[5 January 2009]
The late, great Frank Zappa once quipped, “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.”
In this day and age of everyone and their kid sister starting up a blog and fancying themselves “rock journalists” just because they have a public forum to gush over Deerhunter ad infinitum, it is high time for the term “rock journalism” to be given a drastic re-assessment.
Though the concepts of music criticism and rock journalism have been prevalent in American pop culture since the ‘50s, with the exceptions of the likes of Greil Marcus, David Fricke, Richard Meltzer, and the late, great Lester Bangs, the attitude of the music is rarely conveyed by most of those who sit before their computer to type out their thoughts and declare each other to be “rock journalists”. In fact, if you break down the term itself as a legitimate journalist who exudes the rebellious and freewheeling spirit of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, there is only one man who can truly be considered a “rock journalist”.
That man was the dearly departed Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, whose rollercoaster of a life in both the professional and private sectors is as exhilarating, exploitative, explosive, and ultimately tragic as the most decadent rock demigods to whom we pay homage time and again with each passing generation. No, he didn’t write about music beyond the circumstantial and anecdotal, but consequently his articles were the most rock ‘n’ roll copy to ever grace the pages of Rolling Stone, as anyone who has ever read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas can accurately attest.
The music on the soundtrack to Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson—an excellent character study of the legendary scribe filmed by hot new documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Men in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side)—is most certainly not a slapdash attempt to capture the journalistic Wildman through random song selection. Each cut included on this 33-track set has, in some form or another and to varying degrees, strong ties to the legacy of Dr. Thompson in both his private and professional life.
Interwoven between audio snips from the film—including narration from the film by the great Johnny Depp, who played Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, along with recorded dialogue from Thompson and speeches by the likes of George McGovern and Jimmy Carter—the music of Gonzo is as crucial to the fabric of this documentary as the punditry. For instance, instrumental R&B legend James Booker’s 1960 hit “Gonzo” is perhaps the most significant song on the soundtrack, as it not only bears the namesake of the style of journalism Thompson helped birth, but also served as his theme song of sorts while he was in Haight-Ashbury writing his notorious Hell’s Angels book. His nom de plume, Raoul Duke, was also said to have been named in tribute to Booker’s record label, Duke/Peacock Records. Another song of utmost importance to the legend of HST is Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Long as I Can See the Light”, which served as his campaign anthem when he ran for sheriff of Woody Creek, Colorado, the little town he called home for so many years. Then you have the inclusion of Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money” from his 1978 album Excitable Boy, which plays during the film’s end credits, and was written by Zevon with Thomspon specifically in mind at the time.
You have a host of Thompson’s personal favorites included here as well, most notably Bob Dylan, whom the good Doctor harbored a deep respect for both on a literary and musical level. Dylan’s influence is noted on the Gonzo soundtrack in the form of his searing version of “Maggie’s Farm” from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, a moment in rock history Thompson particularly savored, stating that he had “relished the moment when Dylan had plugged in his black Fender Strat and turned the folk festival upside down.” “Mr. Tambourine Man”, which Thompson wanted to be played at his memorial, is here as well. Also featured are a trio of tracks indicative of his Haight-Ashbury days: the Youngbloods’ “Get Together”, Big Brother and the Holding Company’s “Combination of the Two”, and Brewer and Shipley’s “One Toke Over the Line”, all of which also made prominent appearances on the soundtrack to Terry Gilliam’s aforementioned Fear and Loathing film.
Other notable inclusions are John Prine’s arresting rendition of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home”, which greatly appealed to fellow Kentuckian Thompson, as well as “If I Had a Boat”, the opening cut to Lyle Lovett’s 1987 masterpiece Pontiac, which was said to have been played by Thompson “50 or 70 times in a row.” Additional HST favorites featured here range from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” to Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” (in mono, no less) and, for some odd reason, “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate, which, if you ever saw Boogie Nights, is forever ruined by Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character Scotty and his seedy gawk at Dirk Diggler during that one pool party scene.
“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs,” Hunter S. Thompson once famously quipped in regards to the record industry. The soundtrack to Gonzo, warts and all, is a perfect showcase for the shafts of light in that long plastic hallway that inspired him to be the best damn “rock” journalist to never turn in a record review.