GONZO COMES ALIVE Don Fleming on Hunter S. Thompson

The famed indie rock
producer/musician talks about his experience producing
The Gonzo Tapes box set.

 

By RANDY HARWARD

 

The late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson had-has-a reputation. You
know him, even if you haven’t read his adventuresome gonzo writings on Hell’s
Angels and the Vietnam War, because he made such an impression with his work
that others brought him into theirs. Most of you have seen Johnny Depp’s
portrayal of Thompson’s (slightly exaggerated) alter-ego, Raoul Duke, in Alex
Cox’s film adaptation of Thompson’s most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Perhaps you’ve caught The Venture Brothers on Adult Swim, and
laughed at Brock Samson’s cross-dressing mentor, Hunter Gathers. Thompson also
inspired Uncle Duke in Doonesbury, and
Bill Murray to date has most accurately portrayed the good doctor himself-no
pseudonym required-in Where the Buffalo
Roam
.

 

Yet Thompson is most known as the party animal, the eccentric
Colorado curmudgeon with an armory at his disposal, and the central character in some of the wildest, yet
well-written and enlightening, stories they’ve ever heard. He certainly was a
journalistic rock star-but it’s the latter part most people identify with,
probably because while some of us appreciate a craftsman, we all love a
spectacle. To truly appreciate Dr. Thompson, however, one must understand him
as a whole.

 

This year director Alex Gibney released Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (released on DVD
last week by Magnolia Home Entertainment), the most accurate portrait of the
man to date. The interviews with Thompson friends and accomplices as well as
his writings and archival footage are nothing if not revealing, but audio
recordings made by the man himself while researching and writing his greatest
works shed more light on him-even if it was just to confirm what many already
knew.

 

Those recordings came straight from the Thompson estate,
courtesy of his widow Anita and son Juan, who allowed Gibney access to some 200-plus
tapes Thompson made as an obsessive chronicle. Gibney hired Don Fleming-member
of early-1990s band Gumball and producer of Sonic Youth, The Posies, Screaming
Trees and Teenage Fanclub-to digitally transfer the tapes for his film.
Fleming, in turn, produced The Gonzo
Tapes: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson
(Shout! Factory), a five-CD
audio companion to the film.

 

The Gonzo Tapes document
the wild genius, and real-life adventure, that fueled Thompson’s written works,
and expose a professionalism and craftsmanship that somewhat belie the wacky
surreality of Fear and Loathing in Las
Vegas
, Hell’s Angels, and Fear
and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72
, while also confirming the bad
craziness of the world, as with his 1975 jaunt to Saigon and Laos (also
chronicled on the set). Fleming spoke to Blurt about his experience holed up in the guest house of Thompson’s Colorado estate, delving
into the good doctor’s analog adventures.

 

 

***

 

 

BLURT: What did you
think when they called you to do this project, “Are you kiddin’ me?”

 

Don Fleming: Pretty
much, yeah. I was like, “Oh my god… I must’ve done something right to get this call. I was very excited because I am a
very big fan of Hunter’s work. It was kind of mind-blowing.

            I didn’t
expect it to be on my career trajectory. I mean, I’ve known Alex Gibney, who
made the film, for a while. And I’ve been working at the Alan Lomax archive for
several years now. [Gibney] just came to me on it because he needed some help
for the archival side of [Thompson’s] whole estate. They told him they’d give
him access to the estate, but they wanted somebody with some kind of
credentials to come in and do the work. So that was why I got the call.

So yeah, that part of it was just
amazing. I mean, I’ve worked on other things that I’ve been into, but this was
one that was just… kind of a dream.

 

 

So you’re holed up in
the guest house ready to play the tapes for the first time…

 

I didn’t know what to expect, if it was just gonna be some
random noise-no idea. It was so much better than I could’ve imagined. It was
pretty wild to be there and be doin’
the work, and just to hear how thorough,
and how detailed, he was. He did a really good job from just the archival point
of view. Every tape had a date on it, and often on the tapes, he’d set a scene.
He’d say, “It’s 4 a.m. in the morning,” at this address, and just give great,
great details.

            And then
just to hear it-it’s him talking the way you hear him in print. The first
couple of times through on some of these tapes was just phenomenal. ‘Cause it
was hearing stuff that I knew was directly in the books, but in a twisted kind
of way. With the Vegas tape, there’s a scene where Oscar is describing a guy
who worked at the hotel, and he describes him as a Samoan. [I thought], That’s it! That’s where he got that. He
took the real-life adventure and sort of twisted it around in certain ways to
make the story. So it was very factual on a lot of levels, and then he would
take these tidbits and turn them into the book.

            I probably
transferred a little over 200 of the cassettes, and most of ‘em are like 90
minutes long. And I listened to every
second
. Also, I was making a lot of notes for Alex; the idea was that they
would use excerpts of them in the film. So I kept a really good log of what was
happening on every tape and times when certain things would be said and things
like that. Ultimately, that’s what I went back to, to do this CD box set, was
those original notes, then kinda mapped it out from there.

            He
basically [taped himself] all the way up to the end. The box set only covers
that period that’s covered in the film, but he never stopped doin’ it. He just
continued and he taped all his phone
conversations. There’s many more hundreds of tapes that are still untouched.

 

 

So we might see
another set?

 

There’s material enough for it. We’ll see how this one does.
[laughs] There’s certainly a lot more
there.

 

 

You’d never met him
before-as a stranger to him, but a fan, that had to be beautiful. Think about
how many Thompson geeks would kill to have just met the guy, or dream of dropping acid with him. In a way, that’s
what you got to do, but better. You got to ride along on these legendary trips.

 

Yeah, that part of it was definitely mind-blowin’, to think
these tapes really haven’t been heard. And to sit there doing it alone was
definitely trippy. Right from the start, I definitely felt like this would make
a great thing, people are gonna hear this, but only bits of it, in the film. I
was very much encouraged by Juan Thompson, his son, and Anita, his widow. Both
of them were really encouraging me to do this as I played stuff for them as it
was digitized. Early on, I kinda put the idea out there that this would make an
amazing set of CDs. They were both just great and said do it, go for it, let’s
make it happen. Without that, it wouldn’t have happened at all.

 

 

Speaking of trippy: Were
you tempted to indulge, in order to get in the right frame of mind?

 

[laughing] I think
I probably was, but I didn’t have access to the materials I needed to do it.
Yeah, Hunter definitely had his work drugs that were important to him and that
comes through very strongly on the tapes.

 

 

You say in your notes
that he is who we thought he was: there was no affectation, no bullshit, with
him. Is there anything you learned about him from the tapes that you didn’t
know about him already?

 

He really did live it out that way, but what impressed me
most was that he was very thorough as a journalist. I felt like this wasn’t
just him making it all up, which you kinda never knew… The Hell’s Angels one, he was still in this mode of being a serious
journalist. He’d worked for years, he’d gone all through South America doing
political stories-he’d spent a lot of time bein’ sort of a straight-ahead
journalist. And it shows.

The taping was very much a tool of
his trade. There are certainly notebooks and notebooks, but you can see that he
did rely pretty heavily on the tapes. That was impressive. He was pretty
serious about the way he documented everything. You can see how much he worked
by hearing those things, how he kinda crafted that stuff. And part of it is not
just him taping those interviews, him and Oscar out in the car and all that.
But those monologues. There are so
many long monologues. After he’d drop [Hell’s Angel] Terry the Tramp off, all
the way back home, he’d be talking into the mic, just a spew of his thoughts. I
never expected that.

            As it went
on over the years, it became harder for him to show up and be a part of the
scene without being the center of attention, but he still would do these long
monologues on tape.  

 

 

So how many
convulsive belly laughs did this project elicit from you?

 

[laughing] Quite a
few. There’s a pretty good ratio, I think, to the heavy stuff. Certainly, then,
with whatever the trip was, certainly the Vegas one was kinda that way. The
last CD, the one in Saigon, that was more interesting. It’s not funny; it’s
pretty compelling. To me, that’s what was really interesting about trying to
use all the material on the last two CDs: That was the stuff he never wrote.
There’s only shards of it that you see in the letters and some of the really
short articles that he did later, and some of the books. Those were fascinating
in a different way because you got to see he was actually there and he was
working on the story in the same way he taped earlier things. It’s just that he
didn’t finish it, he didn’t deliver it. But it shows he was there doin’ the job
the way he usually did it. So those are different. It’s not quite as funny, but
fascinating.

 

 

Well, there are two
types of Thompson fans: Those who aspire to be gonzo journalists in the cheap, self-aggrandizing
way, they churn out first-person adventure stories while high and affect
eccentricity. Then there are the ones who understand that while there was a fun
side to Thompson, he was also a hard-working craftsman.

 

Yeah. I think that, too, with the movie, that was something
that Alex really from the beginning wanted to show: He was a great writer. Most
people think of him more as the wild and crazy Hunter Thompson-that was there,
too-but that tends to overshadow, myself included, the people who think he
stands up there with the great American writers. That was one thing I wanted to
show: This is it. This is how he did it. This is one of the tools he used to
get there. That’s what’s compelling about it.

            There’s
definitely tapes of him drivin’ through Colorado on mescaline and just hootin’
and hollerin’. That’s great, too; there’s room for that. And some of these
recordings are like that. He just starts cackling at times, because he’s high
as a kite. But I think it’s good to show that as crazy as he was, he was very
serious about his work. That’s one of the reasons he was such a great writer.

 

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