By Ron Whitehead
GonzoFest Louisville co-founder and Chief Poetics
The first time Jack Nicholson called he was furious, pissed off, screaming.
It was August 1995 and my grandmother, Louverine Render, had died. Right after the funeral my family and I headed out, in a rented car, for a 5,000-mile-out-West road trip.
Hunter S. Thompson had invited us for a visit. I had published his Nixon obituary, “He Was a Crook,” as a limited edition broadside and it was getting big attention from collectors around the world.
Taking the back roads to Pike’s Peak then Independence Pass through Aspen to Woody Creek I drove nonstop to Owl Farm. My kids knew about Hunter. When we pulled up next to The Red Shark and got out there was a god awful screaming crying pleading that sounded like a baby being eaten alive by a bear. Hunter’s sound system was blaring across the yard into the mountains.
Hunter welcomed us in. He offered me drugs. He handed me alcohol. Then Jack Nicholson called, screaming.
There were three calls from Jack while we were there. He had come out for the weekend to watch a boxing match with Hunter. Hunter, not knowing Jack had brought his daughters, slipped over to Jack’s house, broke out a window and threw several hundred lit fire crackers into the house. Scared the hell out of Jack’s kids. Jack was pissed. That was the first call. By the second call Jack and his daughters were calming down. He didn’t call Hunter as many names. By the third call everything was fine, all was forgiven.
Hunter was a wild man, but he was also a Southern gentleman. It was hard to hold a grudge against him but many people did, including people from his homestate, his hometown.
The question I keep getting from people recently is ‘What would Hunter think about all this?’ And by ‘all this,’ they mean Gonzofest, they mean the mural on the side of the Monkey Wrench, they mean Mayor Fischer’s proclamation, they mean the banner at the Bristol, they mean Hunter getting inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame last year and the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame this year.
When die-hard Hunter fans ask me that question, I know they’re asking ‘Wouldn’t Hunter sneer at all this nonsense? Wouldn’t he see it as selling out?’ And to them I say HELL NO! Hunter knew he was a helluva writer. He knew he deserved the recognition.
When Neil Chethik, executive director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, called to ask me if I’d serve as the inductor of Hunter S. Thompson into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, I said, “HELL YES!” Here are some of the words I shared during that ceremony on January 28, 2015.
“If life is a dream, as some suggest, sometimes beautiful sometimes desperate, then Hunter S. Thompson’s work is the terrible saga of the ending of time for The American Dream. With its action set at the heart of American materialist culture, with war as perpetual background, playing on the television, Hunter S. Thompson, like the prophets of old, shows how we, through greed and power lust, have already gone over the edge. As Jack Kerouac, through his brilliant oeuvre, breathed hope into international youth culture, Thompson shows how the ruling power elite is not about to share what it controls with idealists yearning for a world of peace, love and understanding.”
Hunter still has the power to disturb those who cling to The Great Capitalist Way. Hunter still unnerves the power elite. Those folks focus on the drugs and the booze and the crazy-man antics, the weird turned pro, and they try to dismiss Hunter’s message by dismissing the artist’s lifestyle.
And it’s way past time we honored Hunter. I did it while he was alive, producing the official Hunter S. Thompson Tribute in 1996. Hunter, Johnny Depp, Warren Zevon, David Amram and Douglas Brinkley got their Kentucky Colonelships that night and after the show, Hunter and Johnny started calling each other Colonel Depp and Colonel Thompson. And after Hunter shot himself, on February 20, 2005, I called his widow Anita and we talked for a long time. I wrote “Hunter Shaman Thompson is Dead, A Tribute” and “14 Suggestions for Louisville to Honor Hunter S. Thompson.” We had a memorial in Louisville at the Rudyard Kipling.
But Louisville, Kentucky, remained quiet — still embarrassed, utterly mortified to its gentrified roots, by the life of one of its finest writers. “Truly I tell you,” said Jesus, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” (Luke 4:24) Can I get an Amen? While papers around the country, and the world, published long articles of appreciation and praise of Hunter’s writing career, The Courier-Journal managed a cartoon mocking Hunter and a small piece by Bob Hill.
In 2010 I received a phone call from Dennie Humphrey, owner of The Monkey Wrench. He wanted to produce a Gonzo festival to honor Hunter but said he’d only do it if I joined forces with him. We had several long talks out of which was born Gonzofest Louisville, a one day and night music, poetry, and art festival celebrating the life and work of Hunter S. Thompson and the Gonzo spirit! Special Guests included Anita Thompson, New York Mets Poet Laureate Frank Messina, Congressman John Yarmuth, and others. We unveiled a beautiful mural of Hunter painted on the side of The Monkey Wrench by four artists: Andy Cook, Carol McLeod, Evan Leibowitz and Alexander King.
The Monkey Wrench, in the heart of the Highlands, became Gonzofest Louisville headquarters.
In the fall of 2013 Dennie Humphrey, Mike Maloney, the mayor’s manager for special events, young rebel poet Jake Mahaffey, and I met at Slugger Field. Mike said the city was ready to join forces with Dennie and me and make the next GonzoFest huge. We shook hands, agreeing to create and unveil a giant Hunter S. Thompson banner as the main goal of GonzoFest 2014. Derrick Pedolzky, Nick Garing, Lauren Hendricks, Rebecca Matheny and David Nichols joined our GonzoFest Production Team. For six months we worked around the clock.
Ralph Steadman sent me 38 images, paintings and photos, of Hunter. We selected, unanimously, the most historic Steadman portrait of Hunter for the giant banner. Ralph also created the Hunter’s Gonzoville logo which we included on the banner.
For six days and nights, March 31 through April 5, GonzoFest 2014 shook 17 venues throughout Louisville. It was the biggest celebration of Hunter S. Thompson and the Gonzo spirit ever! As part of the giant banner unveiling, Mayor Greg Fischer read an official proclamation changing the name of Louisville to Hunter’s Gonzoville.
GonzoFest 2015, our fifth anniversary celebration, will take place Saturday, April 11, downtown on The Waterfront Harbor Lawn. We have started raising funds to have a life-size bronze statue of Hunter created which we hope to unveil at GonzoFest 2016.
I have enjoyed, honored and respected Hunter’s life and work from the release of “Hell’s Angels” until now. I am excited, and relieved, that the work I started in the ’90s is picking up steam and gaining ardent new supporters. Thank you, Dennie Humphrey, the GonzoFest production team, the city of Louisville and Gonzo fans everywhere for honoring Hunter in his hometown! Thank you, Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame! Thank you, Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame!
Whether you know Hunter as a madman or a visionary, whether you see him as a drunk devil knocking in vain on the gates of heaven or a brilliant native son of the Bluegrass, I invite each and every one of you to the biggest bestest celebration of Hunter S. Thompson’s life and work and the Gonzo Spirit! I invite you ALL to join forces with us in Hunter’s Gonzoville on Saturday, April 11!
Spreading The Gonzo Gospel
MarGaret A. Harrell
Would Hunter stand for all of this recognition?
Of course Hunter would like to be known, to be recognized. And he’d be quite touched, really, by so much work behind the scenes. He would still like to steal away on his own and guard his privacy. But those are not mutually exclusive. So he’d say a big thank you — in his own way. Perhaps in opposite words. But he’d mean it that he was touched. And he’d also find just as many ways to be a private person. He wouldn’t sit tight and take anything for granted. Life would still have to be as full of surprises. Ultimately, he had to be satisfied with himself. No one could do that for him. I think Hunter would be very pleased with all the attention he’s receiving now, including in Louisville, his hometown. It wouldn’t change his assessment of himself in any way. He wouldn’t let it go to his head. But he got energized by reader reactions and editorial responses. So he would “love the hell out of it” and also take it naturally. It wouldn’t change his universe, but it would touch him. He wasn’t good at self-promoting, not even at giving speeches for a crowd usually, so he wouldn’t have in any way advertised for himself. Somebody else had to do it. And about time. I totally agree with this comment: ‘We must look deep into Hunter S. Thompson’s work and discover the multi-layered messages.’ Just look at all his quotes online, like ‘Luck is a very thin wire between survival and disaster, and not many people can keep their balance on it.’ Said like the best. Recently, in the parade in Paris after the shooting at the satirical press offices, I saw — out of nowhere — in the crowd of marchers on TV, one wielding a sign that displayed a Gonzo fist holding — a pen. So Hunter lives on, speaking out — catching you by surprise, without a word — in places like Paris. Margaret A. Harrell, Hunter’s friend, “Hell’s Angels” copy editor, author (including the memoir “Keep This Quiet! My Relationship with Hunter S. Thompson, Milton Klonsky, and Jan Mensaert”), teacher, editor and cloud photographer.
You’ve read much of Hunter’s work, have you?
Yes, Hunter, the myth, the man, the legend was an agitator to those who you describe as clinging to “The Great Capitalist Way.” But Hunter’s work further agitates, frustrates and disturbs the biggest critics of all: other writers. While on the plane to Louisville last year for GonzoFest 2014, I struck up a conversation with a gentleman sitting beside me — a professor emeritus provost of something or other from Ann Arbor. “What business you in,” he asked. Told him I’m in the business of poetry and sports betting. Looking a bit confused and amused, he said, “Well, here’s a gamble for you young man. I bet you ten dollars there’s no money to be made in poetry.” Great. A smartass. Then I thought: What would Hunter do? Yes it crossed my mind to grab the fire extinguisher located in the galley, attached to the wall next to the flight attendant fiddling with a tray of peanut packets, lift the red cylinder, pull the tab and spray the bespectacled smartass full of white dust. But I didn’t think that would sit too well with Homeland Security. So, I asked myself again: what would Hunter do? Then, I took a breath and simply stated that I’m headed to Louisville to celebrate the life and work of Hunter S. Thompson and give a talk on his sports writing. Before I completed the sentence, the guy attacked Hunter with a litany of verbose ammo. “Hunter degraded journalism to a point of no return.” He said he’s taught journalism for 20 years and has seen more Hunter “wannabe imitators” than one could imagine. “Really?” I asked. “So, you’ve read much of his work,” I asked. “Well, I read an article on the Derby once, that vicious piece of vile.” So, then you must’ve read his books? His ESPN column?” “Not really, no,” the man said. I laughed. “Then how could you tell that your students were “wannabe imitators” if you don’t even know the guy’s work?” He didn’t have much to say. But his few words spoke volumes. Sometimes people think they know a man by his myth. But if they don’t know his work, if they haven’t digested it and squeezed it out, then the only proper thing to say, as we say in good ole New Jersey: “I don’t know nothin!” It’s a good thing people like Ron Whitehead do in fact know, have lived, digested and practiced the Gonzo Way and continue to spread the good Gonzo gospel. Frank Messina is a poet, author, performance artist, painter and actor. He is the Poet Laureate of the New York Mets and had a recurring role in the Boardwalk Empire series on HBO
Michael A. LindenberGer
It’s the music that brings me back
I read Hunter’s work differently now than I did at 18, when Professor Phil Laemmle over at U of L pulled me aside one day to tell me to get smart and start reading the Gonzo papers. The prose hit me then like a deeply addictive narcotic — one that wrapped up whiskey, writing and what I took for wisdom in single doses that shot through my veins like magic. Here was a cipher to decode all the mysteries of what it meant to be a grown-up writer in America in the last years of the doom-soaked 20th century. Then I got older, and probably smarter. Certainly slower and safer. I tend to avoid mixing whiskey and writing these days. But while Thompson’s work is no longer a code for how to live or write, I don’t hold that against him. He was never trying to show us either, never trying to teach us a thing. He simply was a Louisville kid who fell in love with the music in his head — from Fitzgerald, from Conrad, from the King James Bible. His life was in service to that music, and in adding to it his own sweet sounds. Those sounds — some symphonies and sometimes just small notes — are not going anywhere. They’re with us, like Muhammad Ali’s courage, as a permanent patrimony for Louisvillians, and anyone who reads. That suits me just fine. Because it’s the music that brings me back, year after year, to say thank you, Hunter. Thank you. Michael A. Lindenberger is the business correspondent in Washington for The Dallas Morning News. He was the John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University (2012-2013) and, prior to that, worked as a bureau chief for The Courier-Journal and as a contributor to TIME, for whom he remains a contract national legal affairs writer.
‘Bring Bill to the’Ville’
“We are encouraging the city of Louisville to join our fight to bring Bill to the ‘Ville,” says Dennie Humphrey as he stands in front of the mural of Hunter S. Thompson mural at his bar and grill, The Monkey Wrench. With this proclamation, Humphrey, a GonzoFest co-founder, launched a social media campaign to convince Bill Murray to come to GonzoFest 2015. Join the campaign to bring Bill — a friend of Thompson’s who also played him in the movie “Where the Buffalo Roam” — to the ’Ville by recording a video of yourself and other Gonzos saying, “Bring Bill to the ’Ville.” Send it to [email protected] and use the hashtag #BillToTheVille. Each week until April 11, GonzoFest will release a new video, including clips from citizens of Hunter’s Gonzoville!