civilians. But once or twice a week they'd have parties in the lobby with chicks, and drugs and sometimes a band, a fun bunch of guys.

 

Everything was fine until Hunter printed the first episode of his three-part reveal of the Hell's Angels activities in the paper; apparently some of them read it.

 

I was mesmerized. "Then what happened?"

 

He said they became very angry, invited him to a meeting and beat him brutally (not the term he used), and told him that if he continued they would kill him. Instead he wrote a book, "Hell's Angels," which had just been published, and it

 

 

had started him on an incredible career as a writer of highly descriptive true stories that would carry him to fame and fortune. But that hadn't happened yet, and we split the tab.

 

We exchanged cards promising to do it again, but we didn't — we were both busy and preoccupied with our own activities. Over the years when I'd read his stuff in Rolling Stone, I'd sometimes wish that I'd followed up, but it was just as well, I might have been dragged into his world. The next day I bought his book. It was great and I still have up there on the bookshelf.

 

 

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