Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On Gonzo

Gonzo Author(s): Peter Tamony Source: American Speech, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Spring, 1983), pp. 73-75 Published by: Duke University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/454762 Accessed: 22/06/2010 18:13

Gonzo is a word that shows signs of taking off from limited use in the counterculture. One of the first notable examples in print was in Rolling Stone (no. 95, 11 Nov. 1971, p. 38/4) in a two-part article by "Raoul Duke," pseudonym of Hunter S. Thompson, who through that pseudonym became the prototype for the character Uncle Duke in the comic strip "Doonesbury."

The earliest use linked the word with drugs and journalism: "But what was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism." The Rolling Stone piece was also printed separately under the title Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (New York: Random House, 1971). Thompson's Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 (San Fran-cisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1973) has other instances of the form: Gonzo journalism and Gonzoville (pp. 281, 283).

From the first, the term seems to have denoted 'brash, importunate, flamboyant'. In 1975, Tom Wolfe in a speech at the University of Georgia said, "Hunter Thompson is Gonzo Journalism" (quoted in the Univ. of Georgia Red and Black, 26 Sep. 1979, p. 3/1). By the late 1970s, the word was appearing with increasing frequency. G. B. Trudeau had introduced the Duke character into his comic strip, for example: ".... we've got only one week left to find someone to give this year's journalism lecture!" "Abe, I've got a suggestion! How about former ambassador Duke, the ex-gonzo stringer for 'Rolling Stone'? His is a unique perspective on the dark underside of outlaw journalism" (reprinted in "But the Pension Fund Was Just Sitting There" [New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1979], p. 3).

The term continued to be associated with Thompson: "In 1973, Hunter S. Thompson-self-styled doctor of divinity, chemotherapy and 'gonzo' journalism-had a dream or nightmare or vision or hallucination or the bends" (John Leonard in San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle, 26 Aug. 1979, "This World" sec., p. 47/1). The movie Where the Buffalo Roam, based on the life, or perhaps more accurately the legend, of Hunter S. Thompson, kept alive his association with gonzo, as in the following from reviews of the film: "However the good Dr. Pasteur probably would have been flabbergasted to learn the quantity of drugs that Dr. (no MD, he) Hunter Thompson, Quintessen-tial Gonzo Journalist, could consume and still stay relatively upright at the typewriter" (San Francisco Chronicle, 2 May 1980, p. 68/1);

"As the chief and only true gonzo, Thompson, in his famous 'Fear and Loathing' reportage for Rolling Stone magazine, wasn't just a passive observer but played his own freaked-out part as unofficial Tom O'Bedlam to the events he covered" (Newsweek, 12 May 1980. p. 93/1). Even when not connected explicitly with Thompson, the term still often denotes his style of journalism: "In the early Sixties Tom Wolfe perpetrated a type of cultural glue-sniffing later christened New (or Gonzo) Journalism. The technique-find a subject that can induce a paroxysm of words, scribble them out on paper, then move on before the rush wears off and the synapses cool down. Like all such artificially induced experiences, the insights seem brilliant as long as the flush remains" (Saturday Review, Oct. 1980, p. 90/3).

The term has also been used without direct reference to Thompson or even to journalism. Archie Green, of the University of Texas at Austin, tells me that, according to some of his graduate students, in 1974-75 a musical group called "The Lost Gonzo Band" played Austin. By 1978, the term had also appeared as the name of a character on The Muppet Show: Gonzo, described in TV Guide (4 Mar. 1978, p. 40/2) as "the scrawny little critter with the turnip beak."

In 1979 the television program Trapper John, M.D. introduced the character G. Alonzo Gates: "a feisty young surgeon who sleeps in the Hospital parking lot in a large, filthy mobile home called the Titanic. Gates drinks excessive French wine, wears blue jeans, doesn't shave and is nicknamed Gonzo. The idea is he's a nonconformist" (Athens [Ga.] Banner-Herald, 23 Dec. 1979, "Classic Scene" sec., p. 6/2-3). Other uses of the term preserve the sense 'unconventional, frenetic'. A review of the movie Rock 'n' Roll High School also applied the term to music: "The Ramones lend themselves to off-the-wall humor. In one scene, Riff imagines that the Ramones are serenading her in her boudoir. Joesy, the gonzo singer, is crooning at her from a chair ..." (Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 27 Oct. 1979, p. T-44/2).

The term is associated with drugs in a homosexual disco in Miami in an article on the Me Generation: "All these pretty guys in strap T-shirts, all gonzoed out on nitro poppers" (Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 30 Dec. 1979, p. F-2/2). It is hard to be sure what the associations of the term are in the following citation, although drug-use may play a part: "... . 'Gonzo Sta-tion,' the irreverent nickname weary U.S. sailors have given the Indian Ocean" (Newsweek, 16 June 1980, p. 38/2). It is clear that gonzo first came to general notice in the writing of Hunter S. Thompson, but its earlier history is obscure. Where did Thompson get the word? I have heard that Oscar Zeta Acosta claimed prior use of it. Acogta was another contributor to Rolling Stone and the author of The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (San Francisco: Straight Books, 1971), which details the flamboyant 1960s life of a rural Chicano who became a California lawyer and disappeared mysteriously in Mexico in the 1970s.

Thompson and Acosta knew each other as early as 1967, but I have found no evidence of Acosta's use of the word. Gonzo looks Spanish. Can it be an Americanization of ganso 'gander; lazy, slovenly person, dunce'? Although its origin before its use by Hunter Thompson is unknown, the proliferation in the use of gonzo makes it a form worth watching.

PETER TAMONY San Francisco

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Lost Gonzo Band played under different names until they came up with that name and it stuck. It was inspired by Jerry Jeff Walker's friendship with Hunter S. Thompson and his use of the term 'gonzo'.