‘Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb’ is the documentary that Hunter S. Thompson has long deserved

Hunter S. Thompson gives his concession speech. Credit: David Hiser

As we close in on election day in the most contentious and insane presidential election in living memory, one question that keeps popping up across the media landscape is this – “What would Hunter S. Thompson have to say about the current election and the sorry state of American politics?”

It is a fair question to ask. As the author of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, Hunter S. Thompson was responsible for one of the most incendiary and celebrated books on the circus that is American politics. His coverage for Rolling Stone was a revelation at the time and is as fresh and compelling today as ever. Indeed, many so-called journalists and pretenders to the throne could do well to go back and read Thompson’s coverage and learn about the difference between actual insightful and revealing writing and that of merely serving up sycophantic bulletin board puff pieces for their preferred candidate. Thompson took no prisoners and skewered politicians on both sides. It was a brave thing to do in the era of Nixon but then Thompson was no ordinary journalist. He refused to merely stand on the sidelines, sniping at the participants – Thompson got directly involved. In 1970 he ran for Sheriff of Pitken County, Colorado, on the Freak Power ticket in a surreal campaign that drew international attention. And he almost won. Though he lost the battle, his campaign kick-started a political movement in Aspen that ultimately won the war, the reverberations of which still ripple throughout the community today.

The new documentary Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb, co-directed by Daniel Joseph Watkins and Ajax Phillips, tells the story of Thompson’s campaign and builds upon Watkins’ previous effort, the hugely impressive book Freak Power: Hunter S. Thompson’s Campaign for Sheriff (reviewed here). In addition to the massive volume of research that they had from that project, they discovered a virtual treasure trove of original campaign footage, some of it not even developed, which forms the basis of this new film. Essentially, this allowed Watkins and Phillips to tell the entire story of Thompson’s run for sheriff using original footage from 1970, filmed as the campaign progressed. Watkins also discovered nearly 3000 photographs from the campaign taken by David Hiser and Bob Kreuger. It is truly remarkable material that presents the real Hunter S. Thompson, totally unfiltered as he makes a serious attempt to affect political change in his home town.

Hunter S. Thompson and supporters writing campaign newsletters. Credit: David Hiser

The directors made the sensible decision to let this extraordinary footage tell the story through the participants own words, captured as they were on the scene in 1970. Complimenting this are several voice-overs from the individuals involved, from Bob Braudis (former Sheriff of Pitken County) and Joe Edwards (former Pitken County commissioner) to the artist Ralph Steadman and Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone. In a clever move, we don’t actually see these people until the very end, 50 years later, which proves to be strangely poignant.

I don’t want to give a complete breakdown of all the footage here or indeed the story. I think it is best that you see it unfold for yourself but I will say this – the parallel with what is happening today is uncanny. Through sheer serendipity, Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb serves to show us how little has changed in 50 years. The dynamics involved, the generational clashes and dirty political tactics deployed by the establishment are frighteningly familiar and relevant. One such powerful example of this is the scene at the beginning of the film as the incumbent Sheriff, Carrol D. Whitmire, representing the Democratic Party, debates Thompson. When asked about the source of Thompson’s support, Carroll responds – “I don’t know what Freak Power is. I don’t know what they are talking about when they talk about Freak Power.” Thompson’s answer was as salient then as it is today – “[Freak Power] is the ability to act, to have control over your environment, to have control of your government. My idea of running for sheriff is to expand the notion of the office. As it is now you just don’t talk to a cop, they are the enemy and that’s true not only of Aspen but of all over the country. That’s a dangerous situation when the enforcement arm is totally out of communication with the reality…It is time that we either bridge that chasm with some kind of realistic law enforcement or else I don’t think it is going to be bridged in this country, we are going to have revolution.”

Hunter S. Thompson conspires with Oscar Zeta Acosta about his campaign. Credit: Bob Krueger

As someone who has invested many years writing and researching about Hunter S. Thompson for my PhD, I have to say it is a delight to see the man treated onscreen in a serious, respectful manner. Hunter on film has been very hit and miss over the years and there has always been a temptation to indulge the Gonzo persona or idle celebrity gossip. The film also benefits from the focus being solely on his pre-Fear and Loathing days, with none of the over-the-top theatrics that define his later career. I have always maintained the view that Hunter S. Thompson’s career in the decade prior to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is actually the most interesting period of his life and the one which arguably contains his best work. Thankfully, more and more people are now discovering the incredible output from Hunter during this period (I highly recommend his letters collection The Proud Highway in this regard)

Freak Power shows us the serious writer and concerned citizen from that period, determined to take a stand against the greedheads that threatened his community. It reminds us that there was a lot more to Hunter S. Thompson than drugs and bad behavior. Clearly the film was a labor of love for all involved and this is reflected in every aspect of the production, from the soaring soundtrack to the unmistakable film poster by none other than the legendary Ralph Steadman. I also believe that the film contains the only known footage of Hunter with his legendary attorney, Oscar Zeta Acosta, who is shown briefly with Thompson on election night as he learns of his political fate.

On that note, I will leave you with words from Thompson himself, from his concession speech, as though he is speaking to us today – “Unfortunately I proved what I set out to prove ….that the American Dream really is fucked.” However, as Thompson’s campaign manager Ed Bastian added – “In retrospect, we can see that it was a really powerful oar-stroke forward for the change and political dynamics in the valley area around Aspen. All of the things we did…they all set the stage for what was to soon follow.” Thompson’s would later offer the mantra – “Politics is the art of controlling your environment.” He proved that to be the case by getting involved and taking action. We can all learn from that.

Freak Power is out now on Amazon, Vimeo and Apple – visit freakpower.com to learn more.

Watch the trailer below:

Appearance at Las Vegas Book Festival

I had the honour of appearing at the Las Vegas Book Festival this year to discuss the legacy of Hunter S. Thompson, alongside Hunter’s son Juan F. Thompson who is the author of Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up With Hunter S. Thompson, Margaret Harrell who was Hunter’s copy-editor for Hell’s Angels and author of the recently published The Hell’s Angels Letters: Hunter S. Thompson, Margaret Harrell and the Making of an American Classic and Timothy Denevi, author of Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism. It was a very enjoyable discussion and many thanks to Scott Dickensheets and all at the Las Vegas Book Festival for making this happen.

GonzoFest 2018 Literary Journalism Contest

Reposting from LibraryJournal

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Together with the Louisville Public Library and BiblioBoard, We’re celebrating the national expansion of the GonzoFest Literary Contest — and invite all public libraries, their independent authors, and writer communities to enter a single piece of literary nonfiction journalism in the tradition of the late Hunter S. Thompson.

Has there ever been a more suitable time than 2018 for fire-honed and razor-edged journalism in the tradition of the late Hunter S. Thompson?

To encourage such work, and to honor our hometown hero Thompson’s memory, the directors of the annual GonzoFest Louisville event invite writers and artists from all corners of the world to enter a single piece of literary nonfiction journalism and art of any kind to enter this year’s literary and art contests.

There is no type of story preferred over another — so long as it’s true, and interesting. The emphasis will be on the quality of the writing, and the significance of the story it tells.

Entries between 1,250 and 2,000 words are encouraged. They must be unpublished non-fiction, based on the author’s original reporting, observations or insights. Please include a cover page containing the author’s name, address, and contact information — as well as a brief statement attesting to the entry’s originality.

Entries must be submitted via the Literary Contest Portal.
All 2018 literary submissions are due by 11:59 p.m. EDT on March 28, 2018.

Link for submitting 

The winning entry will be considered for publication in the GonzoFest edition of the Louisville Eccentric Observer, Louisville’s venerable alternative weekly.  The author will also be honored during the festival, and receive a $1,000 cash prize, thanks to contest sponsor BiblioBoard. BiblioBoard is a community engagement platform for libraries, helping the library connect with and distribute works from local writers, journalists, musicians, artists, filmmakers and other cultural partners.  Also supporting the contest as BiblioBoard’s Media Partner is Library Journal, which will feature the winning entry on its website.  Library Journal is the most trusted and respected publication for the library community.

The judges, which include prominent journalists from across the U.S. and Europe, encourage work that is reported with a keen eye for detail and written in a bold and elegant style, as Thompson’s best work was. The judges for 2018 will be posted soon.

Questions: 

Michael Lindenberger
Gonzo Festival Literary Contest coordinator
The Dallas Morning News
mlindenberger@dallasnews.com.

Gonzo Gallery and Thomas W. Benton Update

Hi folks,

First of all a belated Happy New Year to you all! Lets hope 2014 is a good one to everybody.

I know updates have been few and far between in recent months, which is due to the amount of PhD related work that I have been wading through. As my thesis is now in the final stretches I hope to be able to devote a little more time to the site this year, not to mention finally finish that damn PhD once and for all.

Anyway, I have been in touch with DJ Watkins recently and he was kind enough to update me on changes to the official Gonzo Gallery and Tom Benton websites.

Here is what he had to say:

The Gonzo Gallery is now officially broadcasting from www.gonzogallery.com. Artwork by the usual cast of characters – Thomas W. Benton, Ralph Steadman, Hunter S. Thompson, and William S. Burroughs – is now online including work that’s never been available for purchase before. 
 
We also decided to leave behind the old Thomas W. Benton website and showcase his work in a lavishly post-modern style at www.tomwbenton.com. Unlike our previous, quasi-analog site, you can actually purchase original prints and paintings now.  
 
And if two new websites weren’t enough, curators, important curators, who stand as pillars of artistic acumen have chosen to include The Gonzo Museum in the Art Genome Project (Think Pandora for artwork) and feature the Museum on their website Artsy. Thus, Gonzo joins the illustrious ranks of The Getty and The Guggenheim in the annals of art history proving that savage genius will survive in an era of reality television and Snapchat. 
I have said it before and I will happily say it again – DJ Watkins has really done a sterling job on the above. Delighted to hear about the Art Genome Project and it is a testament to the fine job he has done in bringing the collections into the digital age. A lot of this material would be simply unavailable to people if it wasn’t for DJ and his dedication. He also has some more plans in store for 2014 so stay tuned to find out more.
All the best,
Rory

The Gonzo Museum

Hi guys,

First post of 2013 and a long overdue one at that! Some of you will recall the review I posted a while back of Thomas Benton: Artist/Activist by DJ Watkins which I thoroughly recommended at the time as an excellent addition to any Gonzo library. Well DJ Watkins didn’t just finish there and has since established The Gonzo Museum in Aspen. Check out the videos below to see the excellent museum that he has managed to put together. An absolute must see for any Gonzo fiend that finds themselves in that neck of the woods! If you are lucky enough to get to see this, make sure to tell the folks there that you heard about it at Totallygonzo. I promise they won’t run you out of the building.

All the best,

Rory

GONZO READING PROJECT PRESENTS…

An unabridged live reading of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: a Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” By Hunter S. Thompson

Aspen— Hunter S. Thompson very much enjoyed hearing his work read out loud and in the moment. It could be an older piece or something new. Reading aloud made the writing come alive.

In that spirit and to celebrate what would be the journalist’s 75th birthday, The Gonzo Reading Project is hosting a continuous reading of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” on Saturday, July 14th. at The Hotel Jerome in Aspen, Colorado. The live performance project is scheduled to begin atnoon and take about seven hours—depending upon circumstances.

Friends from far and wide will gather to participate and read at one the iconic institutions in Gonzo literature.

“Slower,” Hunter would inevitably say to the reader. He wrote his work to have a certain cadence, and he liked to hear every comma. If you are interested in reading a part of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas please email: info@gonzoreadingproject.com.

Will you buy the ticket and take the ride? Are you ready to read?
WHAT: Unabridged live reading of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: a Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” By: Hunter S. Thompson

WHO: The Gonzo Reading Project, Friends and Family of the late Hunter S. Thompson

WHERE: The Hotel Jerome’s Green Library, Fat City, USA

WHEN: Saturday, July 14, 2012 at High Noon

 

You can also watch the event on a live webcast at the following link: –  http://www.ustream.tv/channel/gonzo-reading-project 

 

Many thanks to the folks over at The Gonzo Reading Project for the info.

 

All the best,

 

Rory

Dr. Hunter S. Thompson Bulletin Board & All Nite Shooting Range

Hi guys,

As some of have noticed the HST Bulletin Board has vanished from the net in recent times. Unfortunately nobody appears to know why, much less know how to contact the people behind that odd corner of the internet.

So if anyone out there is in the know, can you please email me totallygonzo@gmail.com and hopefully we can get the board back online.

It would be a shame to see it vanish into the ether.

Rory

Review – Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist

Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist 

This stunning coffee-table compilation of Tom Benton’s art is a treasure trove of material that is of huge significance to not only political art history, but also the history of Gonzo Journalism.

Many of you are of course already familiar with Benton through his collaboration with Hunter S. Thompson on the Aspen Wallposters and his striking skull design for the cover of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. Yet to date Benton’s work has remained largely inaccessible, with the Aspen Wallposters proving to be particularly elusive due to their scarcity and the high price that they command on the rare occasion that they become available on the market.

Since I started this website just over three years ago, I have been inundated with enquiries regarding the Aspen Wallposters. I think it is fair to say that Benton has been criminally overlooked, not just in relation to his collaboration with Hunter S. Thompson, but also in terms of his contribution to protest art and political activism both at a local and national level.

In this sense, full credit must go to Daniel J. Watkins for undertaking the mammoth project of cataloguing over 500 pieces of art spanning five decades of Benton’s career, a task that involved traversing the length and breadth of the country in search of these prints, all of which were produced in limited unnumbered runs. No mean feat.

From this wider collection, Watkins has selected 150 prints divided into sections representing the evolution of Benton’s career, from his first posters as advertisements for various businesses and events in Aspen, through his political activism and collaboration with Hunter S. Thompson, to his later foray into abstract monotypes and oil paintings. The final section showcases the four buildings that Benton designed and built in Aspen.

Considering that my knowledge of art is fairly limited, I must admit that my initial interest in this book was based solely on the fact that the Aspen Wallposters were finally going to be widely available to the Gonzo community. In many ways they remained one of the final pieces of the Gonzo jigsaw that had yet to fall into place, which is pretty remarkable given the prominent role they have played in relation to Thompson’s infamous Campaign for Sheriff of Aspen, as detailed in his Rolling Stone article The Battle of Aspen – Freak Power in the Rockies. However, the influence of Benton upon Thompson, and vice versa, goes far beyond this collaboration, a fact that is evident from the very first image presented in this book – A stark ,volatile, grey and white print emblazoned with the words – ‘The Garden of Agony – Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.’ The footnote informs us that ‘The Garden of Agony’ was the name of Benton’s studio.

Any doubt that Benton was cut from the very same cloth as Thompson, certainly in a political and philosophical manner, are firmly laid to rest by the inclusion of Peggy Clifford’s excellent interview with Benton at the beginning of this book. When asked about his thoughts on American people in general, Benton replied – ‘Most of them are robots. When I go to Los Angeles and I see those people content with smog and congestion and not rebelling, I have to think they they’ve been brainwashed.’ On his opinion of the corporate interests taking over Aspen he states – ‘I think they are going to win. I’m a pessimist, but I’m not a pacifist. I think you ought to take your cuts at them. If you’re going to go down, go down fighting.’

 Given the deep affection for Aspen that was central to Benton’s creative drive it is unsurprising that he found the perfect platform of expression through the medium of campaign posters centred on local politics (and later on a national level). What is intriguing about many of these posters is the manner through which Benton’s aesthetic approach integrated political slogans with powerful visual symbols of the natural beauty of the Aspen wilderness. Of course there are exceptions, such as his poster for the Woody Creek Caucus which is emblazoned with one of the greatest political slogans I have ever seen (the hallmark of a certain Doctor that lived there).

Indeed it is of course the Gonzo section of the book that showcases the most recognisable aspect of Benton’s political art. The content included here is a rare treat for any fan of Hunter S. Thompson with the aforementioned Aspen Wallposters taking centre stage (all of which fold-out from the book). Their inclusion marks the first time that all six posters, each including Thompson’s writing on the reverse, have been made available since the original run of prints in 1970. I don’t want to spoil the details so all I will say is that the posters and accompanying text is pure vintage Gonzo at its best. To finally have this material is to fill a gap in the Gonzo narrative that has been there for far too long. Yet this is not the only Gonzo material that Watkins has included here, with an original voter registration poster for the Thompson for Sheriff campaign also featured, together with an article from The Aspen Times on the “Scurrilous Sheet” by Benton and Thompson and finally the two-page advertisement from Scanlan’s magazine in relation the ill-fated Nixon Wallposter.

 Benton’s collaboration with Thompson on the Aspen Wallposters appears to have been a seminal event in his artistic development, certainly in terms of influence carried forward in relation to his political art. The activism section of the book clearly illustrates this, with many of Benton’s prints echoing his work with Thompson, which is perhaps facilitated by the subject matter – a thorough disdain for Richard Nixon and American foreign policy.

 Overall this book is a testament to a man who not just embodied artistic vision, but who also had the courage and the passion to use his gift to make his feelings known in a world where speaking up is frequently rewarded with being shot down. Benton’s art tells a story, not just about a single cause or person, it is multi-faceted – at once portrait of a life, a city and a nation.

EDIT: You can buy the book here.

Happy Birthday Hunter

Today would have been Hunter’s 74th birthday. No matter what way you are marking the day, don’t forget the words, have a toast and most importantly – Have fun! If the celebrations get a little out of hand, here is some advice from the Good Doctor which might prove useful:

“When you push a car off a cliff and blow it up, be sure to roll the windows down to avoid shrapnel. Also, strip the license plate so you’re not billed for the cleanup.”  

Wise words indeed 😉

R

Rory

UPDATE: Check this out, courtesy of the guys at Flying Dog.