Louisville. Dec. 12, 1996
Leaves gone, storm is coming, and the sky cold and low. Inside an old downtown auditorium on once-bustling Fourth Street are 2,000 fans buzzing, seated, standing, straining to see a paunchy, balding writer, late as always, finally bounce onto the stage with that weird gait of his, whiskey in hand, cigarette nearby, and a fire extinguisher under his arm.
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, 59 and decades past the lean, tall, seductive youth who roamed Louisville looking for girls and robbing liquor stores, has come home to a warm welcome in the same river city that had jailed him often and then run him right out of town 41 years before. He has never been officially welcomed back.
Warren Zevon opens the night with “Lawyers Guns and Money”, and the crowd half settles in, ready for surprises. The writer nervously takes a seat and watches a parade of celebrity friends strut and fret across the stage: Kentucky Colonel Johnny Depp, a fellow Kentuckian who’s been living with him at his Colorado compound prepping for his role in Terry Gilliam’s trippy “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”; Zevon, clean-shaven, bespectacled and sitting at a white grand piano; Roxanne Pulitzer, fresh in from Palm Beach; and Kentucky outlaw poet Ron Whitehead, friend of many and the force behind the night’s drama.
And there’s former Louisville Mayor Harvey Sloane, reading that beautiful passage from “Hell’s Angels” — the 1966 chronicle of Thompson’s strange and savage journey with the bikers that had launched his career. It’s pre-Gonzo, and it’s the best you’ve ever read about riding a motorcycle, carrying in its saddlebags wisdom enough to idle Aristotle.
“Months later, when I rarely saw the Angels, I still had the legacy of the big machine — four hundred pounds of chrome and deep red noise to take out on the coast highway and cut loose at three in the morning, when all the cops were lurking over on 101. […] So it was always at night, like a werewolf, that I would take the thing out for an honest run down the coast. […] There was no helmet on those nights, no speed limit, and no cooling it down on the curves.”
The words slap the audience into a giddy kind of silence. This is the early genius of Louisville’s most famous, most outrageous gift to the world of literature, the Cassius Clay of letters.
Now, the audience starts asking Thompson questions. The beauty quickly fades. Though there are touching moments, Thompson on stage is deeply disappointing.
“I was at that ‘96 thing: embarrassing,” the writer Michael Washburn, a Louisville expatriate too, said in an email to me. He pushed back, though, against the notion that one could separate Thompson the writer and Thompson the performer. “Why do we have to choose? I dispute that one side was the real him. They were both the real him, but it’s easier to be a steward of recklessness and buffoonery than to cultivate and care for cold-eyed carefulness.”
There he was, cavorting on stage with his fire extinguisher and answering endless queries about his love of guns and whiskey and drugs — and he says next to nothing about why all those antics were memorable in the first place: Nothing, that is, about his way with words.
The next night, Thompson would sit writing in the Brown Hotel, reflecting on the evening in an introduction to a remarkable series of letters that would later be published under the title “The Proud Highway.” “Yesterday was interesting in the Chinese sense,” he wrote. “At the end of my lecture at the Memorial Auditorium last night, teenage thugs ran amok and torched my dressing room, just moments after my mother had been whisked away in a limousine. The event was a huge success, they said, but it left scars and odd hoof prints on many people.”
Those hoof prints had been leaving their mark on people in Louisville ever since Hunter Stockton Thompson grew up on Ransdell Avenue the son of an insurance agent who’d die of a heart attack while his son was in high school, and a librarian mother who turned to gin and heavy drinking soon after. And it’s likely those hoof prints were what had pushed Louisville to wait 40 years to honor Thompson, and even after the 1996 fete, the relationship between the city and the writer never got easy.
But 11 years after his suicide, that has changed now. This week, the sixth annual GonzoFest is in full bloom, with speakers and fans of the late writer providing a kind of love-in for the late Doctor. There’s been a flurry of scholarship — books and movies and audio productions and endless retrospectives — and a master sculptor, Matt Weir, has been commissioned to create a life-size statute of Thompson for his hometown.
With a full-on concert on the waterfront scheduled Saturday, and with the Monkey Wrench serving as a kind of Gonzo HQ throughout the festival, it won’t be easy to tell this week that Louisville’s embrace of Thompson was so slow coming. But he never quite quit his longing for home, nor his early conviction that his life would be best lived far from it.
Thompson grew up poor but managed to run with the wealthiest of Louisville, which was in the 1950s still a Southern city in many of its social customs. Some he met in the ultra-elite Athenaeum Literary Society at Louisville Male High School, then the city’s cradle of leadership and privilege.“If you were in the Athenaeum you were considered a leader of leaders in Louisville, not that you always were of course, but that was the expectation,” recalled Thomas Graham, Jr., who met Thompson before leaving for Princeton and becoming a U.S. ambassador. Young men in Louisville’s elite families in the early 1950s were full of innocence, Graham recalled. Most didn’t drink. None he knew had used drugs.
Suffice it to say, Thompson ran with a much broader array of friends than did Graham. Some definitely were not blue-bloods. Most had an interest in books, and nearly all developed a proclivity for trouble.
Late in his senior year, Thompson and two friends were driving through Cherokee Park when they passed a car with two couples necking inside.
The driver of Thompson’s car, a son of a prominent lawyer, pulled over. And Thompson and the third passenger, a son of another lawyer in town, circled back and demanded the occupants’ wallets. According to a well-received oral history published after his death, Thompson told one girl he’d rape her if the money wasn’t passed over. The money exchanged hands, and Hunter and his friend drove away. By the next day, all three were in Jefferson County Jail.
Thompson’s friends were out almost immediately. The driver got probation and went to Princeton. Thompson, who had a string of previous run-ins with the law, sat in a jail cell on graduation day and was there for weeks, writing his mother emotional letters. “The police lie,” one read.
Taking no chances with more time in jail, he looked to enlist. When the Army said he’d have to wait, he went straight to Air Force recruiting station — and was almost immediately on his way at a base in Pensacola, Florida.
“I really had no choice,” Thompson told me in a series of midnight phone interviews for LEO back in 1996, chats that would end with him screaming into the phone, “Fuck you!” and hanging up. I would learn later that he had been trying to teach me that I needed to find my own way into the story, which after all was mine even if it was about him. In Florida, he managed to get onto the staff of the base newspaper. He quickly established a routine — he didn’t wear a uniform, kept night hours, avoided all kitchen patrol duties, and routinely went by Sgt. Thompson. “To understand the difference between the life I am living now and life in Louisville, you’d really have to experience it to believe it,” he wrote to a high school friend. “I have spent months convincing everyone I meet I am Hunter S. Thompson, and belong to no groups,” he wrote another.
After the service he worked for Time magazine as a copy boy in New York City. He wrote for the National Observer producing wonderful, straight features long before he invented Gonzo journalism. He was a bowling correspondent for a magazine in Puerto Rico.
He moved to Big Sur and got to know Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg. In late November of that year, word would reach him that John F. Kennedy had been killed. He had fled to Owl Farm, the compound near Aspen, where he was trying to write a novel. The shooting changed those plans forever.
“This is the end of reason, the dirtiest hour in our time.” Thompson wrote a friend from Louisville. “I mean to come down from the hills and enter the fray. […] From now until the 1964 elections every man with balls should be on the firing line. The vote will be the most critical in the history of man. No matter what, today is the end of an era. No more fair play. From now on it is dirty pool and judo in the clinches. The savage nuts have shattered the great myth of American decency. They can count me in — I feel ready for a dirty game.”
It wouldn’t be until another trip home to Louisville in 1970 that Thompson’s real path would emerge. The editors of a new magazine decided Thompson should write about The Kentucky Derby.
Artist Ralph Steadman told me a few years ago it was Thompson’s connection to the city that sold the editors on the idea that would become “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.”
“I had just come over to New York, and I had a phone call,” Steadman recalled during a long transatlantic interview, big on belly laughs and long on mimicry. He does a pitch perfect, halting, mumbling Thompson. “How would you like to go to Kentucky, and meet an ex-Hells Angel who just shaved his head? He’s looking for an artist?’ Well, I was looking for work.
Thompson’s and Steadman’s sketches would be the foundation for what would later be called Gonzo Journalism, a name Thompson adopted but didn’t invent. Midway through Derby Day, Thompson would write that Steadman “had done a few good sketches, but so far we hadn’t seen that special kind of face that I felt we would need for a lead drawing. It was a face I’d seen a thousand times at every Derby I’d ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry — a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture. One of the key genetic rules in breeding dogs, horses or any other kind of thoroughbred is that close inbreeding tends to magnify the weak points in a bloodline as well as the strong points. In horse breeding, for instance, there is a definite risk in breeding two fast horses who are both a little crazy. The offspring will likely be very fast and also very crazy. So the trick in breeding thoroughbreds is to retain the good traits and filter out the bad. But the breeding of humans is not so wisely supervised, particularly in a narrow Southern society where the closest kind of inbreeding is not only stylish and acceptable, but far more convenient — to the parents — than setting their offspring free to find their own mates, for their own reasons and in their own ways. (‘Goddam, did you hear about Smitty’s daughter? She went crazy in Boston last week and married a nigger!’) So the face I was trying to find in Churchill Downs that weekend was a symbol, in my own mind, of the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.”
By the time he had come back to town to be honored at the Memorial theater, he was still producing some stunningly good work. In 1994, his longtime enemy Richard Nixon died. Thompson’s 1994 obituary in Rolling Stone for Nixon may have been the best thing written in English that year. “If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral,” Thompson wrote, “his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.”
In the days leading up to the 1996 event, I asked Thompson if his best days weren’t behind him. I reminded him that 19 years before he found himself at the top of a New York City hotel contemplating jumping. He told me for a piece in LEO that he had thought about it.
“But I would have missed a lot of fun. Dramatically, it would have been perfect had I jumped.”
Finally, he had enough. In 2005, he was in poor health and having troubling moving. Steadman recalled: “He had told me, when I went over to see him previously, ‘This is the death of fun, Ralph.’ He had got to a point where nothing was really making any connections for him, something wasn’t connecting anymore. He just began to feel he was living beyond the time he was allotted. So many people, me included probably, try to live as long as possible. And it’s, well, when he shot himself, I always knew he would.”
That shot to the head came Feb. 20, 2005, just after he typed a short goodbye letter.
“No More Games,” he wrote. “No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt.” •
Louisville native Michael Lindenberger is a Dallas Morning News editorial board member and former Courier-Journal bureau chief. This was adapted from “A Gonzo Banner for River City,” published on BeaconReader.com in 2013.