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Where Did Dr. Gonzo Go?

Words:

Edd Norval
April 2, 2018

Dr. Gonzo was the lawyer compatriot of Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He didn't want his real name used partly to do with the copious amounts of drugs and partly because it sounds a bit cooler than Oscar Zeta Acosta - although not by much.

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Not too many lawyers would advise you to rent fast cars, buy cocaine and a cache full of guns - but then again very little of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas fits our expectations - Mr. Gonzo isn't about the break the order.


As a journalist, Thompson planned to take a trip to Las Vegas to document a motorcycle race. According to his lawyer, it was essential he had legal aid on this trip (along with the other less-than-legal inventory). After repeated bouts of anxiety, ecstasy and near-death, the two go their own ways with barely any recollection of what happened. Throughout the whole thing Dr. Gonzo had a knack of disappearing, always getting out when he still had a chance. Left behind though was the cult novel.

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It's hard to imagine that this novel-then-film, although semi-autobiographical, could have somehow overlapped with real life - it did. Thompson was fond of his lawyer-buddy, opining that:


"Any combination of a 250 lb Mexican and LSD-25 is a potentially terminal menace for anything it can reach — but when the alleged Mexican is in fact a profoundly angry Chicano lawyer with no fear at all of anything that walks on less than three legs and a de facto suicidal conviction that he will die at the age of 33 — just like Jesus Christ — you have a serious piece of work on your hands."


'Terminal menace' is probably one of the finest compliments that he could have received from Thompson whose novel was first released in 1971. By 1974 Acosta (Dr. Gonzo) was missing, never to return.


Acosta's life started out glumly, surviving on drink and drugs to get through his mundane shifts at an antipoverty agency in California. With an insatiable love of life, a defining trait of his, he eventually embedded himself in the Chicano movement and added the 'Zeta' to his middle name - a homage to his ancestry.

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An empowering figure in the community, his physical stature was to be admired - a huge man, powerfully built and with a presence to match. Outfitted in garish ties and a predisposition for appearing shoeless in the courtroom. He evolved from lowly lawyer officer-worker into a revolutionary for the empowerment of Chicano people.


His fame certainly came from being a sidekick to Hunter S. Thompson, but that was only a few days in his life. At either side of the film was a life lived equally as recklessly and full-on. His appetite for drugs was well-known, he'd often appear in court intoxicated, although not to the extent of impaired work. His proclivity for firearms also defined his character. Old photographs show him - hulking, wild-eyed and ephemeral. He was some kind of crazy angel that was always fighting something somewhere. Drunken bar brawls were a regular occurrence, but it was the legal fights, the ones that emancipated his people from derision and poverty, that set him apart.


His son Marco recognised this power that emanated from his father - always the brightest in the room. He said, "Every century there are a few individuals who are destined to lead the weak, to hold unpopular beliefs and, most important, who are willing to die for their cause. My father's whole life was given to the fight for 'the people'." The man was unstoppable, or so it seemed.

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A recent CBS documentary, The Rise and Fall of The Brown Buffalo, explores his life, looking at his impact on the community and willingness to do battle wherever he had to to make his point - be it bar, street or in a court. He was relentless and restless, seemingly overcome with a superhuman ability and energy to speak truth to power.


The documentary has Benicio del Toro involved, the very man that once became him for the Fear and Loathing film. It seems like, nearly two decades on, he has been unable to shake off the man's spirit. You can picture Acosta lying in bed restless, his mind on one-million other things that he has to do tomorrow - no, now! Similarly one can imagine del Toro doing the same when possessed by the spirit of Acosta, knowing that this story must be told.


That he was so easily forgotten is hard to believe. Often characters like this enter the pantheon of folklore and remain there for years, canonised by their community and regarded as some kind of martyr. Perhaps that's because he's not dead, or has never been proven to be. But he doesn't seem to be alive either.

It was 1974, Mazatlán, Sinaloa, Mexico. There one day, gone the next. So far no one seems to have a clue what happened. He had his enemies, in politics, the police-force and personal. He also had demons. A diamond - he was seemingly the only person capable of breaking himself. Maybe that's what happened, but maybe not.


His adoring son Marco believed that his father mouthed-off to someone he shouldn't have. Knowing the man and knowing the people that knew him, it's no surprise the body was never found. A preacher to the people - they gathered around him and hung on to every word. His sermons on inequality and injustice fuelled their pre-existing sense of unease and oppression. He was a dangerous man to keep alive.


Although not an obituary, the closest thing we'll get is a singularly-sentenced elegy that has echoed through history, although is little-known to be about him - "Too weird to live, and too rare to die." Thompson wrote these words in an investigative article he wrote for Rolling Stone about Acosta's disappearance. Their was no real conclusion.


Unfortunately, Acosta's main legacy is as a funny and furious drug-addict in a cult film, although this new film looks to change that. He was so much more - his power and ability is perhaps best defined by his own hand - it's by these words that we can faithfully remember him.


I have no desire to be a politician. I don’t want to lead anyone. I have no practical ego. I am not ambitious. I merely want to do what is right. Once in every century there comes a man who is chosen to speak for his people. Moses, Mao and Martin are examples. Who’s to say that I am not such a man? In this day and age the man for all seasons needs many voices. Perhaps that is why the gods have sent me into Riverbank, Panama, San Francisco, Alpine and Juarez. Perhaps that is why I’ve been taught so many trades. Who will deny that I am unique? For months, for years, no, all my life I sought to find out who I am. Why do you think I became a Baptist? Why did I try to force myself into the Riverbank Swimming Pool? And did I become a lawyer just to prove to the publishers I could do something worthwhile? Any idiot that sees only the obvious is blind. For God sake, I have never seen and I have never felt inferior to any man or beast.

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