Past opinion-Where has all the Gonzo gone?
Edition 102-May 1, 2013
Where has all the "Gonzo" gone?
Canada's connection to a special breed of journalism
By Thomas Terrio

The man who popularized Gonzo journalism Hunter S. Thompson once said, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”(1) Thompson’s form of journalism, which placed the journalist in the story as the main character was an idea he standardized in the early 1970’s. By 1996, it culminated in the movie, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” taken from his book of the same name aptly subtitled: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.

The book and subsequent movie depict a drug stricken trip to Las Vegas in 1971, or for a better word “assignment,” made by Thompson and his lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta, whose alias was Dr. Gonzo; where the two men covered a story on a desert road race which began and ended in a search by Thompson and Acosta for the “American Dream.” It ended in a far different trip, immortalized by a new form of journalism called “Gonzo.”

But what is Gonzo journalism? Reporter John Filatreau best describes Thompson’s style of journalism this way: “Gonzo can only be defined as what Hunter Thompson does…it generally consists of the fusion of reality and stark fantasy in a way that amuses the author and outrages his audience. It is point of view run wild…Gonzo requires virtually no re-writing, with the reporter and the quest for information as the focal point. Notes, snatches from other articles, transcribed interviews, verbatim telephone conversations, telegrams—these are elements of Gonzo journalism.” (2)

But where did the word Gonzo come from? Indeed, there are several definitions. Academics believe Gonzo came from the French Canadian word “gonzeaux,” which means, “shining path.”(3) The online Urban Dictionary describes Gonzo as “All out, first person and live. Writing with extreme subjectivity; just what you see, as if being behind a camera; taking matters into your own hands and being part of the scene. From the Scottish, meaning last person up at the end of the night and still drinking beers.”

images of Hunter S. Thompson and Rene Levesque

Journalist and author Bill Cardosa originally coined the word as an adjective defined as having a bizarre, subjective, idiosyncratic style in journalism. Perhaps from the Italian “gonzo” which means simpleton; or the Spanish “ganso,” dull, fool or goose.(4) A more realistic definition is that it—simply means gone—or not here in the present and is often heard in common slang to describe someone high on drugs. Thompson’s contemporaries of the time were members of what has now become known as the era of “new journalism.”

But as the horror and death of the Vietnam War was brought home to millions of Americans every night via broadcast news, and as the hangover from the 1960’s clash for political and sexual freedom against the status quo in America slowly drifted into history, Thompson’s search for the “American Dream,” or what was left of it, along with the reality of war and its consequences gradually became apparent to him, his nation, and his generation.

In response, Thompson chose to rebel against the standing order in society by losing himself in LSD, marijuana, Mescaline, alcohol, or any other narcotic readily available. Quoted n the online Urban Dictionary Thompson said, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me.”

But how did Gonzo journalism influence the media in Canada and were there any aspiring Gonzo Canadian journalists before or after Thompson’s idea of “Gonzo” became legendary? Indeed, Gonzo journalism can best be exemplified in the underground newspapers of the time.

Each city in Canada by the mid-sixties and early 1970’s, specifically Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal had underground papers that were being challenged by local authorities for their provocative content on the hippie lifestyle which propagated free sex, drugs, and an affection for anti-government persona such as Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and Abbie Hoffman.

Most certainly, since the seventies the media in general has taken-on a more serene approach to trends in news and shifted from the counter-culture to convergence. In a discussion paper written by William John Fox called "Junk News: Can Public Broadcasters Buck the Tabloid Tendencies of Market-Driven Journalism," Fox says the media of today has not experienced a rebirth of the radical counter-culture movement of the 60’s and 70’s simple because “the ‘new journalism,’ from the Tequila fuelled ‘Gonzo’ insights of Hunter S. Thompson …may be unacceptable to media traditionalists precisely because it questions the established order.”(5)

Indeed, Ron Verzuh clearly outlines his thoughts on this matter when he says in his book called, Underground Times: Canada’s Flower Child Revolutionaries, “It all suggests that the mass media has taken a backward step, seeming to unlearn what it had borrowed from the undergrounds.” (6)

In Vancouver’s counterculture revolution of the 1960’s, the Georgia Straight was the “guiding light” of the underground press in the West. Notwithstanding the local pressure from the Establishment, Editor Dan McLeod did commit himself to, and in not a shy way, “the latest roach clips, hash pipes, love beads and latest drug paraphernalia of the ‘hip scene’ to be found in the local ‘head shop.’(7) His idea of freedom of speech ended in several lawsuits, which only advanced the Georgia Straight’s readership in Vancouver's Lower Mainland, known now as Metro Vancouver.

In Vancouver, Fourth Avenue was the center of the drug counter-culture with its close proximity to English Bay and the number one spot for music, the Village Bistro. Even “the waiters at the Alcazar Hotel would sell you a joint with your twenty-cent glass of draft.” (8) The Georgia Straight reported on police harassment of individuals, drug busts, police brutality and protest marches. They printed classified ads with requests for free sex and open relationships. “They chronicled the Age of Aquarius; the flower power era, the ‘do,’ ‘dig it’ and ‘do your own thing’ decade of ‘revolution for the hell of it.’ (9) Although definitely “Gonzo,” The Georgia Straight of the 1960’s and 70’s represented a new demand for more freedom of speech from authorities, unseen in the established mainstream media at the time.

In Ottawa, Tony Seed, the son of a prominent Toronto lawyer was attending Carleton University when he founded the Canadian Free Press in 1968. Seed’s ideas were no less revolutionary than McLeod’s in Vancouver. “They would unashamedly reveal their intent to reject such authority as part of their goal of totally changing a world which they believed was weary of war, hate, poverty and corruption.” (10) Seed was later charged in a drug bust with possession of narcotics for the purpose of trafficking and sentenced to two years in prison that was later reduced by six months.

In Montreal on October 16, 1968, true to Gonzo journalism, the editor of the counter-culture newspaper there called Logos, Paul Kirby, was busy mixing reality with fiction. He prepared a fraudulent copy of the Gazette, named after the well-known English daily Montreal Gazette. He placed in his Gonzo headline, “Mayor shot by dope-crazed hippie,” And with help from a few loyal followers, dropped them off at all the local downtown newsstands late in the afternoon, before the regular edition of the daily was to appear. The fake headline sent shudders throughout the Montreal community. Mayor Jean Drapeau had been shot, which brought back memories of the recent JFK Assassination. It sent local journalists running to confirm the story. (11)

In the end, Kirby lost in court when the Mayor himself personally appeared to repudiate all claims and false statements made against himself and his administration. At the time, the alternative media in Montreal was focused on the area of Crescent Street and Ste Catherine.

Aside from these and other attempts of these young idealists to set themselves apart, their beliefs and actions left little to discriminate against other than attitude. In the 1980’s and 90’s, this generation would become the age group which took hold of the political reins. And in the end, as a result of their declaration of a new way to experience culture, politics, and religion, were to legitimize, metaphorically speaking in Gonzo, the future “wild horses” of open immigration, decriminalization of marijuana, and liberal jurisprudence we now ride.

As for actual Gonzo Canadian journalists, there were not any, at least none who were recognized as such. However, there are two that stand out respectfully as Gonzo. The first, former Premier Rene Levesque, a journalist who came home to Canada after World War II to start his own political party, the Parti Quebecois. His political activism shook the foundations of the Canadian federation as an independence movement, whose ideology was and still is, to separate the province of Quebec from Canada.

Lévesque’s Gonzo chain smoking persona was exemplified by his calm speech, candid conversation, and accuracy in reporting. He first found his prominence at Canada’s national broadcasting network, the CBC. This gave his viewers a belief in responsible journalism that would later help his political career.

As a liaison officer and European war correspondent for the American armed forces in WW II, Lévesque joined Radio-Canada International in 1946 and became head of the radio-television news service in 1952. In 1956 he hosted the TV series "Point de Mire;" translated means Cynosure and became one of Québec's most influential TV commentators. After taking part in the 1959 CBC producers' strike, he joined the Québec Liberal Party and was elected MNA for Montréal-Laurier in 1960.

He was appointed Minister of Water Resources and of Public Works 1960-61, Minister of Natural Resources 1961-66 and then Minister of Family and Social Welfare. Levesque was one of the most popular and energetic members of the Lesage government, he was responsible for the government's decision to nationalize private electric utilities and for its efforts at cleaning-up political mores. (12)

Levesque was a democrat who believed in social reform. Let's be clear, he was never thought of as a Gonzo. He was elected for the first time as Premier of Quebec in 1976. His government’s first piece of legislation, Bill 101, was to make French the official language in Quebec. To this day, Rene Lévesque is loved and remembered as the leader and founder of the Quebec separatist movement in which he is held in the highest esteem by the people of Quebec for establishing in the late 20th Century "the French fact in North America."

Another individual journalist who can be respectfully called “Gonzo” is Sidney Katz, a Canadian journalist and editor, who wrote a story on the effects of LSD by participating in an experiment himself for MacLean’s magazine. Katz called his story, “My 12 hours as a madman.” The article is known as “the first detailed, first-person account in a general magazine of the effects of LSD.”(13)

In his minute-by-minute report, Katz describes both the twelve hours of hell and heaven he experienced under the influence of LSD. He wrote: “I saw the faces of familiar friends turn into fleshless skulls and the heads of menacing witches, pigs and weasels. The gaily patterned carpet at my feet was transformed into a fabulous heaving mass of living matter, part vegetable, part animal. An ordinary sketch of a woman's head and shoulders suddenly sprang to life. She moved her head from side to side, eyeing me critically, changing back and forth from woman into man. Her hair and her neckpiece became the nest of a thousand famished serpents who leaped out to devour me…At times I beheld visions of dazzling beauty—visions so rapturous, so unearthly that no artists will ever paint them. I lived in a paradise where the sky was a mass of jewels set in a background of shimmering aquamarine blue; where the clouds were apricot-colored; where the air was filled with liquid golden arrows, glittering fountains of iridescent bubbles, filigree lace of pearl and silver, sheathes of rainbow light—all constantly changing in color, design, texture and dimension so that each scene was more lovely than the one that preceded it.”(13)

To sum-up the affects of Gonzo journalism would be to describe the impact on the young people of the time who were influenced by what was happening south of the border in the United States. It is best reflected in the counter-culture newspapers they founded, like the Georgia Straight, The Free Press of Ottawa and Montreal’s Logos.

As for individual “Gonzo” journalists in Canada like Hunter S. Thompson, although none were ever labeled as such, Levesque is a good example of a journalist who worked at first in the field, but later put himself in the story, first as a reporter, then as a politician. Furthermore, “My 12 hours as a madman,” written by well-known Maclean’s editor and journalist Sidney Katz, was initially published on June 18, 1958 and preceded Thompson’s idea of “Gonzo journalism” by almost twenty-years.

1. “Fear and loathing in Las Vegas,” A film directed by Terry Gillian, Universal Pictures (1998).
2. Filatreau, John. 1975. Who is Raol Duke? Courier-Journal, 23 October, E7.
3. Jean E. Carrol,. “The strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson,” in What is Gonzo? The etymology of an urban legend, Dr. Martin Hirst, School of Journalism & Communication, University of Queeensland, (University of Queensland Eprint edition 2004-01-19 page 5).
4. Bill Cardoso, in What is Gonzo? The etymology of an urban legend, Dr. Martin Hirst, School of Journalism & Communication, University of Queeensland, (University of Queensland Eprint edition 2004-01-19 page 7).
5. William John Fox, “Junk News: Can Public Broadcasters Buck the Tabloid Tendencies of Market-Driven Journalism? A Canadian Experience,” The Joan Shorestien Center, Press Politics Public Policy, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government, (Discussion paper D-26 August 1997).
6. Ron Verzuh, Underground Times: Canada’s Flower Child Revolutionaries (Deneau Publishers, 1989) pref.xv.
7. (Verzuh 1989, p 2)
8. (Verzuh 1989, p 5)
9. (Verzuh 1989, p 3)
10. (Verzuh 1989, p 27)
11. (Verzuh 1989, p 70-71)
12 . Rene Levesque,
13. Sidney Katz, “My twelve hours as a madman,”
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