For no good reason

Ralph Steadman

The illustration above is from The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, the article that is said to have marked the beginning of gonzo journalism. Hunter S. Thompson, the author of the piece, tells how it came to be:

THOMPSON: I’d gone down to Louisville on assignment for Warren Hinkle’s [magazine] Scanlan’s. A freak from England named Ralph Steadman was there—first time I met him—doing drawings for my story. The lead story. Most depressing days of my life. I’d lie in my tub at the Royalton. I thought I had failed completely as a journalist. I thought it was probably the end of my career. Steadman’s drawings were in place. All I could think of was the white space where my text was supposed to be. Finally, in desperation and embarrassment, I began to rip the pages out of my notebook and give them to a copyboy to take to a fax machine down the street. When I left I was a broken man, failed totally, and convinced I’d be exposed when the stuff came out. It was just a question of when the hammer would fall. I’d had my big chance and I had blown it.

INTERVIEWER: How did Scanlan’s utilize the notebook pages?

THOMPSON: Well, the article starts out with an organized lead about the arrival at the airport and meeting a guy I told about the Black Panthers coming in; and then it runs amok, disintegrates into flash cuts, a lot of dots.

INTERVIEWER: And the reaction?

THOMPSON: This wave of praise. This is wonderful . . . pure gonzo. I heard from friends—Tom Wolfe, Bill Kennedy.

INTERVIEWER: So what, in fact, was learned from that experience?

THOMPSON: I realized I was on to something

Food for thought.

The only book by Thompson I had attempted to read was Hell’s Angels, which I didn’t finish. A PDF version of The Kentucky Derby is here, if you are interested (found here).

On a plane trip a couple of months ago, I watched a documentary about Ralph Steadman, the cartoonist Thompson mentions above. The two are/were apparently very different characters—Thompson being the more spontaneous, crazy one—but had a fruitful partnership that spanned years. A remark from the film had stuck in my mind, looking for a transcript, I found this:

The basis of Ralph and Hunter’s friendship was that they saw kindred spirits in each other. [I think] Hunter realized that Ralph was crazier than him. Ralph was willing to go to extremes that Hunter was not willing to, and you’d think Hunter would be the one who was the, you know, more outrageous and reckless and the one who would go out on a limb on something. But Ralph was the one who’d actually go there. I’m not talking about physical safety. But I’m talking about sort of, you know, mental, moral, philosophical

The limbs Steadman was willing to go out on mentioned in the film included the Vietnam War and Watergate.

I got the image at the top from Steadman’s website. He is still active, apparently, and recently contributed to Ghosts of Gone Birds, a project “dedicated to breathing life back into the birds we have lost – so we don’t lose anymore”.
Ghosts of Gone Birds Steadman

The trailer of the documentary is here.

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What is music?

I found this video a few weeks ago while looking for another microtonal piece to share with a friend. (The piano is not out of tune, it is tuned that way intentionally.) I ended up coming back to it repeatedly, especially late at night, instead of marking it as a curiosity and moving on (as I had done with a few other such pieces). I can’t quite figure out why. I will spare you my clumsy/ignorant attempts at theorizing and leave with a quote I came across recently.

The emotional impact of music is so incommensurate with what people can say about it, and that seems to be very illustrative of something fundamental—that very powerful emotional effects often can’t be articulated. You know something’s happened to you but you don’t know what it is. You’ll find yourself going back to certain poems again and again. After all, they are only words on a page, but you go back because something that really matters to you is evoked in you by the words. And if somebody said to you, Well, what is it? or What do your favorite poems mean?, you may well be able to answer it, if you’ve been educated in a certain way, but I think you’ll feel the gap between what you are able to say and why you go on reading.

Adam Phillips, interviewed by Paul Holdengräber

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The inventor and the museum curator

A few years ago I came across a press release about a TV program by Glenn Gould, with the provocative title How Mozart Became a Bad Composer. I attempted to get a copy of it from the Glenn Gould Foundation, but was told that it was being prepared as part of a DVD set (which was supposed to be released last year). After exchanging a few emails, I ended up ordering an issue of the Glenn Gould magazine where the full transcript of the program was published. The following paragraph from that transcript comes to my mind every now and then, and I decided to post it here and maybe return to it sometime. If nothing else, it is pretty good food for thought on creative work.

Perhaps it all comes down to this: within every creative person there’s an inventor at odds with a museum curator. And most of the extraordinary and moving things that happen in art are the result of a momentary gain by one at the expense of the other. In Mozart’s case, the inventor was endowed with the most precocious gifts, and the curator, who manufactured all those sequences and arpeggiated links and passages of scale padding, zealously carried out his duties as well. But what I object to is that Mozart tries to cover up the conflict between them. Time and again, the curator wins out over the inventor, as he has every right to do. But I’d like to find some evidence of protest, some frantic, disruptive, unsyntactical attempt on the part of the inventor to get free of the curator’s control. Or, in the absence of that desperation move, I’d like Mozart to feel guilty, and because of that guilt to sacrifice something of the charm and courtesy which mask the humanity of his work.

What did Gould’s Mozart playing sound like? Here is one example.

Wikipedia says,

The A minor sonata is the first of only two Mozart piano sonatas to have been composed in a minor key . . . It was written in one of the most tragic times of his life: his mother had just died, and his father blamed him for his wife’s death. Mozart was devastated, and poured his constant torment into his sonata, one of the darkest. The last movement in particular has an obsessive, haunted quality about it, heightened near the end by the interruption of the relentless drive to the conclusion by repeated and chilling quiet falling passages.

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