Musical Reportage: The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, by Hunter S. Thompson, with music by Bill Frisell, produced by Hal Willner, featuring Tim Robbins, Dr. John, Ralph Steadman, and Annie Ross

By Daniel Garrett

The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved
by journalist Hunter S. Thompson
Music composed, conducted by Bill Frisell
Produced by Hal Willner
Paris Records
429 Records/SLG, 2012

How to describe The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved?  It is a work, a journal account and a drama with eccentric attitude and vulgar references about a visit to the Kentucky Derby, by the volatile writer and photographer Hunter S. Thompson, working supposedly for Playboy in expectation of a protest or riot at the derby, though the piece actually appeared in Scanlan’s Monthly, a magazine that presented political subjects.  Its drama is enacted by Tim Robbins, Dr. John, Annie Ross and others, and its appealing, subtle musical score was created and conducted by Bill Frisell, coming through a clear production by Hal Willner.  The music is in a classical style, more than a syncopated jazz style, but sounds very American—it is impressionistic and intimate rather than grand.  (It is not until the sixth of ten tracks—an interlude, without speech, before the morning of the horse race—that I heard music I would call jazz.)  Yet, the central content is the text by Hunter S. Thompson, someone whose place in the imagination of those who admire him is that of a weird ideal, a force of nature, a rebel.  I used to read Hunter S. Thompson in Rolling Stone, a counterculture music magazine that became a complete commercial entity, a magazine of bloat as much as brilliance, but I was not really an admirer of Thompson, just as I was not an admirer of Lester Bangs or the Ramones, tending as I do to prefer a more composed, informed, thoughtful style, a style that embodied civilization rather than rebelled against it.  (Give me the essayists James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Ralph Ellison, Pauline Kael, Gore Vidal, as well as Henry James, Chekhov, Rilke, and numerous other writers and artists, past and present.)  Thompson was one of those writers who made his eyes, his nerves, and his appetites available to the reader, rather than a deeply cultivated mind.  Hunter S. Thompson gave the reader an experience.  However, if everyone rebels against civilization, there will be nothing left but anarchists and animals.

In The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, the writer-photographer Hunter S. Thompson and satirical illustrator Roger Steadman travel to document the horse race and the scenes of betting and drinking that surrounds it.  Roger Steadman plays himself, and Tim Robbins plays Hunter, with Dr. John as Jimbo, Annie Ross as a desk clerk, Will Forte as a rent-a-car clerk, and John Joyce III as a pimp.  Robbins’s articulation is clipped but forceful, suggesting a self-conscious, possibly paranoid sensibility.  Dr. John as a plainspoken, vulgar but caring man explodes out of the drama, into one’s own room—vivid.  The story takes place during a time of turmoil in American history, following the political protests of the 1960s and the retrenchment of the early 1970s, including the Ohio Kent State killings, and the bombing of Cambodia.  The 1970 derby is a social scene of racing, betting, drinking, sex, and vomiting, within an insular southern atmosphere—ignorant, incestuous, racist.  (I am not fond of the casual use of words such as “faggot” and “nigger” as part of the reportage—curse words should sound like curses, with shock and violence, especially as they feel that way to those whom they describe—but to prohibit that here is to repress reality.)  The journalist and illustrator bet on a horse race, a short race that they cannot see from their seats, watching the television replay after it is over.  The two take to whiskey.  One of them says that they had come to the derby to document decadence—and revealed their own.  The finished reporting would be published in June 1970 by Scanlan’s Monthly.

With Bill Frisell, the musicians include trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, viola-player Eyvind Kant, trumpeter Ron Miles, cellist Hank Roberts, violinist Jenny Scheinman, woodwind-player Doug Weiselman, and drummer Kenny Wollesen.  Their performance is to be commended for not competing with the literature for attention, for not creating chaos; instead, ironically, the beauty and delicacy in the music are like the return of the repressed.

Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader.  Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.