05/01/2012 3:47PM

Hovdey: Hunter Thompson's bizarre Kentucky Derby experience reborn via new CD


As a native born Louisville boy, the late Dr. Hunter Thompson spent large chunks of his wayward youth terrorizing locals and behaving badly, especially come Kentucky Derby time. To his eternal credit ne never referred to such behavior as “research” nor to the substances he ingested as “experimentation.” Bad craziness is more like it.

Thompson went on to be a journalist of note – the term “journalist” in his case loosely defined as someone who goes places and does things and then writes down what he thinks people will want to read about where he has been and what he has seen. Otherwise, Thompson was to traditional journalism what Godzilla was to the lizard family.

For those who thus far in their quiet lives have been untroubled by contact with Thompson’s brand of gonzo journalism, he was best known for the books “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.” One is about a gathering of demented bikers in the Nevada desert and the other has something to do with Richard Nixon and George McGovern, although I can’t remember just now which was which. I just know both of them feel true.

It was the same way record producer Michael Minzer felt when he first read Thompson’s story of the 1970 Kentucky Derby, published by the British journal Scanlan’s and illustrated with surreal splendor by Ralph Steadman. The story, entitled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” now has been released by Minzer’s Paris Records in a rousing CD version, unabridged, with the role of Thompson – narrator and star – read by Oscar winner Tim Robbins.

“Apart from the color of the race and the setting of the piece, it’s also an early telling of the young taking it out on the old,” said Minzer, whose Dallas-based company also has produced recordings of the work of William Burroughs and Terry Southern. “Clearly Hunter had a grudge, dating back to his high school days, when I believe he spent his prom night in jail.”

“The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” follows Thompson and Steadman through a bourbon-drenched Derby weekend set against a backdrop of raging social unrest and growing student protests over the Vietnam War. The Summer of Love it was not.

“At the airport news stand I picked up a Courier-Journal and scanned the headlines,” Thompson wrote. “’Nixon Sends GIs into Cambodia to Hit Reds’ ... ‘B52s Raid’ ... ‘4,000 Troops Deployed Near Yale as Tension Grows over Panther Protests.’ At the bottom of the page was a photo of Diane Crump, soon to become the first woman jockey ever to ride in the Kentucky Derby. The photographer had snapped her ‘... stopping in the barn area to fondle her mount, Fathom.’ ”

And so it went. Thompson flashing bogus press credentials from Playboy in an attempt to rent a car ... Thompson badgering the Churchill Downs publicity office for all-access passes ... Thompson horrified at the description of Steadman by the clerk at their fleabag hotel as “the funniest looking thing I’ve seen in a long time”...

“That screws the press credentials,” Thompson wrote. “I had a vision of some nerve-rattled geek all covered with matted hair and string warts showing up at the press office and demanding the Scanlan’s press packet. Well, what the hell. We could always load up on acid and spend the day roaming around the clubhouse grounds with sketch pads laughing hysterically at the natives and swilling mint juleps so the cops wouldn’t think we’re abnormal.”

Billy Reed, a Louisville native, was covering the 1970 Kentucky Derby for Sports Illustrated. Reed never met Thompson – it’s a small town but not that small -- though it was not as if he was slacking off that particular week. Reed’s assignment was to cover the exploits of New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin, who also happened to own the 1970 Derby favorite, Silent Screen.

“My editors knew there would be a lot of showbiz types around Werblin, and sure enough one of his guests was Toots Shor,” Reed recalled. “I was young then and in pretty good shape. But I swear to God I’ve never seen men drink like they did. They’d start drinking Black Russians as soon as they got up and went all day long. They seemed like they were fine, but by the time the Derby was over I was a wreck. It’s a shame Hunter couldn’t have crossed paths with them.”

Silent Screen finished fifth – with Thompson’s money riding on him, incidentally – but such mundane details were by then lost on the reporter, who spent Derby Day in a paranoid haze, confronted by faces from his Louisville past and threatening to “mace drunks in the clubhouse bathrooms – for their own good.”

“Hunter was able to write some things I know the rest of us wished we could have written,” Reed said, “but couldn’t because of who we worked for.”

Minzer has never made it to a Kentucky Derby, except courtesy of Thompson and Steadman.

“When I read some of his commentary about the story years later, I realized it was pretty much an actual account of what happened to Thompson, and that made it even more interesting to me,” Minzer said. “The temptation is to say it’s dated in some way. But not for me. I think it’s a classic story what we fear in other people and how we recognize the same things in ourselves.”

Minzer’s collaborators on the recording include producer Hal Willner and musical composer Bill Frisell. Among the actors joining Robbins are Dr. John and Will Forte as well as Steadman himself, bringing lines attributed to him 42 years ago to strange and wonderful life. It is a riveting recording, best consumed in one delerious gulp and chased with Kentucky bourbon, or whatever’s handy.