The week of GonzoFest is not only a time for music and celebration, it’s a time for serious discussion of who Hunter Thompson was, the nature of art and the artist, and the big ideas important to Hunter (still quite relevant).
A collection of artists, poets, scholars, and writers gathered at Carmichael’s to discuss with a sizable audience these ideas. The panel was made up of contributors to the CookCreative official GonzoFest 2014 book: Ryan Case, Ron Whitehead, Kelly Cook, Andy Cook, Tommy Hardenbrook, Michael Lindenberger, Howard Wilson, Russel Hulsey, Ryan Case, Grant Goodwine and Frank Messina.
The panelists sat in a row in front of three sections of books: Kentucky, Travel, and Research.
Fitting for a talk about Hunter Thompson.
Michael Lindenberger (writer, Dallas Morning News), who has studied, written about and taught Hunter’s work for decades, also knew Hunter well and spent much time with him in person and by phone. He discussed the idea that Hunter is more known for the caricature, and perhaps as time passes less known for his work.
“For a great many people,” Lindenberger said, “the interest in Hunter Thompson was the persona he had become. That’s an interesting part of him. I’ve had run-ins with him like that that were interesting, exciting, and also sometimes disappointing.”
Hunter, at the age when he was “run out” of Louisville, 18, was a devout reader. He would copy books of his favorite writers by hand to learn their style, their prose.
It was brought up by both Lindenberger and Ron Whitehead, poet and friend to Hunter, that Hunter would frequently have others read his own work aloud back to him. He wanted to hear what they called “the music.” It was important to Hunter, they said, that his words had a rhythm, a flow, a musical composition.
Whitehead said, “So many poets and writers don’t understand that…What is the connection between music and poetry? Well, they’re in bed together, making love, producing babies called poems and songs… Hunter understood this, instinctively.”
The books Hunter copied were books he admired. Books like the Old Testament, Revelations, and many F. Scott Fitzgerald books.
“Hunter once told me,” Lindenberger said, “’The Great Gatsby’ was the book he would type through, straight through, and he was looking for the music. One of the last things he said to me on the phone was ‘I’m a sucker for the music.’”
Before Hunter was the outlaw, madman journalist, he wanted to be a novelist. He was a sports journalist for his university newspaper. His goal, it seemed, was to become a journalist and dabble in fiction (which he would do later in life with the somewhat fictional “The Rum Diary”).
In 1963, when Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Hunter wrote a letter to a friend in Louisville.
Lindenberger quoted Hunter as saying that from the death of Kennedy forward, “neither your children nor mine will ever be able to grasp what Gatsby was after. No more of that. You must understand it of course, peeling back the most obvious first layer, take your ‘realism’ to the garbage dump, or to the little magazines.”
Lindenberger went on to read from the letter what he says was a telling statement in the change from Thompson as the writer he wanted to be, to the Gonzo journalist to come: “I was not prepared at this time for the death of hope. But here it is….I mean to come down from the hills and enter the fray….no more fair play….The savage nuts have shattered the great myth of American decency. They can count me in. I’m ready for a dirty game.”
My question to the panel was, “There are many critics of Hunter then and now who argue he can’t be taken seriously, they see him simply as a joke. What would you say to those critics to get them to consider him seriously?”
Publisher and writer Kelly Cook said, “I think part of the point is to not take him seriously. I think he was a trickster. I felt it many times in putting this book together, ‘stop messing with me Hunter.’ He likes to joke. He likes to shake people from their ego.”
Poet, musician, and actor Frank Messina told a story of his first college journalism class where the professor put up Hunter’s famous Louisville-based story, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” After making the class read the story, Messina said their professor, “Told us this is an example of how not to write journalism… I was aghast at what he said. I was 18, 19 years old, but I recognized this was art. Journalism as art. After that class I switched to an English major and studied poetry… It was specifically because I recognized that kind of writing in Hunter and what that did for me.”
Lindenberger once asked William McKeen, head of journalism at Boston University, if he still had students read Hunter. “He told me absolutely. They should read him in the same way they read all the greats. He said everybody will come under his spell and try to write like him, and it will be awful.”
Poet Tommy Hardenbrook (who would astound me with his poetry later in the night while reading at Haymarket Whiskey Bar) made a comment that got a passionate, beautiful reaction from Whitehead that summarized all of this year’s GonzoFest. “I think it scared people,” Hardenbrook said. “People were stuck in the norm, set in the mold of what they were used to. Then here comes this bursting language…Hunter grabbed me. A lot of peopled feared that and gave him that gimmicky, novelty feel.”
Whitehead challenged if we could somehow know nothing of the man of Hunter Thompson and let his words stand alone, study only the writing and presentation of the story: “It’s masterfully done… Hunter was a trickster, a jokester, a Shaman, and he’s attacked by many people because he scared the hell out of them.”
This transitioned Whitehead into a passionate argument as to why he fought 20 years to get Hunter a banner in downtown Louisville. A documentary is being made as he speaks, and this moment should make the cut. It’s not enough to explain it here.
Other than to quote Whitehead in the struggle he’s had in not only the last 20 years, but the last six months even with a full production team: “We were sabotaged many times every step of the way. Normally when people talk trash to me… I was raised to be a fighter. I don’t take shit off people. I’ve become somehow, I don’t know how, more of a diplomat.”
Events honoring all aspects of Hunter Thompson continue through the banner revealing Saturday afternoon. See the full schedule here.