My Explosive Pal, Hunter S. Thompson
Johnny Depp on how he played with shotguns, built bombs--and found his mentor's voice.
My first encounter with Hunter S. Thompson was when I was invited to the Woody Creek Tavern in Colorado in December 1994. Someone said, "Why don't you come down, and you and Hunter will have a drink." So I went down to Woody Creek Tavern, and I'm sitting way in the back of the place against the wall, looking at the front door about 50 yards away. Suddenly I see the door spring open, and I see sparks! I realized there was a large-ish, three-foot cattle prod and a Taser gun, and the sea began to part--people were leaping and hurling themselves out of the path of the mayhem that was approaching--and I heard the voice first say, "Out of my way, you bastards!" He was using them as "just-in-case weapons," but it was a very economical way for him to clear the path. He made the Red Sea part, arrived at my table, and said, "How are you? My name is Hunter."
It was from that very second, when he sat down, that I recognized before me the very definition of a Southern gentleman. We connected on the level of both being from Kentucky, both having checkered pasts in our youth, and a great love of literature.
He invited me back to his house that night at about 2 or 2:30 in the morning, and I noticed this beautiful nickel-plated 12-gauge shotgun on his wall. I was raised around weapons all my life, being from Kentucky, so I said, "Wow, that's a really good-looking 12-gauge." And he said, "Would you like to fire it?" And I said, "Yeah, sure, I'll fire it." And he said, "Shit, man, we must build a bomb!" So we built this bomb out of propane tanks and nitroglycerin, took it out in his backyard, and he gave me first crack. I fired upon it from about 30 or 40 yards away, and I hit it square on, and the thing went into a monumental, amazing fireball about 80 feet in the air. I feel like that was my test, my rite of passage. From then on we were either inseparable or on the phone a lot.
You'd get a phone call at 3 a.m., and he used to call me "Colonel Depp," because he made me a Kentucky colonel, and he'd say, "Colonel, what do you know of black-hairy-tongue disease?" And I was like, "What? I don't know!" He'd say, "Well, I'm going to send you all the information about this, man. We must be aware of this thing." He was deeply concerned that the disease would infiltrate our ranks.
Or you'd get a call in the middle of the night saying, "When can you meet me in Cuba? I need you in Havana, man, I'm going to do a piece down there and we're going to go as Rolling Stone correspondents." When Hunter made a request like that, you made it happen. Hunter wanted to interview Castro, but we never got through to him, so the story turned into our adventures down there. He referred to me as "Ray, my bodyguard." It was wonderful--just me and Hunter prowling around Havana, going to these various restaurants or homes that you're not supposed to go and eat at, but you're invited. It was totally ludicrous and surreal.
If I have a favorite period with Hunter, it would most definitely be when I was living with him in his basement in the spring of '97 in this one room across from the "war room" that he called "Johnny's room." We were like a couple of roommates. I went onto Hunter's hours. We'd go to sleep about 9 or 10 in the morning and be up for breakfast at about 7 p. …