Hunter S. Thompson Lives Thanks to Dallas' Michael Minzer (and Tim Robbins)
Allen Ginsberg and Michael Minzer during recording sessions in 1987
Michael Minzer sent me an email earlier this week containing the good news: His long-in-the-works Hunter S. Thompson record is finished. Finally. This is the one mentioned two years ago in the Evergreen Review piece done on Minzer -- the one featuring Tim Robbins, Dr. John, Will Forte, longtime HST collaborator Ralph Steadman and Annie Ross reading, in its entirety, Thompson's 1970 piece "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved," more or less considered the birthplace of Gonzo.
It only took, oh, six years, maybe? But it's done -- mastered and ready for release by no later than October, when 429 Records (home to the likes of Robbie Robertson, Bruce Hornsby, the New York Dolls and Cracker) expects to get it in stores. The partnership makes sense: Guitarist Bill Frisell -- who's collaborated over the years with the likes of Elvis Costello and John Zorn and Petra Haden and everyone else -- wrote the score for the HST record. And he's signed to Savoy Jazz, part of the same label group that includes 429. So that's that. Done. Deal.
I've long been an unabashed fan of Minzer's work, much of it done with the great Hal Willner and all of it released through his locally based Paris Records, among the most unheralded gems Dallas has to offer. I have more or less everything he's worked on, including but not at all limited to albums by William S. Burroughs (Dead City Radio, released through Island), Allen Ginsberg (The Lion For Real, a Mercury release) and Terry Southern (Give Me Your Hump!, which features Marianne Faithfull and Martin Mull, among others).
But the HST record? October can't get here fast enough.
On the other side, in advance of something much longer that'll come your way in fall, Minzer and I talk about the long, hard road to the Kentucky Derby.
How did this come about in the first place?
Well, it was completely unexpected. I had contacted Douglas Brinkley, because I'd heard he was writing a book about Terry Southern. This was in '05. I wanted him to include something about the Terry album in the book, and in the middle of the conversation he suggested I do a Hunter record. It was out of the blue. But I thought, "Maybe I had a shot..."
I decided, "OK, it's gonna be a comeback for me". There's an audience in place, which is important. For the earlier stuff, maybe there wasn't. Eventually I got steered through the estate's attorney, which was in fall 2005. I kinda ran around in circles trying to get permission from the publisher. I called Doug Brinkley back because I was kinda frustrated, so he directed me to George Tobia, and by April '06 we had an outline of an agreement.
We talked to various actors and had a bunch of different ones in mind, but it wasn't coming together. So Hal and I decided, "What the hell, we're gonna cast it." He and Tim have been friends for a long time. I started reading the material chronologically, and when I got to the Kentucky Derby piece I thought it was perfect in every way -- as the initiator of Gonzo, the whole thing. Then it took some time
Hall had worked with Bill Frisell, who was on the Ginsberg record. In this case, Bill wasn't gonna play. He was gonna compose. He directed the musicians, which are the same people he usually records with. Robbins did various vocal takes at various points over a year. We did the initial take in New York, then take two in L.A., then take three in LA as well.
Willner again just did a brilliant job of dropping in the music. Oh, man, there's nobody better in my view. It took six years basically from beginning to now. [He laughs.] Fucking hell.
So, October for sure, then?
October's the release date. But they may change it, I don't know. I certainly hope it's done then. It fits in well with that label's group, because Frisell has moved to the Savoy Jazz Label Group, and so he's now on the label. And Dr. John released one on 429, so they're all in-house artists.
Dr. John's on the record too, right?
He plays the second vocal lead -- he plays the part of Jimbo. And, again, he's such a fantastic spoken-word artist. I'd love to record him reading anything. It's just so great. And Ralph plays himself. Those are three main parts. Willner even brought in Annie Ross to read a small part, which is pretty cool. She's the woman at the hotel desk. And Will Forte read a bunch of miscellaneous voices, and we finally finished it.
When did you finally wrap?
It was mastered in January.
I've always wondered: Which of your records has been the most successful?
Burroughs has been the most successful by far. It's been in print 20 years. I don't even know how many were sold, because it was before SoundScan. But I think the record company told me 78,000 copies, but I think it's more like 100,000.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.