By Brandon Lee
It is not an easy trip along the mountain passes. Gonzo Today sent me to a location I had never been to pick up a junkyard, rusted-out, 1971 Pinto.
“Yeah, it’ll drive…for a good 200 miles,” the greasy, long-haired man whistled between his teeth and smiled.
I had just blown a car engine the previous week on a trip to California, and now I was heading at top speeds along the pass again where the oil still stood on the road from the other car’s brutal death. I flew past it, crushing another beer can and sweating nervously. God, please let me make it across this continental divide..
I was to arrive in the riches of Aspen for the “Freak Power” exhibit at the Gonzo Gallery Museum hosted by its founder and curator DJ Watkins. The gallery opening was a precursor to the August 15th release of his book Freak Power which, like the exhibit, chronicled Hunter Thompson’s 1970 campaign for County Sheriff. Watkins previously wrote the book Thomas W. Benton – artist/activist featuring 150 politically driven artworks by Benton, friend of and collaborator with Hunter S. Thompson. Benton is the man who drew the double-thumbed fist and the famous Thompson for Sheriff campaign poster. Watkin’s first book chronicles Benton’s life and his art, including political posters for presidential candidates George McGovern and Gary Hart; others against Richard Nixon; and his work with Hunter S. Thompson in the promotion of the Freak Power movement.
photo Brandon Lee
I was headed for a rendezvous with Watkins for the late July grand opening of the Gonzo Gallery Museum, featuring the largest collection of the history of outlaw journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 run for Sheriff in Pitkin County. The gallery features original photos of Thompson during the campaign, Benton’s political posters, and rare high-priced collections of Ralph Steadman’s paintings from that time, all signed by Thompson and Steadman for the Freak Ticket.
The roads were treacherous, but the hashish good. I was making good time when a couple of young women caught me drinking from a bottle of bourbon on I70. They yelled from their car window, “Nice Pinto!” and flashed me, giggling and spilling Coronas all over themselves. GOD!!
We chased after each other, back and forth along the pass, swerving around other vehicles, playing tag, nodding and blowing kisses until the 6% upgrade of the mountain had my machine lugging and bucking to make it. They laughed silently through the back glass of the BMW as I slowed down from 95 to 40 miles an hour. I slapped the dash, fearing that I would run into some young, green state trooper with no fondness for a boozed journalist . . . but in Aspen I would be safe.
The police there believe in safety overall, the politics are open, liberal, and the town attracts a lot of people because of that—celebrities and multi-millionaires to billionaires. My major interest in the entire trip was to talk with DJ Watkins, see the gallery, and meet Aspen’s longest running Sheriff since the Thompson campaign, Bob Braudis, who served as iconic sheriff for 24 years starting in the 1980s.. Braudis has been called a celebrity sheriff, “maverick” and other names, but according to a 2010 interview with the Aspen Times he dismissed these modifiers as the result of the “nickname-happy media” in the area.
.A LITTLE BIT ABOUT BOB
Three hours later, half-drunk and in a dope haze, I was crawling along the edge of Independence Pass, nowhere near going over, but the edge was narrow with the doom of death lurking down the side of the mountain into the green summer’s pine waiting to swallow the Pinto alive.
This was the last clip into Pitkin. . .soon I would arrive. . .boozed, womanless, with scribbled notes too ugly to read soaked in beer and onion rings and cursed with spit sprayed while thinking about who would become the next president.
Aspen has an elevation of 7,890 feet, and is 3.5 sq. m. with a population of around 6,700 people. This doesn’t include the number of tourists it attracts yearly, including the rich and the famous. For it is a difficult place to get to, one that not just anyone can afford, with the luxuries of a high dollar spender at every turn.
I arrived around six. A beautiful girl with a model figure told me to make myself welcome to beer and food. DJ was very inviting, telling me to take all the photos I wanted and to ask any questions I might have while wandering about. The rarest works hung all over the gallery, ranging anywhere from $700 posters of Thompson up to the professionally framed $55,000 Steadman piece called “monodump.” It featured a cartoon caricature of Hunter with a Sheriff’s badge, sitting stern-mouthed with a cigarette holder cigarette and horns coming off his head, both signed by Hunter and Steadman.
Benton’s works hung about and I stood admiring all of these and nodding in a southern gentlemanly way at those who came in to gaze at the awe of the campaign as it was once foreseen by Thompson in his October 1st Rolling Stone teaser report, “Freak Power in the Rockies”.
photo Brandon Lee
All of these glorious paintings and articles glowed at me from the walls, a history that split down the middle of all other political activity in this country thus far. “The hippies were creating momentum” “Richard Nixon is a crook” — A call for a different order of freedom, independent thinking, and liberty in Aspen 1970. Hunter lost the election, but he did what he set out to do and created a rippling pool in the consciousness of politics in this country.
I was utterly amazed at the collection, ranging from never before seen articles on getting the hippies out of Aspen because they were dirtying up the town to Thompson’s hand-typed public address campaign letters. All these historical documents, Watkins informed, were in the new Freak Power book that fully details the story of Thompson’s run for Sheriff. I was enamored of the wonders of such brilliant artifacts, a true talent of the American avant-garde, patriotic and one of our rarest of talented journalist. I stood in the center of Hunter’s history and was throttled.
photo Brandon Lee
After about an hour of admiring everything, including a deep 10 minute speculation.. locked into the “someone’s feeding booze to these goddamn’d things Lizard Lounge” piece, I heard DJ say, “Yeah, that’s the journalist with Gonzo Today,” I turned to see him talking to the nearly 7-foot-tall Bob Braudis.
This was my chance to speak with him. It would be now or never, before the crowds poured in at the late night hour, so I set my bag down but in doing so I incidentally slapped my beer, knocked it directly into my knee in all the excitement—-fuuck— a geyser of beer shot straight up into the air all over my new Polo and Jeans and sent foam and the sweet stench of the brew all over the gallery, Oh God, I thought, trying to keep it from hitting the works, and immediately began apologizing to DJ before I could introduce myself to Braudis.
”Don’t worry” he said, “Later, we’ll be throwing glasses of whiskey,”
Things had shifted, I remembered who we all were, no one took it serious and we left the beer to dry in a way that would have made Sebastian Artios* proud of it being spilled.
Braudis talked about riding around Louisville with Hunter S. Thompson in 1996 while there for the Hunter S. Thompson Tribute, produced by Ron Whitehead.
“I was with Hunter that night” he said. “He made a lot of tall requests, and Ron Whitehead did everything he could to piece it together, and somehow he managed to pull it off.”
Braudis explained that Hunter had requested the highest dollar hotel, the most expensive car with excess dials and gadgets, and insisted that the only way this would work was if several college co-ed girls joined him and a celebrity posse, including Johnny Depp, to go out into the nightlife scene. He said he wouldn’t do it otherwise. Hunter always had a lot of demands, including requesting large sums of money to get up and read at the gonzo event. Braudis said they bagged him thousands of dollars and he finally was convinced to do the reading.
Hunter and Braudis also visited Thompson’s mother, Virginia, at a nursing home in Kentucky.
“Hunter brought a 22-year-old stripper. . .He wanted to sign HST across her ass, and all the old men of the home gawked at her as she walked through. They had put Virginia in the back of the home because she was different and when we entered to see her she had two big jugs of Vodka and a carton of cigarettes.”
“Hunter was wild. He had the ‘gene’” said Braudis, Hunter’s long-time friend and former campaign worker.
As the evening went on the gonzo museum saw more than a hundred people interested in the historic art collection. People both familiar and unfamiliar came to what I knew was one of the most spectacular political phenomenons in the history of the Americas.
I was elated, and proud to stand in the radiance of the iconoclastic hero who fought for everything he believed. And the gallery laid bare Hunter and his people’s pulsing vein jonesing for the radical concept of being free in our country. That American Dream Thompson spent so much time and energy trying to find.
- * Sebastian Artois was admitted to the Leuven Brewer’s Guild as a Brew Master in 1708, and only nine years later purchased the Den Hoorn brewery. In memoriam, you can find his last name on the brewery and every bottle of Stella Artois around the world.