One of the most frequently asked questions of me, after ‘Where is your accent from?’* and ‘How do you keep your Mohawk standing up?’** is, ‘What is gonzo?’ (I have the gonzo logo tattooed on my left arm, parallel to the NHC cross on my right). So let’s address the answer to this question right now…
Many things are gonzo, there’s gonzo beer, gonzo stain-remover, gonzo pepper-mash, gonzo condiments, gonzo jazz music, gonzo pornography, gonzo gardening and even a Muppet with the same name…but all this is irrelevant, the gonzo we are concentrating on here, the one in question, is gonzo journalism, or gonzo writing.
Even when the concept is explained, a lot of people still have trouble understanding it, myself included, indeed, it took twelve years of studying under the incorporeal tutelage of Hunter S Thompson, George Orwell, William S Burroughs, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and various others, for me to master the art of gonzo-writing! Even within the first year or so of my discovery of the subject, I still didn’t have a clear and concise explanation of the concept until a lot later. Needless to say, I understand it inside and out now. It’s a style of writing that fits my format perfectly, but it is not an easy style to pull off, only a handful of notables exist that can safely say they have. There is an army of up-and-coming writers out there who claim gonzo but just come off as…shit, desperate, or pathetically emulating.
I’d like to clear something up right now; people have a misconception of the idea of, or meaning of, the word ‘idol’. They think an idol is someone you look up to and try to imitate, and this may be true of some fools, but to the smarter man, an idol (a word like ‘hero’ or ‘pinup’ I’ve never liked anyway), is someone whom, yes, you look up to, but don’t necessarily impersonate. If I had to name an idol of mine, I would choose HST (Hunter S Thompson), but the reason this man is my idol is not because I discovered this man and thought, This guy is great I want to be just like him! No, the reason for your idol should be that you discovered this person and saw a lot of yourself in him; when I discovered HST at eighteen years old I related to him in a way I’ve never related to any other so-called ‘star’ (in music, writing, art, film or anywhere!). We shared a lot of the same personality traits – a dependence on alcohol, a passion for drugs, and a wild, unruly, mischievous, unpredictable and capricious character. We even shared a similar background story – problems with the legs as a young child that developed into a peculiar gait in later life, years spent broke as a struggling writer (I’m still there), an affiliation with motorbikes, guns and the Hell’s Angels (my godfather is one and I was raised by bikers who owned shotguns and we regularly went shooting), an uncanny ability to get ourselves into peculiar predicaments and crazy adventures and ridiculous situations, a knack for surviving (I, like Hunter, have already long since used up my nine lives), an anarchistic attitude, a passion for fun, danger, music, the 60’s and literature, not to mention us both achieving a modicum of success at the exact same age, twenty-nine. That’s just to name a few character traits I share with Hunter (I could go on, but don’t want to, because this isn’t about me).
With that out the way, what better way to explain the meaning of gonzo than to let the Godfather of Gonzo himself explain. For this task I have scoured through my personal collection of HST interviews, letters and novels to painstakingly piece together every time he has answered this question (and he has surely been asked it more times than me plus a million!) to cobble together, hopefully, a concise and clear definition of the word…Gonzo. So let’s let my “idol” HST take over…
“Gonzo – Adjective informal, chiefly N. American 1) Relating to or denoting journalism of any exaggerate, subjective or fictionalised style. 2) Bizzare or crazy: ‘the woman was either gonzo or very stoned’. – ORIGIN 1970s: perhaps from Italian gonzo meaning ‘foolish’ or Spanish ganso meaning ‘goose, fool’.”
~ Oxford English Dictionary
HST ~ “[Ibogaine], it’s a wonderful African drug. Natives in Africa use it when they want to sit by a watering hole and wait for beasts. It freezes you in a catatonic stupor. But it also makes you prone to sudden rages. This is what I’d been watching with Ed Muskie (Senator on the U.S campaign trail 1972 which Hunter covered extensively for Rolling Stone magazine) and I thought By God, that’s what he must have been eating! So I wrote that a mysterious Brazilian doctor appeared, and the word was that he had brought in some Ibogaine. Which explained all of Muskie’s behaviour – If I’m going to go into the fantastic, I have to have a firm grounding in the truth – otherwise everything I write about politics becomes a hallucination.”
P.J O’Rourke, the interviewer in this case, sums up with a straight face by asking “The fantastic with its feet in the truth, is that your definition of gonzo?” To which Hunter gave two surprisingly solemn replies. The first was:
HST ~ “I give Ibogaine as an example of the gonzo technique. It’s essentially a ‘what if?’, if Ed Muskie’s acting like this, here’s an explanation. But I had his behaviour down – talking with the innermost staff people; they were telling me things they don’t tell other reporters. Like, ‘Ye gods man, how did I ever get involved with this campaign!?’”
And the secondary reply, more cautionary:
HST ~ “I get all kinds of things in the mail, from journalist students, from kids trying to be gonzo writers. It doesn’t work man, it’s horrible!”
It’s worth mentioning at this point that Christopher Hitchens says in the book Ancient Gonzo Wisdom, that a few years after this interview, he had the chance to interview Tony Snow (one of Bush’s closest speech writers) on camera, and decided to ask him if there was any truth to the Ibogaine story. The interviewer nearly fell off his chair when the reply came, rather than a routine denial, Snow said that “All those who worked for the president had the impression he was taking the wrong drugs at the time”. Christopher Hitchens sums this up by saying “As so often, the ‘straight’ story was something a gonzo operative could not have fabricated!’”
Interview by Peter Olszewski with ‘Loose Licks’ (Australia) 1976:
Loose Licks ~ “You’re credited as the Dean of Gonzo Journalism?”
HST ~ “Oh yeah.”
Loose Licks ~ “Exactly what does it mean?”
HST ~ “I’ve never really been sure. I just thought, If I’m going to be a journalist, I may as well be my own kind.
Loose Licks ~ “Where does the word ‘Gonzo’ come from?”
HST ~ “It’s some old Boston word meaning a little crazy, a bit ‘off-the-wall’. Sort of a crazy from being high – a demented craziness.”
Here is Ron Rosenbaum talking in High Times magazine in 1977:
“When [Hunter] covered the 1972 campaign trail as national affairs editor for Rolling Stone, Thompson’s special dead-line and drug-crazed ‘Gonzo’ journalism – his own patented mix of paranoia, nightmare, recklessness and black humour – would fill the nervous secret service agents with fear and loathing on the campaign trail. Ever since then, Thompson’s become a kind of national character…”
In an interview for the Commonwealth Times with S.M Jackson in 1978 Hunter said this:
“I never understood what Hemingway meant when he said that journalism is good for a writer as long as he knows when to quit. Now I do, I think I have taken journalism way past what most people who get into it, on an individual basis, could, or would have taken it, and there’s not that much room! For good journalism, you need bizarre reality, but our reality has become very mundane now.”
In an interview with Jane Perlez for Washington Journalism Review in 1979 she asked Hunter “Let’s talk about writing, you said that Gonzo journalism is, in a way, simply first-draft journalism. If you’d done the second drafts how would they be different?”
HST ~ “They’d be quieter. I very rarely add crazier things in my second draft…drafting is a very fine tool, I miss that. It usually makes it better but you can worry a piece to death. I figure, the night before, I can write it up, write anything I want, then the next day when I come back to look at it, I knock out parts that are too crazy.” (I don’t Hunter, I send it off within an hour of the first draft, or maybe you can tell!?)
In an interview with Atlantic Unbound by Matthew Hahn in 1997:
Atlantic Unbound ~ “You say ‘Gonzo Journalism’ is a term that you’re not fond of anymore, because it’s been cast as inaccurate and crazy. Has anyone written Gonzo besides you?”
HST ~ “Is that [the Nixon Obituary Hunter wrote] Gonzo in your mind? Signed and shot by the author.
Atlantic Unbound ~ “No, I guess when I think of Gonzo I think of your story ‘The Kentucky derby is Decadent and Depraved’ [Scanlan’s Monthly, June 1970]. You throw yourself into a story and write your way out of it. Has anybody else done that?”
HST ~ “Oh yeah! There are some good ones. Very few, but a novel called Snow Blind [by Robert Sabbag] in the seventies about the cocaine trade.
Atlantic Unbound ~ “Why has the term ‘Gonzo’ fallen out of favour with you?”
HST ~ “Well, maybe because of what I just asked you. Since the Random House Dictionary defines ‘Gonzo’ as sort-of whatever I do or write, and I ask you, does that Nixon obituary seem like Gonzo Journalism to you? And you say no, then I have to wonder, right?”
Atlantic Unbound ~ “How do you compare Gonzo to the New Journalism? Do you see them as separate or intertwined?”
HST ~ Intertwined. It is no accident that Gonzo is in Tom Wolfe’s book The New Journalism ”
In an interview by Douglas Brinkley for The Paris Review in 2000 Hunter said this of the gonzo aspect of his aforementioned Kentucky Derby piece:
HST ~ “Well, the article starts out with an organized lead about the arrival at the airport and meeting a guy I told about the Black Panthers coming in; and then it runs amok, disintegrates into flashes and dots!
The Paris Review ~ “And the reaction?”
HST ~ “A wave of praise. ‘This is wonderful…pure Gonzo’. I heard from friends, Tom Wolfe, Bill Kennedy…
The Paris Review ~ “So what, in fact, was learned from the experience?”
HST ~ “I realised I was onto something: maybe we can have fun with this journalism thing…maybe it isn’t such a low-thing. Of course, I recognised the difference between sending in an actual copy and tearing scraps out of my notebook.”
The Paris Review ~ “An interesting editorial choice – for Scanlan’s to go ahead with what you sent.”
HST ~ “They had no choice, it was that, or white space.”
And in an interview with Ron Rosenbaum for High Times in 1977 (and I think Will Johnstone and I have felt like this after a gig review sometimes, sometimes? Okay, most times, most times? OKAY! EVERY TIME!! HAPPY NOW!!!)…ahem…HST said this of the Kentucky Derby piece:
“…after the third day of that horrible lockup [The Kentucky derby and surrounding events], I’d lie in the bathtub for hours in the morning drinking White Horse scotch out of the bottle – just lying in the tub feeling like Well, I got away with it for a while, but this time I’ve pushed it too far. But there was no alternative, something had to go in. Finally, I just began to tear pages out of my notebooks, since I write in them constantly and draw things, and they were legible (which is more than can be said for Will Johnstone and I’s notebooks!). But they were hard to get into the telecopier. We began to just send torn pages, when I first sent one down with the copy boy I thought the phone was going to ring any minute with some torrent of abuse from whoever was editing the thing in New York. I just sort of sat back and watched TV. I was waiting for the shit-to-hit-the-fan…but, almost immediately the copy boy was back wanting more. And I thought Ah-ha, what’s this? Here’s the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel. Maybe they’re crazy, but why worry? I think I actually called Hinckle (editor at Scanlan’s magazine) and asked him if he wanted any more pages and he said ‘Oh yeah, it’s wonderful stuff…wonderful’. So I began to just tear the fucking things out. And sometimes, I would have to write hand-written inserts – I just gave up on the typewriter – sent page-after-page right out of the notebook, and of course Hinckle was as happy as twelve dogs, but I was full of grief, and shame. I thought this was the end, it was the worst hole I’d ever gotten into, and I’d always been pretty good about making deadlines, scaring people to death, but making them none-the-less. This time I made it, but in what was, what I considered, the foulest and cheapest ways, like Oakland’s unclean touchdown against Miami…off-balance…they did it all wrong…but it worked! They printed it word-for-word, even with the spaces, thoughts, and jagged stuff like that. And I felt nice that I hadn’t sunk the magazine by failing to get the story done right, and I slunk back to Colorado and thought Oh fuck, when it comes out I’m going to take a tremendous beating from a lot of people! But exactly the opposite happened. As soon as the thing came out people were calling it a ‘tremendous breakthrough in journalism’, ‘a stroke of genius!’ And I thought, What in the shit? One of the letters from Bill Cardazo, who was the editor of the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine at the time, I’d heard him use the word Gonzo when I covered the New Hampshire Primary in ’68 with him. It meant sort of ‘crazy’, ‘off-the-wall’, a phrase I always associate with Oakland now. But Cardanzo said something like, ‘Forget all the shit you’ve been writing, this is it; this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling!’ Yeah, Gonzo, of course, that’s what I’ve been doing all this time – but of course, I might be crazy.”
In an interview with Yahoo! Internet Life in 2001 Hugo Perez asked Hunter “How did Gonzo journalism come about?” Here is Hunter’s reply:
“I never have known what the hell Gonzo means anyway. It was really born out of innate laziness – which, quite frankly, I’m proud to have overcome, and nobody’s even complimented me on it! I’m a monument of triumph to laziness, because I just take my notepads and type them up. I was trying to compete with photographers and illustrators. Whenever Annie Leibovitz (Rolling Stone photographer) would finish a story she would just send her film in. But I’d be left with the empty pages to slave over, so I thought, well I can do that too. One of these days, I’m going to put my notes into a film bag, they used to send them in a little fishnet bag with ‘press’ written all over it, and while I was working I was trying to throw my notebooks in that bag to New York. I was trying to write-on-the-run. You oughta’ see my notebooks, they will teach you something!” (I know the feeling Hunter!).
In 2002 Hunter talked ‘Gonzo’ with Mick O’Regan for the Australian Broadcast Corporation:
O’Regan ~ “…you’ve pioneered a form of journalism called Gonzo journalism, in which there is almost no revision, what you see and feel goes down on page, and it’s that first blush, that first image that hits the readership. Does that mean that in a way it’s hard for you to appear credible within the US media because people say ‘Oh look, just another conspiracy theory from a drug-addled Gonzo journalist like Hunter S Thompson?’”
HST ~ “Yeah, that’s a problem, I’m not sure if it’s my problem or their problem. I’ve been right so often that my percentages are high, I’ll stand by this column that I wrote the other day, and the next one. So what appears to maybe be Gonzo journalism…I’m not going to proclaim any prophetic powers but…”
In a 2003 piece for Razor magazine, J. Rentilly (after spending days trying to track the Guru of Gonzo down to meet the deadline for his interview) says this of gonzo journalism:
“…with the deadline approaching, you’re left to ponder the actual possibilities of writing a story about Hunter S Thompson, the father of Gonzo journalism, the legendary counter-culture, anti-authoritarian figure, who has forged a career and a reputation out of guzzling drugs, haggling broads, rattling cages, naming names, shucking convention and etiquette, digging up bodies, and shitting on all things sanctimonious and false in seminal Gonzo works like Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, and Hell’s Angels and in unrefined, hard-boiled fiction tomes like The Rum Diary and The Curse of Luno.”
In his now-legendary-interview with Playboy magazine, 2005, at 67 years old, months before he committed suicide, Hunter said this of gonzo journalism:
“Just because you give up fighting with your knuckles doesn’t mean you give up fighting. That’s the deadly serious underbelly of Gonzo – the fist inside the glove. I’m still every bit as willing to take on a fight, it’s just a case of where and when. You need to know by gut instinct when the numbers are against you. You need to choose your battles – and your battleground – carefully. You don’t want to volunteer to be destroyed. Pick your spots. And there’s no reason to see it all as a battle anyway.”
And finally, if you’ve stayed with me this long, here is an excerpt from another Playboy interview, but this one was conducted in 1974 by Graig Vetter, it is, I think, the final word on ‘Gonzo’ journalism:
Playboy ~ “Is there a difference between Gonzo and the new journalism?”
HST ~ “Yeah, I think so. Unlike Tom Wolfe or Gay Talese, for instance, I almost never reconstruct a story. They’re both much better reporters than I am, but then, I don’t really think of myself as a reporter. Gonzo is just a word I picked up cos’ I like the sound of it – which is not to say there isn’t a basic difference between the kind of writing I do and the Wolfe/Talese style. They tend to go back and recreate stories that already happened, where as I like to get right in the middle of whatever I’m writing about – as personally involved as possible. There’s a lot more to [Gonzo] than that, but I guess if we have to make a distinction, that’s a pretty safe place to start.”
Playboy ~ “Are the fantasies and tangents a necessary part of your writing?”
HST ~ “Absolutely, just let your mind wander, let it go where it wants to. Like with that Muskie thing; I’d just been reading a drug report from some lab in California on the symptoms of Ibogaine poisoning and I thought, I’ve seen that style before, and not in West Africa or the Amazon; I’ve seen those symptoms very recently. And then I thought, Of course, rages, stupors, being able to sit for days without moving – that’s Ed Muskie!”
Playboy ~ “Doesn’t that stuff get in the way of your serious political reporting?”
HST ~ “Probably – but it also keeps me sane. I guess the main problem is that people believe almost any kind of twisted story about politicians or Washington. But I can’t help that, some of the truth that doesn’t get written is a lot more twisted than any of my fantasies.”
And so, if by now, you don’t understand Gonzo journalism, then I suggest you hit a drop of acid, or drop a hit of acid, or at least bury your head in the sand, in fact, better yet, as the Scots put it – ‘Away an’ boil yer’ heid ya’ muppet!’ And I don’t mean Gonzo! And in conclusion don’t try to recreate any of the stunts you’ve seen here tonight, they are done by trained professionals, don’t try this at home! You will be disappointed. And lastly; *1) It is a mixture of many dialects and colloquialisms from around Britain and parts of Europe, I guess you could call it a ‘pikey’ accent. And **2) By melting down red Dax Wax and applying liberally…
Thanks for listening.
See ya’ in the pit!
Hunter S Thompson. & C.T Herron