“Gonzo” was a James Booker tune for Hammond organ, bass, flute, and drums that made journalist Hunter S. Thompson go bonkers when he first heard the boisterous cut on vinyl back in 1960. The track had just reached the top ten on the R&B charts while Thompson was shuttling between Puerto Rico and New York. He hoped by promoting “Gonzo” the old-fashioned word-of-mouth way it would spike to No. 1 internationally. Even as the British Invasion of the Beatles and Stones wowed America a few years later, Booker’s “Gonzo” remained Thompson’s soaring personal anthem. Holed up in a Haight-Ashbury apartment working on Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga in 1967, the year of the hippy, Thompson declared that the Piano Prince of New Orleans was his one-and-only kindred musical spirit. Every time the Booker hit-single was played, Thompson, Pavlov’s dog fashion, would type passages of Hell’s Angels like a possessed banshee. While Booker jammed out boogie-woogie thunderbolts on his organ, Thompson did the same with his wildly creative prose, writing about gothic-clad motorcycle gangs roaring like “Genghis Khan on an iron horse, a monster steed with a fiery anus flat out through the eye of a beer can and up your daughter’s leg with no quarter asked and none given.” Listening to Booker’s “Gonzo,” Thompson said, made him feel like Fritz the Cat, frisky for backalley action.
To Thompson there was an ethereal madness in Booker’s piano playing which transcended easy categorization. Booker’s iconoclasm appealed to Thompson’s bedrock belief that art should be sui generis. He disliked clubs of literature like the Bloomsbury Group or the Beat Generation. His favorite Fifties writers were Henry Miller and Norman Mailer, both clearly not part of any literary school or movement. In music Thompson preferred the raw junker blues of Booker’s New Orleans back beat to the tedious Summer of Love come-ons in the lame Scott McKenzie “San Francisco” vein, where youths planted flowers in their hair. Novelist Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, lived at La Honda, located about fifty miles southeast of San Francisco. During acid parties he’d blare the prodigal organist Jimmy Smith from gigantic speakers as LSD-laced Kool-Aid was consumed from huge tubs. Thompson wanted to one-up this freakshow with Booker’s searing keyboard wizardry, so one night he blasted “Gonzo” for Kesey and his Merry Prankster-friends on a stereo, and the old-growth redwoods of La Honda shook like an earthquake.
Once, in New Orleans, Thompson had heard Booker perform the “Gonzo” anthem at Tipitina’s on a double bill with bluesman Dr. John. Booker had interspersed his deliriously entertaining set, with mad talk of CIA assassinations and Louis Armstrong smoking marijuana, role playing a Haile Selassie-toking Rastafarian. These antics intrigued Thompson. A fan of Lord Buckley’s hysterical “Lip Monologues,” he believed Booker shared the white hipster’s own unhinged and anarchistic outlook. Eschewing classification Booker was a fusion virtuoso, able to mix classical piano with brothel blues, funeral dirges with Mardi Gras mayhem. When Booker swept his long, spindly fingers across a keyboard, he exuded the same wicked irreverence that Thompson was trying to bottle-up in his prose.
And Booker even influenced Thompson’s creativity in another more concrete way. Booker recorded with the legendary Duke-Peacock label out of Houston, Texas (which also boasted Bobby Blue Bland as a client). In his classic dope-decade novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Thompson soon adopted Raoul Duke as his alter-ego. The R&B record label provided the inspiration for “Duke” while “Raoul” was the pseudonym used by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s alleged murderer James Earl Ray. Hunter morphed the two words together and got Raoul Duke. Meanwhile, Thompson adopted the colorful Houston peacock as his own personal trademark. Later in life he actually raised a covey of the blue-green iridescent pheasants in the high-altitude Rockies, building a heated atrium for cold winter months.
Thompson’s relationship to music was a special one. For him it could, and more often would, dictate how and where a moment, a day, or a particular event would go. The process was almost like an actor transforming into character, or “mooding up” to fit a situation. (Before an appearance or a book signing, if his roadie didn’t saturate the immediate area with some bold sounds, things could deviate sideways in no time at all.) When the rhythmic pulse of drums crept up slowly on “Sympathy for the Devil,” for example, he’d twitch his cigarette holder from one side to another of his Cheshire mouth. One could feel that clearly the bookbuyers were in for a grand-old time. For some reason hearing the profound overdrive of the guitar riff on Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” would lock Thompson into a kind of meditative trance state where he appeared to metamorphose into a warped-out Green Hornet. When the gears switched into Brewer & Shipley’s “One Toke Over the Line” with its twangy country edge, the whooping and flailing of his arms began, and you just knew that anything and everything was possible: Thompson had mutated into the beloved, yet dangerously unpredictable, larger than life character that we’ve all adored from the first sentence of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, about the drugs taking hold in the Mojave Desert.
Ever since Thompson was a boy in Louisville, Kentucky—where he was born on July 18, 1937—music was the fuel of his high-octane creative life. While the closest he ever got to playing a musical instrument was smashing his fist through a tambourine, there was an undeniable lyricism to even his most pedestrian prose. Booker had the Hammond organ but Thompson, a speed typist, had the Underwood. There were two ingrained strains to Thompson’s youthful infatuation with American popular music, both which make for convenient case studies: the Stephen Foster ballad “My Old Kentucky home” and fast-fiddling Bill Monroe’s bluegrass jam “Roanoke.” Like his taste for distilled whiskey and Muhammad Ali, these were both proud Kentucky habits, ones he never shed. You might say Thompson craved the screech of the locomotive tracks and the silence of the backwoods—anything but the blasé gray land known as neutral.
When director Alex Gibney was compiling this soundtrack for his documentary “Gonzo,” he tapped into Thompson’s musical influences to help guide the film narrative. That was a smart decision. There is no better way—with the possible exception of professional sports—to spotlight Thompson’s rumbling essence than to understand his playlist. As he famously posted on his Woody Creek, Colorado wide-screen television: No Music = Bad Mood = No Pages. Before Thompson committed suicide in 2003, putting a pistol in his mouth and pulling the trigger, he had been repeated listening to Steve Earle’s “Jerusalem.”
For all of Thompson’s Woody Creek command-center talk and techno-speak he never really embraced the gadgetry of modernity. He never acquired an iPod. Given his druthers he preferred the 8-track tapes of the Seventies to the Podcast revolution in the Age of Bush. While he did turn to CDs in the Nineties—reluctantly—there remained a dreamy longing for dropping the stylus down on the vinyl track. Scratches, lint, static, and pops infuriated him less than digital numbers and too many options. For all the Technicolor of the psychedelic Sixties, for which Thompson is forever linked, he was essentially a Muddy Waters-type of a Fifties man, a connoisseur of back-hollow jugbands and down-and-dirty blues. This doesn’t mean, however, that Thompson was all roots music—he wasn’t. But in Grateful Dead terms he preferred “Uncle John’s Band” to “Dark Star,” “Ripple” to “Dancing in the Streets.” It was Jerry Garcia-David Grisman’s bluegrass that enthralled him, not the long jam-sessions which wailed off into the night. The whole big muddy current of the Dead—the Americana folklore—spoke directly to his Kentucky boy spirit. Nobody could smell overproduction on an album more so than Thompson. Oddly he could tolerate John Denver homegrown schmaltz but not Queen studio slickness. A Stephen Foster lyric like “Weep no more, my lady” held more mystery for him than Pete Townshend asking “Who Are You?”
With the publication of Hell’s Angels in March 1967 Thompson had become an overnight literary enfant terrible. After appearing on NBC’s Today Show with host Hugh Downs, the chain-smoking Thompson had a singular request of his Random House publicist, Selma Shapiro. “I insisted that we take a break from the grueling schedule for a few minutes,” Thompson recalled. “I was desperate to hear the just-released Jefferson Airplane album.”
Together they found a Manhattan record store that carried Surrealistic Pillow, a soaring soundtrack from Haight-Ashbury, where Thompson had written Hell’s Angels and befriended the psychedelic band. While writing the book, he would often zoom through North Beach on his BSA Lightning motorcycle, park in front of The Matrix, and listen to the Airplane’s lead vocalist, Grace Slick (whom he had a crush on) belt out soon-to-be rock classics like “White Rabbit” and the lesser-known rocker “It’s No Secret.” (In the film an earlier version of the song is performed with Signe Toly Anderson, the first lead singer of the Airplane.) It was Thompson, in fact, who had introduced The San Francisco Chronicle’s music critic, Ralph J. Gleason, to the Jefferson Airplane, insisting that they were as good as, if not better than, the Grateful Dead.
With Shapiro at his side, Thompson went into the store’s listening booth and spun the disc. “Upon hearing the first note I smiled,” Thompson recalled years later. “This was the triumph of the San Francisco people. We were all making it, riding a magical wave which we didn’t think would break.” Thompson kept dropping the stylus onto every track, anxious to hear a sample of each cut. When he got to the fourth song—“Today”—he could no longer control his enthusiasm: “’Hot damn, Selma,’ I remember saying. ‘You’ve been asking me pesky questions about what I think. Listen to this. Wow! I could have written these lyrics myself. Today is my time.’”
With the publication of his second book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in 1971, it truly was Thompson’s time. How exactly he decided to call his form of participatory journalism Gonzo has long defeated speculation. Here’s the correct version: Somewhere along the line Thompson recorded “Gonzo” onto a reel-to-reel and then transported it to high-definition cassette tape. Then, in 968, assigned by Pageant to cover the New Hampshire primary, he checked in at a smoke-worn Howard Johnson or Holiday Inn in Nashua. He had brought with him the Booker tape. Plugging a small boom-box into his room socket, he was ready to write with “Gonzo” serving as his Red Bull. Thompson had achieved a highly coveted interview with Richard Nixon, the main GOP candidate, thanks to the personal intervention of campaign advisor Pat Buchanan. In setting up the interview Buchanan made an iron-clad stipulation: Thompson could only talk football with Nixon, nothing else. Strangely obedient to this precondition, Thompson spent time with Tricky Dick on a limousine drive on I-95 discussing the Redskins, Broncos, and Dolphins among other NFL teams. Out of this ninety-minute interview Thompson had enough material to write the searing “Presenting: The Richard Nixon Doll” article for the July 1968 Pageant.
Not wanting to lose momentum, Thompson headed straight back to his motel room to type up his notes. Over and over again he played “Gonzo” on his portable cassette player to jumpstart his creative process. (Contrary to Thompsonian mythology, music helped Hunter seize his creative muse quicker than any cocaine whiff or alcoholic concoction.) At some juncture Bill Cardoso of the Boston Sunday Globe came to visit him in his motel lair, music blaring, to share a joint. High as a kite, a curious Cardoso asked Hunter about the origins of Gonzo, which was loop-playing. What the hell did it mean? Oddly, Thompson didn’t know; he merely loved the song’s combustible quality, which when played loudly shattered glass. He told Cardoso he’d read in a blues magazine that Booker had recorded the instrumental for the movie Pusher, which he never saw.
But where did Booker get the name from? Was it a New Orleans voodoo saying? A resourceful Cardoso telephoned a smart friend for the answer. Eventually, Cardoso was told that gonzo was Bronx working-class slang for “last man standing.” Wacko! What could be a more perfect term for Hunter S. Thompson than that? With talk of gonzo in the air—both Booker’s song and its etymological origins—Thompson read his anti-Nixon screed to a stoned-out Cardoso who couldn’t believe Pageant would publish such an ad hominem litany of insults in its family magazine. “Man,” Cardoso said, “this is pure Gonzo journalism.” The designation stuck. Good-naturedly he began calling Hunter the Gonzoman.
As a pure literary art form gonzo, as Thompson came to define it, required virtually no rewriting: the reporter and the quest for information were equally central to the story. Scrawled notes, transcribed interviews, newspaper clippings, stream-of-consciousness, verbatim telephone conversations, faxes—these are elements of a piece of aggressively subjective Gonzo Journalism. Kurt Vonnegut once called it dada with a purpose. But mainly, Gonzo became shorthand for whatever Thompson wrote.
As fate would have it, “Presenting The Richard Nixon Doll” earmarked a new literary direction for Thompson. He had found his voice. Even though Hell’s Angels dealt with orgies, gang-rapes, roadside beatings, and pill-gobbling, his writing-style in that first book was really New Journalism. Talented writers like Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and Tom Wolfe had already flexed their muscle in that genre. Therefore Thompson wanted to push his style further—even if the New Journalism had to be sabotaged. Like a Green Beret with a combat belt full of hand grenades, Thompson tossed his literary weapons into the rats’ nest of American power, filling the sky with shrapnel and sparks in every direction. Broke, rent overdue, car breaking down, and the IRS on his trail, Thompson felt so hemmed-in that his only way out was to ooze Gonzo vengeance at society-writ-large for painting him into such a dead-end bind.
As Gibney so ably demonstrates in his documentary, Gonzo came along at exactly the right time in America. Thompson had watched traditional journalism fail to effectively cover such landmark events as the Nixon-Kennedy debates, JFK’s assassination, LBJ’s Vietnam escalation, and Nixon’s political comeback. “The press can’t sell me Johnson,” Thompson wrote a friend in February 1964. “He don’t smell right.” As his hero Bob Dylan implied in his scornful refrain to “Ballad of a Thin Man” (“Something is happening here / But you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mister Jones?”), the established press of the Sixties didn’t know how to cover Merry Prankster parties or Black Panther rallies or Moby Grape concerts or LSD Kool-Aid bashes. Hunter S. Thompson did. “My recent work here has dealt with topless dancers, garbage in the bay, marijuana, karate, and a generally non-publishable hellbroth of vagrant interest,” he wrote a friend in the Sixties from Haight-Ashbury. Gonzo catapulted Thompson into becoming a premier cultural interpreter of the rock ‘n’ roll era, one foot mired in the psychedelic underground, the other foot embedded in mainstream journalism. “I’m out studying [in California] what appears to be an epidemic of arrested development in the American dream,” he wrote to a New York edition.
Ironically, Thompson in the Sixties seldom wrote about popular music. There is a fine essay on Dylan’s imagist poetry, later published in Fear and Loathing in America; a minor unpublished correspondence with Joan Baez of the virtues of violent versus nonviolent protest methods; a failed piece on Country Joe McDonald’s anti-Vietnam rags; and a series of prescient meditations of the enduring artistry of Jimi Hendrix’s “liquid guitar.” As a serious music critic, Thompson’s high-water mark is his excellent essay “New York Bluegrass” (published in The Proud Highway) about the Greenbriar Boys. “Anybody from the South will recognize the same old hoot-n-holler, country jamboree product that put Roy Acuff in the 90-percent bracket,” he wrote. “A little slicker, perhaps, a more sophisticated choice of songs, but in essence, nothing more or less than ‘good-old fashioned’ hillbilly music.”
The Dylan piece is striking because Thompson saw the Minnesotan as the touch-stone figure of his generation. Just a year before his death Thompson spent quality time with Dylan in Snowmass, Colorado. Dylan jokingly told Hunter he was going to have to compose a “Hurricane”-like song to honor the Gonzoman’s infamous ability to consume massive quantities of booze and still be the last man standing. Besides offering Thompson the job of operating the soundboard at that evening’s concert—which he gleefully accepted—Dylan asked for requests. After a moment’s reflection Thompson said, “Two: ‘Quinn the Eskimo’ and ‘Maggie’s Farm’”
Although Thompson hadn’t been at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965 he midaswell have been. Thompson relished the moment when Dylan had plugged in his black Fender Strat and turned the folk festival upside down with a bracing electric version of “Maggie’s Farm.” The cables had been cut. The Kingston Trio fainted and that was a good thing. A new sound was upon the world courtesy of Dylan’s romping anarchy. To Thompson “Maggie’s Farm” was a sardonic sucker-punch to both the daily grind and traditionalist rulebooks. There was black humor, radical chic, and youth rebellion in such arch lines like “Everybody wants you / to be just like them” or “Got a head full of ideas / that are drivin’ me insane.” His favorite version of “Maggie’s Farm”—included in this soundtrack—was this bootleg one which shocked the old guard folkies at Newport. Clearly Thompson, even forty years after the fact, understood the historical significance of this live version with Mike Bloomfield on electric guitar. Later, the fact that Jimmy Carter, an unknown one-term Georgia governor, claimed to have learned about the complicated relationship between Southern landowners and their tenant farmers from “Maggie’s Farm” earned the peanut farmer-cum-politician the cover of Rolling Stone in 1976. Inside the magazine was a serious Thompson political endorsement buried in a hilarious feature story.
The film “Gonzo” begins with Thompson riding his BSA 650 Lightning, a British motorcycle he could race down California Highway 1 at three-digit speeds. He is headed to The Edge—the cliffs of Big Sur where all that raw land rolling west abruptly ends. Thompson was our Poet Laureate of The Edge, always just an inch from jail, one foot dangling into the abyss, the other firmly planted in American soil. Gibney cleverly uses an original composition by David Schwartz—known for scoring “Northern Exposure,” “Deadwood,” and “Arrested Development”—as the opening track of “Gonzo.” Schwartz’s Fillmore West meets Dick Dale-surfer effort—“Gonzo’s Honest Run”—is a pitch-perfect salvo for beginning the documentary. Pay particular notice to the fine guitar work on the track courtesy of session legend George Doering.
Growing up in Louisville Thompson got hooked on the Dick Dale trademark sound; he could never get too much of the “King of Surf Guitar.” Regularly Dale would blow up amps with his Fender Stratocaster, producing a heavy metal sound long before Black Sabbath or Deep Purple. He could play upside down, left handed guitar better than anyone else. There was a sea-roar to Dale’s sonic guitar on such durable cuts as “Miserlou,” “Nitro,” and “Surf Beat” which Thompson found irresistible. Tucked away in Thompson’s literary archive, in fact, is a Life magazine featuring Dale in a double page layout. A notorious pack rat, Thompson never parted with the souvenir, keeping it as a memento of his youth.
Thompson, it should be noted, often traded in hokey lyrics. He even wrote a few himself. Ever since he had a poem published in Spyder, a Berkeley free-speech periodical long defunct, Thompson tried writing Bukowskian verse. He co-wrote lyrics with Warren Zevon and Jimmy Buffett just for fun. Included in this compilation is the song he co-wrote with his illustrator friend Ralph Steadman. To put it mildly “Weird and Twisted Nights” isn’t “Desolation Row” (it’s not even “If Dogs Run Free”). Always admiring the fact that Jack Kerouac, David Amram, Allen Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady co-wrote “Pull My Daisy,” a kind of circa 1958 spontaneous rap, Thompson collaborated with Steadman on this romantic tale where the “savage beast” informs his lover he became a scallywag to not “live a lie.” Written after a drunken bender in Beverly Hills one verse, in particular, is of special interest for Gonzo fans. In twenty-five words Thompson and Steadman got at the crux of Gonzo:
“If you write words shocked through with truth Hunger dirt and gutter sharp Eat the words and spurn the gutter Climb the rise and surf”
Operating in a condition of Gonzo-like bedlam for days on end between 1963 to 1974, hopped-up on nocturnal desires and blackbeauties, when Thompson crashed he needed cathartic music. Oftentimes he turned to the inner hush of Jo Stafford, a favorite of his mother Virginia. Listening to Stafford sing, for example, “Haunted Heart,” brought Hunter back to his lonely Louisville parlor with lace doilies on the divan and Dresden figurines she considered family heirlooms. Stafford was a time transporter, a note in a bottle, a voice of purity among the debris-strewn fast-lanes of a moonshot riveted America. She had a circa 1925 radio voice that drifted like a cloud bank over the airwaves. Thompson, of course, had an F. Scott Fitzgerald complex which, in part, explained his feverish attraction to Stafford. To learn how to write, Thompson would type The Great Gatsby over and over again, hoping to squeeze the musicality out of the Jazz Age master’s prose for himself as if it were an Indian River grapefruit; it was a poor boy’s answer to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Type-mimic. Type-mimic. Type-mimic. Like Fitzgerald’s most evocative writing, “Haunted Heart” was a narcotic to Thompson when he was in a slow-thinking stupor, an ether vapor treatment for his high-strung temperament. All young men in the hurry for fame need the occasional sedative—Thompson’s downer was Jo Stafford. Ironically, Stafford outlived Thompson, dying in 2008 at the age of 90.
And Thompson sought out another female vocalist in the Sixties. Even though he was married, the father of one son, he was infatuated with the lead singer of the Jefferson Airplane, Grace Slick, whose voice bespoke magic and promise. Whenever Thompson’s nerves were frayed, he’d seek her out, as if her acid rock was a salve. “It’s No Secret” (along with “White Rabbit” and “Today”) was his favorite Airplane song because Slick, he believed, was singing directly to him about “how strong my love is for you.” (Marty Balin also sang vocals on the track.)
One so-called Sixties band Thompson couldn’t get enough of was The Youngbloods. He thought “Get Together” was addictively catchy. “C’mon people now / Smile on your brother / Ev’rybody get together / Try and love one another right now.” This was as soft and caressing as California psychedelia got. For some reason, which never made any sense to us, Thompson preferred The Yougbloods to the Byrds or Kinks. Sounding like boxing promoter Don King, Thompson tried soap-peddling the band’s lead singer Jesse Colin Young as Neil Young with a pleasant voice. Even after the band broke-up in 1972 Hunter would talk about JCY as an undersung talent, playing his solo efforts on his home stereo right up until his death.
When director Terry Gilliam turned the Vegas book into a movie, he officially used the Big Brother and the Holding Company track “Combination of the Two” as cut-away music following the infamous Barstow police incident. While most rock aficionados always rave about Janis Joplin as bluesy lead vocalist, Thompson had a special fondness for the band’s dueling guitar fusionists James Gurley and Sam Andrew. While the words to “Combination of the Two” offered little more than prolonged “whoas” and “gonna kick ya, rock ya”—essentially a stoner band speaking in tongues—Thompson deemed the guitar work exhilarating. Thompson had first become attracted to the song when Big Brother performed it at the Monterey Pop Festival. D.A. Pennebaker used the live performance of the weird Big Brother jamboree in his celebrated documentary on the festival. While critics covering Monterey raved about Joplin and Hendrix, Thompson instead promoted the Gurley-Andrew guitar gods act. In Monterey Pop he loved the way Joplin had shouted on stage “Yea play it!! Play it, Play it!!”, egging on the guitarists to out ignite each other.
There was also an edgy New York pulse to Thompson’s taste in music. One would be hard-pressed to overstate his slavish admiration for Lou Reed (and the chic fugitives known as Velvet Underground). Thompson gravitated to the narcissistic depravity and sexmusic of Reed. Narcissism is an overused term these days but, it’s safe to say, Thompson was a posterboy of that psychological disorder. He was a regular walking talking Coney Island funhouse of mirrors. Therefore, Thompson embraced “Walk on the Wild Side” because it served as a weird Copland-like score to his life, his own outlaw “Appalachian Springs” with words. To him “Walk on the Wild Side” was like a baseball pitching machine on auto-drive, vocal fastballs hurled one after another until it became no longer possible to hit a line-drive. The listener just stood back absorbing the controlled anarchy with the admiration of Charlie Chaplin watching the assembly-line run amok with a happy shrug. Just run a grainy Thompson home movie—accompanied with Reed singing about hitch-hiking the U.S.A., colored girls crooning, false-eyelashes, and valium crashes—and you’ve bottled-up of Thompson’s public persona in 2 minutes 27 seconds. A huge fan of Nelson Algren’s novel A Walk on the Wild Side, written during the Great Depression, Thompson thought Reed did a masterful job of hijacking Algren fair-and-square. The Reed composition—a favorite among Andy Warhol’s The Factory crowd—turned the American suburbs upside down. To Thompson every da-da-da-da-da da-da-da- in “Walk on the Wild Side” bore straight into the grotesque fiber of Main Street, a taunt against Rotary Clubs and lawn-mowing and high-school pom-poms. Reed was smashing paradigms in “Walk on the Wild Side,” tossing overboard the tiresome old pretense of 9-5 living. Cut the umbilical cord and head out down the Proud Highway—that was the message Thompson believed Reed’s rock masterpiece conveyed to the immobile. The message was clear: bolt into deserts and ghettos with wild thoughts of revolt. One night sex and cigarette smoke were preferable to the soul-sucking, bankrupt conformity promoted by an Uncle Sam hellbent on war in Southeast Asia.
An underappreciated side of Thompson as music connoisseur was his role at Rolling Stone as a Bill Graham-like talent promoter. Again, in the era before CDs, Thompson, with his crazy crooked grin, would send cassette tapes of up-and-coming recording artists he wanted to catapult into the stratosphere of the rock ‘n’ roll kingdom to Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner. The list of noteworthies Thompson championed is now legendary. Jimmy Buffett. Jerry Jeff Walker. David Allan Coe. Taj Mahal. Holly Near. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Boz Scaggs. Rosalie Sorrels. The Cowboy Junkies. Townes Van Zandt. The Amazing Rhythm Aces. Little Feat. (And, yes, Jesse Colin Young.) But only for one artist, the infectious John Prine, did Thompson ever launch a veritable crusade to promote his oeuvre. The rock industry magazines were full of counterfeit Bob Dylan wind-ups; Columbia and Capital, he claimed, promoted every young artist who blew a Hoerner and strummed a Martin as the next Whitmanesque folk bard. But Prine, to Thompson, was the genuine article, an Illinois-born songwriter as solid as Woody Guthrie or Hank Williams or Pete Seeger.
Prine influenced Thompson’s writing quite a bit. In Thompson’s third book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, he wrote emotionally about Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). How could America deny soldiers who lost limbs in a wrong war? Recently the Library of America included that chapter from Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail in their Reporting Vietnam: American Journalsim 1958-1976 volumes. What they didn’t explain in the introductory notes, however, is that Thompson wrote it by playing over-and-over again (in fiendish fashion) Prine’s “Sam Stone,” a disheartening snapshot of a drug-addled Vietnam Veteran trying to make sense of his new crippled status. Prine had gotten into the soul of Sam Stone, as the best protest songs do, and made Thompson feel one man’s desperate plight. From that antiwar song onward Thompson wanted everybody to experience the laconic Prine in full-bore stride. There was a front-porch storytelling quality to “Sam Stone” which Thompson found as mesmerizing as a great whale shanty or mining lament. Laced throughout three or four Thompson Rolling Stone articles, in fact, were Prine lyrics from such songs as “Illegal Smile” and “Sweet Revenge,” serving as epigraphs.
As noted, Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” was a lifelong ball-and-chain around Thompson’s ankles (and also his lucky Tarot card). For Thompson, regardless of his rants, was first-and-foremost a patriot (albeit of the dissenting kind). When the Star-Spangled-Banner played at a stadium event he didn’t feel obliged to put his trademark Tilly hat over his chest or swell with toadish pride when the Sousa band came tralalaboomdeaing into town. But the maudlin “My Old Kentucky Home,” composed in 1850, was a different case. Originally written by Foster as the abolitionist “Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night,” Thompson’s blood boiled in solidarity with Foster whenever the Kentucky state song was played. Part of its appeal to Thompson was that it was the annual sentimental kick-off for the Kentucky Derby. A mist rose in Thompson, in fact, when he heard the opening lyrics of “Oh, the sun shines bright . . .” as if Foster had written the Pledge of Allegiance. All other activity around him stopped; he was hypnotized by its melody. Mint Juleps. Ohio River Steamers. Bluegrass Horses. Shaker Chairs. Broken Bottles. Baseball Bats. The ballad brought back flashcard memories of his Kentucky past. Hunter’s spine, in fact, stiffened when “My Old Kentucky Home” was sung, his posture snapping to full salute. Often times he would wave his hands high in to the air, as if drawing on an invisible chalk board, and offer a primal “Whooeee” or “Yaaaaa-hooo” upon hearing those first mesmerizing chords.
At such moments Hunter was electrifying to be around. The old Foster song held subterranean secrets for him which non-Kentuckians could never quite understand. The tune was his hidden passageway into Mammoth Cave, a tunnel the cartographers hadn’t yet mapped and probably never would. All of American history, Thompson believed, was a gigantic Hatfield-and-McCoy feud between the rich and poor, white and black, urban and hillbilly. Thompson basically always stood wherever Stephen Foster did; it was that straightforward. That’s however, a hard place to know, for Foster’s songs were both fiercely nationalistic, yet brooding with abolitionist dissent. There was an honor-code in “My Old Kentucky Home,” which Thompson used as a kind of all seasons barometer. The ballad was, quite simply, a part of his DNA. In his Jazz Age meditation F. Scott Fitzgerald bizarrely confessed that he often wrote solely with a Pacific Northwest fur-merchant in mind. “In different situations I tried to think what he would have thought” Fitzgerald explained, “how he would have acted.” Thompson frequently used “My Old Kentucky Home” as a creative weathervane. And this up-tempo John Prine version was one of his favorite renditions.
Thompson once wrote to Johnny Depp, a fellow Kentuckian, (we’re pulling a Norman Mailer here) that they were both “treacherous creeps from the Dark and Bloody ground” of the so-called Bluegrass State. It was one of the finest compliments that Depp ever received. However, it has been a much bandied about historical debate whether or not the word Kentucky actually translates into “Dark and Bloody ground” in any Native American language. Wikipedia says that it is Iroquois for “meadow,” or “prairie.” But then again, Wikipedia also has this to say: “Kentucky is known as the ‘Bluegrass State,’ a nickname based on the fact that bluegrass is present in many of the lawns and pastures throughout the state. It is a land with diverse environments and abundant resources, including the world’s longest cave system, the greatest length of navigable waterways and streams in the Lower 48 states, and the two largest manmade lakes east of the Mississippi River. It is also home to the highest per capita number of deer and turkey in the United States, and the nation’s most productive coalfield.”
The online encyclopedia mentions nothing of moonshine running, rotgut liquor, naked hillbillies feuding, pot farms, or mint juleps. Indeed, Kentucky has an incredibly violent past. The Civil War was a particularly nasty deal along the southeastern border. In Kentucky between 1861 to 1865 brother killing brother was not unusual—it was routine. So, whether the haunted words’ supposed meaning is accurate (or whether it instead turns out to be Icelandic for “peanut,” or even Albanian for “tree trunk”) doesn’t matter. For Kentucky just is THE DARK AND BLOODY GROUND and we know that Thompson was proud of that history. Kentucky earned the moniker the hard way, as did the state literary hero, the good Doctor Thompson. (With a nod, of course, to Wendell Berry and Robert Penn Warren.) He was a proud Kentuckian, an elegant Southern gentleman of the highest order. He was proud that having come out from nowhere, he had swooped down upon an unready and unsteady world caught off guard, and gnawed out a healthy portion for himself, not only in life, but in earning a bona fide place in history. He was proud of his accomplishments, and how hard he had worked to achieve all he did throughout his resplendently fertile existence. These are decisive and crucial ingredients of the man, busy in the soil that bore him. And it is for these reasons that most of us were pretty sure of how Hunter’s days on this side of the fish bowl were going to end. He was never going to be the guy that collapsed in his soup. And thank God for that. He was a fierce wit and worthy son of Kentucky until the very end.
When we learned that Gibney was including the British disco-pop cut “You Sexy Thing”—the antithesis of the Kentucky ethos—to this Gonzo compilation we went on a sit-down strike. There wasn’t anything Thompson would have liked about Hot Chocolate. (Except maybe the way it was spoofed in the movie “Boogie Nights.”) At best he would have practiced shot-gun art with their album covers. “You Sexy Thing,” in fact, was about as far removed from Thompson’s “My Old Kentucky Home” sensibility as a listener can travel. While Gibney used the 1975 dance hit—which reached number 3 on the U.S. pop charts—as a period piece in “Gonzo,” it’s hard not to feel that Thompson would have been livid at its inclusion in a CD about his life. Pulling out a magic marker he would have drawn a thick line through the lyrics, accompanied by some arch comment aimed at Gibney for having such wrongheaded gall. Our advice is to listen to “You Sexy Thing” and imagine Hunter with a .44 magnum, firing at a stereo after the first few seconds of play.
When it came to the blues Thompson had many heroes. Once, in a Rolling Stone interview, he claimed Howlin’ Wolf was his primary musical inspiration as a delinquent teenager. Jim Beam, Kool cigarettes, beer chasers, dusty backroads, and KWAM beaming in Howlin’ Wolf music from Memphis, were among some of his fondest coming-of-age memories. He had a luminous antenna for raw blues the way Fitzgerald did for rhumbas. When it came to Howlin’ Wolf, whom many in Louisville thought of as a devil’s music practicioner, Thompson had an unsqueamish stomach. The Wolf was the man.
Wolf was six-foot three and weighed over three hundred pounds. By all accounts he had an intimidating seniority. While Thompson was a charter-member of the extended Rolling Stone family, considering Keith Richards one of his favorite long-distance friends, he loved to jibe the band members that they ripped off Howlin’ Wolf. The cut “Red Rooster” was the one Thompson gravitated to the most (which the Stones turned into a number one hit) but Gibney chose for the documentary “Goin’ Down Slow” (written by St. Louis Jummy Oden). On an unpublished prose riff, housed in Thompson’s archive, he once used a lyric from that blues number as an epitaph. “Please write my mother, tell her the shape I’m in / Tell her to pray for me, forgive me for my sin.”
Sometimes when Thompson registered into hotels he’d use the nom de plume Aleck Ford Miller—the real name of bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson. Like so many of the great bluesplayers, Williamson hailed from Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, getting his first break on the King Biscuit Time show on KFFA. During the Sixties a vast array of recording artists—The Who, Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, and B.B. King among them—recorded Williamson songs. Thompson considered him a Delta fable twister of Green Giant proportions, willing to exaggerate the truth for a higher principle. Certainly in discs like “Help Me,” it was the jaunty harmonica playing, filled with whisky-inspired world weariness, which Thompson called folk wisdom, that he gravitated toward. Nobody squeezed out notes from the crossed-harp quite like Sonny Boy. Members of The Band once told Thompson a story about hearing Williamson play harmonica at a Mississippi juke-joint, where all night long he kept spitting blood into a coffee can on stage. This made Thompson admire him all-the-more.
With the publication of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail Thompson became a rock star in his own right. While covering George McGovern’s 1972 presidential run for Rolling Stone his dispatches became so notorious that at political rallies mobs of fans sought his autograph and blessing. Those uninitiated to the cult-figure Gonzoman thought he was an Apollo astronaut or Chuck Yeager. With his balding head he looked like a tired cop or FBI agent or retired army sergeant. Always the showman, Thompson didn’t disappoint, smoking Dunhills and swirling Chivas Regal, sometimes toting a gun for grand effect. He became a freak idol. By 1973, when the book was published by Straight Arrow Press, Thompson had also become a raging James Brown fan. The Godfather of Gonzo had found the Godfather of Soul. Both men wore capes, defied logic, and sweated out performances as if ordained Pentecostal ministers. They were children in the bodies of grownups.
Representing Brown in this collection is “Doing It to Death,” which hit number one on the R&B charts in 1973. Much like Booker’s blazing “Gonzo,” Thompson got a charge out of Brown’s medicine show theatrics, performed before capacity crowds. Brown, he said, could prance and punch at the same time. Certainly Thompson wasn’t unique in this regard. Only a scarecrow wouldn’t dance and jive to Brown’s soul shouts. On “Doing It to Death” (more famously known as “Gonna Have a Funky Good Time”) saxophonist Maceo Parker, in particular, would set Thompson on fire with his killer alto solos. A hubristic stance was being made on “Doing It to Death”—the entire band was full of apercus and glory and rage. Thompson heartily approved. From a Louisville perspective the Georgia field hollers had turned menacing and Thompson embraced the exultation with open arms. As an Apollo Theatre vaudevillian James Brown had turned rock ‘n’ roll on its head with a Stack-O-Lee vengeance as surely as Thompson had done with elite journalism.
For all of his Rolling Stone credentials Thompson wasn’t a good music critic. He was biased by the pitfalls of preference. New sounds didn’t interest him as much as old-ones disappearing. Always believing tomorrow was tumbling into sand, Thompson viewed songs-heard as painful emotional signposts. To Hunter every cut in this Gonzo collection brought back nostalgic moments never again to be reclaimed. Louisville. San Antonio. The Florida Panhandle. New York. Los Angeles. San Francisco. Puerto Rico. Brazil. Vietnam. Grenada. All these places (and many more) were gone, gone. Only the songs survived as hangovers. There was a burden Thompson bore in 2005 just hearing Grace Slick, for example, belt out “It’s No Secret.” For all of its inherent acid rock anarchy “It’s No Secret” had become merely a Jefferson Airplane oldie, an artifact from a frenzied time when anything was possible and the toll-booths over the Bay Bridge could be illegally driven through at midnight because there were no surveillance cameras recording license plate numbers. And what was left of La Honda in 2005, Thompson understood, following Y2K, were sequoias and rusted bottlecaps in the mulch.
Later that summer of 1968 Thompson was tear-gassed at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Lined-up cops pulled out bully sticks and bully guns, spraying pepper gas into the faces of reporters. Thompson stewed with myriad resentments. Voting for Dick Gregory for President that year he became a champion of Freak Power in the Rockies and even ran for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado in 1970. His logo a two-thumbed red fist clutching a peyote button, ensconced atop a dagger. His campaign theme songs were flutist Herbie Mann’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Long As I Can See the Light.”
The entire Creedence album Cosmo’s Factory was a revelation to Thompson. There wasn’t, in fact, a song on Cosmo’s Factory which Thompson didn’t gravitate toward. The title came from a Berkeley warehouse where Creedence used to rehearse. Creedence drummer Doug Clifford was a San Francisco friend of Thompson’s, he sent him a signed early copy of the album to Woody Creek. While Thompson enjoyed “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” and “Travelin’ Band,” it was the last cut, “Long As I Can See the Light,” he used as his campaign anthem when running for sheriff. While Creedence wasn’t fast bluegrass, it was swamp rock—close enough to his yokel sensibility. If Thompson was asked to give a lifetime Grammy to one rock male vocalist it would have been Creedence’s John Fogerty.
Thompson also had a great symbiotic relationship with Warren Zevon which can’t be quickly summarized in a few paragraphs. Zevon’s whole Excitable Boy attitude was a page torn out of Songs of the Doomed or Generation Swine. Weaned on Dr. Thompson books Zevon started drinking vodka the way Thompson did scotch, writing gonzo lyrics to almost symphonic melodies. (Alert: Zevon was as talented a creative musician as Frank Zappa.) And Thompson reciprocated the fandom. In Curse of Lono he quotes from Zevon’s “The Hula Hula Boys.” Also Thompson insisted that the third volume of his correspondence—to be edited by us soon—be called The Mutineer (the title of a Zevon song).
To say Thompson relished Zevon’s smash-hit “Lawyers, Guns and Money” would be to miss the point. Although Zevon wrote the song in Spain about a kooky smuggler, the inspiration was HST. Zevon told us this in Louisville when we all participated in a celebration of the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Vegas book. On all of his late albums, as a way to honor Thompson, Zevon would publish a skull-smoking-a-Dunhill on his lyrics pages/liner-notes. Zevon, you might say, branded his entire career as Gonzo.
Sweet Lyle Lovett, particularly his folk-based songs, also set Thompson off like a fireworks display. How, oh how, he loved Lovett’s winsome “If I Had a Boat.” Sometimes he’d play the song fifty or seventy times in a row, his stereo on endless repeat. All the references to Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, and Tonto made him giddy. Thompson lived by the supposition that anything is possible. So why not have a pony in your dinghy? It made surrealist sense, like Dylan having a mattress balance on a bottle-of-wine in “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat.” Once Lovett, following a performance at the Wheeler Playhouse in Aspen, came out to Owl Farm for a little post-concert rest-and-relaxation. For hours Hunter and Lyle discussed everything from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys to the spare poetry of Townes Van Zandt. So enchanted was Hunter with Lyle’s suave, kindhearted, gentlemanly disposition, that he gave him an old Shark convertible as a present. Watching Lovett head north from Woody Creek to Glenwood Springs, the roof-top down at dusk, brought Thompson great joy. He was living vicariously through Lovett taking off down the open road with a thundercloud overhead. It’s fitting that his collection ends with “If I Had a Boat” for Lovett played it live at Thompson’s memorial service in Woody Creek, Colorado.
Once Thompson committed suicide all of his post-mortem wishes were fulfilled. A giant day-glo peyote fist was constructed and Thompson’s ashes were shot out of a cannon as the Western sky lit-up in a fireworks orgy. All of us sometimes imagine what song we’d like played at our funeral, what melody or lyric speaks most directly about our lives when we’re dead. Reducing one’s iPod down to two or three songs is no easy business. But Thompson didn’t hesitate with his Big Three: “My Old Kentucky Home,” “If I Had a Boat,” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Hunter’s appreciation for Bob Dylan was deep. Perhaps even more than for his love of even Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Burroughs, Kerouac, and Nathaniel West. He was mind-bendingly resolute that “Mr. Tambourine Man” be played at his memorial and that it should happen precisely when his remains were shot into the stratosphere, so that his ashes were making their gentle descent back to earth as Dylan’s majestic verse began. And so it was. The song was perfect poetry before that moment; it somehow triggered a sublime reliving of an old friend. One could almost see the good doctor as a rascally boy playing some wicked prank on an unsuspecting squarehead. You could conjure the man becoming the man while writing Hell’s Angels in ’65 when Dylan’s full blown version finally arrived a couple of months after the success of the reduced calorie version by the Byrds and how the full effect of those words must have smacked him in the head like a ball peen hammer.
When Dylan sings the words, “Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free / silhouetted by the sea / circled by the circus sands / with all memory and fate / driven deep beneath the waves / let me forget about today until tomorrow” we feel our friend’s spirit clueing us that he is okay, that he is, in fact, (to summon up some sturdy enough cojones to employ that weathered old whore of a cliché), “in a better place.” A place where he can, once again, revert back to his boyhood antics of heinous mischief and play seriously righteous pranks on some grim faced fuddy-duddy and once again have fun. Hallowed fun—his key to everything.
To this day and forever and ever, “Mr. Tambourine Man” will be Thompson to us. Hunter’s love for those magical words and his choosing them to be the final cloak that would envelop and comfort those of us who loved him and suffered his loss. “Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.”
The death of Hunter still haunts his friends even though sixty-seven years is a pretty good run. We knew that Hunter was no saint. Far from it. Not even close. At times, in fact, his veins seemed to fill with snake blood. But he was always bursting with kinetic passion and an indomitable devious vision. Hunter had become the Patron Saint of Righteous Rage for the voiceless outcast. Like John Wesley Hardin or Billy the Kid, he took on the Bad Boy persona of the average guy’s avenger. He wouldn’t take crap from uppity bosses or dishonest police or corrupt lawyers or phony agents like most of us do. With an over-the-top vengeance, he lashed out, creating chaos from the mundane, psychedelic sparks out of the terminally placid. He was unquestionably a trenchant satirist. Mayhem was his calling. Music was his muse. And Gonzo—including these twenty or so songs which he made his own—is part of the culmination of his legacy. When listening to these cuts please keep one thing in mind: always Hunter S. Thompson was the man with the trumpet making his appeal to both our better and worse natures.
Johnny Depp (Los Angeles)
Douglas Brinkley (Austin)
September 17, 2008