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Home / Articles / Music / Music Articles /  Music | Gonzo Comes Alive: Famed indie rock producer/musician Don Fleming talks about producing The Gonzo Tapes box set.
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Music | Gonzo Comes Alive: Famed indie rock producer/musician Don Fleming talks about producing The Gonzo Tapes box set.

By Randy Harward
Posted // December 31,2008 - The late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson had—has—quite a reputation, because he made such an impression with his work that others fold him into their own. Most have seen Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Thompson’s (slightly exaggerated) alter-ego, Raoul Duke, in Alex Cox’s film adaptation of Thompson’s most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Perhaps you’ve caught The Venture Brothers on Adult Swim, and laughed at Brock Samson’s cross-dressing mentor, Hunter Gathers. Thompson also inspired Uncle Duke in Doonesbury, and Bill Murray to date has most accurately portrayed the good doctor himself—no pseudonym required—in Where the Buffalo Roam. You know him, even if you haven’t read his wild “gonzo” writings on Hell’s Angels and the Vietnam War. n

This year director Alex Gibney released Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (Magnolia Home Entertainment), the most accurate portrait of the man yet. The interviews with Thompson friends and accomplices and the archival footage are revealing, but Thompson’s own audio recordings, made while creating his greatest works, shed more light on him—even if it was just to confirm what many already knew.

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Those recordings came straight from the Thompson estate, courtesy of his widow Anita and son Juan. Gibney hired Don Fleming (of early-1990s band Gumball and producer of Sonic Youth, The Posies) to digitally transfer the tapes for his film. Fleming, in turn, produced a five-CD audio box set The Gonzo Tapes: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson (Shout! Factory). “I am a very big fan of Hunter’s work, so it was kind of mind-blowing,” says Fleming. “I didn’t expect it to be on my career trajectory.”

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Anita and Juan allowed Fleming to stay in the guesthouse at the Thompson estate in Colorado. Alone there, Fleming contemplated the hundreds of meticulously archived 90-minute tapes. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he says, “but it was so much better than I could’ve imagined.”

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He was struck by how thorough Thompson was, even while zonked. “It’s him talking the way you hear him in print.” And what Fleming heard was, “in a twisted kind of way,” directly in the books. “With the Vegas tape, there’s a scene where Oscar [Zeta Acosta, his attorney] describes a guy who worked at the hotel as a Samoan. I thought, ‘That’s where he got that!’ He took the real-life adventure and sort of twisted it around to make the story. So it was very factual on a lot of levels, and then he would take these tidbits and turn them into the book.

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“And it’s not just him taping interviews, him and Oscar out in the car… There are so many long monologues. After he’d drop [Hell’s Angel] Terry the Tramp off, all the way back home, he’d be talking into the mic, just a spew of his thoughts.”

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Fleming estimates he transferred “a little over 200 of the cassettes” and “I listened to every second. He basically [taped himself] all the way up to the end. There’s many more hundreds of tapes that are still untouched.”

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The Gonzo Tapes exposes a professionalism and craftsmanship that somewhat belie the wacky surreality of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, while also confirming the bad craziness of the world, as with his 1975 jaunt to Saigon and Laos (also chronicled on the set). Yet, to many, Thompson is the party animal, the eccentric curmudgeon with an armory at his disposal, and the central character in some of the wildest, well-written and enlightening stories they’ve ever heard. Fleming tried to emphasize the hardworking side because to truly appreciate Dr. Thompson, one must understand him as a whole. He was who we thought he was—there was no affectation—but his legacy need not be party stories.

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“There’s definitely tapes of him drivin’ through Colorado on mescaline and just hootin’ and hollerin’,” says Fleming. “He just starts cackling at times, because he’s high as a kite. But I think it’s good to show that as crazy as he was, he was very serious about his work. That’s one of the reasons he was such a great writer.” tttt

 
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