1996 marked the 25th anniversary of the publication of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, and the Gonzo celebrations of that fall produced great scenes for Breakfast with Hunter and the sequel I just released – Animals, Whores and Dialogue; Breakfast with Hunter, Vol. 2.
Fortunately, I had just gone fully digital the summer of 1996, buying the first Sony prosumer mini-digital video recorder, the DCR VX1000. What a beast! Almost impossible to focus, especially while zooming, but it produced images that I hoped might be good enough to blow up to 35mm one day. In 2003, I did just that to qualify Breakfast with Hunter for the Academy Awards, and the movie looked surprisingly sharp.
The fall of 1996 was a rock and roll style Fear & Loathing tour: first, the Viper Room appearance with Johnny Depp; then, the Lotus Club in New York with George Plimpton, P.J. O’Rourke, and hundreds of other literati and stars. That Manhattan night ended with Hunter splayed out, fully clothed in the bathtub of his suite at the Four Seasons Hotel, overwhelmed by adulation. For me the high point was feeding Kate Moss french fries in Hunter’s crowded bedroom (one at a time, very slowly) while Johnny watched suspiciously from across the room.
But, the return of Billy the Kid to Louisville in December, 1996 for “A Tribute to Hunter S. Thompson” at the Memorial Auditorium was the true climax of the tour. Returning to Louisville as a hero after leaving in disgrace was Hunter’s revenge on all those who doubted his youthful certainty that he would write the great American novel.
I flew into Louisville a day early to advance the event. Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis brought Hunter in the next day, flying commercially via Chicago, and I met them at the gate at the Louisville airport. This was my first gig with Sheriff Bob, and he seemed relieved to see a radio in my hand.
“He’s got the shits,” remarked Bob. “He could barely get out of the bathroom in Chicago. You got a car?”
“Right here,” I said, raising the van driver at the curb outside on the radio.
“Nice,” observed Bob, as Hunter lumbered up the ramp from the plane.
That radio link to the van cemented my relationship with the Sheriff. Every once and awhile, when things get really rough in the indie film making world I think of taking him up on his jesting offer after Louisville to become a Deputy Sheriff. That’s how artist Tom Benton survived some of the last of his years, as a jailer for Bob. But, then I think about having to show up everyday, even if it’s a powder day.
The van took Hunter and Bob to the classic Brown Hotel downtown, while I returned to the Memorial Auditorium to finish lighting the stage and see if the dozen fire extinguishers I had ordered for Hunter had been delivered yet. Most importantly, they had to be the CO2 type, not the dry chemical type. CO2 just tickles you a bit, and might even freeze your skin if exposed at a close distance, but the dry chemical type makes your tongue dry up like beef jerky, and breathing almost impossible. Back in New York, Hunter had used the dry chemical type on Jann Wenner (as you can see here), who swore that it cost $10,000 to clean the fine, white powder out of his office after wards.
The fire extinguishers were on stage when I arrived at the Memorial Auditorium, a classic Louisville venue with a façade of Doric columns. A local sound company was setting mikes, and I tried to make the only four lights available illuminate the whole scene. Daylight flooded the stage annoyingly as the back door opened and Warren Zevon entered, wearing the oddest wig I have ever seen in rock & roll. Trying to ignore the hair piece, I introduced myself as Hunter’s Road Manager & Filmmaker. Zevon seemed to care little who I was. Too many years on the road, the last few essentially alone, had left him gruff and even more cynical than his lyrics. Years later, when we did the “Free Lisl” rally in Denver we would become friends, but today in Louisville he was cold and mistrusting.
We worked on the mix for a bit, Zevon hitting the first chords of “Lawyers, Guns & Money” repeatedly until he got the sound where he wanted it. “I think it should be beastly,” he commanded. A good excuse for a rough audio system, I thought.
Then Hunter arrived, taking over the stage and the rehearsal with his charismatic presence. I barely got a sound check from him. Hunter was more intent on playing with the fire extinguishers lined up on stage than jabbering into a mike for an empty auditorium. I worried how the show was going to go, with no script that I could discern, except for crumpled sheets of typed and illegible handwritten pages that Douglas Brinkley carried.
A film making comrade, Mark Muheim, arrived to operate my new, second Sony DCR VX1000. We were now a crew of two – a far cry from my last concert production filming the Eagles return to the Rose Bowl for 80,000 fans. There I directed four film cameras remotely from beneath the stage. At least here, I hoped security wouldn’t be an issue.
After doing all I could to make sure the set was ready for the show I went back to The Brown Hotel. Hunter’s son Juan was sitting in the lobby of the Brown with his laptop writing intently. I wondered what he was up to, and found out later that night when he delivered one of the most insightful and elegant appraisals of his iconic father that has ever been written. Juan’s speech appears throughout Breakfast with Hunter, and this is how it and the film ends.
The Louisville show went far better than most Hunter Thompson stage events which usually involved rambling question & answer sessions with the answers mostly indecipherable. But, on this triumphal night returning to the scene of his youthful crimes, Hunter was remarkably well behaved, also perhaps because his Mother was there. I found her before the show sitting in a wheelchair in the Green Room backstage, a cigarette in one hand and a gin and tonic in the other. Then in her nineties, she was still imposing, and cowed me when I introduced myself, the DCR VX1000 in hand, by warning, “If you point that camera at me, I’ll break it!” I never got a shot of her, unfortunately.
The show also went well due to the supporting cast, many of whom are in Breakfast with Hunter and more to be seen in the just released Animals, Whores, & Dialogue. However, the event ended, as only a Hunter event could, with a heavy dose of weirdness and a dash of violence.
I was on stage shooting as the band, lead by David Amram and accompanied by Johnny Depp on slide guitar, finished playing “My Old Kentucky Home.” Hunter grabbed me around the neck and whispered in my ear that we had to flee. There was someone only a few feet away that he feared meant to attack him. Mark Muheim captured these moments on video while I inadvertently recorded audio on the camera in my hand, forgetting in the weirdness of the moment that it was even rolling. The combination of Mark and my footage became the credit sequence for Animals, Whores & Dialogue:
The potential assailant was stage left so we went stage right into the wings. I tried to raise Sheriff Bob on the radio for backup, but got no response.
“You’ll be arrested,” Hunter shouted over his shoulder as we left the stage.
I looked back but had no idea who the assailant might be, but I knew this was Hunter’s greatest fear, to be shot down by a freak out to prove he was the weirdest of all. Given John Lennon, you couldn’t consider it simply paranoia on Hunter’s part.
We found a room backstage and locked ourselves inside. Finally, I got Sheriff Bob on the radio and asked him to bring the limo around behind the auditorium where a door from our refuge opened onto the street. When the Sheriff confirmed that he was in position with the limo, I unlocked the backdoor and we started for the car. Then, a weirdo jumped out of the bushes coming our way. I screamed at him to get back.
“You’ll be arrested,” Hunter growled and the weirdo from the bushes fled down the street.
“Was that him?” I asked.
“No. It was (let’s call him “Joe”) on the stage,” he said, getting into the limo.
It took me awhile to figure out who “Joe” was. Hunter pointed him out to me in a crowd shot when we were viewing the footage back at Owl Farm. “Joe” was the boyhood friend who, according to Hunter, he went to jail for, after his friend threatened to rape a girl if she didn’t give him a cigarette one late night on a lover’s lane in Louisville. Talk about your past coming back to haunt you!
Now that Hunter was safely out of the venue, I went back inside to wrap my equipment. In our absence, chaos had erupted on stage with a huge, ugly crowd surrounding Johnny Depp who was signing autographs. Hunter always advised against starting to sign for fans, since once it started, you could never satisfy them all. The few event volunteers left behind were overwhelmed, so I started kicking people off the stage to relieve Depp.
The crowd got even nastier, and a few went into the wings and then into the green room where they set fire to an overstuffed chair. I grabbed a fire extinguisher to douse the flames, but it was empty, as was every other red canister nearby. The crowd had used them up on each other, imitating Hunter’s earlier antics.
“Someone better call 911,” I said, but being kitchen trained, I knew it would not be me who made the call. (see my vodcast “Never Call 911.”)
I gathered up my cameras and friend Mark, and we walked out the back stage door as the fire engines rolled up.
“Hunter’s probably off on some adventure. Let’s go have a beer, and maybe catch a strip show,” I suggested as we headed back to the Brown Hotel.
To Be Continued
Copyright 2010 by Wayne Ewing