By Ron Whitehead
GonzoFest Louisville co-founder and Chief Poetics
The first time Jack Nicholson called he was furious, pissed off, screaming.
It was August 1995 and my grandmother, Louverine Render, had died. Right after the funeral my family and I headed out, in a rented car, for a 5,000-mile-out-West road trip.
Hunter S. Thompson had invited us for a visit. I had published his Nixon obituary, “He Was a Crook,” as a limited edition broadside and it was getting big attention from collectors around the world.
Taking the back roads to Pike’s Peak then Independence Pass through Aspen to Woody Creek I drove nonstop to Owl Farm. My kids knew about Hunter. When we pulled up next to The Red Shark and got out there was a god awful screaming crying pleading that sounded like a baby being eaten alive by a bear. Hunter’s sound system was blaring across the yard into the mountains.
Hunter welcomed us in. He offered me drugs. He handed me alcohol. Then Jack Nicholson called, screaming.
There were three calls from Jack while we were there. He had come out for the weekend to watch a boxing match with Hunter. Hunter, not knowing Jack had brought his daughters, slipped over to Jack’s house, broke out a window and threw several hundred lit fire crackers into the house. Scared the hell out of Jack’s kids. Jack was pissed. That was the first call. By the second call Jack and his daughters were calming down. He didn’t call Hunter as many names. By the third call everything was fine, all was forgiven.
Hunter was a wild man, but he was also a Southern gentleman. It was hard to hold a grudge against him but many people did, including people from his homestate, his hometown.
The question I keep getting from people recently is ‘What would Hunter think about all this?’ And by ‘all this,’ they mean Gonzofest, they mean the mural on the side of the Monkey Wrench, they mean Mayor Fischer’s proclamation, they mean the banner at the Bristol, they mean Hunter getting inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame last year and the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame this year.
When die-hard Hunter fans ask me that question, I know they’re asking ‘Wouldn’t Hunter sneer at all this nonsense? Wouldn’t he see it as selling out?’ And to them I say HELL NO! Hunter knew he was a helluva writer. He knew he deserved the recognition.
When Neil Chethik, executive director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, called to ask me if I’d serve as the inductor of Hunter S. Thompson into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, I said, “HELL YES!” Here are some of the words I shared during that ceremony on January 28, 2015.
“If life is a dream, as some suggest, sometimes beautiful sometimes desperate, then Hunter S. Thompson’s work is the terrible saga of the ending of time for The American Dream. With its action set at the heart of American materialist culture, with war as perpetual background, playing on the television, Hunter S. Thompson, like the prophets of old, shows how we, through greed and power lust, have already gone over the edge. As Jack Kerouac, through his brilliant oeuvre, breathed hope into international youth culture, Thompson shows how the ruling power elite is not about to share what it controls with idealists yearning for a world of peace, love and understanding.”
Hunter still has the power to disturb those who cling to The Great Capitalist Way. Hunter still unnerves the power elite. Those folks focus on the drugs and the booze and the crazy-man antics, the weird turned pro, and they try to dismiss Hunter’s message by dismissing the artist’s lifestyle.
And it’s way past time we honored Hunter. I did it while he was alive, producing the official Hunter S. Thompson Tribute in 1996. Hunter, Johnny Depp, Warren Zevon, David Amram and Douglas Brinkley got their Kentucky Colonelships that night and after the show, Hunter and Johnny started calling each other Colonel Depp and Colonel Thompson. And after Hunter shot himself, on February 20, 2005, I called his widow Anita and we talked for a long time. I wrote “Hunter Shaman Thompson is Dead, A Tribute” and “14 Suggestions for Louisville to Honor Hunter S. Thompson.” We had a memorial in Louisville at the Rudyard Kipling.
But Louisville, Kentucky, remained quiet — still embarrassed, utterly mortified to its gentrified roots, by the life of one of its finest writers. “Truly I tell you,” said Jesus, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” (Luke 4:24) Can I get an Amen? While papers around the country, and the world, published long articles of appreciation and praise of Hunter’s writing career, The Courier-Journal managed a cartoon mocking Hunter and a small piece by Bob Hill.
In 2010 I received a phone call from Dennie Humphrey, owner of The Monkey Wrench. He wanted to produce a Gonzo festival to honor Hunter but said he’d only do it if I joined forces with him. We had several long talks out of which was born Gonzofest Louisville, a one day and night music, poetry, and art festival celebrating the life and work of Hunter S. Thompson and the Gonzo spirit! Special Guests included Anita Thompson, New York Mets Poet Laureate Frank Messina, Congressman John Yarmuth, and others. We unveiled a beautiful mural of Hunter painted on the side of The Monkey Wrench by four artists: Andy Cook, Carol McLeod, Evan Leibowitz and Alexander King.
The Monkey Wrench, in the heart of the Highlands, became Gonzofest Louisville headquarters.
In the fall of 2013 Dennie Humphrey, Mike Maloney, the mayor’s manager for special events, young rebel poet Jake Mahaffey, and I met at Slugger Field. Mike said the city was ready to join forces with Dennie and me and make the next GonzoFest huge. We shook hands, agreeing to create and unveil a giant Hunter S. Thompson banner as the main goal of GonzoFest 2014. Derrick Pedolzky, Nick Garing, Lauren Hendricks, Rebecca Matheny and David Nichols joined our GonzoFest Production Team. For six months we worked around the clock.
Ralph Steadman sent me 38 images, paintings and photos, of Hunter. We selected, unanimously, the most historic Steadman portrait of Hunter for the giant banner. Ralph also created the Hunter’s Gonzoville logo which we included on the banner.
For six days and nights, March 31 through April 5, GonzoFest 2014 shook 17 venues throughout Louisville. It was the biggest celebration of Hunter S. Thompson and the Gonzo spirit ever! As part of the giant banner unveiling, Mayor Greg Fischer read an official proclamation changing the name of Louisville to Hunter’s Gonzoville.
GonzoFest 2015, our fifth anniversary celebration, will take place Saturday, April 11, downtown on The Waterfront Harbor Lawn. We have started raising funds to have a life-size bronze statue of Hunter created which we hope to unveil at GonzoFest 2016.
I have enjoyed, honored and respected Hunter’s life and work from the release of “Hell’s Angels” until now. I am excited, and relieved, that the work I started in the ’90s is picking up steam and gaining ardent new supporters. Thank you, Dennie Humphrey, the GonzoFest production team, the city of Louisville and Gonzo fans everywhere for honoring Hunter in his hometown! Thank you, Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame! Thank you, Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame!
Whether you know Hunter as a madman or a visionary, whether you see him as a drunk devil knocking in vain on the gates of heaven or a brilliant native son of the Bluegrass, I invite each and every one of you to the biggest bestest celebration of Hunter S. Thompson’s life and work and the Gonzo Spirit! I invite you ALL to join forces with us in Hunter’s Gonzoville on Saturday, April 11!