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It's totally gonzo

Did Southie slang inspire Hunter S. Thompson to label his journalism? A historian has cast doubt on that story

By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / November 21, 2010

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In South Boston, there’s a word they’ve long used on the street corners to describe a particular type of madman. Not your run-of-the-mill madman, mind you. No, this term is reserved for those who use craziness as a form of self-expression, who push it too far just to push it.

Those people are “gonzo.’’

Forty years ago, unbeknownst to the people of Southie, “gonzo’’ left the neighborhood on the back of a soon-to-be-famous writer — Hunter S. Thompson — who adopted it as the name for his signature style of journalism.

The word went global. It’s in the dictionary. It’s used to describe a style of marketing and a genre of pornography. It’s why that Muppet is named Gonzo.

But now, on this unnoticed anniversary, “gonzo’’ may be taken from the people of Southie again, this time by a historian who claims the word actually originates with a New Orleans musician.

For more than three decades, the story of “gonzo’’ has always started the same way — even according to the Oxford English Dictionary — with a note sent by a former Globe editor named Bill Cardoso in 1970.

Cardoso had just read an article titled “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’’ by his friend Thompson, who was, by all accounts, a first-ballot madman hall-of-famer. Thompson’s idea of properly covering the derby meant becoming a comic participant in what he saw as the real action — out-drinking the “whiskey gentry’’ he’d come to vilify; spreading rumors of an impending Black Panther riot; contemplating “macing helpless drunks in the clubhouse restroom, for their own good’’ but instead macing a restaurant.

“I don’t know what the [expletive] you’re doing,’’ Cardoso wrote to Thompson, “but you’ve changed everything. It’s totally gonzo.’’

Thompson ran with it. He started calling his reporter-as-main-character style “gonzo journalism,’’ and the word took off, along with Thompson’s fame. In Rolling Stone magazine, and in such books as “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’’ and “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail,’’ Thompson’s manic writings — usually fueled by heavy drugs and copious amounts of alcohol — made him a central cultural figure of the 1970s.

The word is everywhere now — it brings up over 13 million hits on Google — and is used to describe the wild and crazy, as well as the genre of subjective storytelling where the narrator is an aggressive protagonist. (In gonzo pornography, the action is filmed by a participant.)

But as its usage grows globally, it appears to be fading locally.

At the South Boston Catholic Academy, an informal Globe poll of 102 students in grades 4 through 8 found that only a third knew the word. Nearly all said that it wasn’t a word they use, but some said they occasionally heard it from their parents and grandparents. One student said his aunt yelled it at people all the time when she was driving.

The students offered definitions such as “crazy,’’ “out of your mind,’’ and “nuthead,’’ but older generations in the neighborhood say the students’ definitions miss the nuance of gonzo motivation. Despite Hollywood’s portrayal of South Boston as the place where the bad guys come from, its people say gonzo behavior was mostly done for laughs.

“So he comes down the street, riding a 10-speed,’’ Brian Quinlan, a 36-year-old from the neighborhood, said recently as he sat on a bench at Castle Island, offering a textbook example, “and he’s wearing a pair of Nike Leather Cortez . . . and nothing else.

“That’s your classic gonzo behavior.’’

Cardoso, who grew up in Cambridge, always said the term came from Southie, and during his lifetime he offered up various definitions for the word, including “weird and bizarre’’ and “the last man standing at the end of an all-night drinking binge.’’ But he admitted, in an unpublished account of the “gonzo’’ story, that he was “never much on either Southie or Dot, for my mother forbade me from going there.’’

Cardoso thought the expression was derived from the French-Canadian word “gonzeaux.’’ The Oxford English Dictionary, which defines “gonzo’’ as “bizarre, crazy; far-fetched,’’ says “perhaps’’ it has roots in Italian or Spanish.

The people of Southie say the word’s origins are actually much simpler: it’s just “gone’’ with a -zo suffix added to intensify the word, similar to the transformation of “nut’’ to “nutzo.’’

“As I heard it used over the many seasons of my life, it was just a play on gone,’’ said Billy Bulger, a Southie guy and former Senate president known for his skillful use of language. “It was a word of caution: ‘He’s out of his mind. He’s gonzo.’ ’’

Now, the commonly accepted history of the word is being challenged by Douglas Brinkley, a 49-year-old Rice University professor who said Thompson told him the real story late in his life because he wanted to set the record straight. Brinkley, who is the executor of Thompson’s literary estate and refers to himself as his “official historian,’’ has published two new accounts of the gonzo story in the five years since Thompson committed suicide.

“This bit about Cardoso introducing Hunter to the word ‘gonzo’ is just a false story that Hunter allowed to go on because he was friends with Cardoso,’’ Brinkley said.

Brinkley’s account begins in a New Hampshire motel in 1968, when Cardoso and Thompson were covering the Nixon campaign. Thompson was listening to “Gonzo,’’ a 1960 recording by the New Orleans pianist James Booker, over and over again.

In one Brinkley version, Cardoso was driven crazy by the music and started calling Thompson the “gonzo man.’’ In another version, co-written with Johnny Depp (who played Thompson in the adaptation of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’’ and will reprise the character next year when Thompson’s novel “The Rum Diary’’ is brought to the screen), Cardoso appeared in Thompson’s motel room, wondering what the word in the song meant, and phoned a “smart friend’’ who told him it was Bronx slang for “last man standing.’’

Another variation is offered by Lucian K. Truscott IV, a journalist and screenwriter who was a friend of both Thompson and Cardoso. He says that in 1969 Cardoso had assigned Thompson to cover Nixon’s inauguration for the Globe Magazine, and when he walked in to the Globe’s offices to submit his article — which included watching protestors rape the American flag, Thompson contemplating whether he should load up on LSD to cover the inauguration (he opted instead for a few joints), and an interview with visiting dignitary Raoul Duke (who was actually Thompson’s alter ego) — Cardoso called his writing “gonzo journalism.’’

OK. So there’s some confusion here with what was, for over three decades, just one story everyone agreed on. Brinkley himself published the Southie version in 1997.

These posthumous revisions — Cardoso died in 2006 — have enraged Mary Miles Ryan, who was Cardoso’s partner for 30 years and calls herself a “gonzo widow.’’

“I don’t think Brinkley has any right to change what Hunter has always said,’’ Ryan said when reached by phone in California.

The etymology of gonzo is nearly impossible to pin down precisely. It may have originated in several places independently, with independent meanings, but what’s hard to look past, even 40 years later, is how perfectly Thompson’s personality fit the Southie definition.

He was definitely gonzo.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com.

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