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In The Mind of “Gonzo”

Analise Lipari | Monday, December 1, 2008

The name “Hunter S. Thompson” may seem unfamiliar to most young people today. To a generation born well after the monumental changes of the 1960s, Thompson’s brand of writing, Gonzo journalism, might only conjure up images of a fuzzy blue Muppet rather than the decidedly countercultural approach to writing and to life that Thompson embodied throughout that decade and the rest of his life. The author of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs,” a pioneering journalist and a countercultural icon, Thompson was a man to be reckoned with for his literary force alone.A documentary film titled “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” was released earlier this year, and it tracks Thompson’s life and career, as well as his unique place in the rising tides of the 1960s in America. The film’s soundtrack features clips of actor Johnny Depp’s narration, recordings of Thompson himself, and a slew of 60s rock tracks that pepper the film as they did Thompson’s life. “The Edge,” the album’s third track, is one of the most striking narration clips on the soundtrack, summing up much of the philosophy that ran through Thompson’s vivid writing. “The edge. There is no honest way to explain it. Because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others, the living, are those who push their control as far as they felt they can handle it and pulled back or slowed down. The edge is still out there.”The term “Gonzo” comes from Thompson’s love for a wacky, instrumental track, “Gonzo” by James Booker, the album’s fifth track. The song begins with a whimsical air, employing flute and electric organ in its decidedly “mod,” meandering melody. This instrumental track effectively sets up the listener with an element of Thompson’s mindset. “Weird and Twisted Nights” is credited to Ralph Steadman, Hunter S. Thompson and Mo Dean, and features a slower beginning and low-key vocals that pick up speed as the song continues through its images of “mangled bodies.” On a historical note, Steadman was a British cartoonist who is best known for giving illustrated life too much of Thompson’s work.One of Thompson’s favorite bands, Jefferson Airplane, contributes a lesser known track of theirs, “It’s No Secret,” to the album. It’s something of a departure from better known Jefferson Airplane releases, such as “White Rabbit,” but still feels distinct. The liner notes reveal that Thompson had a crush on lead singer Grace Slick, whose distinctive voice shines on this guitar-driven anthem. Another countercultural icon, Lou Reed, adds “Walk on the Wild Side” as the album’s eleventh song.One of the soundtrack’s strengths is its curious diversity; in addition to tracks like those listed above, it includes one of Thompson’s other musical loves, bluegrass, on “My Old Kentucky Home Goodnight” The song is an exercise in quiet, vocally-driven bluegrass. Right afterward is a track by Big Brother and the Holding Company, the band that brought Janis Joplin to the world. “Combination of the Two” allows Joplin’s grainy, powerful vocals to float sharply above the music of this Haight-Ashbury concoction.On the subject of life and living in San Francisco, Depp’s smooth reading of Thompson on “The Wave” belies the rising power of the countercultural movement. “It was madness in any direction, at any hour. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.”And that, I think, was the handle. That sense of inevitable victory over the forces of old and evil… We were riding the quest of a high and beautiful wave.”Other highlights of the soundtrack include Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing,” the album’s pair of Bob Dylan tracks, including a live version of “Maggie’s Farm,” and “Get Together” by The Youngbloods. Thompson himself would often champion The Youngblood’s work as more powerful than most critics gave it credit for, down to the track’s recognizable chorus.  “C’mon, people now/ Smile on your brother/ Everybody get together/ Try to love one another right now.”If anything, the “Gonzo” soundtrack is a fascinating look into the mind of a revolutionary man through the music he knew and loved. Any fan of sixties music, ranging from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Lou Reed, should check out this album.