Gonzo scribbler, internet entrepreneur and backing vocalist for Eliza Carthy, Ralph Steadman spills the beans on being ripped off and Hunter S. Thompsonâ€™s mother. Chris Wood listens.
â€œI felt savaged a bit by the whole thingâ€¦ Hunter was in the middle of institutionalising his mother at the time, for her drinking. Great lady, by the way. Met her once, she had this kind of drinks zimmer frame with all her requirements in it. Very useful.â€
Ralph Steadman is recounting his first meeting with Hunter S. Thompson. That assignment, later recounted as The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, was the first foray into Gonzo journalism. This broke enough moulds to pave the way for Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, which followed a year later.
The Kentucky stint was a trial-by-fire nightmare. A life threatening liberty risking menace that only a sick fool would want to repeat. Thompson really did empty a restaurant by firing mace about.
â€œOnly a few squirts,â€ Steadman blithely recounts. â€œYou donâ€™t need very much of that stuff.â€
On the subject of the Kentucky project, no, he isnâ€™t sorry he never got to write â€˜Fuck The Popeâ€™ on the side of a huge yacht in spray paint. I felt I had to ask, as it seemed such a great idea.
â€œIâ€™d have been jailed if Iâ€™d done that, and never got back into the country. And then I wouldnâ€™t have worked with him all those other times.â€
There in a nutshell is the flipside of Hunter S. Thompsonâ€™s other ego, Ralph Steadman, the artist responsible for illustrating much of HSTâ€™s prose. A more rational, less chemically enhanced soul, to be sure. Ink drop for ink drop, one of the few people to be Thompsonâ€™s match. In his field he is the equivalent of HST.
He was also someone who could be put through many trying, sordid ordeals, produce wonderful work and then come up smiling with the words, â€œGreat, when can we do this again?â€
This probably why Ralph insists on stating, very clearly, that Thompson was a son of a bitch. He was a mean bastard, and he always was.
That much is made clear early in the conversation. It is also apparent in Steadmanâ€™s book, The Jokeâ€™s Over, a behind-the-scenes look at life with one of American lettersâ€™ most dissolute, honest and crazy souls. This had to be worth recording for posterity, and itâ€™s delightful that the Steadman brand of (written) invective is lucid, evocative and even generous. He recounts the details behind some of the finest American writing of the last century.
Assignments would typically start along the lines of: â€œRalph, you filthy perverted pig. I want you to draw something for me, Ralph. Only you would know how to do this. I need you to draw absolute evilâ€.
Thatâ€™s an odd way of talking to friends but it creates an allure, a solid bond of piss-taking, menace and curiosity. I try and dig for a little background on the Thompson bloodline. Steadman is effusive in tracing Thompsonâ€™s lineage back to Scotland (via Manchester, by the way).
â€œIncidentally,â€ he asks, â€œhave you heard his voice?â€
At this point, a tape is played down the phone. A bizarre rumbling patois barks out, roughly a third of which is coherent. I catch the words â€œTime magazineâ€ and â€œmasturbating.â€ The rest is seething angry gibberish and static. It doesnâ€™t sound Scots, though. More like how Badger in Toad Hall mightâ€™ve sounded if heâ€™d been cornered by weasels while drunk.
Trying to define something like Gonzo is difficult. For the uninitiated, it means basically getting horribly shit-faced, mingling with the subject of a journalistic assignment, provoking them to bile and incest, disappearing from town looking half dead, and then recounting the matter with a twisted, mocking style.
One point Ralph emphasises is how funny a writer Thompson was, and this cannot be overstated. Certain types of people miss the astoundingly keen, precise reportage because the drugs and rage act as a screen. This is a damn shame. The drugs and rage are the extra spicing. Also the social justice. HST cared for an America that is now in retreat, the flag he proudly draped round his shoulders degraded in his eyes by Bushâ€™s time in the White House. Itâ€™s a shame the mean bastardâ€™s dead.
Talking to his artistic enabler underlines all the more how much of an absence that proud raving figure has left. The two fused magically. Without Steadman, there would still have been Thompson, but it wouldnâ€™t have been as brilliant. Equally as sure is that Steadman hasnâ€™t had his share of the credit. Many American readers believe that HST did the pictures himself, despite the signature.
Satire is a sore point to Ralph. He feels ripped off by Spitting Image. Apparently Roger Law swiped the, well, spitting. Terry Gilliam also took certain cues from Steadmanâ€™s biliously nibbed arsenal. Apparently Michael Palinâ€™s beenâ€¦ well you knowâ€¦ the whole â€˜which circles do you move in?â€™ type of situation. Those doors never opened for him.
At this point I feel a little sorry for Ralph. When I told him how I first read Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, after seeing its elegantly warped, intriguing cover, he recounts how this threatened Thompson. The drawings pull at the reader, providing some hilariously twisted insight in the depravity being spewed out onto the pages. It seems this cut a sight too near sharing credit for Thompson, who made Ralph suffer for this apparent slight.
At a push, and finely recounted in The Jokeâ€™s Over, we can see real affection between the two men. Also, a rare instance of the author being shamed. Thompson apologised with sincere humility for the time he almost killed Steadman with an accidental shotgun discharge. That may sound only sensible, but do bear in mind the vast weight of things he didnâ€™t apologise for. Only rare types can get away with that.
â€œHe created for himself a mountaintop and never really lived up to it. He gave himself a peak. He was the same way with drugs, always wanting to get back to that high spot. His approach was, â€˜Iâ€™ve got to write it as Iâ€™m going â€“ each step is another sentenceâ€™. But after all that, when it came to putting these things together, it seemed right and natural that I should do the workâ€.
At this point, without any eliciting, Steadman gives his theory on why the good doctor, as Thompson liked to be known, committed suicide.
â€œHe shot himself because he was afraid of an old peopleâ€™s home, just being strapped in. He had a crazy dream where he couldnâ€™t do anything, and this old woman was crawling slowly closer to fondle his ballsâ€.
So now you know: it was them mad old sack strokers in the old folksâ€™ home that finally did for Thompson.
There is a parallel between that and the acid vision of his grandmother crawling up his leg with a knife between her teeth circa Las Vegas. Maybe such demented notions run in circles. Possibly the downside to having the insight of a demented loon is being a demented loon with insight into too many things.
On a personal level, Steadman is clearly tired but still running full tilt. He is engaged upon a variety of business ideas. Check out ralphfancygoods.com for all your elegant needs. He works exceptionally hard. The drive comes from wanting to establish his children in the whole art market thing. There is also the constant need to create. It would be easy to admire Steadman as a working definition of the term â€˜artist,â€™ but graft often detracts from the end product in peopleâ€™s minds. Weâ€™re a funny bunch, us artistic consumers.