“Gonzo: A style of pornography that attempts to place the viewer directly into the scene.”
This is the Wikipedia definition that shows up first in the search for the word ‘Gonzo’. A few months ago, while visiting Punjab on an assignment (yeah), I noticed a women’s boutique with the word Gonzo emblazoned high on a signboard. Where did she get that, I wondered, and on casually asking some friends was told about a pornography genre with the same name (still doesn’t make sense why a clothing store would use the word!).
Well I think the grand daddy of drug literature – Hunter S Thompson, who’d be firing bullets to celebrate his 80th birthday if he was alive today – would’ve had a hearty laugh at this innovative usage of a term he had invented to define his peculiar style of journalism. Because that is what Gonzo initially meant. It was coined in June 1970 to describe a highly subjective, first-person sports article written by Thompson when faced with an impossible deadline. There was no looking back after that kind of literary flamboyance.
Hunter Thompson is a legend, even those who don’t know much about him are at least aware of Johnny Depp’s mad acid-and-mescal charade through the heart of a glitzy ’70s America in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. He inserted himself as the prime masala fiction in otherwise journalistic pieces based on facts and, in doing so, managed to piss off everyone (including the president of USA) who came in his way.
The Rolling Stone we know in India today looks like a dim candy bar next to the corrosive prose of Thompson which redefined the overall tone of the magazine back in the day. The man shot himself in 1967, and his ashes were shot into space with a cannon – this last wish fulfilled by his life-long friend Johnny Depp.
In memory of the writer who sharpened the hippie and beatnik vibes existing at the time into something far more potent called Gonzo – which has become an adjective meaning ‘bizarre’ – let’s take a look at books that stand solid ground on their own. Beyond Vegas, here goes:
You might have seen the Johnny Depp starrer of the same name. It didn’t do halfway as well as Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, but Depp’s portrayal of a Thompson-like alcoholic character working in a newspaper in Puerto Rico was bang on. The book that the film is based on is obviously even better.
Hunter Thompson’s first book came about after a year of riding a mean machine close to the edge and getting a fair number of punches from the notorious members of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club. It was the seething narrative that made people stop and notice this uncompromising new voice. As the book’s subtitle suggests, it tells the ‘strange and terrible saga of outlaw motorcycle gangs’. Check out this kickass new interview with Thompson on the subject, animated by PBS.
This was a 1983 limited edition book that, luckily for us, has been reprinted in a smaller hardcover edition and is up for grabs online. Hunter Thompson entered some explosive collaborations with worthy artists during his lifetime. Of these, Johnny Depp is well known, but even nuttier was the connection with Ralph Steadman. The Curse of Lono narrates their experiences together in Hawaii covering a marathon, with trademark Steadman illustrations.
These ‘Confessions of a Political Junkie’ relate Thompson’s angst during the elections that finally made Clinton the President. It’s a collection of some of his finest essays and articles from various publications as well as personal faxes. It’s the last of a four-volume anthology called The Gonzo Papers. Black humour at its best.
Ralph Steadman’s verbal and graphic tribute to the father of Gonzo Journalism. Steadman is no Thompson when it comes to writing, and he admits so in his book’s epigraph, but the book is nevertheless a collector’s edition for the illustrations it includes and the personal correspondence between him and the madman that brought out the best in him.
Image Credit: Amazon
Mineli Goswami is a 24-year-old Assamese-East Indian, which usually translates into pretty good weekend feasts. When she’s not at her desk struggling with poetry – more often than she’d like – she’s seen wasting time on an assortment of things such as lugging an antique SLR, breaking nails climbing boulders, and chasing turtles. She’s graduated in history and has an unofficial PhD in Bandra-style jiving.