Read for the Roses: Remembering Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘Decadent’ Derby

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Read for the Roses: Remembering Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘Decadent’ Derby

It’s not a short story.

Not really.

If you look it up, Google it, snatch knowledge from the void – everything will call “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” an “article”.  Fine. 

This is also an article.

Fine.

But if you sit down – or stand, or spend bitter moments pounding concrete and hitting your shoulders on streetlamps – and read it.  If you exist someplace and open some copy of something where this is written and piece together in your patchwork brains the patchwork of Hunter S. Thompson’s thoughts on the 96th Run for the Roses – you would never decide on your own: “this is an article.”

It’s a story that Thompson told.  A story in the same way that people rehearse their best experiences from Life until the plotlines are a well-oiled performance, and the audience lumped around the dinner table can read along just by watching the storyteller’s eyes – theatre face made out of a playbook.  And they all know exactly when to laugh.  We make caricatures of ourselves.  Sitting like illustrations.  Paper dolls.  Stick figures.  Exhibit A.  Exhibit B.  Gonzo.

Gonzo. 

Tomorrow marks the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby.  I’ve never been to the Derby before.  I am a native.  I’ve watched it glow on televisions.  Heard the commentary growing into a crescendo as the horses pump down the backstretch.  The fury.  The tension.  You imagine the faces of the disembodied sports commentators as beet red.  Contorted.  The lines around jawbone and browbone and the deep furrows around the nose dividing the face into blocks of flesh as they bellow into some microphone.  Riding crops on the horses’ flanks.  The animals brown bulges with muscles moving round like balloons.  The motion blur of whips, little flags waving.  Snapping.  A breeze from the jockey’s hand.  Black metronomes keeping rhythm.  Win.  Win.  Win.

And then it’s over, and everybody has had an orgasm, and that commentator with the scarlet sweating words has probably died from the effort.

Maybe you notice that the horses have sweated so much in the effort to race that their hides have erupted in white patches of foam.  Rosettes of whipped cream on the winner when the Roses from Kroger hang on his shoulders.

Turn off the television. 

Thompson went to the Derby in 1970 to cover the event as a sports journalist.  Ralph Steadman accompanied him.  While first published in an issue of Scanlan’s Monthly the following June, the “article” that was born from Thompson’s coverage was the beginning of a famous and famously-unapologetic style of writing that would transform Thompson from a drugged demi-journalist into a breed of literary genius. 

“The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”, written with a manic, first-person pulse, is widely regarded as Thompson’s first example of the style now known as “Gonzo” – a term coined by Bill Cardoso, editor for The Boston Globe.  Praising Thompson’s piece as a breakthrough, Cardoso recognized “Decadent and Depraved’s” unusual style as the birth of the signature Thompson voice that would launch his career: “This is it, this is pure Gonzo.  If this is a start, keep rolling.” 

The result of a looming deadline and no coherent story after days spent immersed in the drunken and lewd spectacle, Thompson began tearing out pages from his notebooks, numbering them and shipping them to his editors, creating an unprecedented steamroller effect of writing that captured Thompson’s own place in the raucous Run for the Roses. 

The Fear and Loathing was born.

The Kentucky Derby is now broadcast in HD.  You will never, ever see the screaming faces of the commentators in High Definition because they look like cavemen.  It’s not polished.  The words for “My Old Kentucky Home” are easy to read in a crawl across the screen.  Sing along. 

Today I saw a limousine in the drive-thru at McDonald’s.  Grease stains somewhere on his seersucker.  Somewhere in the crowd.  Somewhere a human being with his white teeth and brown bourbon, cashing in and not looking while the horses chew and chew on their bits and sweat like pigs after the finish line.  Exhibit C.          

I am not a Gonzo journalist, I’m just a terrible one. 

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