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.
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.