Among recent new releases by Jason Mraz, Train and Birdy dropped this curiosity: The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, a dramatizion of Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 article that pioneered gonzo journalism.
It just sat there on my Spotify cue for a week or two until I finally hit play. I was quickly transfixed by Hal Willner’s production featuring Tim Robbins as the author and music by Bill Frisell.
Gonzo journalism lays aside any pretension of objectivity, usually placing the reporter at the center of the action recounting his or her experiences. It’s more commonly thought of in conjunction with towns such as Las Vegas and subjects such as hippies in the 1970s. But anyone whose ever spent a first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs can easily imagine Thompson would have plenty of fodder for his story at the Derby, particularly with him and his British illustrator Ralph Steadman gallivanting through the exclusive suites and the infield, liberally imbibing mint juleps.
The story starts with Thompson landing in Louisville and quickly being chastised by a Derby regular (played by Dr. John) for ordering a margarita.
“We gotta educate this boy, get him some good whu-skee!” the Texan named Jumbo says in a way only Dr. John can interpret it.
From the airport lounge, Thompson makes his way into Louisville, trying to pull off impossible tasks such as getting a hotel room, rental car and all-access credentials for the Derby just a couple days before the race. Though writing for the short-lived British sporting journal Scanlan’s Monthly, Thompson dupes several people by representing himself as a photographer for Playboy magazine, prompting Jumbo to make jokes about taking pictures of naked fillies at the Oaks.
Thompson was accompanied by Steadman, whom he met for the first time at the Derby, starting a longtime collaboration between the writer and artist — a fact that will seem amazing at the end of the story because their first time working together goes way off the track. Steadman plays himself in this recording and has several golden moments, including his introduction to the infield: “God, almighty … this is a … Jee-sus!” he declares, accompanied by a martial drum and trumpet.
Their quest is to find the perfect face of the Derby, to Thompson, “the mask of the whiskeyed gentry — a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and terminal identity crisis.”
In the story, it’s clear Thompson, a Louisville native, looks disdainfully upon most of the crowd, particularly the well-heeled occupants of the upper tiers of Churchill Downs. The story includes but the briefest of mentions of the race, won by Dust Commander, but delivers pungent descriptions of the heat, the drunkenness and chaos that many listeners might find familiar, if not from their own experiences, then from things they have witnessed at the Derby. It doesn’t necessarily feel dated, but it does take you back to the days when Churchill had a more rickety feel, before renovations in the past decade made it a sleek entertainment complex.
Robbins holds it all together beautifully in a fast-clip recitation that proves Johnny Depp is not the only person in this world capable of portraying Thompson. And Frisell’s score creates a wonderfully Southern cheery-yet-ominous background for this story.
No, this might not be your Derby story, but in Thompson’s words and in this production, it’s a Derby story for the ages.