By Jeff Miers
News Pop Music Critic
"You might say Thompson craved the screech of the locomotive tracks
and the silence of the backwoods anything but the blase gray land
known as neutral."
This, from the collaborative 8,000-word essay co-penned by Johnny
Depp and Professor Douglas Brinkley that so generously accompanies
"Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson Music from the
Film," and nails it better than anyone other than Hunter S. himself
According to that same essay, Thompson posted a note on the
wide-screen television in the living room of his Woody Creek, Colo.,
abode that read "No Music = Bad Mood = No Pages."
I know exactly what he meant.
Thompson used music, throughout his floored gas pedal of a life, the
same way he used drugs and alcohol. They gave him the fire in his
belly. They brought him to the edge of the abyss, the only place
where he found his inspiration. They made him manic. They helped him
steer clear of that "blase gray land known as neutral." Staring into
that abyss, his synapses fried but firing with impunity, fearless,
Thompson saw what Joseph Conrad's Mr. Kurtz did at death's door in
"The Heart of Darkness" "The horror, the horror!"
His life's work was to report on that horror. There has been no finer
You probably didn't see "Gonzo," the film tribute by Alex Gibney,
when it was released, oh so briefly, in July. You'll be able to,
though, when it's released on DVD Tuesday. It's a profound piece of
work, centered around Depp's narrations, all of them culled from
Thompson's writings. It's a love letter, not just to Thompson, but to
the abyss itself, the dark heart of the country, the part of us that
is willing to do anything and everything without regard to the
consequence to life and limb in order to "eradicate the swine,"
solely with the power of the intellect, the imagination, the zen-like
still of the backwoods and the shrill whistle of the locomotive.
With the film comes this CD companion, a labor of love for Depp and
Brinkley, work they performed with great joy, it would seem. It was
not mere speculation that led the two to choose the songs here, the
works that tell the story of Hunter in melodic and sonic form. They
knew what songs the king of Gonzo would've wanted on this thing.
Thompson never kept his love for any of them to himself, after all.
He didn't use music as background, window dressing, lifestyle
accesorizing, or any of it. He played it at earth-rattling volume,
and talked up whatever his latest passion was to anyone who would
listen, and everyone who wouldn't.
It was the obscure psychedelic R&B burner "Gonzo," by the brazenly
irreverent James Booker, that gave Thompson the moniker for the
writings that would comprise his life's work. Depp and Brinkley
retell the legend of Thompson playing this hyper-charged slab of
frenzy at top volume for Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, right
smack in the middle of a hallucinogenic Kool Aid bachannal. Ah, to
have been a fly on the wall...
Thompson reacted to visceral music in a visceral way, but he also
craved the mettle-testing intellect and passion for raw madness that
he found in Norman Mailer's writings. That meant he needed good
lyrics, not the cliched tripe that so often passes for pop poetry. So
his hero, he said again and again and meant it, was Bob Dylan, whose
gold-tipped observation "To live outside the law you must be honest"
became Thompson's credo. Until the end.
Thompson and the late Warren Zevon called by Bruce Springsteen,
rightly, "one of the great, great American songwriters" were
kindred spirits, blood brothers codependant on the madness found in
the great American backwoods. "Lawyers, Guns & Money" was Thompson's
favored Zevon tune, its tale of a desperado who has ventured out way
past the breakers striking a chord with him for obvious reasons. He
also favored Zevon's "The Hula Hula Boys," because as wicked,
irreverent and appetitie-driven as he was, Thompson was also one of
the great American Romantics. In this area, his friend Zevon was his equal.
Proof of this can be found scattered throughout "Gonzo's" selections,
most obviously with the inclusion of "Get Together," the timeless,
hair-raising piece of peace poetry by the Youngbloods. (You know the
chorus "C'mon people, now/Smile on your brother/Everybody get
together, try to love one another/ Right now". This was not a joke to
Thompson, though he may not have been capable of living up to its
demands. What matters is that he knew it was the barometer.)
There is the song Thompson penned with illustrator and unindicted
co-conspirator Ralph Steadman, "Weird and Twisted Nights," more
hilarious than it is good. It does include a stanza that nails the
heart of Gonzo, though:
"If you write words shocked through with truth/Hunger dirt and gutter
sharp/Eat the words and spurn the gutter/Climb the rise and surf!"
Yeah, that's the job.