The term gonzo first originated with an article I wrote in 1970 entitled, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.” It was the first time I had partnered with Ralph Steadman (blog post soon to come) and we had been terribly wasted the entire time. The focus for the article soon moved away from the actual race and more towards our surroundings. My writing described the total savagery and utter drunkenness of the crowd, and the event in general. Ralph’s drawings complemented this absurdity perfectly.
“It’s a fantastic scene– thousands of people fainting, crying, copulating, trampling each other and fighting with broken whiskey bottles…”
After the article was published, Bill Cardoso [editor of The Boston Globe], wrote an article praising our work and calling it “Pure Gonzo.” From then on the term just stuck and I continued to publish hundreds of other works of gonzo journalism. Of course, Ralph continued to contribute to many of them.
By definition, gonzo is a type of subjective journalism which usually includes the journalist himself as a main part of the story. He integrates himself into the event he is reporting on, and is able to instigate small events to help move the story along. The journalist’s thoughts, emotions, and observations become crucial to the story. Gonzo allows the reader to feel as though they are actually in the middle of the event being covered instead of merely reading about it.
“It is a style of “reporting” based on William Faulkner’s idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism—and the best journalists have always known this. Which is not to say that Fiction is necessarily “more true” than Journalism—or vice versa—but that both “fiction” and “journalism” are artificial categories; and that both forms, at their best, are only two different means to the same end.”
For example, in my book, Hells Angels, I infiltrate the biker gang and live among them for an entire year. I become part of the story and report on the gang from within. Hell’s Angels isn’t the best example of Gonzo but it is a good example for illustrating what it’s all about. In it’s purest form gonzo is profane, sarcastic, exaggerated, and unedited. Not politically correct in any sense of the word. It is a very stylized form of writing. It may include some exaggeration, but gonzo is able to effectively convey a greater message, and it does it very well in my opinion. Gonzo looks at what it’s like to be a part of something. It focuses on the bigger picture rather than on individual facts.
The gonzo fist (pictured below) was originally used in my campaign for sheriff of Aspen… but I’ll write about that another time.The fist has 4 fingers and 2 thumbs, and is gripping a peyote button. Over time, the fist has grown to represent gonzo journalism and even my own personal writing style, to an extent.