In the years since his death by his own hands, the final act of noted "Gonzo" journalist
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson in 2005 has assumed symbolic proportions. Following on the
heels of a disastrous Presidential election, a costly war marketed to the American
public like a shiny product hot off the assembly line, and a Fourth Estate that
often seemed to go along for the ride, it felt as if an overriding wave of fear
and conformity had finally drowned out one of journalism's most iconoclastic voices.
Colorful reminiscences from friends, adversaries and fellow travelers followed on
cue, forming a composite picture of an outrageous life lived on the perimeters.
Amidst the well-known accounts of endless pranks, hard drinking and pharmacological
excess, however, I was surprised to find numerous references to Thompson as something
of a "Southern gentlemen." I found this rupture between private and public life
fascinating, and decided to compose a work in memoriam, exploring the dissonances
inherent in HST's full spectrum persona.
Gonzo Variations is a set of double variations using two themes representing opposite
ends of the pole: Stephen Foster's 'My Old Kentucky Home' and an original bass line
loosely derived from Jefferson Airplane's psychedelic anthem of 1967, 'White Rabbit.'
Though the themes oppose one another, I also sought to explore the contradictions
within each theme: 'Kentucky Home' appears sweet and nostalgic on the surface but
can also turn strident and angular on a dime, and while usually appearing in the
guise of loud, fast music, the 'White Rabbit'-inspired bass line yields harmonies
that possess an inner warmth. The strings are generally associated with 'Kentucky
Home,' while the music for 'White Rabbit' is largely associated with a driving "machine"
of percussion, piano and guitars, leaving the winds and brass as fodder for the
corrupting influence of either.
Thompson's brief essay "Electricity" provided an additional source of inspiration
for Gonzo Variations, and as apt a riff on the topic of creative risk as I've encountered.
Recalling an experiment with self-electrocution, he expresses terror, but also catharsis,
an inner knowledge that "my own pain was nothing compared to the elation of knowing
that I had just made an unspeakably powerful new friend."
In the end, assessing a life so wacked as Hunter S. Thompson's proves almost impossible.
Most of us can only act so crazy, drive so fast and risk so much before it catches
up with us, and the fact that Thompson lived and functioned as long as he did with
all he experienced and ingested renders him nothing short of a medical wonder. Music,
on the other hand, is free to do as it pleases, and as the good doctor himself said,
"the edge is still Out there."