Dead Flowers for the Decadent and Depraved

For the Kentucky Derby, as with many recurring events in my life, there are certain rituals that must be observed.

Mint juleps, however, are not one of them. Not that I really mind mint juleps. But just as Jack Nicholson, in the classic diner scene in Five Easy Pieces, tries unsuccessfully to order a chicken salad sandwich without the chicken salad because what he really wants is a side order of wheat toast, I simply prefer my mint juleps without the mint. Or the simple syrup. Or the crushed ice.

Unlike Jack, I do manage to get my bourbon—Maker’s Mark has long been preferred in my family. If I’m feeling extravagant, maybe I’ll put an ice cube or two in it. Provided they’re very small ice cubes.

Over the years, I have found that bourbon is the perfect complement to one of my favorite Kentucky Derby rituals: spending time with the late Hunter S. Thompson’s savagely funny and enduringly influential magazine article The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, first published in Scanlan’s Monthly in June 1970 and reprinted almost a decade later in the essential Thompson collection, The Great Shark Hunt. (Read the article in its entirety on Grantland, which sadly has joined Scanlan’s in the literary boneyard where great writing goes to die.)

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For years, the annual Run for the Roses would compel me to pull Shark Hunt off the shelf for a return trip to the Big Bang of Gonzo Journalism, what the novelist William Kennedy, a longtime friend of Thompson’s, called “the great mother lode. Hunter had discovered that confounding sums of money could be had by writing what seemed to be journalism, while actually you were developing your fictional oeuvre.”

Thompson, in a letter to his editor and mentor, Warren Hinckle, writes: “I just read over the Derby article for the first time and it strikes me as a monument to whatever kind of limbo exists between humor and tragedy.

Indeed. Hunter S. Thompson’s writing during his creative peak (which I would date from the publication of Hell’s Angels in 1966 through at least Shark Hunt in 1979, with flashes of brilliance from the 1980s until the end in 2005) proved to be a singular achievement. While Thompson spawned several generations of imitators, none have even approached his genius.

What far too many fail to realize is that Hunter S. Thompson was a gifted prose stylist who worked hard at his craft, at least until the point where the legend consumed the writer. But even in his declining years, before he turned his shotgun on himself in the dead of a cold February night in Woody Creek after football season was over, Thompson still loomed large over his legion of would-be successors, stomping them into the terra.

The Derby article also is significant because it marked the first time Thompson worked with the British artist Ralph Steadman, who would prove to be his perfect creative foil. The pairing of Thompson and Steadman did for publishing what the teaming of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger did for music.

Making Bets

In recent years, I have altered my ritual slightly, thanks to the release on CD of a dramatized reading of the Kentucky Derby piece that features an eclectic all-star cast that includes Tim Robbins as Thompson, Ralph Steadman as himself, Dr. John as the character Jimbo, jazz singer Annie Ross as the motel desk clerk, and SNL alum Will Forte as the car rental clerk.

Released in 2012 on Paris Records, the CD features a score composed and conducted by the great jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. It’s a marvelous production, bringing Thompson’s viciously chaotic comic scenes to life while hewing to the sacred text. I highly recommend picking up the CD for your collection. It’s also available to those of you on Spotify as well as to the masses on YouTube.

I found it to be the perfect soundtrack on what used to be my annual drive to the former Valley Forge Turf Club, my nearest OTB until it permanently closed in July 2020, to make my bets on Kentucky Derby day. Which brings me to the other essential musical accompaniment to the Derby: Dead Flowers by the Rolling Stones.

Well, when you’re sitting back in your rose pink Cadillac
Making bets on Kentucky Derby day
I’ll be in my basement room, with a needle and a spoon
And another girl to take my pain away

Yes, Keith and Mick knew a bit about the decadent and depraved … I may not make my Derby day bets from a rose pink Cadillac today. In fact, I did my betting online from the safety of home the past couple of years during the pandemic. It’s a poor substitute for the decadent charm of the old Turf Club. And fortunately I’ve never shared Keith’s one-time fondness for the needle and the spoon. But I have always loved this song, which inhabits that same limbo between humor and tragedy that Dr. Thompson mined so effectively. No Derby day is complete without it.

Enjoy this live version from London’s Marquee Club, recorded 50 years ago in 1971, featuring the best lead guitarist the Stones ever had, the brilliant and underrated Mick Taylor, happy, as always, to play his licks and leave the spotlight to the Glimmer Twins:

So enjoy your mint juleps and My Old Kentucky Home. I’ll be in my basement room, the one with the Elvis bar, with Maker’s Mark, Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman. And a bouquet of Dead Flowers.

Coda: More Dead Flowers

Here’s an alternate version the Stones recorded that stayed buried in the vault for way too long. It features snarling lead guitar throughout by Taylor. And the video’s pretty cool, too:

Perhaps the highest praise I can offer Dead Flowers is that it’s so damn good it could have been written by the late Townes Van Zandt. It wasn’t, but he did cover it. And it’s his version that plays over the closing credits in The Great Lebowski:

And check out this version from 2002, featuring Keith and Willie Nelson with Ryan Adams and Hank Williams III tearing it up. Often, these all-star jams add up to considerably less than the sum of their parts. This is the rare exception:

Are You Running with Me, Elvis?

 

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The author, right, talking with Jumpsuit Elvis at the finish of the 1996 Elvis International 5-K, in front of the wall surrounding Graceland. Photo by Roark Johnson.

Twenty years ago this past weekend, I flew out to Memphis for Elvis Week on Runner’s World magazine’s dime to do a story on the annual Elvis International 5-K race. I toured Graceland and Sun Studio and drove down to Tupelo, Mississippi, to visit the shotgun shack where Elvis was born. I hit Beale Street and saw the Memphis Horns playing in a bar after getting their star on the walk of fame, and caught a set by the legendary Rufus Thomas in a small hall at the end of Beale Street with maybe a dozen other fans.

And yeah, I ran the Elvis 5-K race that finishes at the gates of Graceland. It remains the best assignment of my life, one that allowed me to indulge three of my obsessions at the time: music (and more specifically the cult of Elvis), running, and writing. It also was the story that showed me that Kerouac really was onto something with his idea of spontaneous prose. Running with either a notebook or tape recorder on a hot, sweaty, August morning in Memphis were never options I considered. So I stashed a notebook in my car before the race and, once I wrapped up running and reporting, headed straight to the parking lot and started writing. Not just notes, but the story.

As true and accurately as I could, I wrote what I saw, heard, felt, and thought before, during, and after the race. Runner’s World had agreed to send me to the 1996 race, on the 19th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, so it could publish the story a few months before the huge 20th anniversary Elvis Week extravaganza in case runners wanted to make it a destination race. That meant I had a few months to turn in the article. I typed out my hand-scrawled version after I got home, and then over the weeks and months that followed, tried several different approaches.

As the deadline approached, I went back to my original version and realized it was much better than any of the more polished, later rewrites. With a minimum of editing, that’s the version I turned in. And that’s the version that Runner’s World printed.

Normally, in this age of wonders, I would just link to the Runner’s World archive of the article online. But like a lot of publications, RW doesn’t have issues from before the current century available online, so the article only exists in print copies of the magazine.

So here it is, exactly as it was published in the May 1997 issue of Runner’s World magazine. I am eternally indebted to then-Executive Editor Amby Burfoot for allowing me to do this one.

And in case you’re wondering, the race is still going strong. The 34th annual race (it started five years after Elvis’s death) was held this past weekend on Saturday, Aug. 13. For more info, or to start planning if you want to run the race to be held during the events commemorating the 40th anniversary of the King’s death in 2017, visit http://elvispresleyrunandwalk.com/ .

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The sun begins its slow ascent through the early morning Memphis haze, heralding the start of another sultry summer day. Once, within the walls of his beloved Graceland, Elvis Presley would have begun his own slow climb up the stairs to bed after another sleepless night of racquetball, private movie screenings, fireworks or gospel singing. But not this morning.

Looking resplendent in a white jumpsuit with gold embroidery, accented with a bright red scarf, the King strides purposefully through the race registration area, which has been set up in the shadow of his beloved Lisa Marie—the jet plane, not the daughter. He picks up his race packet—“Thank you. Thank you very much”—and joins the sea of more traditionally attired runners parading slowly up Elvis Presley Boulevard to the starting line of the Elvis Presley International 5-K.

It’s his race. The rest of us are just running in it.

*****

Walking the quarter-mile from Graceland to the starting line on Timothy Drive, it all seems more than a little surreal. And it’s not just Jumpsuit Elvis. Speakers mounted on the lead truck blare the soul-stirring strains of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which once let the faithful know that Elvis was not only in the building, but was also about to take the stage. The soaring theme song segues into “That’s All Right, Mama,” the song a 19-year-old Elvis recorded just a few miles away at Sun Recording Studio back in 1954—the song that started a poor boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, on the road to Graceland.

At most summer races these days, wraparound shades (the kind sported by Lynn Jennings and Steve Scott) are all the rage. But not here. At the starting line of the Elvis 5-K, aviator sunglasses—the kind favored by the King in the ‘70s—are the defining fashion statement. Many runners—women as well as men—also sport bushy black fake sideburns, tacky even by Elvis souvenir standards.

The prerace nervous tension is broken by the starting gun. Slowly and fitfully, some 4,300 runners and walkers—the largest field yet—surge up the slight hill toward Graceland Drive, where the race course turns right just before Graceland Elementary School. The streets in the neighborhood are lined by red-brick ranch houses and other neatly kept middle-class dwellings. It looks like any other southern suburban neighborhood, until you remember that these were Elvis’s neighbors.

They live close enough to have been scared silly the night Elvis and the boys got carried away shooting off fireworks in the backyard and accidentally set off the entire stockpile of explosives. They could have heard the gunshots ringing through the night as Elvis and his buddies took turns target-shooting on the makeshift firing range that had been his old smokehouse. And maybe, just maybe, on a soft, still summer night, they might have been able to hear Elvis and friends gather around the grand piano off the living room, singing gospel standards into the wee hours of the morning.

Such reveries are broken by the guy barking splits at the mile marker. A few yards past, there’s a water stop with Elvis singing “Don’t Be Cruel” from a portable cassette player. Even the weather, it seems, listens when the King sings.

*****

As the course winds through the neighborhood behind Graceland, close to the 2-mile mark, I notice a positively ebullient runner ahead of me. He’s running back and forth across the course, high-fiving the sheriff’s deputies who are handling traffic control for the race. As I draw closer, something about him looks familiar. Black hair. Aviator sunglasses. A wide glittering blue belt with sparkling silver stars. Could it be?

Of course. This is Sensible Elvis, wearing a singlet and shorts instead of a jumpsuit. “You’ve got a lot of energy for a guy who usually goes to bed about now,” I remark as I pull up alongside of him.

“I’ve been getting a lot of rest lately. I’ve been sleeping for 19 years,” he replies in that familiar drawl.

I remember how the second floor of Graceland remained closed to visitors when I took the tour the previous day and—calling upon those fine instincts honed by 20 years as a newspaper reporter—decide to take a shot.

“Upstairs? On the second floor?” I ask.

Elvis smiles conspiratorially. “Yeah. But don’t tell anyone.”

“No problem,” I say. (Mental note: Find the first pay phone after the finish line and call the Weekly World News.)

I move by Sensible Elvis, following the course as it turns back onto Graceland Drive, heading toward Timothy Drive. Considering that there are more than 4,000 people tromping through the neighborhood, the course is astonishingly quiet. The runners are the only ones up at this hour. A handful of residents—including a few blessed souls who have turned on their sprinklers to cool the participants—come out to watch, but most remain safely inside, seemingly oblivious to the grand spectacle passing by their closed doors.

Back on Timothy Drive, the course slopes downhill to the starting line, then climbs up to Elvis Presley Boulevard. As I make the turn onto the street of dreams, I think of songwriter Paul Simon’s line, “I have reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.” Simon may have had some deeper metaphysical idea in mind when he penned the line, but on this morning it is quite literally true. And what a reception it is. Three of the street’s four lanes are closed. The road is lined by fans (in town for the Elvis Week celebration), runners who have already finished and their friends and families. And best of all, it’s all downhill for the final two-tenths of a mile to the finish at the gates of Graceland.

The crowd roars as I pick up the pace, and I think, Gosh, this is great. But suddenly I realize the cheers are not for me. They’re for him. As the fans scream louder, I hear—just a few steps behind me now—that familiar drawl, “Thank you. Thank you very much.” No way. Not today. It may be his street—heck, it’s his race—but I’m not going to let Elvis beat me. Imagine explaining to your running buddies that you got outkicked by a guy whose idea of carbo-loading involves deep-fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. I unleash what’s left of my kick and hold off Sensible Elvis to the finish. In the chute, I turn around, high-five him and say, “Great race, King.” Gasping for breath, he replied (what else?), “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

I grab a cup of water at the end of the chute and walk back to the finish line. A few minutes later, Jumpsuit Elvis comes across in a scene reminiscent of John Wayne. Elvis is leading the Marines. As they have every year since the race started in 1983, some 150 Leathernecks from Marine Aviation Training Support Squadron 901 run the race in formation, keeping step to the bark of the drill sergeant’s cadences. Afterward, I track down Jumpsuit Elvis (okay, he’s pretty easy to find) and ask him about the race.

“I forgot how hot it gets here in August,” he says. “I’ve been away for a while, you know.”

My heart sinks. “Up on the second floor?” I ask.

“No. Up north,” he says.

Elvis looks at me and grins. “I can’t tell you that,” he says. (Never mind, operator. I guess I won’t be needing the number for Weekly World News after all. Thanks anyway.)

*****

There’s nothing left to do but stroll over to the postrace party, held in the pavilion next to Elvis’s airplane museum. There’s a live band playing country and rock, a clogging demonstration and plenty of food and drink. Some runners even find the energy to hit the dance floor.

I spy Sensible Elvis in the crowd and learn that he is really Seth Zamek, from Jackson, Tennessee. “I’ve been here a couple of times,” Zamek says. “This is the first time I dressed up, though. I had to do it.”

I look around for Jumpsuit Elvis, but he’s left the building. As I dig through my race packet, though, I find a clue to his whereabouts.

It’s a coupon, good for one free Quarter Pounder with Cheese at any Memphis-area McDonald’s. Somewhere under the “golden arches,” a man with black bushy sideburns, aviator sunglasses, a sparkling white jumpsuit and red scarf is taking a bag from the clerk behind the register. And in a soft, slightly slurred drawl, you can hear him say, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

From Runner’s World magazine, May 1997

 

Ali and Mailer: Shadowboxing with Immortality

I remember sitting in the kitchen of my parents home in Wilmington, Del., on that momentous March night in 1971, listening to the radio for the round-by-round bulletins from Madison Square Garden, where the Fight of the Century between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier was taking place.

I was rooting for Ali, just as I had rooted for Joe Namath over Earl Morrall and Johnny Unitas in Super Bowl III the year before, and just as I would root two months later for Marty Liquori over Jim Ryan in the Dream Mile at Franklin Field.

Like so many of my generation, I favored the brash, colorful, anti-establishment types, whether in sports, music, movies, TV, or writing. Lennon over McCartney. Jack Nicholson over John Wayne. The Smothers Brothers over Bonanza. And Norman Mailer over … well, just about everybody else. In my mind, then and now, Mailer was to writing what Ali was to boxing: simply The Greatest.

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So when news came over the radio waves that Frazier had rocked Ali in the 15th round, sending him to the canvas, I felt disoriented and queasy. Sure, Ali had gotten off the canvas to finish the fight, but Frazier was the new heavyweight champion of the world. The only consolation was that it was clear even from listening to the fight that it had lived up to the hype, that it was truly something special.

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So was the piece that Mailer wrote about it—10,000 words written in two days, which appeared first on the pages of LIFE magazine under the headline “Ego” (with ringside photography by Frank Sinatra) and, a month later, as a $1 Signet Special paperback titled King of the Hill. It’s a breathtaking exposition on Ego, boxing, African-American identity, what it means to be a man, and, yes, The Fight. That Mailer framed the article around the construct of Ego, which he called “the central phenomenon of the 20th Century,” makes perfect sense. After all, it was Mailer who wrote early in his career:

The sour truth is that I am imprisoned with a perception which will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.

Even Mailer, in his later years, admitted he had failed to achieve that revolution, but it wasn’t for lack of effort or Ego.

Mailer had an abiding admiration for prizefighters and the price they paid to contend at the highest levels, and he brought a pugilist’s mindset to writing. He even had his friend José Torres, a former light heavyweight champ and Boxing Hall of Famer, school him in boxing in exchange for instructing Torres on writing. Yet, Mailer only wrote one other book about the sport he loved passionately—the highly acclaimed account of the 1974 Ali-Foreman Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire, titled The Fight.

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It is a splendid book, one of the best ever on boxing, but I have always preferred Mailer’s coverage of the first Ali-Frazier fight. The piece is classic Mailer, brimming with passion, energy, intelligence, immediacy, and sheer audacity. The fact that it holds up so well 45 years later is a testament to Mailer’s genius. As we mourn the passing of Ali today at the age of 74, it is worth remembering how Mailer described him in the aftermath of the Fight of the Century:

He is America’s Greatest Ego. He is also … the swiftest embodiment of human intelligence we have had yet, he is the very spirit of the 20th Century, he is the prince of mass man and the media.

While Ali was certainly one of the most polarizing figures of his time, with his embrace of the Nation of Islam and principled refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, the fight against Frazier in Madison Square Garden changed the way America saw him and set him up to become the most popular athlete in the world.

The stakes couldn’t have been higher, and Mailer saw it clearly as the fight happened:

Yes, Ali had never been a street fighter and never a whorehouse knock-it-down stud, no, it was more as if a man with the exquisite reflexes of Nureyev had learned to throw a punch with either hand and so had become champion of the world without knowing if he was the man of all men or the most delicate of the delicate with special privilege endowed by God. Now with Frazier, he was in a sweat bath (a mudpile, a knee, elbow, and death-thumping chute of a pit) having in this late year the fight he had sorely needed for his true greatness as a fighter six or seven years ago, and so whether ahead, behind or even, terror sat in the rooting instinct of all those who were for Ali for it was obviously Frazier’s fight to win, and what if Ali, weaknesses of character now flickering to the surface in a hundred little moves, should enter the vale of prizefighting’s deepest humiliation, should fall out half conscious on the floor and not want to get up. What a death to his followers.

But when Ali did, in fact, wind up on the floor in the fight’s final round, he summoned the courage to get up and was still standing as the bell rang. And long before Ali-Frazier II, or the Rumble in the Jungle, or the Thrilla in Manilla, or carrying the Olympic torch in Atlanta all those years later, Mailer saw the future:

The world was talking instantly of a rematch. For Ali had shown America what we all had hoped was secretly true. He was a man. He could bear moral and physical torture and he could stand. And if he could beat Frazier in the rematch we would have at last a national hero who was hero of the world as well …

For more than four decades, that’s exactly what we’ve had in Muhammad Ali: a national hero who was hero of the world as well, the most recognized and beloved athlete on the planet. His final years were marked by quiet dignity in the face of debilitating disease, and he remained a beacon of perseverance and principle and pride, a shining symbol of freedom to the end.

And now he’s gone. But Ali’s legacy is assured, here in the land that had such a passionate love-hate relationship with him, and around the world. In terms of Ali’s continuing ability to inspire and challenge, death has no sting. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering it can’t float like a butterfly, either.