This past weekend marked the 7th annual Gonzo Fest in Louisville, Kentucky, which celebrated the life of literary renegade and local hero Hunter S. Thompson. It was held at the Louisville Public Library, as opposed to the Big Four Lawn of Waterfront Park like previous years. It was another strange affair, as anticipated, though not as strange as last year.
Upon learning of this festival dedicated to one of my literary idols, I knew I had to go. My co-pilot then was Oregon Neal, one of my first roommates upon moving to Nashville a few years back. For clarification sake, I lived with two Neal’s/Neil’s, the other being Wisconsin Neil. I found this to be the easiest way to refer to them. Two very different but very chill Neal’s/Neil’s.
A few things stand out from last year’s Gonzo Fest. One being the moment I got crushed in the head with a football immediately after purchasing an $8 beer, spilling half of it on myself. Things got off to a rocky start despite the beautiful day and scenery of the Ohio River and bridges abound. The day progressed with the usual activities of live music, spoken word, and tales of Hunter via his son Juan F. Thompson, Ron Whitehead, and others that knew and worked with him. People gallivanted through the park in their finest Gonzo apparel, clown makeup, dinosaur costumes, and other freakshow attire. It was a fine day.
But the most disturbing and memorable moment would come when Oregon Neal and I decided to take a stroll across the bridge and over the river.
As we soaked in the aesthetics of the Louisville skyline, we noticed an obese woman on a motorized scooter slowly but surely cresting up the incline as we descended. Unfortunate, I thought. As our paths began to cross, we noticed a young girl, maybe 9 or 10, clutching to the back of the scooter, riding up with what seemed to be her mother. This poor girl’s face was terribly, terribly disfigured. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Her face looked to be swollen 10 times over, with her eyes sunk deep into her head, and what looked like a face incapable of expression. Her incredibly large face was pockmarked and misshapen, and all I thought of was The Elephant Man. It was truly a disheartening sight.
But the worst was yet to come.
When we exited the bridge, we noticed a small ice cream shop littered with folks inside and out, so we decided to make like school children and indulge. We relaxed for a bit, and then decided to hoof back to the festival. As we were about halfway across, we both looked at each other with a “you gotta be kidding me face.” At one end of the width of the bridge was the obese woman staring blankly at the other end, in which the poor disfigured girl danced to some modern pop music with a little bucket with a $ symbol on it. Oregon Neal and I were greatly disturbed at this sad exploitation. The girl waved her arms in the air, put her hands on her hips, twirled around and so on in her little polka dot dress.
This was the defining moment of the festival, and it was fitting given the nature of the event. Luckily this past year was void of unfortunate incidents.
I drove north on I-65 from Nashville with the warm southern air swirling through the cracks in my windows as I sipped Private Selection coffee from my Grassroots ’15 mug. With a head full of wonder and ears full of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, I sped past exit signs for Bowling Green, Elizabethtown, Horse Cave, and other obscure Kentucky towns. Massive billboard signs for chicken, gas, whiskey, fireworks, and casinos scattered among the rolling hill landscape, penetrating the sky with its enticing and inevitable offers.
They moved the festival to the Louisville Library this year, which was far less scenic and far less spacious. It was a bit more watered down, but still an interesting endeavor. I found a parking lot nearby that costed $1.50 for all day parking. I thought for sure I drove into a time warp.
As an author greatly influenced by Hunter, it was exceptionally enjoyable, especially hearing from people who knew him and worked with him. The most intriguing I found to be was his son Juan, whom I met and got an autographed copy of his book, Stories I Tell Myself, about his life growing up as Thompson’s one and only child. Juan seemed to be the polar opposite of Hunter: meek, mild, respectful, kind, balanced- normal.
Another interesting character was Ron Whitehead, another local Louisville hero who has published books, poetry, and music of all kinds. He was a friend of Hunter, and just one look at Ron and you could see why they were comrades. His appearance demanded attention what with his whitish-grayish long hair, bejeweled white braids hanging from his chin, custom designed denim jackets, and overall funky attire. He spoke loudly and passionately, with a fierce southern twang in his voice.
Gonzo Fest is an interesting and intriguing festival for fans of Hunter S. Thompson, and though it’s a moderate affair, I would recommend it for his fans that may not know about it. There are all kinds of nifty Gonzo crafts being sold at little vendor booths, all kinds of food and drink, and good bands setting the tone. But to reiterate, the discussion panels with those akin to him are likely to be the meat and potatoes to true HST heads.
Football season is never over with the existence of Gonzo Fest.