“I’d like to do a book on people who play polo and give me a lot of free booze. I got tired of living in that Hell’s Angels world… and fooling around in a lot of crummy bars.”
The Gonzo era began in earnest with an article called “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” which Dr. Thompson wrote for Scanlan’s Monthly in 1970. If you’ve never read it, I encourage you to do so right now; it’s a funny and quick read, only about 14 pages. Here’s a link if you need one (you’re probably going to want to print it out; or better yet, just get a copy of The Great Shark Hunt).
In the years since his sojourn in the Haight-Ashbury, the Doctor had talked football with Richard Nixon, then almost accidentally blown up Nixon’s plane while lighting a cigarette; been beaten and thrown through a plate glass window by Chicago police at the 1968 Democratic convention; and masterminded the “Freak Power” campaign of Joe Edwards, who came within a few votes of becoming mayor of Aspen, where Thompson had settled after leaving California.
Encouraged by Edwards’ showing, Thompson decided to run for sheriff of Aspen on a Freak Power ticket. Here are some excerpts from his platform:
1) Sod all the streets at once. Rip up all city streets with jackhammers and use the junkasphalt (after melting) to create a huge parking and auto-storage lot on the outskirts of town.... All public movement would be by foot and a fleet of bicycles, maintained by the city police force.
2) Change the name "Aspen," by public referendum, to "Fat City." This would prevent greedheads, land-rapers and other human jackals from capitalizing on the name "Aspen." Thus, Snowmass-at-Aspen — recently sold to Kaiser/Aetna of Oakland — would become "Snowmass-at-Fat City." And the main advantage here is that changing the name of the town would have no major effect on the town itself, or on those people who came here because it's a good place to live. What effect the name change might have on those who came here to buy low, sell high and move on is fairly obvious... and eminently desirable. These swine should be fucked, broken and driven across the land.
3) Drug Sales must be controlled. My first act as Sheriff will be to install, on the courthouse lawn, a bastinado platform and a set of stocks — in order to punish dishonest dope dealers in a proper public fashion.... It will be the general philosophy of the Sheriff's office that no drug worth taking should be sold for money. Non-profit sales will be viewed as borderline cases, and judged on their merits. But all sales for money-profit will be punished severely. This approach, we feel, will establish a unique and very human ambiance in the Aspen (or Fat City) drug culture.
4) Hunting and fishing should be forbidden to all non-residents, with the exception of those who can obtain the signed endorsement of a resident — who will then be legally responsible for any violation or abuse committed by the non-resident he has "signed for." Fines will be heavy and the general policy will be Merciless Prosecution of All Offenders.
5) The Sheriff and his Deputies should never be armed in public. Every urban riot, shoot-out and blood-bath (involving guns) in recent memory has been set off by some trigger-happy cop in a fear frenzy. And no cop in Aspen has had to use a gun for so many years that I feel safe in offering a $12 cash reward to anybody who can recall such an incident in writing. (Box K-3, Aspen.) Under normal circumstances a pistol-grip Mace-bomb, such as the MK-V made by General Ordnance, is more than enough to quickly wilt any violence-problem that is likely to emerge in Aspen. And anything the MK-V can't handle would require reinforcements anyway... in which case the response would be geared at all times to Massive Retaliation: a brutal attack with guns, bombs, pepper-foggers, wolverines and all other weapons deemed necessary to restore the civic peace.
6) It will be the policy of the Sheriff's office savagely to harass all those engaged in any form of land-rape. This will be done by acting, with utmost dispatch, on any and all righteous complaints. My first act in office — after setting up the machinery for punishing dope-dealers — will be to establish a Research Bureau to provide facts on which any citizen can file a Writ of Seizure, a Writ of Stoppage, a Writ of Fear, of Horror... yes... even a Writ of Assumption... against any greedhead who has managed to get around our antiquated laws and set up a tar-vat, scum-drain or gravel-pit. These writs will be pursued with overweening zeal... and always within the letter of the law. Selah.
But running a political campaign, especially one designed to outrage the local power structure, is a lot of pressure; so Thompson decided, as a way of blowing off steam, to return to his native state of Kentucky to cover the Derby. (This is very similar to the circumstances that led to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — which we will get to soon enough….)
Although it began as a kind of vacation, the Derby story had a major impact on Thompson’s career in a couple of ways. One is that it was the first time he worked with artist Ralph Steadman, whose visual style — grotesque exaggeration that conveys essential truths — was the perfect complement to the Doctor’s writing. The other had to do with how the article was put together. In his book Fear and Loathing, Paul Perry describes it thusly:
At the end of Derby week, Scanlan's brought Hunter and Steadman to New York to put together the story. Steadman had a sketchbook full of caricatures and the worst hangover he'd ever had. Having lost his colors and drawing pencils, he borrowed lipstick and eye shadow from the wife of the managing editor and, using them, completed seven drawings in two days.
The editors put Hunter up in the Royalton Hotel and told him to produce, but nothing happened. Copyboys and secretaries made frequent trips to the room to gather pages, but they left empty-handed. Managing editor Don Goddard came to the room and had a heart-to-heart talk with Hunter. "We need something, now don't we?" he said, his English calm hiding his desperation. "We can't publish empty pages, can we?"
For two days nothing came out. As Hunter later described it, this was "a terminal writer's block." On the third day, he soaked in a hot bathtub and took counsel from a quart of White Horse Scotch that he drank straight from the bottle. He thought about the idle presses and his friend [Warren] Hinckle waiting in San Francisco for something to slap on those twelve empty pages in the front of the magazine. Finally, he ripped a few pages out of his notebook and handed them to a copyboy who was waiting to deliver them to the New York office. Then he turned on the TV and waited for an editor to call and scream a torrent of abuse. Instead the copyboy came back and said they wanted more.
Hunter read his notes and tore out more pages. A little while later, Hinckle called from San Francisco. He had received the telecopied pages from New York and he loved them. Send more.
Hunter edited his notes and handed them to the copyboy, who ran them to Goddard, who reshuffled the order of some of the material and sent it to San Francisco.
"I was full of grief and shame," Hunter told a reporter from High Times magazine. "This time I made it, but in what I considered to be the foulest and cheapest way.... I slunk back to Colorado and said oh fuck, when it comes out I'm going to take a tremendous beating from a lot of people."
The piece, "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved," was published in June 1970. Immediately Hunter started getting letters and phone calls of congratulation on a piece well done. One of those letters came from Bill Cardoza, editor of the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, who considered the piece a breakthrough in journalism. "Forget all this shit you've been writing, this it; this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling."
This was the first time the word "Gonzo" was used in reference to Hunter's work.
In the end, Thompson did not become sheriff; but he did discover a new approach to writing that would soon bear fruit in a major way.