If you’ve ever wondered about one of the key backing bands who keep the music rolling during those marathon Ponderosa Stomp shows, here is all you need to know about Michael Hurtt and the Haunted Hearts:
In those halcyon pre-Katrina New Orleans nights of early 2005, a mysterious stranger and his comely companion stepped into the Circle Bar to the country and rockabilly rhythms of Michael Hurtt and the Haunted Hearts. A circle jerk of mutual admiration ensued as the club’s patrons slowly realized that this intense itinerant was no ordinary straggler but none other than the legendary Hunter S. Thompson, and the ailing “Gonzo” journalist himself realized that the country-fried sounds he was drinking in were every bit as soul-satisfying as the glass of Chivas Regal before him.
“We were playing at the Circle Bar in early January, and the bartender came up and told me that Hunter S. Thompson was in the audience and that I should dedicate a song to him,” explains Michael Hurtt, singer and rhythm guitarist for the aptly named Michael Hurtt And His Haunted Hearts. “I assumed he didn’t want anyone to know who he was, but apparently he was introducing himself to everyone. So I said, ‘From a bunch of broke writers and artists to someone who has actually done something with his life, this one’s for you, baby!’ And then we played something salacious and dirty-some screwed up but catchy double entendre.” Thompson was clad in matching red Western-style shirt and pants that night, appropriate dress for the show, according to the rock ‘n’ roll hillbilly band’s front man (and OffBeat contributor), currently cast as an extra in an Elvis movie.
“He was in town, writing something for Playboy about ‘All The Kings Men,'” says Hurtt. ‘He said, ‘West Coast hillbilly music, that’s my thing!’ I had made these hand-drawn fliers for our Christmas show that had snowflakes on them. We ripped one down, and wrote our information on it. He said he could get Sean Penn to cast us in the movie, but we had already auditioned for it. … Well, we went out of town for a few days, and when I got back there was a message on my machine from one of the girls he was with. She said, quote, ‘He’s prone to outbursts. There’s something about that flier and that lettering …’ The flier had become a kind of talisman that had a calming effect on him, enough to get him to focus and to write.” As reported by Hurtt, Thompson had lost the flier (supposedly while engaging in illicit activities with Jude Law and Sean Penn), was tearing apart his hotel room looking for it and needed another one to finish the article. “It was surreal, but somehow it made perfect sense. I was honored that he loved something I hand drew in 20 minutes at my kitchen table, not to mention the music.” … “Of course it sucks that Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide,” explains Hurtt as an addendum to the interview. “But the day after we met Hunter S. Thompson, we were playing in Memphis. Jim Dandy, the lead singer of Black Oak Arkansas, was up front, going nuts in leather chaps. Hopefully we’ll continue to draw a diverse audience.”
As told by historian and Thompson literary executor Doug Brinkley in “Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson,” an oral biography by Jann S. Wenner & Corey Seymour:
“Sometimes he’d be screaming, but there were these mournful, sad, quiet outrages. When he was screaming, you felt that at least there was some life going on there, but he’s get these faraway teary stares. … I saw him three or four times with tears in his eyes for no reason. Suddenly the mission became ‘How do we cheer him up?’ We had only limited success, but there were moments. We went to the Circle Bar in Lee Circle. There was a bluegrass fusion band there, and Hunter loved them. He would sit at the bar, and the bartender knew Hunter’s work and was giving him free drinks and the VIP treatment. We had a wonderful night. He couldn’t walk, but he was dancing in his seat and whooping and doing his Iroquois war cheers in the air.”
From the New York Post:
January 15, 2005 — HUNTER S. Thompson is 67, but he still throws some pretty wild parties. Sean Penn, Jude Law and Johnny Knoxville attended a debauched bash in Thompson’s New Orleans hotel suite, where lines of cocaine, piles of pot and bottles of Chivas Regal were laid out on Thompson’s coffee table. Penn and Law are in the Big Easy filming “All The King’s Men,” a political drama inspired by the life of demagogic Louisiana Gov. Huey P. Long. We’re told that Penn flew in his pal Thompson to write a piece about the movie for Playboy and that attendees took turns reading passages from Thompson’s work aloud to stir his creative juices.
From Gambit Weekly:
His last visit was just about a month ago, and he was in good spirits. He reportedly was covering the filming of “All the King’s Men,” but he also found time to head down to Magazine Street to buy a shave at Aidan Gill for Men and a seersucker suit at Perlis Clothing. One night at the Circle Bar, he happened upon a set by Mike Hurtt & the Haunted Hearts and the band’s set of hillbilly rock and country made him ecstatic — so much so that he took a copy of the band’s flyer and promised Hurtt to try to get his music into “All the King’s Men.”
“He’s got that Kentucky blood in him,” [Doug] Brinkley says. “If you put on Earl Scruggs or Bill Monroe, Hunter would get physically all up. He loved that sound.”
If you’d like to get a taste of the sound that captured the savage heart of Hunter S. Thompson in those dark days before his own bizarre, untimely death, come catch Michael Hurtt and his Haunted Hearts as they back Jay Chevalier and other music legends at this year’s Ponderosa Stomp. P.S. To learn how New Orleans piano genius James Booker’s organ-driven opus “Gonzo” reportedly inspired Thompson to name his style of journalism “Gonzo,” click here and here.