GonzoFest found a new home last Saturday at the Louisville Free Public Library’s downtown branch.
Mayor Greg Fischer, while speaking at the event, spoke of the early, fundraising stages of a three-step plan to renovate and rename the North Wing of the library in honor of Hunter S. Thompson and his mother, Virginia. She had been a librarian at the branch, and Thompson had spent a lot of time there in his youth. Also, a statue of Thompson is in the works for the library grounds.
With that announcement and the refocus of GonzoFest on Thompson’s literary legacy, the GonzoFest that Dennie Humphrey and Ron Whitehead envisioned since its first seven years ago was flourishing.
Ron Whitehead, the festival co-founder and well-known local poet, filled me in prior to the panel discussion on Thompson’s literary impact. “For years, I was like the street-corner preacher, preaching the Hunter S. Thompson gospel,” he said. He’s still preaching, but on a different caliber with the festival. “I hope people are inspired to create. Period. I hope that’s what they take away from GonzoFest, or anything that I do from a poetry reading, or from a brief encounter on the street.”
It was an electric Saturday — sunny, with a growing afternoon heat intensified by a tenacious breeze. Between York Street and Broadway, it appeared the library was hosting — to use Whitehead’s phrasing — a “mini-Forecastle,” but this was a citywide, collaborated effort to celebrate Hunter S. Thompson with music, art and literature. Poetry and spoken-word performances were underway in the East Wing. In the auditorium, discussion panels took place throughout the day, where ideas on politics, Thompson’s cultural and literary influence, freedom of speech and media literacy were discussed through a gonzo lens. The panelists included Thompson’s son, Juan Thompson. Three guests were joined in through a remote hookup, their faces projected on a screen next to moderator Michael Lindenberger, a former Courier-Journal reporter who has written for LEO and now is an editorial writer at the Dallas Morning News.
Unfortunately, sound was an immediate issue for most of the panel discussions because of the booming main stage outside. But that didn’t ruin the momentum of conversation, especially with so many interesting folks on deck. Of course, you have Juan, who published his memoir, “Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up with Hunter S. Thompson” in January last year; Whitehead; William McKeen, who penned the HST biography “Outlaw Journalist”; Margaret Harrell, Thompson’s assistant editor on several projects including “Hell’s Angels”; and Rory Feehan, who’s pursuing a freaking doctorate on the guy, in addition to running totallygonzo.org.
Although this was a repeated topic from last year, “The Literary Impact of Hunter S. Thompson” certainly revealed great insights. Such as, the creative ways Thompson could avert a deadline. Mckeen had a solid takeaway for this talk: “There’s only one person who can write like that, and he’s gone. But there’s only someone who can write like you.” Juan nodded in agreement, and perhaps deep understanding.
“As Hunter proved with Gonzo Journalism, the viewer, the experimenter changes the experiment,” said Whitehead later in our interview. “We are subjective human beings, we’re emotional human beings more than anything else. There’s not one aspect of our being that we are, totally … Language is an experiment.”
“Find your own voice. As a writer, as a poet, as a person, and go your own way,” he added. “My No. 1 goal [with GonzoFest] is for everybody to find their own way.”
Juan Thompson made a similar point when I caught up with him after the panel. I had joined forces with a couple of guys from Michigan — Fred Bueltmann and Kyle Bice, who were traveling across the country on trains with their storytelling project and podcast, “This Craft Nation.” We all sat down in the basement of the library, where Thompson shared his opinions on the craft, and spoke extensively about his personal experiences writing the memoir.
“I thought it was important that people know there was a lot more to Hunter than just a Raoul Duke character,” he said. “The best way I could address that, since I didn’t want to write a biography, was to describe to people the Hunter that I knew. The best way I knew how to do that was through the story of our relationship and how it had changed over time, and what that revealed to me about who he was.”
“When I started [the book], I was really grieving his death. And it was important to me that people understand that he’s a great writer. And by the end of the book, that wasn’t the most important. The most important was the story of how we worked out some kind of relationship — that was a big shift.”
“There was a story I wanted to tell and a perspective I wanted to share, and I didn’t think it was something I wanted to continue to do. Once I finished it, I decided writing was something I wanted to continue. The process of writing…it’s a funny thing. I did not particularly enjoy sitting down to write the words. I don’t know many writers who really sit down at their keyboard in the morning and say, ‘I am so excited to do this!’ There are some — most seem to resist it. But it’s such an extremely satisfying thing to have written something that is meaningful to somebody else.”
This roughly 30-minute exchange left me deeply inspired, and in that I found the answer to Thompson’s lasting importance. Gonzo Fest has not lost its purpose. “It’s focused on what’s new, how his message and legacy is revealing itself to consecutive generations,” said Juan. There is work to be done, but gonzo will not die…the experiment continues.