Smoking, drinking and the Kentucky Derby are three things the city of Louisville has in common with Hunter S. Thompson, but the relationship with its most famous literary son has never been easy. Now, nearly a decade after his death by suicide, the Good Doctor will be honored as a hometown hero in the same city that ran him out of town in 1955.
By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER
Louisville. December 12, 1996.
Leaves gone, storm is coming, and the sky cold and low. Inside an old downtown auditorium on once-bustling Fourth Street, are 2,000 fans buzzing, seated, standing, straining to see a paunchy, balding writer, late as always, finally bounce onto the stage with that weird gait of his, whiskey in hand, cigarette nearby, and a fire extinguisher under his arm.
Warren Zevon opens the night with Lawyers Guns and Money, and the crowd half-settles in, ready for surprises. The writer nervously takes a seat, and watches a parade of celebrity friends strut and fret across the stage: Colonel Johnny Depp, a fellow Kentuckian who’s been living with him at his Colorado compound prepping for his role in Terry Gilliam’s trippy Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; Zevon, clean-shaven, bespectacled, and sitting at a white grand piano; Roxanne Pulitzer, fresh in from Palm Beach; Kentucky outlaw poet Ron Whitehead, friend of many and the force behind the night’s drama; many more. David Amram will soon lead a rendition of My Old Kentucky Home on his flute so piercingly beautiful even the acid-tongued godfather of Gonzo journalism will be forgiven his damp eyes.
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Thompson, 59 and decades past the lean, tall, seductive youth who roamed the streets of Louisville looking for girls and robbing liquor stores, has come home to a warm welcome in the same river city that had jailed him often and then run him right out of town 41 years before. He has never before been officially welcomed back.
It has all the makings of a beautiful moment, but it will turn sour in its own way. There’s Depp reading from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which has just turned 25 and been welcomed into the canon of American literature as part of the Modern Library — “right between Tolstoy and Thackeray,” historian Doug Brinkley tells me a few day before the tribute. Here’s Zevon launching into Werewolves of London with a thank you to Thompson: “This is the song I wrote for Hunter, and it’s the song that made me rich.” And there’s former Louisville Mayor Harvey Sloane reading that beautiful passage from toward the end of Hell’s Angels – the 1966 chronicle of Thompson’s strange and savage journey with the bikers that had launched his career, just after it got him stomped half to death by the angry outlaws — about a midnight run down Highway 1. It’s pre-Gonzo and it’s the best thing you’ve ever read about riding a motorcycle, carrying in its saddlebags wisdom enough to idle Aristotle.
The words slap the audience into a giddy kind of silence, just like they always do. This is the early genius of Louisville’s most famous, most outrageous, most stunning gift to the world of literature, the Cassius Clay of letters. To hear it in person is to feel waves of appreciation roll out of you like a too-big motorcycle.
Now, the audience starts asking questions of Thompson, who is seated in an easy chair opposite Depp. The beauty quickly fades. Though there are touching moments with family and longtime friends, Thompson is deeply disappointing. He is cavorting on stage with his fire extinguisher and answering endless queries about his love of guns and whiskey and drugs – and says next to nothing about why all those antics were memorable in the first place: His way with words.
The next night Thompson would sit writing in the Brown Hotel, reflecting on the evening in an introduction to a remarkable series of letters that would later be published under the title The Proud Highway. “Yesterday was interesting in the Chinese sense,” he wrote. “At the end of my lecture at the Memorial Auditorium last night, teenage thugs ran amok and torched my dressing room, just moments after my mother had been whisked away in a limousine. The event was a huge success, they said, but it left scars and odd hoof prints on many people.”
Those hoof prints had been leaving their mark on people in Louisville ever since Hunter Stockton Thompson grew up on Ransdell Avenue the son of a insurance agent who’d die young of a heart attack while his son was in high school and a librarian mother who turned to gin and heavy drinking soon after.
It is those hoof prints that had pushed Louisville to wait 40 years to honor Thompson, and even after the 1996 fete the relationship between the city and the writer never got easy.
Proof of that came the day he died, Feb. 20, 2005. The next morning’s Louisville Courier-Journal ran a small, if appreciative, column on the front of the local section. In the coming days, the rest of the world went into overdrive about the death by suicide of an American original, but the Louisville paper held its nose and mostly kept its peace.
Still, the flurry of scholarship — books and movies and audio productions and endless retrospectives like this one — may finally be changing all that.
There’s a little bar in Louisville called the Monkey Wrench, a kind of home for artists of many sorts, that each year holds a Gonzo Fest. And early next year, Ron Whitehead will assemble another throng of Thompson fans to oversee the unveiling of a special tribute. The city fathers will hang a giant banner of Thompson by British artist Ralph Steadman, who showed up at Louisville’s Churchill Downs in 1970 with a sketch pad and bottles of eyeliner and makeup for ink and together with Thompson invented Gonzo journalism.
“This is epic, y’all!!!” Whitehead announced last week. “After years and years of toil and turmoil Hunter S. Thompson is being honored in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.”
A spokesman for Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said the mayor is all for the tribute, despite Thompson’s notorious status as one of the country’s best known drug abusers, a convict and someone who, after all, turned his venomous pen on the city’s whiskey gentry in that 1970 piece with artist Steadman, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.
“You also have to remember what he accomplished,” spokesman Chris Poynter said in an interview. “He invented, really, a new form of journalism. You can’t look at a person one-dimensionally. And he’s one of Louisville’s absolute treasures. The mayor’s totally behind this effort.”
Steadman’s art will be unveiled in April, and Whitehead said a concert, festival and art exhibition are all in the works.
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* Note on the art above: Ralph Steadman worked with his friend Hunter S. Thompson for 35 years. In 1987, the year the author turned 50, he agreed for the first time to sit for a formal portrait. Hunter -- Study in Gamboge Hat was the result. Used with gracious permission of the artist.