The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved
May 6, 2005 4:10 PM   Subscribe

Total chaos, no way to see the race, not even the track...nobody cares. Big lines at the outdoor betting windows, then stand back to watch winning numbers flash on the big board, like a giant bingo game.

Old blacks arguing about bets; "Hold on there, I'll handle this" (waving pint of whiskey, fistful of dollar bills); girl riding piggyback, T-shirt says, "Stolen from Fort Lauderdale Jail." Thousands of teen-agers, group singing "Let the Sun Shine In," ten soldiers guarding the American flag and a huge fat drunk wearing a blue football jersey (No. 80) reeling around with quart of beer in hand.

No booze sold out here, too bathrooms either. Muscle Beach...Woodstock...many cops with riot sticks, but no sign of a riot. Far across the track the clubhouse looks like a postcard from the Kentucky Derby.

posted by airguitar (25 comments total)

At the last minute, Scanlan's Monthly assigned British illustrator Ralph Steadman--known for his work in The Times of London and England's political satire magazine Private Eye--to accompany Thompson to the Kentucky Derby. Steadman's savage, dead-on drawings would define the Gonzo look.

May 15, 1970
Woody Creek, CO

Your letter was waiting for me last week when I got back from Louisville. Very wierd. I went there to write a strange piece on the spectacle for Scanlan's Monthly...and the whole scene nearly killed me, along with the British illustrator on his first trip to the U.S. See Scanlan's #4 (June, I think) for details. It's a shitty article, a classic of irresponsible journalism--but to get it done at all I had to be locked in a NY hotel room for 3 days with copyboys collecting each sheet out of the typewriter, as I wrote it, whipping it off on the telecopier to San Francisco where the printer was standing by on overtime. Horrible way to write anything.

Anyway, you should have given a ring or hung around long enough to get into the derby action with us. I was there about 7 days, then up to NY for the final writing. Horrible, horrible...Maybe you can zap out here and do a story on New Journalism and Newer Politics in Aspen. I am running for sherrif in the fall; we're about to take over the town. OK for now; let me know if you or Susan can find us any outlets. Thanx...

posted by airguitar at 4:11 PM on May 6, 2005


Thompson and his new British cohort put themselves in quite a mint-julep haze through Derby week in Louisville; the result was the brilliantly written and illustrated article "The Kentucky Derby is Depraved and Decadent," which appeared in the June 1970 issue of Scanlan's. The bylines read: "Written under duress by Hunter S. Thompson" and "Sketched with eyebrow pencil and lipstick by Ralph Steadman."

May 15, 1970
Woody Creek, CO

Dear Warren...

Well, what the fuck can a human being say after a scene like that last one? I just read over the Derby article for the first time and it strikes me as a monument to whatever kind of limbo exists between humor and tragedy. I wish there'd been time to do it better--or room to run all that bullshit about Louisville's super/Agnew society. Goddard & I cut about 4000 words on Sunday night, dropping most of the socio-philosophical flashbacks and weird memory jogs in favor of the straight chronological narrative...and in retrospect I think that was the only way to go.

With another week I might have honed it down to a finer, meatier edge...but in fact we were lucky to get anything at all. Returning to the scenes of my youth was not, all in all, an exceptionally wise idea. After 4 days without sleep--due to all-night, soul-ripping doom & disaster talk--I arrived in NY in a state of crazed angst, far gone in a pill stupor and barely able to think, much less write. Goddard's ominous patience was all that kept me funtioning. He's a first class head to have on your side in that kind of crunch and I'm sorry to hear he's leaving. God only knows what will happen to the NY end of your action without his calming influence. On several occasions when I nearly ran amok---particularly when I lost my wallet (with all cash & credit cards) in a tavern mob watching the Knicks-Lakers game on TV--Goddard's steady head was the only anchor in town. Once again--he's good, and I hate to see him go.

Which is neither here nor there, for now; particularly in light of the heinous imbroglio I made myself a party to last weekend. I was never sure what was happening, or why, in terms of timing, but early on I had the feeling that I should have gone to SF instead of NY, to do the writing. The Royalton was fine, but I'd have been a hell of a lot happier--and probably more functional--if I'd been in a position to know what was going on.

But what the hell? We're over that hump now--for good or ill--and my only consolation, in reading the article, is that I helped Steadman get his drawings. He's good; probably better than anybody working in this country--but they didn't like him in Louisville. And not at the NY Times, either; the Times offered him a job, but turned down all his extant drawings of Nixon, etc...

As for Scanlan's general action...well, what little I saw of the NY scene leaves me slightly worried. Something is badly lacking in the focus, the main thrust--and $10,000 ads in the NY Times only emphasize what's missing. Which is none of my business, really--and most definitely out of place after putting you through all that jangled action last week--but under normal sleep-cured conditions & a fairly straight head I'd like to see Scanlan's work. Maybe it is, but the vibes I got in NY were somewhat mixed--and the only cure I can see is impossibly drastic.

The fucker should work. It's one of the best ideas in the history of journalism. But thus far the focus is missing--or maybe it just seems that way to me; perhaps something missing in my own focus. And I won't argue that, but...well, I suspect there's a heavy difference between Scanlan's problems, and mine.

But maybe not, and fuck the whole business anyway. I have enough problems with the goddamn one-page Wallposter and my slow-boiling sheriff's campaign. Fear & Loathing in the Outback. Fuck them; we will beat them like gongs. Not many months left in this era; not even a year, as I see it, and maybe less. Maybe it's already gone.

Which hardly matters, for now. All I really meant to do here, when I started, was to say that I wish I could have written a better Derby piece...and also to advise you to send my cheque to Lynn Nesbit at International Famous Agency, 1301 Avenue of the Americas, NYC 10019. My advisors have warned me that agents get 10% of everything--fair, foul, or otherwise.

Why not? And if ever, in small moments, I might chance to feel a hair guilty for not coughing up a super-organized soul-piece...all I have to do is summon up the memory of Sidney booming off, at dusk, to Gallaghers and then to The Garden, hunkered down in the soft back seat of that grey Cadillac with his evil chauffeur and bodyguard. Christ, I asked that surly middleweight fucker if there was any ice in the bucket (in Sidney's office) and he looked at me like it was all he could do to restrain himself from ripping out my floating rib and eating it. I was tempted to Mace the bastard, but instead I backed off and went downstairs to have a Scotch with poor Steadman. Indeed. And, in closing I remain,

Yours for Peace in our
posted by airguitar at 4:11 PM on May 6, 2005

posted by airguitar at 4:11 PM on May 6, 2005

While I would never pass up a good chance to nod whiskey for the great doctor, god rest his soul, and you did indeed present this nicely, um, I am missing the.. I don't know.. impetus for it ? Right now?

Hold on to your britches, you're gonna get a fistfull of MeTa and a lot of crying.

One for me, one for the doctor, mahalo.
posted by cavalier at 4:13 PM on May 6, 2005

Right now?

The Derby's tomorrow. Get with it.
posted by airguitar at 4:18 PM on May 6, 2005

Airguitar - the 'ville has been celebrating Derby for a month now.
posted by Sellersburg/Speed at 4:23 PM on May 6, 2005

You are quoting, by and large, and by means of providing the picture creating reverence for, HST's original writings regarding the Derby. From 1970. Which by my calendar is 35 years ago. And if you were actually familiar with the Derby, you would find that celebrations have already been underway for awhile now. Your explanation is, at best, quaint. Have a good evening.

on preview, what he said.
posted by cavalier at 4:25 PM on May 6, 2005

This is my favorite post in a long while. Get-your-own-blog be damned. The more inside (without the "more inside") was a nice surprise.

I have a feeling the Iron Chef is still going to win this episode, but when does he ever lose?

This, however, is not bat country - and we can - if we choose - stop to dally a while over the rather exotic words of a hard drinking deadman, no matter how long has passed since they were committed.

Lighten the fuck up. This isn't the end of MetaFilter, we don't need policing here, and your bureaucracy is anathema to this fine post.
posted by loquacious at 5:05 PM on May 6, 2005

Airguitar wins, cavalier loses. I've never been able to get my hands on a copy of this famous article. Thanks airguitar.
posted by Jimbob at 5:15 PM on May 6, 2005

It's available in one of the HST collections, I believe it's in The Great Shark Hunt, although I feel I'll be quickly corrected.
posted by mikeh at 5:21 PM on May 6, 2005

Good post. It whet my appetite for more. So I ordered the book.

My favorite quote:
"You won't sketch them and I won't Mace them. "
posted by Betty Tyranny at 9:45 PM on May 6, 2005

Is there some barrier to entry as to when you may post a good link to MeFi besides the fact that you just saw it and it seems appropriate enough? I mean, if I had found this 4 months from now I'd still have posted it. It's good stuff. I just wish it had the illustrations for the article.
posted by shmegegge at 10:08 PM on May 6, 2005

The illustrations would be awesome.

Another problem was his habit of sketching people he met in the various social situations I dragged him into--then giving them the sketches. The results were always unfortunate. I warned him several times about letting the subjects see his foul renderings, but for some perverse reason he kept doing it. Consequently, he was regarded with fear and loathing by nearly everyone who'd seen or even heard about his work. Ho couldn't understand it. "It's sort of a joke," he kept saying. "Why, in England it's quite normal. People don't take offense. They understand that I'm just putting them on a bit."

"Fuck England," I said. "This is Middle America. These people regard what you're doing to them as a brutal, bilious insult. Look what happened last night. I thought my brother was going to tear your head off."

posted by loquacious at 10:17 PM on May 6, 2005

I really enjoyed this, and loved loquacious' explanation of why there aren't any of those off-the-cuff sketches...i miss the good doctor...
posted by schyler523 at 11:31 PM on May 6, 2005

This is the best link I've seen on MetaFilter in weeks, though I, too, find myself wishing to see the drawings.
posted by kjh at 12:01 AM on May 7, 2005

What shmegegge said.
Why does it matter if this is timely or not?
posted by juv3nal at 12:13 AM on May 7, 2005

Just to be clear, schyler523, that stuff in the italics from my previous comment is Thompson's own words from the essay in question. Depending on how much fiction there was in that essay among the nonfiction, the sketches probably existed - perhaps even as described.

Though, it wouldn't be the first time my sometimes weird writing voice was compared to Thompson's. I swear it's not intentional. At least it wasn't before I started reading him. Now I'm not so sure anymore.

What I am sure of is that even for Thompson the idea of writing from the hip, hip deep in it, irreverent and self-deprecating yet still self-referential isn't a new idea and wasn't even for him.

He just did it so well and so strangely and with such force and with such immediatism that it was like having the sideshow-freakshow car of a circus train crash through your kitchen window while you were moments before mundanely trying to enjoy a grapefruit and a slice of white toast with cheap coffee.

One moment everything is surreally, stultifyingly normal, while in the next explosive instant something overwhelmingly plain is peeled back to reveal a strange ecology of freakish, unidentifiable but unarguably living things that should never have seen the light of day, all of them engaging in bizarre acts of improbable copulation, and the only inevitable reaction is to vomit that mundane repast all over them - only to inspire them to further frenzied abominations. Right there in your flannel pajama'ed lap, no less.
posted by loquacious at 12:41 AM on May 7, 2005

Here's one...

...and two...

(Click on the thumbnails for the larger versions of the images.)
posted by Dunvegan at 2:51 AM on May 7, 2005

Great post.

I didn't recognize it as HST until I clicked on the link. My first thoughts were, "well after opening and reading this link I will try and find something about the ultimate derby article, the one by HST" and then there it was staring me in the face. Good find.
posted by caddis at 4:49 AM on May 7, 2005

mikeh, it is indeed published in the Great Shark Hunt, I had to go back to check if the illustrations were included but sadly they were not.

I apologize for what apparently was taken as my savage opposition to this posting, I am a huge admirer of the man and am happy that people are getting a chance to read what they have not read before, and I thought airguitar's presentation of it was awfully swell.

I misjudged the audience this time. o.O
posted by cavalier at 8:57 AM on May 7, 2005

Woah, thanks Dunvegan!
posted by loquacious at 9:10 AM on May 7, 2005

It's available in one of the HST collections, I believe it's in The Great Shark Hunt, although I feel I'll be quickly corrected.

Yes, and there's a lot of good stuff in there. I'm not a huge fan, but it's probably my favorite book (though it's basically a collection of newspaper and magazine articles), and my favorite style of HST (I grew up in Louisville so the article on race relations and real estate there was fascinating). The coverage of the 1972 election was awesome. I read it during last year's prez campaign and was amazed by the parallels. It's also got the big (and extremely depressing) story he wrote before (and during and after?) FALILV.

And come on fucking High Limit! Let's win Frankel a Derby.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:24 AM on May 7, 2005

Ralph Steadman's America - Kentucky Derby

I'd love to see his take on Mardi Gras. not the happy, jolly, b.s. side, the people passed out in piss and drinking in tsunami like proportions angle. A human wave of drunk sloshing up and down the street.

[good post]
posted by wah at 10:43 AM on May 7, 2005

I'm not a huge fan, but it's probably my favorite book

*head asplodes*

[on preview]
posted by wah at 10:44 AM on May 7, 2005

This is a good post, thanks.
posted by Divine_Wino at 9:34 AM on May 9, 2005

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