Make an appearance at the fest: It’s debatable what the father of gonzo would do here. Take in the attention from the sidelines? Make a brief appearance then go back to hotel bar to spend time with a select group of friends and associates? Leila Nebulsi, one of the producers of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, also couldn’t say for sure in an interview with Insider Louisville. I teased Nebulsi about her hat at a vendor’s booth during the festival, only realizing she was a panelist later. Probably would have still teased her about her hat; she seemed to take it well.
One large tent set up by Gonzo Today off to the side of the green was the venue for all the “oddball” acts, in other words, things that weren’t music. The spoken word stuff I missed, a panel discussion, a freak show, etc. The media booths were there and I made sure to pick up the most recent copy of the LEO (Louisville Eccentric Observer) where the winner of the festival’s literary journalism contest was published, ‘The Bridges are Burning in Dub-V’ by a Virginian named Kevin D. Smith. I talked to a staff writer for Gonzo Today. In a nutshell, Gonzo Today is an open-source multimedia, PR, marketing platform made of up a collection of creatives who are not cool with the mainstream media. He said something like (I’ll paraphrase), ‘We’re not just here to geek out over a man, or try to be him. We’re preserving the spirit of gonzo.’ He told me he had recently attended a conference expressly for this purpose, to discuss how to preserve and encourage the spirit of gonzo. For those of you who haven’t yet traveled down the rabbit hole of gonzo journalism, it orginated as a journalistic writing approach that does not negate the self. In other words, the subjectivity of the writer matters in the reporting. Most news organizations would file this under editorial column, if they didn’t outright reject it. All the traditional ethics of non bias reporting: what, where, when, who, etc. is infused with feelings of the experience, personal opinion, tangential historical context, hyperbole, metaphor, creative interpretation. When this is done well, it distorts reality to better reveal the truth of it. The descriptor “gonzo” is now applied to a variety of artwork that is outside the mainstream.
It took me a grand total of twenty minutes to see everything at the festival. The booth with the longest line was the corndog vendor, no surprises there. I listened to a few songs from Chrome Pony and Wax Fang, but then was left with nothing to do but spend money for the next few hours before the panel of HST’s loved ones showed up. What would HST do? I don’t know, but I left.
As per my meeting with the off-duty bartender, I had beers to consume and a park to drive through. The famed Cherokee Park designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted (of Central Park fame) is just down the street from me, so I have time for a photoshoot on the porch. I draped an American flag around my shoulders like HST had done before me. I learned from my war veteran father that this is disrespectful. Perhaps naively, I believe that to hold the symbol in higher regard than the values that the symbol represents speaks to the hypocrisy of people, and perhaps is the reason that characters like HST and Abbie Hoffman draped the flag over their shoulders in the first place. Maybe it was a gesture of an inside out kind of patriotism that is often misunderstood by more conservative thinkers. A HST kind of love for country that comes with conditions and demands returns on promises. After all, a nation is a soulless thing that can wreck havoc with the good intentions of its people. Characters like HST have a love of country that isn’t blind. It’s the kind that recasts “the American” as an all too human member of the species that’s just trying it’s best. This may be the type of patriotism that turns us back into the approachable, independent spirits that the very best of us are.
Down the hatch with the Kentucky Ale, and we’re off to Cherokee Park. I get why HST would have dug getting stoned and driving around the curves of the Cherokee Park loop until that magic cocktail of opioids hit him, but I also get why he never followed through on doing it. The loop only takes five minutes to drive around, and then you’re back in the surrounding neighborhood, full of fine townhouses from the early 20th century where neighbors bitch about property assessments.
On my way back to the fest, I stop by the Monster Room Art Show at Cure Lounge. The exterior of this location looks like it should have been closed years ago. But inside I’m surprised by a funky, red pleather, checkered floor bar space that screams “those in the know party here”. There were three people snacking alone at tables; face-painted, bedazzled, glam rock kids looking emo over fried food with no soundtrack. After turning around a couple corners and going down a hallway I found a room with tables full of “monster” art — not denoting size, but content. Paintings with creatures growing out of cancerous mounds of flesh, humanoids without eyes who walk on their hands, remixed American Gothic, aliens, animals that had the decency to never exist, zombies, and Moreau abominations in illustration, acrylic, prints, sculpture, and oils. I ran into a guy who bought one of my coloring books a few weeks ago and asked him what the monster craze was about. I misquoted a friend who had once said something about monster myths helping people deal with the fear of war and human cruelty. He replied “No, our generation just played a lot of video games.” Touché.
Back at the fest, I caught the ending set of a classic garage band singing about no one wanting to party with them tonight . I bought a commemorative Kentucky Colonel kolsch brewed in honor of HST , chatted with a tattoo artist about prison ink, then grabbed a spot on the grass in front of the table where the panelists were set to appear. Juan, Jennifer, and Will Thompson represented the family of HST, while Leila Neblusi and Deborah Fuller represented long-time collaborators and friends. The mediator of the panel seemed a gregarious fellow and opened with a story of taking a bus full of students to HST’s land in Colorado to meet the writer. The students brought worn copies of HST favorites, and Hunter left his mark by shooting a bullet through each book.
The first question for the panel was what did Louisville represent to HST. His son Juan, who himself just released a book, described it as something of a love/hate relationship. The questions became more about HST’s personal life from there on out, because that’s what most of us wanted to hear. We know the writing and the myth, now we want to know the man. Mostly the panel spoke of HST loving them, and how it was hard to share him. You could see this awkward resignation towards the public (a kind of nervousness) in their body language, but it wasn’t off-putting, quite the opposite. The man Hunter S. Thompson, rather than the writer HST, began to crystalize for people based off his association with these down-to-earth, well-spoken people who miss him. They described him as a sensitive man, a moral man who was sometimes quick to anger, but gentle to those he loved, a southern gentleman. It was touching to hear stories of a man known for his antics from the point of view of a grandson who called him Ace, a daughter-in-law who placed bets on American football games with him, and a colleague who got hit with buckshot when HST attempted to scare a bear away from her lodging with a gun. The latter was Deborah’s story, who delivered it with nonchalance, reassuring us that she was fine and HST was concerned, that she had called him “a fuck” or something like that, and all was eventually forgiven. Again and again in interviews, and on this panel, his loved ones reminded us that HST was a serious journalist whose work came first and not to forget that. I don’t think anyone from the group listening had forgotten that. The panel ended and the freakshow began. A woman sucked a condom up her nose and pulled it out of her mouth. I was done for the night.
Concluding thoughts: I missed festival events, the unveiling of Matt Weir’s statue design for a lifesize HST, the spoken word and readings that began event in the Gonzo Today tent, some of the bands. But I was there long enough to get a “vibe”. Essentially it’s a music/art fest that happens to have a gonzo theme. The Gonzo Today tent was the highlight and seemed like a separate affair with its own bar, a VIP corner, a mini-stage with its own acts, etc. There was an freaky, mismatched authenticity to that corner of the lawn. The one major, major downer to all of this was the cost. I left broke. It would have been easy to leave a Ben Franklin behind halfway through, and with drinking still left to do. I went about it all wrong. I came alone. I didn’t do any drugs. I didn’t come as a vendor, artist or with a group. Those who snuck in with some weed and camped out near the river where they could lie on the grass and just listen to the bands got it right. Those are the professional festival goers. I would have been more at home in the Monkey Wrench talkin’ writers’ shop with a bunch of local eccentrics over cheap bourbon, but then those days are gone. The natural course of things is that they professionalize: more money, more sponsors, means better panels, better bands, more space. But like all things that touch reward, they take the Kantian way and become something they were not before. I am one from a few thousand people who attended this year, and one that failed at embodying the counterculture HST represented, so take my review with a grain of salt.
As I hope Hunter would have appreciated, I’ll write my own goddamn story, my own way. I ain’t no HST.
Constance A. Dunn is a senior articles editor with the magazine.
 Aristotle, ‘Nicomachean Ethics’, 1154a27–1154b
 My great-grandmother and grandfather spent their honeymoon at the Brown Hotel in 1923. It is an iconic Louisville location representing a Golden Age in development ushered in by a few wealthy families.
 This is common meme for recently deceased artists these days. Art becoming the sacred, when the sacred becomes profane.
 I too am a proud Kentucky Colonel.