Friday, May 05, 2006

Derby Day

Derby Day

Derby Day (2003)

Well, the big race is tomorrow -- as it always is on the first Saturday in May. Today's highly abstract image always struck me as a depiction of a horse race.

I don't know what more to say about this image, really. So, I think I'll (ahem) turn over the reins to someone more familiar with the sport -- the late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Here's an excerpt from his 1970 essay "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved."

A short set-up. Our gonzo narrator has already arrived in Louisville and conned his way into a motel room by claiming to be a photographer for Playboy and was sent to cover a story that the Black Panthers and skinheads have elaborate plans to infiltrate and disrupt the Kentucky Derby. He has purchased multiple cans of Mace ("Chemical Billy") that he schemes to use when the going gets weird and arranges to met English artist Ralph Steadman -- who has been assigned to do some illustrations for Thompson's article. The meeting of Steadman and Thompson will prove seminal. Steadman would go on to illustrate much of Thompson's work throughout his career. As the section opens, Thompson has corralled Steadman and driven him to the track at Churchill Downs on the day before the Derby. As Steadman soaks up the surroundings, Thompson gives him the lowdown on tomorrow's big event.

Later Friday afternoon, we went out on the balcony of the press box and I tried to describe the difference between what we were seeing today and what would be happening tomorrow. This was the first time I'd been to a Derby in ten years, but before that, when I lived in Louisville, I used to go every year. Now, looking down from the press box, I pointed to the huge grassy meadow enclosed by the track. "That whole thing," I said, "will be jammed with people; fifty thousand or so, and most of them staggering drunk. It's a fantastic scene--thousands of people fainting, crying, copulating, trampling each other and fighting with broken whiskey bottles. We'll have to spend some time out there, but it's hard to move around, too many bodies."

"Is it safe out there?" Will we ever come back?"

"Sure," I said. "We'll just have to be careful not to step on anybody's stomach and start a fight." I shrugged. "Hell, this clubhouse scene right below us will be almost as bad as the infield. Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and angrier as they lose more and more money. By midafternoon they'll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomitting on each other between races. The whole place will be jammed with bodies, shoulder to shoulder. It's hard to move around. The aisles will be slick with vomit; people falling down and grabbing at your legs to keep from being stomped. Drunks pissing on themselves in the betting lines. Dropping handfuls of money and fighting to stoop over and pick it up."

He looked so nervous that I laughed. "I'm just kidding," I said. "Don't worry. At the first hint of trouble I'll start pumping this 'Chemical Billy' into the crowd."

He had done a few good sketches, but so far we hadn't seen that special kind of face that I felt we would need for a lead drawing. It was a face I'd seen a thousand times at every Derby I'd ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry--a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture. One of the key genetic rules in breeding dogs, horses or any other kind of thoroughbred is that close inbreeding tends to magnify the weak points in a bloodline as well as the strong points. In horse breeding, for instance, there is a definite risk in breeding two fast horses who are both a little crazy. The offspring will likely be very fast and also very crazy. So the trick in breeding thoroughbreds is to retain the good traits and filter out the bad. But the breeding of humans is not so wisely supervised, particularly in a narrow Southern society where the closest kind of inbreeding is not only stylish and acceptable, but far more convenient--to the parents--than setting their offspring free to find their own mates, for their own reasons and in their own ways. ("Goddam, did you hear about Smitty's daughter? She went crazy in Boston last week and married a nigger!")

So the face I was trying to find in Churchill Downs that weekend was a symbol, in my own mind, of the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.

On our way back to the motel after Friday's races I warned Steadman about some of the other problems we'd have to cope with. Neither of us had brought any strange illegal drugs, so we would have to get by on booze. "You should keep in mind," I said, "that almost everybody you talk to from now on will be drunk. People who seem very pleasant at first might suddenly swing at you for no reason at all." He nodded, staring straight ahead. He seemed to be getting a little numb and I tried to cheer him up by inviting to dinner that night, with my brother.

Back at the motel we talked for awhile about America, the South, England--just relaxing a bit before dinner. There was no way either of us could have known, at the time, that it would be the last normal conversation we would have. From that point on, the weekend became a vicious, drunken nightmare. We both went completely to pieces. The main problem was my prior attachment to Louisville, which naturally led to meetings with old friends, relatives, etc., many of whom were in the process of falling apart, going mad, plotting divorces, cracking up under the strain of terrible debts or recovering from bad accidents. Right in the middle of the whole frenzied Derby action, a member of my own family had to be institutionalized. This added a certain amount of strain to the situation, and since poor Steadman had no choice but to take whatever came his way, he was subjected to shock after shock.

My eyes were swollen almost shut and the sudden burst of sunlight through the door left me stunned and helpless like a sick mole.

Kentucky Derby (1970) by Ralph Steadman

Another problem was his habit of sketching people he met in the various social situations I dragged him into--then giving them the sketches. The results were always unfortunate. I warned him several times about letting the subjects see his foul renderings, but for some perverse reason he kept doing it. Consequently, he was regarded with fear and loathing by nearly everyone who'd seen or even heard about his work. Ho couldn't understand it. "It's sort of a joke," he kept saying. "Why, in England it's quite normal. People don't take offense. They understand that I'm just putting them on a bit."

"Fuck England," I said. "This is Middle America. These people regard what you're doing to them as a brutal, bilious insult. Look what happened last night. I thought my brother was going to tear your head off."

Steadman shook his head sadly. "But I liked him. He struck me as a very decent, straightforward sort."

"Look, Ralph," I said. "Let's not kid ourselves. That was a very horrible drawing you gave him. It was the face of a monster. It got on his nerves very badly." I shrugged. "Why in hell do you think we left the restaurant so fast?"

"I thought it was because of the Mace," he said.

"What Mace?"

He grinned. "When you shot it at the headwaiter, don't you remember?"

"Hell, that was nothing," I said. "I missed him...and we were leaving, anyway."

"But it got all over us," he said. "The room was full of that damn gas. Your brother was sneezing was and his wife was crying. My eyes hurt for two hours. I couldn't see to draw when we got back to the motel."

"That's right," I said. "The stuff got on her leg, didn't it?"

"She was angry," he said.

"Yeah...well, okay...Let's just figure we fucked up about equally on that one," I said. "But from now on let's try to be careful when we're around people I know. You won't sketch them and I won't Mace them. We'll just try to relax and get drunk."

"Right," he said. "We'll go native."

Place your bets. And......they're off.

3 comments:

Tim said...

That image really goes well with Ralph Stedman's. It really does look like a horse race.

What I find most interesting is the the big, massive, glob-like quality to the competitors. It's as if all the individual identities have disappeared and there's just one foundering mass of loosers and winners and the final outcome is meaningless.

It exhibits all the crudeness that Hunter describes.

cruelanimal said...

Tim:

I agree. Individuality is lost in the collective mass of the race. Thompson knows the real winners and (primarily) losers are in the stands.

Whiskers said...

I can't say I disagree. I'll check to see the consensus. Happy mother's day!

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