Photos by GonzoToday
Two weeks ago, Clayton Luce (GonzoToday publisher), Nick Storm (Storm Generation Films & Pure Politics) and I took a 72-hour nonstop road trip to Denver, Colorado, where we had a One Gonzo Spirit Summit with Juan, Jennifer and Will Thompson. Historian Douglas Brinkley and publisher D.J. Watkins also stopped in for a visit. On the drive back Clayton, Nick and I took turns reading a proof copy of Juan’s new book out loud to each other. The book will be released in early January, and here’s what I wrote about it:
“Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up with Hunter S. Thompson” is the book every Hunter S. Thompson and Gonzo fan has been waiting for. Stunning. Gut wrenching. Brutally honest. Eloquently written. A revelation. On the entire high speed emotional roller coaster ride, I laughed and I cried. Juan F. Thompson has done a heroic job of revealing the dark terror and inspired beauty of being the only child of one of the greatest writers in history.”
— Ron Whitehead
It was going to be a fast trip and a long ride — 80 miles per hour across the heart of the nation, running along the main artery towards Denver. We brought along the cooler with iced drinks, camera bags, audio equipment and other provisions, and the mad poet had traded his shiny red convertible for a compact import car that might make the trip, but certainly wasn’t going to draw any attention. This trip would require absolute stealth. There could be no sudden run-ins with cops, poorly executed lane changes or anything at all that might give any sort of law enforcement a reason to search the car. The kit bag was in the trunk, along with a large pile of miscellaneous stereo equipment, books, roles of artwork, CDs, framed paintings, exotic fragrances, official documents and a heaping pile of other crap that would be necessary for the trip.
Ron “The Bone Man” Whitehead and his documentarian, Nick Storm, had pulled up to my house at 4:30 a.m., late as usual but still too early for me. My wife was sobbing desperately, begging me not to leave with what she repeatedly described as “vicious savages.” I was trying to pack, think and weasel my way out of the house at the same time, as she wailed and heaved and cried out into the darkness, her voice echoing down through the predawn mist of the lower Highlands, as lights flipped on and people awoke to the sounds of sorrow.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Try not to think too much about it. My odds of surviving an 11,000 mile trip are somewhere in the neighborhood of around 25,000/1. These are good people. We have all that we need. We are ready.”
Four hours later we were barreling through St. Louis, Whitehead at the wheel jabbering hysterically about attorneys and vicious thieves and liars and cheap money pimps somewhere in the Dark Valley. I remember hunkering down in my seat, covering my head in the pillows we had thrown in the back, and trying to block it all out. I awoke again about half way through the great state of Missouri at a rest stop. Ron had apparently come down from whatever adrenaline rush he had been on for the previous eight hours, and now Nick Storm was going to take the pilot’s seat. I had time for half a cigarette before they hustled me back into the compact, and we sped off again, heading west as conversation drifted into a dull murmur and then silence.
Somewhere about half way through Kansas my mind started to slip a little bit. What were we doing out here? Whose idea had this been anyways? We didn’t even know who these people were, and they damn sure didn’t know us! Shouldn’t they have known better than to let a whole gang of frenzied lunatics into their home, with no possible hope of being able to deal with them, and then just turn them loose inside? What kind of people were these?
Well, we would find out sooner than later as Kansas turned into Eastern Colorado and the endless expanses of windmill farms, corn fields and oil rigs gradually merged into craggy flatlands which further on past Denver would rise into the Rockies, the great natural barrier which had for millennia separated East from West.
We were headed for Denver, and this was no ordinary trip. We were on our way to meet with author Juan Thompson, his wife Jennifer and their 17-year-old son, Will. It was to be a classic journey West, in search of some great hope — the final bastion of Gonzo and the legacy of Hunter S. Thompson. Word had come around that Juan was writing a book, and when the son of Hunter S. Thompson sits down at a typewriter, the world should start listening to the rhythm of the keys. It was to be the real story, a mad sprint from page one to the last period, through the life of the son of the Great Gonzo, and the tumultuous world that surrounded him: hopes, dreams, broken hearts, tragedy, renewal and rebirth — the great American story — and the last tale of the writer whose life work served as a fitting obituary to the American Dream.
I had been sent west for GonzoToday.com, to cover not only the story, but to participate in what would hopefully be the beginning of a new era of Gonzo journalism and the rebirth of Hunter’s literary legacy. A Gonzo Summit bringing together the family of Hunter, including Deborah Fuller, his personal assistant of 20 years, GonzoFest Louisville and GonzoToday.com, for the formation of an alliance and the establishment of a new movement. Who in the world organized this? Ron Whitehead, of course.
Ron called ahead about an hour short of our destination and reached Jennifer on her cell phone. She was sitting in Doug Brinkley’s hotel room with Juan and had no time to talk. “Shit,” said Ron, tossing the phone down. “That does it. He got to them first. That bastard still has it out for me after things went south over a ‘civil disagreement.’ He has no doubt filled their heads with all sorts of terrible images of me, and they will probably be waiting for us with the cops by the time we arrive.”
This gave me a bad jolt. Cops? Civil disagreements? Jail? I had come out here to get drunk and stoned and video tape the scene as it unfolded around me, but not to get into some sort of rabid feud with Doug Brinkley, who would no doubt be in some sort of foul state by the time we arrived.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Nick. “I’m sure he’s fine. It’ll be fine. No cops. Right?”
Ron just stared ahead at the road, silent.
As darkness fell over Denver, we arrived on the north-south connector and made a quick beeline to the address we had been given. The vibe was getting ominous, and we all needed to decompress. By the time we pulled up at the house, we were in a savage state, jabbering wildly and motioning frantically at the crowded street and what we assumed was a reasonable place to park. We piled out of the car and then after a moment of confusion, regained our composure. This was it. We had arrived.
As we walked up the sidewalk I started to get rubber legs. Was this really happening? I thought. The whole thing seemed surreal. I grew up on the white side of the tracks in Fort Valley, Georgia. When things went south fast in my life, I found Hunter. When I was locked up on graduation day, and joined the military to escape jail, I began to relate to the notion that somehow I could survive in this world. That there was hope for the outlaw after all. When he died, it shattered me. It was as if the last cowboy had died, and when it happened I knew I was fucked. Of course I was still alive, so I would have to do something while I was still here — but it would almost certainly wind me up either in a crazy house or prison.
After Hunter shot himself, I checked occasionally online, to see if something was stirring at Owl Farm, but nothing was. Thompson’s widow lived there, but the magic was gone, and greed had settled like a heavy fog over the Dark Valley of Aspen. I assumed that Juan had probably gone mad, and disappeared into suburban obscurity, and that the whole matter was, for the most part, closed. The kitchen at Owl Farm — where for so many years Hunter held court, entertained friends and dominated his enemies — was dark. His friends had gradually sold out and moved on, and the once fragile hope that was Woody Creek became, like so many other places, for sale.
As we turned off the sidewalk to the walkway that led up to the porch, I realized that all that was about to change. Few people yet understood the critical importance of this book or the magnitude of its fallout on Hunter’s true legacy. And we were about to get the inside scoop. The light was on, illuminating a Bernie Sanders wall poster and a sign that read “Hippies, Use Back Door,” surrounded by other trinkets and strange things. Perhaps they heard us, perhaps we knocked, I can’t remember. All I remember was seeing Juan’s silhouette in the house, crossing the living room and then the door opening to a sudden raucous of handshakes and hugs, Jennifer smiling, her eyes beaming, a warm glow from within and then stepping into the warm familiar smell of books, typewriters, potpourri and the mouth watering aroma of hot chili wafting out from the kitchen.
The living room was quaint and inviting, an antique credenza on one wall was covered with old typewriters, across from a warm sitting area around the fireplace, flanked on each side by built-in bookcases overflowing with books, vintage electronic equipment from radio transistors, television tubes and dials, to bones and sculptures, peacock feathers and trinkets of every sort and fashion, which were crammed into every nook and cranny throughout the whole house. The living room opened into the dining area of the same fashion, and then through a writer’s nook and Juan’s office, which was another display of hundreds of books and tapes and papers, a small television or computer, lit warmly in the day by a single bright window above the nook. There was a small lounge bed and nightstand with a lamp, also covered in books, at the top of the stack, “The Art of War,” by Sun Tzu.
The nook led through a small kitchen and into a small sun room, with rustic wood floors, a couch and dozens of family photographs, relics and totems. Daniel J. (D.J.) Watkins, author of the newly released book “Freak Power,” curator of the Gonzo Gallery in Aspen and friend of the Thompsons was also there. Will, tall, handsome and graceful, behind eyes that hinted something of brilliance and passion unreleased, welcomed us.
Within the hour we were drinking, laughing and reminiscing on memories that, while separate, were eerily similar. Jennifer had prepared a meal of vegetarian chili and side of house salad and Kentucky bourbon. Conversation drifted back and forth from Hunter to politics to Owl Farm and back to Hunter, as our familiarity turned into good fun. Ron presented gifts, including posters and CDs, and then Doug called. He had finished his meeting and was coming over to see Ron. I held the camera close.
After Juan left to pick up Doug, the rest of us resumed chatter, and then D.J. picked up a guitar and started wailing. Ron read two stories from his new “MAMA” book. The music and stories got loud and good, and we passed it around until the door opened. There stood Doug. Ron jumped up out of his chair, and I flipped on the camera. Something was about to happen and I had no idea what.
Without warning, Ron shrieked like a native and leapt over the table at Doug, who grabbed a fire poker and lunged forward, swinging it through the air with terrifying force as I yelled and ducked and Juan dove behind the couch. The two met together in mortal combat, right there in the living room, as Will watched on in delight and Nick Storm and I tried to get every camera angle possible on the action unfolding all around the house. D.J. began strumming a Dylan tune as Doug brought the fire poker down in an evil arch, splintering the dining room table as Ron, nimble as a ninja, flipped backwards over the chair and ripped a giant Steadman painting from the wall and smashed it over Doug’s head with little effect. It was too late for diplomacy, I thought, this interview was heading south very quickly. Someone needed to get a hold of this situation.
Suddenly there was a terrifying shriek, and I looked up in time to see what appeared to be an African witch doctor leaping down from the hallway stairs with a giant war club and a nasty looking nickel-plated .357 which he flailed madly about in all directions.
“Goddamnit, I’ll kill you all! Freeze! Drop that typewriter right now, Doug, or you’re both dead, and that rat bastard camera man too” Nick and I exchanged glances. We were both holding cameras. Which one could he mean?
“Easy man, it’s cool!” exclaimed Ron, tossing aside his bludgeon, “I’m a non-violent spiritual warrior. And I quit drinkin’ years ago. For now.”
The figure in the voodoo mask seemed to ease a bit and Doug was backing nervously towards the door. He’s trying to leave, I thought. If he gets out that door they’ll never get him to come back! Jennifer, a step ahead of me, had already reached the door and barred the exit.
Slowly the witch doctor lowered the revolver, and set the war club on the credenza next to the remaining typewriters and pulled down the mask.
The little bastard had snuck up the stairs after diving behind the couch, and apparently donned the war-mask, gun and club while the rest of us were frantically trying to stay alive.
“This is a peaceful place,” he said calmly.
Tensions eased and soon Doug and Ron were embracing, discussing collaborative projects of the past, including the 1996 48-hour non-stop music and poetry insomniacathon the two had produced in New Orleans and the 1996 Tribute to Hunter S. Thompson in Louisville, Kentucky, which Hunter forced most of his friends to watch multiple times on VHS during the last decade of his life. By the time it was over they were making plans for new Published in Heaven poster projects.
Doug, a walking encyclopedia of American history, talked Dean Rusk, Jimmy Carter and southern hospitality, his experiences with Hunter and recalled days long passed.
Ron recounted the history of GonzoFest Louisville, from its founding in 2010, to the 6-day, 11-venue GonzoFest 2014, and finally the larger 5,000-person music festival in 2015 at Waterfront Park. They discussed the plans to combine GonzoFest 2016 with the official 20th Anniversary Tribute to Hunter S. Thompson, including Thompson’s family, friends, associates and partners in crime, as part of a 20th anniversary reunion event, and the first time many of them will have seen each other since the funeral in 2005.
After an hour and a half, Doug abruptly rose, “OK! I’m leaving!”
Before he could escape through the door, Ron asked flat out, “So, will you be there? At GonzoFest?”
Doug nodded, muttered something under his breath, “Yes.”
And he walked out into the night.
THE NEXT DAY
The next morning I awoke to the light streaming through the window in the nook. I had fallen to sleep the night before after drinking very fine whiskey, courtesy of Dennie Humphrey of Louisville, who had sent the bottles as gifts. The previous night flashed back through my mind as I started to come to. The realization of where I was hit me again. Juan Thompson’s house! I shot up in a panic, I was 1,000 miles away from my favorite hash pipe! In my hurried packing I had forgotten it, and my hash, and left only with rolling papers and nothing to roll. I stumbled out of the nook and into the kitchen area, admiring the artistic beauty of the mess we had made the night before.
In the bathroom, I brushed the foul whiskey from my breath and took a cold shower. I needed to reinvigorate my circulatory system immediately. I felt my body had started to become unhinged. When I got out, I was half drunk again and needed to go to sleep, so I returned to the nook and passed out.
I awoke about two hours later to the sound of Juan in the kitchen. It sounded like some sort of violent mechanical feud unfolding in the kitchen. Pots and pans clanging, utensils clashing and spilling out onto the floor. I sat up, peering around the corner of the nook, and there he was, hulking over some sort of pile on the counter, and muttering about tar in the coffee grounds. Sensing me, he twirled around, revealing a giant, shining butcher knife which he brandished menacingly and at first I thought he might attack me with it. Then the light hit his eyes, and I saw the son and not the father. I was safe for now.
“Hmph,” I mumbled.
I staggered out of bed for the second time as Nick brushed past in a frenzy. Apparently something had frightened him in the bathroom.
I made my way to the small bar in the kitchen and struggled to perch myself atop it, as Juan pulled out a French press and started filling it with grounds.
“How do you like it?”
He glanced up at me over his glasses, then back down at it. Then he turned back to the kitchen and resumed cooking the eggs, which now started to snap and pop, as Ron lazily lumbered forth from the adjacent room.
“Shitfire,” he said. I said, “Yep.”
Jennifer and Will walked in moments later and chatter immediately resumed in the kitchen. Jennifer started talking about her first run in with Patti Smith, during a filming on the set of a Johnny Depp movie or some other exotic location. Juan continued to cook, then when he finished, began to clean. My coffee still sat in the French Press, the grounds steeping into the increasingly black muck that was forming at the bottom. After 10 more minutes, he turned back to me and smiled, “Oh, yeah, your coffee.” He picked up the container full of murk and proceeded to pour the sludge into a mug and slid it across the counter. “Enjoy.”
I may have said something clever, or maybe not, but I began to drink it, and the minute the bitter mixture hit my tongue I started to feel the effect.
“Jesus.” I said. “This is … coffee. In its purest form.”
I was just polishing off the last of the black tar at the bottom of the cup of sludge. Eyes bulging, my mind racing at 100 miles per hour in all directions. Every muscle and tendon in my body felt as though it would burst, and I could taste the coffee so intensely that I could actually see the smell of it.
After lunch we gathered around the table, and talked strategy. GonzoFest 2016 — the official 20th Anniversary Tribute to Hunter S. Thompson — is going to be the biggest Gonzo event since Hunter’s death in 2005, and the largest tribute to him since the 1996 event that Ron Whitehead produced, with the help of Doug Brinkley and an army of student volunteers. The Thompsons immediately needed to know who was in charge of the operation, what its revenues and legal standing were, and what its objectives were.
We explained that GonzoFest Louisville consists of co-founders Ron Whitehead and Dennie Humphrey, Derrick Pedolzky, Lauren Hendricks, Nick Garing, David Nichols, Mike Maloney, Jake Mahaffey, Rebecca Matheny and myself. Its purpose is to honor and promote the life and work, the literary legacy of Louisville’s native son Hunter S. Thompson, and to pay tribute to his contributions to modern American literature. The 20th Anniversary Tribute would essentially become GonzoFest 2015. The original tribute consisted of Hunter, his son Juan, Johnny Depp, Warren Zevon, Roxanne Pulitzer, Douglas Brinkley, Ron Whitehead, David Amram, Bob Braudis, Harvey Sloane, Gerald Tyrell and others. The 2016 GonzoFest hopes to top off the 1996 event with national bands, literary readings and competitions, familiar VIPs and the introduction of the GonzoToday freak show — a big top tent that will house a bookstore, gallery, literary readings, four book signings, including signings by Juan Thompson and D.J. Watkins, author of “Freak Power,” who had fled the night before after many beers, a few tears and an overall good vibe. And these were just to name a few.
Then we started talking names. Big names. Phones starting ringing, emails starting zinging, and at one point Jennifer was instant messaging on the phone with one hand and jotting down names and numbers with the other. Laila Nabulsi agreed to come, provided GonzoToday would pay for her giant travel expense, and hotel, and anyone else she decided to bring from Hollywood first class. GonzoToday agreed to all of this of course, and then immediately added it to its mounting GonzoFest 2016 sponsorship tab, along with six more cases of bourbon whiskey and a dozen hollow coconuts and black powder to fill them with.
We also discussed the Hunter S. Thompson statue project, an initiative in Louisville to create a life sized bronze statue of Hunter Thompson, and the GoFundMe campaign plans, as well as the possibility of changing the name of the Louisville Free Public Library to the “Virginia and Hunter Thompson Free Public Library,” with a finalized form of the statue being placed at the renamed facility.
After several hours of this, we decided it was time to take a break. We piled into Hunter’s final automobile, a fire apple red Jeep Grand Cherokee, a tight vehicle with a strong support and a massively hungry V8 engine that roars like a lumbering beast, but clings to the curves like a Jaguar.
We stopped off at one of Denver’s independent bookstores, the Tattered Cover, a theater that had been converted into a vast private archive of all manner of rare and arcane tomes, a virtual wonderland of books in every shape and form. It was National Hispanic Month and there was a front-and -center bookshelf with the works of Oscar Z. Acosta, Hunter’s friend and Chicano activist, whom he portrayed in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” as his wild and terrifying attorney, ‘Dr. Gonzo.’ Acosta was also the author of two well-known books “Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo” and “Revenge of the Cockroach People.” His niece, Stephanie Acosta will also be a part of the GonzoFest 2016 Tribute, representing Acosta and his Chicano movement. The shelf also displayed the work of Ernesto B. Vigil, “The Crusade for Justice,” a book about the Chicano military activism and revolutionary movements of Mexican-Americans. He was an acquaintance of Jennifer’s, with a history almost as bizarre as that between Hunter S. Thompson and Acosta.
A moment later, Jennifer came running up to us with a bag full of books. Well actually, it was a bag full of the same book. Probably Patti Smith. We made our way out and back up to Hunter’s Jeep.
To be released when the Dark Valley is safe from dark forces and Owl Farm is free.
THE BOOK OF REVELATIONS
I had drifted off the night before after a final late night Dunhill and a few passages of “Art of War” and awoke the next morning to the hazy, yet warm recollection of laughter, fire, explosions in the sky and a ritual that had laid my eyes upon many of Hunter’s closest treasures and relics of his life. It had been a somber and awe-inspiring experience to be honored to partake in such a solemn and important ceremony, in memory of Hunter, and the establishment of the next phase of his legacy.
I heard some of young Will Thompson’s writings read aloud, passages from a journal that was so beautifully steeped in adult themes of love, loss, morality, social inequality and hope that I found myself in awe that the material could possibly have been produced by the hand of a child.
Juan had worn The Medallion, a tremendously powerful symbol of Hunter, his lifelong talisman and his greatest treasure, given to him by Oscar Z. Acosta and passed on to Juan before his death. It was his legacy.
We had all said our goodbyes the night before, since our departure at 4 a.m. would be well before they awoke, and now as I packed my things and started carrying them out to the car, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace — a comfort in knowing that we were in the right place at the right time, and that 2016 would be the dawn of a bright and glorious new awakening of Hunter’s Gonzo and the beginning of a new generation of truth tellers inspired by him. There were many, many things discussed that cannot be mentioned in this narrative.
On the drive home, I suggested we read the galley copy of “Stories I tell Myself,” by Juan Thompson, which had been given to Ron Whitehead for a review. For the next 12 hours we read the book cover to cover, and we laughed, wept and hooped and hollered, as Juan told us an intimate story of a wild father and a timid son, the details of his life as the child in the next room when Hunter raged, or his parents fought, and he told of the emotional scale of his relationship with his father — from absolute love, to hate and back to love in a way that laid every painful truth bare and exposed both the high and low points of Hunter S. Thompson, the Man, the Myth and the Legend.
Towards the end, as it recounted Hunter’s final years and then the graphic revelations of his suicide, we, as longtime fans, were finally able to make sense of the rumors, conspiracy theories and outright lies regarding his death and what exactly happened during those final weeks, days and hours and finally in the kitchen the last day, which had haunted us and millions of other people since 2005.
By the time we got home, we were exhausted, delirious and excited and ready to chase the white rabbit straight into GonzoFest 2016.