‘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‚Äôs 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.

Fear and Loathing in America – Hunter S. Thompson on 9/11

Hey folks,

Just thought I’d post this as it is by far the most sought after article by Hunter, with many people contacting me on a regular basis about it. While this may be Hunter’s immediate take on 9/11, I would recommend that you also read the rest of Hunter’s ESPN column as it regularly addresses the War on Terror as it unfolded in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in America. Looking back on the events now, Hunter’s column makes for chilling reading.

Fear and Loathing in America

It was just after dawn in Woody Creek, Colorado, when the first plane hit the World Trade Center in New York City on Tuesday morning, and as usual I was writing about sports. But not for long. Football suddenly seemed irrelevant, compared to the scenes of destruction and utter devastation coming out of New York on TV. Continue reading

Fear and Loathing in America – Hunter S. Thompson on 9/11

Hey folks,

 

Just thought I’d post this as it is by far the most sought after article by Hunter, with many people contacting me on a regular basis about it. While this may be Hunter’s immediate take on 9/11, I would recommend that you also read the rest of Hunter’s ESPN column as it regularly addresses the War on Terror as it unfolded in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in America. Looking back on the events now, Hunter’s column makes for chilling reading.

Fear and Loathing in America

It was just after dawn in Woody Creek, Colorado, when the first plane hit the World Trade Center in New York City on Tuesday morning, and as usual I was writing about sports. But not for long. Football suddenly seemed irrelevant, compared to the scenes of destruction and utter devastation coming out of New York on TV. Continue reading

Video of first Gonzo Foundation Seminar at Owl Farm

Hey folks,

You can now download an hour long video of the first Gonzo Foundation Seminar at Owl Farm. The video features George Stranahan and Michael Owsley discussing political issues – from the local to the national, along with Anita Thompson, Wayne Ewing and various guests. Discussion aside, the video offers a rare glimpse of another part of Owl Farm, which is as you would expect – full of Gonzo related furnishings.

You can download the video by visiting this page from Grassroots TV.

Take care,

Rory

TO DISCUSS THIS POST IN THE TOTALLY GONZO FORUM CLICK HERE

The Gonzo Foundation

Hey folks,

Just a heads up that The Gonzo Foundation is now up and running. Anita Thompson just posted an update over at Owlfarmblog with some details. Although the first seminar is sold out, there will be more to come. If you would like to know more and receive notifications of future Gonzo Foundation events then make sure to register here – The Gonzo Foundation Official Site.

Sounds interesting!

Rory

TO DISCUSS THIS POST IN THE TOTALLY GONZO FORUM CLICK HERE

Tom Benton & Hunter S. Thompson – The Art of Freak Power

“What we really need is a riot. This would not only¬†justify the purchase of gas, firebombs, electric zappers and various armored equipment – it would also give Aspen the modern, up-to-date image that it vitally needs. We are fortunate in having people like the sheriff and Guido and Bugsy around, if only to keep a rein on dangerous waterheads like Tom Benton.”¬†

Hunter S. Thompson (On behalf of Martin Bormann) – Letter to Aspen Times & Aspen News March 9, 1968

One of the most intriguing events in the history of Gonzo Journalism has to be the¬†collaboration between Hunter and Tom Benton that produced the now infamous Aspen Wallposter Series.¬†¬†In late 1969 Hunter decided that the¬†political scene in Aspen needed a good shaking up,¬†so he¬†persuaded Joe Edwards to run for mayor on the “Freak Power” ticket. Although the campaign got off to a late start, the Freak Power candidate lost by only one vote. Hunter couldn’t believe¬†how close they had come to overthrowing the fatbacks in Aspen. The following March he decided to launch bis own¬†campaign for sheriff of Pitkin County. The¬†Wallposters¬†proved to be the ideal way¬†to¬†promote his unique brand of politics¬†–¬†the front carried Tom Benton’s eye-catching art and the reverse served as a platform for¬†Hunter to¬†outline his¬†policies and take shots at the greedheads he was opposing.¬†It was¬†here¬†that the Gonzo Logo made its first appearance, featuring¬†on¬†Wallposter #5 – better known as the Thompson for Sheriff poster.

Aspen Wallposter #5

Aspen Wallposter #5

Tom Benton¬†also created the original cover for Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail along with¬†various campaign posters for over 30 candidates including Gary Hart, George McGovern, and Willie Brown.¬†He also¬†produced numerous “cause” posters for local benefits, non-profits, and charitable causes. In the 1980’s and 90’s, Benton worked part time as a jailer for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Department and continued to create artwork¬†including¬†re-election posters for Sheriff Bob Braudis.

campaign8

According to Aspen Sheriff Bob Braudis, “Benton was heavily intellectual and understood the threat that speculators were to our environment before anyone else. Throughout his career Tom remained steadfastly loyal to rock solid values and committed to sending his political message through his art.” Sadly Tom Benton died from lymphoma on April 27, 2007.¬†¬†However I am delighted to¬†inform everybody that¬†there is a project underway to catalogue Tom’s work over at http://www.bentonbook.com¬†and you can also order silkscreen prints and Aspen Wallposters over at http://www.tomwbenton.com. The prints are also on display at the Woody Creek Community Center (WC3). A book that covers Tom’s work is scheduled to come out later this year, published by our Gonzo friend George Stranahan. George started the project to catalogue Tom’s prints and was a patron and fan of Tom’s art. I would highly recommend that you take a few moments to not only check out Tom Benton’s Gonzo artwork but also¬†take some time to examine¬†his other work which is really¬†inspiring and beautiful. Here is an example¬†from his poetry series.

Finally for those of you who want to refresh your memory on the Aspen Wallposters and Hunter;s run for Sheriff check out Freak Power In The Rockies originally published in Rolling Stone but also to be found in The Great Shark Hunt. I leave you with another image from the Wallposters¬†–¬†can you imagine what the land developers thought of this?

Yr. friend,

Rory

PS: Thanks to DJ for the heads-up on the project.

London Gonzo Fans:Missing Hunter S. Thompson Fax!

 

 

THE famous illustrator of Hunter S Thompson’s work had a precious personal letter from the gonzo journalist stolen when he gave a talk to fans in north London.

Ralph Steadman, 72, spoke at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn about the late American writer, after a screening of the new film on his life Gonzo: The Life And Works Of Dr Hunter S Thompson.

While Mr Steadman talked to fans and signed books afterwards, someone stole an original fax which was among the artist’s possessions.

Mr Steadman, who illustrated Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas as well as much more of Thompson’s work, said: “It was a fax he sent me on Christmas day in 1988. It started Merry Christmas! HO! HO! HO! And was handwritten – six pages long.

“I took it along to read out and I just never thought to make a copy of it. I left it on stage while I talked to people and while I was doing that someone just lifted it.

“It is a rotten thing to do. A dirty little trick. I would have been happy to make a copy for the person who took it and I would have signed it for them, done a drawing – anything they wanted.

“I didn’t think that someone would steal it. That is not gonzo it’s bad gonzo – it’s bonzo.”

Mr Steadman is known for his work on Punch, Private Eye and New Statesman, as well as being the long established partner in crime to the writer.

The pair met in Kentucky when Mr Steadman was sent to cover a race meeting for a magazine.

After a week’s drinking they became friends for more than 35 years and started the partnership which is now world-famous.

Mr Steadman was the man who organised the funeral Thompson had been planning for years, after he shot himself in 2005. His ashes were launched into the air with a cannon.

“I’ve got lots of stuff but that’s not the point,” Mr Steadman continued.

“It is part of the gonzo collection. It was a letter in what he would have called his gibberish. It was about an animal he killed – some kind of dog – because it was threatening his peacocks.

“I don’t steal things from people so why should they steal from me?

“I don’t know why people have to be like that but I think that’s the way we are now – we’ve gone down that terrible road of meanness.

“I don’t think people were ever as mean as they are now.”

Mr Steadman travelled from his home in Kent for the talk and has offered to send a signed copy to anyone who returns the original letter.

The theatre is calling on anyone with information to come forward. Tricycle artistic director Nicolas Kent said: “Ralph very generously gave up his time to come and do the Q&A at the Tricycle. I’m very sad that somebody came and took away his treasured possession.

“Maybe they thought it was not important, but I know that it is and I know that he would like it back.

Ok somebody out there knows where this is so please come forward if you have any information. Feel free to email us at totallygonzo@gmail.com and we will pass on any helpful details to Ralph. Nobody is interested in getting anyone in trouble, it was probably unintentional, so just help get this fax back to Ralph where it belongs.

Cheers,

Ron Mexico