Natural born swiller

Natural born swiller

Hunter S. Thompson's Wild Turkey intake is legendary: and ‘wild' is definitely the word

Whisky & Culture | 09 Jun 2003 | Issue 31 | By Hunter Thompson

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In 1970, the now defunct Scanlon’s Monthly sent a young journalist named Hunter S. Thompson to his hometown of Louisville to do a piece on America’s premier horse race, the Kentucky Derby. Thompson wasn’t the icon he is today. Although he had published his first book on the Hell’s Angels in 1966, he was still a vagrant hack in the process of inventing himself as America’s leading provocateur-freak. And his visit to Louisville, as recounted in the essay The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, begins with a brilliant act of provocation.In the air-conditioned lounge I met a man from Houston who said his name was something or other – “but just call me Jimbo” – and he was here to get it on. “I’m ready for anything by God! Anything at all. Yeah, what are you drinking?” I ordered a Margarita with ice …Picture the scene: Thompson, decked out in a fedora, a wide-collared shirt and sunglasses to hide his dilated pupils, smoking a Marlboro through a cigarette holder and ordering a tequila in the middle of bourbon country. As he himself later remarked, he was lucky to get out alive.In a nod to the local mores, Thompson compromises on a double Old Fitz with ice and listens, as Jimbo explained what he has gotten himself into.“Look … I know this Derby crowd, I come here every year, and let me tell you one thing I’ve learned – this is no town to be giving people the impression you’re some kind of faggot. Not in public, anyway. Shit, they’ll roll you in a minute, knock you in the head and take every goddamn cent you have.”The really funny bit is “Not in public, anyway.” The Kentucky Derby’s reputation is one of Southern gentility, with well mannered belles and cavaliers in seersucker suits sipping mint juleps. In Thompson’s eyes, it is an orgy of pathological gambling, latent violence and savage inebriation. And he does his best to ensure that the event reveals its core weirdness.In a deadpan voice, he explains that he’s in Louisville not to cover the race but to report on the Black Panthers.“Well … maybe I shouldn’t be telling you …” I shrugged. “But hell, everybody else seems to know. The cops and the National Guard have been getting ready for weeks. They have 20,000 troops on alert at Fort Knox. They’ve warned us – all the press and photographers – to wear helmets and special vests like flak jackets. We were told to expect shooting … ”With that, Thompson leaves horrified Jimbo and sets off to find his illustrator, Ralph Steadman. The rest of the essay is a comically disjointed account of the two men’s weekend binge. How much of it is true is unclear, but for a variety of reasons, you get the feeling you don’t want to know. It was the first time Thompson had worked with Steadman, a collaboration that would yield the best-selling Fear and Loathing in Las
Vegas and establish both the writer’s and the artist’s careers. Thompson would later describe the Derby essay as “a monument to whatever kind of limbo exists between humour and tragedy.” He was right. His genius was to realise that to get at the grotesque aspects of America, the journalist had to make himself part of the story.So I’ll take a page out of his book. There are a lot of great writers, with whom I’d love to drink some whiskey. Hunter S. Thompson isn’t one of them. Not because I don’t think he’s a great writer, but because the stories of journalists who tried to keep up with his Wild Turkey consumption and failed are legendary. Even now, I’m afraid that he’ll take offence at something on this page and hop on a plane to Berlin to settle things like men. I can only hope he’ll take pity on a fellow vagrant hack, a more moderate drinker and one of his many fans. The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved is available in The Great Shark Hunt, published by Picador
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