A review of Gonzofest in Louisville, KY on April 16th, 2016
“There are times, however, and this is one of them, when even being right feels wrong. What do you say, for instance, about a generation that has been taught that rain is poison and sex is death? If making love might be fatal and if a cool spring breeze on any summer afternoon can turn a crystal blue lake into a puddle of black poison right in front of your eyes, there is not much left except TV and relentless masturbation. It’s a strange world. Some people get rich and others eat shit and die.”
—Hunter S. Thompson from ‘Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ’80s’, published in the ‘Gonzo Papers, Vol. 2’ in 1988.
Honoring HST with a festival is in a way reclaiming the “America” that those 30-something frustrated souls always wanted their city to be known for. They are demanding a rebranding of their city — a town once known for its friendly folks, to a city that produces weird genius. In my own way I’m a part of this, not objective, but neither was HST, and that’s sort of the point of gonzo — to feel the story rather than report it. So, to better understand the man, I tried to do as he would do on the day of the Gonzofest.
Breakfast: “Breakfast is the only meal of the day that I tend to view with the same kind of traditionalized reverence… I like to eat breakfast alone, and almost never before noon… breakfast is a personal ritual that can only be properly observed alone, and in a spirit of genuine excess. The food factor should always be massive: four Bloody Marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crepes, a half-pound of either sausage, bacon, or corned beef hash with diced chiles, a Spanish omelette or eggs Benedict, a quart of milk, a chopped lemon for random seasoning, and something like a slice of Key lime pie, two margaritas, and six lines of the best cocaine for dessert… Right, and there should also be two or three newspapers, all mail and messages, a telephone, a notebook for planning the next twenty-four hours and at least one source of good music… All of which should be dealt with outside, in the warmth of a hot sun, and preferably stone naked.”
I woke up at 7am on the morning of April 16th — not very gonzo. As purchasing the ingredients to make my own HST breakfast was far less economical than just going out, I decided to go out. I intended on going to breakfast alone and plan my day in said notebook, but other people in the family were hungry, so there goes that. I thought I wouldn’t be able to stomach four Bloody Marys so I ordered one, but with the amount of food we ate, and the amount of ice in the glass, four probably would’ve been just right for a buzz. Breakfast done, sans copious lines of cocaine and fully dressed.
Dress yourself: Poker or bucket hat, aviators, cigarette holder, white socks with tennis or sport shoes, Hawaiian or brightly patterned polo, shorts.
I completely failed on this front (see gallery photo of the fool in black jeans).
Blow something up: “My concept of death for a long time was to come down that mountain road at 120 and just keep going straight right there, burst out through the barrier and hang out above all that . . . and there I’d be, sitting in the front seat, stark naked, with a case of whiskey next to me and a case of dynamite in the trunk . . . honking the horn, and the lights on, and just sit there in space for an instant, a human bomb, and fall down into that mess of steel mills. It’d be a tremendous goddam explosion. No pain. No one would get hurt. I’m pretty sure, unless they’ve changed the highway, that launching place is still there. As soon as I get home, I ought to take the drive just to check it out.”
This is a controversial habit of HST. The liberals who often claim him as a mascot of anti-establishment living get twitchy when they have to talk about the man’s penchant for guns and explosives. I don’t find this the least bit contradictory. HST lived on something like 7,000 acres of open land in a fortified compound in Colorado with his own firing range and a collection of things to blow up safely. He was not arming himself against an imagery enemy or an eventual takeover of the government. Most likely it really was just for fun. According to his family and associates, he was always careful. Careful is not a word one would free associate with a man who would kill off a bottle of Chivas Regal for lunch and often combined LSD with cocaine use, but when it came to firearms (things that hurt others) he apparently treated them with meticulous care. If I asked HST now “what’s up with the explosives and guns?” He’d probably say, “it’s fun” and write me off as another vanilla shit, part of the post-9/11 fear generation that disturbed him so in ‘Kingdom of Fear’.
I’ll theorize his fascination with firearms this way: Aristotle once differentiated the feeling of contentment and what he called a kind of sharp joy . In modern terms sharp joy could better be described as a high. The Greek philosopher warned against this kind of joy because once one experiences it, other simpler happinesses pale in comparison, and you doom yourself to a life of dissatisfaction, always looking for the next sharp joy. A joy that cuts… or explodes. That may have been the writer’s achilles heel. There is evidence for this in the way he writes about jackrabbits being bored, that maybe they prefer to taunt fate with their mad dashes across highways in front of headlights rather than die in the bushes.
After the prolonged breakfast and the ritual of dressing, it was already after one o’clock. I had decided earlier that no truly gonzo journalist would show up to an event on time. And anyway, I had to find something to safely explode. So, I drove the old jalopy my husband and I are using over the river to Indiana to stock up on fireworks. The fireworks megastore was closed. Apparently this mega warehouse only opens “seasonally”, meaning the 4th of July. God bless America. What kind of country am I living in that only allows the freedom to set off some rockets one day a year? Our Protestant values have got the better of us when we go out of our way to save someone from their own stupidity. If Billy Bob wants to buy fireworks and blow off his finger in the empty lot next to Uncle Mike’s house, then let him. He’ll remember not to do it again, and now he’s got a story to tell and a reason to study harder, ‘cause ain’t no one goin’ give him that football scholarship with one finger. Now he’ll have to become a lawyer, or a doctor, just like mama wanted.
Drink at the Brown Hotel: “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…”
Ron Whitehead put HST up in a suite at the Brown Hotel in 1996 to attend a tribute ceremony in his honor at Memorial Auditorium in downtown Louisville. The prodigal son had returned home a hero. He celebrated his triumph in style with food and plenty of drink. So, disappointed in my attempt at sharp joy, the hotel would be my next stop.
Still digesting breakfast, I skipped on the food and went straight for the cocktails at the Brown . The barman was setting up as I approached and asked me to wait twenty minutes until the bar officially opened. The guy sitting two barstools down from me introduced himself and asked what my plan was for the day. This sounds like a come on, it may have been, but it was delivered with the nonchalance of a friendly local to the only other person in the lobby, so I took it as one lonely afternoon drinker making chitchat with another. He was an off-duty bartender recovering from a bender the night before. I told him I was on my way to Gonzofest and he pulled a crinkled ticket out of his pocket for said event. “I had four of these? Hey Brad, what did I do with those other tickets?” Brad, the barman stocking seltzer, shrugged his shoulders, “Well, anyway, I probably gave them away. I found these hidden behind posters for the festival. I forgot what I did with them last night. Left my wallet in a cab, know that. But the cabbie brought it back to me. Anyway. I have one.” He showed me the back of the ticket with a quote from HST about going back to Louisville drinking beer on a porch and driving around Cherokee Park, adding two more activities to my day. I told him I am channeling Hunter, but that I wasn’t keen on the writer’s taste in alcohol. I suspected that HST wasn’t picky, and drank whatever was on offer: Mint Juleps at the Derby, rum in Costa Rica, Chivas regularly. “Can I recommend something?” My companion asked, “Forester 75, like the French 75, but with Old Forester.” Having not heard of a French 75, this meant nothing to me. “Sure.” A shot of Old Forester, simple syrup, fresh orange juice and a splash of Champagne. It tasted like something I would pair with pancakes in the morning, sweet and weak.