Experiences of Heaven and Hell with Hunter S Thompson

I met Ciara Nolan for the first time in Poot Emporium (a creative collective which gathers together a group of pioneering and cutting edge designers and vintage curators. It has been listed by the Guardian as ‘one of the top 10 things to do either side of Glastonbury Festival’). I’d walked past Poot a hundred times and browsed through it almost as many, however I didn’t meet Ciara properly until this summer.

We spent a good hour chatting; me about the magazine and she about her past experiences. To say she works in the music industry would be about as limited a description as I could give; not only has she worked at EMI for over a decade, but she started out at Abbey Road Studios and finally settled at the Record Company where she was a creative marketing manager/art director. She worked with some incredible people including David Bowie, Shirley Bassey, Hunter S.Thompson and Ralph Steadman.

In the music world she now manages artists ‘Phoria’ and ‘Cate Ferris’ through her Eskimo Music Management company and is a partner in a record Label called Xnovo.
As a lit student, it was her mention of having been close with the arguably infamous Hunter S Thompson which particularly captured my attention. A few wild anecdotes later and I knew that her experiences deserved to be heard by ears other than mine.

So here we have it: below you find Ciara Nolan’s experience of the man who has taken thousands of readers on a “savage journey to the heart of the American dream”.

How did you come to know Hunter Thompson?

I don’t know if anyone actually knew Hunter S.Thompson, I’m not even entirely sure that he ever really existed! He was certainly a larger than life character, a huge personality that stormed his way through life like he was on some sort of borrowed time (which we now know he was). One of his more famous quotes sums him up pretty well….’“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”

Working with him was both a visceral and terrifying experience.

I was working at EMI records at the time that I made one of the most courageous phone calls I’ve ever made. I was young and naïve, and frankly didn’t have a clue what I thought I was doing or who I thought I was dealing with. I had been tasked with making the CD format a little more exciting, I’d been briefed to inject a little more value into the rather unexciting CD jewel case packaging. For someone who had spent most of her free time perusing old record shops or the extensive archives at EMI in Uxbridge this was a thrilling new challenge. Those archives (which still exist) had early recordings from the likes of Florence Nightingale in the Crimean war and the first experiments in stereo sound, mixed in with the old beautifully typeset set 78’s labels and gatefold vinyls from the 60’s and 70’s where people really started going wild with the packaging! I’d always been a packaging fanatic, a big fan of making more of a thing than you might at first have thought possible…and had huge respect for those pioneers who had thought ‘Sod it, this is an opportunity to really do something here! I don’t mean gaudy creative overtures…I mean, creative projects where people thought…’what are we doing here…creating a product or a piece of Art?’..’shall we do the bare minimum or really push things here a little?’

I decided that what EMI wanted from me was a series of albums called ‘The Songbook Series‘ – a collection of 10 albums rather in the vein of Desert Island Discs’. 10 counter culture, seminal characters whose own work had gained inspiration from music were invited to wander the halls of the archives and put collections of music that told us something a little more than words ever could about themselves.

The doors were thrown open to Hunter S.Thompson, Ralph Steadman, Ivor Cutler, Robert Crumb, Savage Pencil, Gilbert Shelton, Iain Banks, Peter Bagge, Clive Barker and Gerry Anderson….an unlikely bunch, but there you go…that’s how my brain worked then. I wanted to know more about these brilliant minds, what really fuelled their creative output… As someone who had always judged my friends and potential partners by their record collections this seemed like a great plan!

I admired all of these artists….so in my infinite wisdom I just picked up the phone to each one, just a random call out of the blue….most of them were very courteous and a little amazed and honoured to be asked….Hunter NEARLY chewed me up and spat me out….but he didn’t quite give me the full Thompson treatment…but he did put me through my paces.

To this day these albums are some of the things I’m most proud of. They were brimming with integrity (not diluted by the usual music corporate machine which was a bit of a battle to be honest), they were insightful, inspiring and real. Hunter, when he was finally laid to rest requested that his album be shot with him from the cannon across Woody Creek valley….

What were your thoughts prior to spending time with him? Were you concerned about how to act around such a celebrated person who is known for being unpredictable?

I was terrified! I traveled out to Owl Farm in Woody Creek, Aspen to go through Hunter’s final tracklisting with him. He was very exacting about which recordings of chosen tracks he wanted. At the time I was an avid film-maker and I asked Hunter if I could document what we were doing when I came to visit. He said sure….but very soon after I received terrifying faxes in the nights leading up to my visit. The faxes were from him and sometimes his ‘lawyer’ laying down the law about what I could and couldn’t film. He was a fiercely private man for such a public figure…but then that is often the way! Funnily enough though I wasn’t really interested in the celebrity that was HST, I wanted to spend time with the man. I’d been fortunate enough to meet him through the making of the album together and I liked him. At first, those faxes terrified me! I was only a young girl in my 20’s, I had no clue how to deal with the weight of US law slamming down on me….and although the album was in the name of EMI, this visit was my own private affair…I was on my own ‘legally’. A week before we went (I was accompanied by my good friend and Camera Man Matt Curtis) an article appeared in Loaded Magazine about a recent visit by one of their journalists to the great man in Owl Farm. It didn’t end well…He shot him off the premises!

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the movie had just been released, I thought it advisable not to watch it before my departure. I’m so glad I didn’t….had I seen it, I might never have gone out there.

Before I left, my good friend Ralph Steadman (long time collaborator of HST) gave me the best bit of advise…’Never, ever, ever, ever try to match that man drink for drink…do not allow him to coerce you into a drinking competition). Wise, shrewd words…especially to an Irish woman.

What were some of the most poignant moments you can remember from the 2 weeks you spent with him?

Hm….well there were many, he had that way about him. Being with him was a little like being in a musical…you know where everything is leading up to a big performance, but you know the performance has to end and you’re not quite sure what will happen next. Those moments with Hunter tended to be filled with moments of clarity, soul searching and meaningful reflections on the world, life, people, politics….whatever came to his mind at the moment.
However, he did draw the plan for his funeral for me. On a napkin, covered with tomato ketchup. He drew the cannon, the Gonzo hand with the 2 thumbs, the explosion, the valley….it was powerful stuff…moments after we had been rolling around laughing about something ridiculous….and then bam…the mood changed….and then the blow to the solar plexus. ‘Someday I’ll end it…I’m not waiting around….’
Ciara with Hunter Thompson inside his kitchen.
What did you spend the 2 weeks with him doing? 
Well, I didn’t spend 2 whole weeks with him. He kept very different hours to the rest of the world. He was very much a night creature. Some days we would get a call saying…it’s just not going to happen today….but when it did we were listening to music and getting the album sorted! Taking rides in his cars, chatting, filming, visiting the Woody Creek Tavern, reading books (including Irish Language books), watching endless sport reports, news reports, watching Gothic porn (weird fan mail that had been sent to him), drunkenly phoning people…I distinctly remember chatting with the very patient and charming Johnny Depp & Jack Nicholson, and then we were shooting weapons and playing tricks on one another.

Hunter liked to test people. On our first night, at the Woody Creek Tavern, he stabbed me in the chest. The force of the stabbing threw me from the bar stool to the ground. I genuinely thought he had stabbed me, but the lack of blood told me that I’d been the butt of a joke, and the dagger had a retractable blade. He barely looked at me and left me to gather myself up while he continued his conversations. Later that evening I managed to pocket the knife and when he was least expecting it, I reached around and stabbed him squarely in the neck….we were ok from them then on….
Although, a few nights later he nearly killed me in his car. Travelling at top speed on compacted snow and ice with an inebriated man at the wheel would never be my chosen method of transport but he was a difficult man to say no to! Hurtling along the silent, frozen Aspen roads at 3 in the morning, a deer leaped into the road ahead of us. My life flashed before my eyes but Hunter slammed his foot to the floor and powered down….we sped at top speed towards the animal….I can still hear my own screams. At the very last minute the deer just lept back into the woods, leaving me with my second chance at life and a howling crazy man. Hunter found it invigorating… He found living close to the edge ‘invigorating’, he called it ‘fuel’ …I suppose he was getting ever closer which makes me think of this other quote of his…“THE EDGE, there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is the ones who have gone over.”

A few nights after we left, we heard that Hunter had accidentally shot Deborah (his assistant) who he had mistaken for a bear.

What was it about him that made you like and respect him?

That he was an absolute original. He was one of those few people who walk this earth on a path that they’ve carved out for themselves. He was brilliant…he burned with a brilliance that was hard to be around sometimes but he was really exceptional. I was fortunate enough to meet the real man, and I liked him…he was fiercely intelligent…he had an extraordinary knowledge of literature…down to even reading Irish Language authors! We shared a favourite book ‘The Ginger Man‘ by J.P Donleavy which certainly broke down some barriers between us.

I have nothing but admiration and respect for artists to whom artistic integrity and the creation of something real is at their very core, and who are driven to express themselves in original and pioneering ways.

In what period of his life did you get to know him?

Well I knew him from ’98-2000′ …in his life this was when ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ was released as a film and just before he released ‘The Rum Diary’ which had been a book that had been in the making for many many years. I like to fool myself and think that the experience of making ‘Where were you when the fun stopped?’ had opened him up again, opened him up to the inspiration you can gain from music and to the freedom of just writing about what you feel. (The sleevenotes that he wrote for the CD package were the first words he’d written in a long time.)

When we were promoting the albums back in 1999 we threw a big event at the ICA in London, a day of collaborative performances, the premiere of my unedited footage of Hunter…Robert Crumb came with his Cheap Suit Serenaders and Gilbert Shelton played a Jazz set, Ivor Cutler and Iain Banks read together and Ralph Steadman did a live painting on an enormous canvas. Hunter didn’t come, he couldn’t enter the country because of something that had happened back in the 70’s! So he made an appearance in the line up as a cardboard cut out! This life sized Hunter still resides with me…he’s the guardian of my shop ‘Poot Emporium’ in Frome. At night-time he is backlit and scares the bejesus out of anyone peering through the windows! I think Hunter would have liked that!
If you want to check out any of Ciara’s label/the bands she manage/her photography/vintage shop then click on any of the following links:

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