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Dan Lybarger

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Just In Case It Matters: Dr. Thompson Goes to the Derby

Posted: 04/ 2/2012 3:02 pm

In June of 1970, Scanlan's Monthly ran an overview of that year's Kentucky Derby that contained only one paragraph about the actual race. The author neglected to mention which of horses either placed or showed. It's probably no wonder that the magazine folded shortly afterward. It would probably be safe to assume the author disappeared and was never heard from again.

In a development that ended up defying the odds, the 7,000-word essay "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" and its author Dr. Hunter S. Thompson wound up inventing an entirely new type of journalism. In Gonzo coverage, the reporter becomes part of the story and mixes fact and fiction while revealing a greater truth. In other hands, this combination would be a disaster, but Thompson wound up revealing a side of the Derby and of America itself that the TV cameras miss every year at Churchill Downs.

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It's also hysterically funny. When I played it for my skeptical girlfriend, she roared as Thompson managed to slip deeper and deeper into a quagmire of his own creation.

Three years ago, "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" hooked me while I was reading it online. I ended up laughing so hard that the people sitting near me wondered if I was possessed. Paris Records has just released a new CD that features Oscar-winner Tim Robbins reading the essay along with Dr. John, Will Forte, Annie Ross and cartoonist Ralph Steadman (who first collaborated with Thompson on the Derby essay) as himself. The appropriately eerie score was composed by Bill Frisell. The producer is Hal Willner, who has created recordings of Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, as well as anthology albums of music by Kurt Weill and Charles Mingus.

Most people weren't able to read this piece until it was published almost a decade later in Thompson's The Great Shark Hunt. To learn more about how the essay and Thompson wound up changing how we view sports stories, I contacted Douglas Brinkley, a longtime friend and collaborator who edited Thompson's Fear and Loathing in America and The Proud Highway, as well as Oscar-winner Alex Gibney, who devoted considerable time to "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" in his documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Willner also explained to me why he wanted the challenge of recording the essay, and Carmen, my beloved, explained that the Derby itself hasn't changed that much since Thompson attended with Ralph Steadman and a can of mace.

It's a shame I couldn't imitate Thompson's unique methods while I asssembled this edition of the Just In Case It Matters podcast, but I have too much respect for the uniqueness of Thompson's work to waste my time and that of the listeners with copying it.

(Some NSFW language.)

 

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