"I remember the waiter bearing down on our table and Hunter on his feet; a black tube and a fine hissing sound. My eyes began to sting violently and I stumbled up, grabbing my sketchpad. I remember eyes staring from all directions, from dark corners of the restaurant, as we made for the door to the street. The fresh air hit me and eased the pain in my eyes and on my skin." [Ralph Steadman, from The Joke's Over]
And so began the legendary collaboration between Ralph Steadman and Hunter S. Thompson, the spawn of what's become known as "Gonzo Journalism," as Steadman reflects from May, 1970. It was his first time in the United States, and a magazine called Scanlan's had sent him to meet Thompson in Kentucky, where they'd cover the Kentucky Derby.
From the onset, it was never meant to be a normal gig; Thompson had just published Hell's Angels, and now was looking to go back to his hometown, to write about the depravity of the locals who gathered every year for the Derby. But he needed art for it, something that would capture the true humanity of the scene at its ugliest and most frighteningly raw.
Up to that point, Steadman had been doing cartoons - generally political satire - for a handful of British publications, namely the London Times and Private Eye. A book of his collected drawings had recently gone to print, Still Life with Raspberry, which is what grabbed the attention of the editors at Scanlan's to begin with.
Of course, Steadman claims that his "gonzo" efforts started long before he met with Thompson on that fateful day, he was just looking for the right time and setting to unleash all the strangeness of being he had in his Welsh head. "I have located the tenuous hint of gonzotic frenzy I was looking for inside the stylistic variations of my work," he notes in Gonzo the Art. "I have uncovered the print of a drawing, the footprint of my future, my nemesis. It bears the flaw of immature work, the bloodline. The figure of a woman shop assistant demonstrates the schizophrenic tendencies present in my drawings of the early sixties when I worked for Private Eye. I am expressing the state of my subconscious. My apparent desire to conform was the trick. This drawing is the birth of GONZO in my work - a dispassionate statement of fact intended to elicit uncomfortable laughter - its ruthless portrayal a gentle assassination of the subject in a spat of ink...I am a kind person but outwardly I project a volatile disposition, a lonely soul at peace with the forces of huridomidomatonic slavery."
Wherever this "gonzo" spirit generated, the drawings he produced of Derby fans in wretched, chaotic debauchery broke mad ground, and tore open the farce behind which hid the rotten underbelly of the American Dream. "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent & Depraved" is tight with brutal prose dripping with blood, telling of a vile scene which has since been taken as a metaphor for mainstream American culture. Equally so, the art that makes the piece stand out is wild and grueling, but there is a genuine, almost naive yet poignant sense of humanity beneath it all, like something has been lost with a lust for money.
It was the start of a legacy, a great partnership that defined not only a new form of journalism, but a viciously righteous form of expression. Throughout the following 35 years, Steadman and Thompson produced a plethora of monumental works. Many began as magazine articles, most strikingly "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," the infamous story which initially graced the pages of Rolling Stone, was then published in book form (and eventually considered one of the most important pieces of literature from the 20th Century), and ultimately became the classic film.
Steadman may be best known in the U.S. for his ink-splattered illustrations- sorry, drawings- that go along with Thompson's work, but he is so much more than that. Indeed, it could be argued that Thompson fed off of Steadman just as much as Hunter accused his ole' chum otherwise. Behind all the fighting earwigs, one-legged politicians, remarkable gluttons, emaciated marathon runners and rabid mongrels, there is an inveterate sense of life screaming from within, whether it be nice or mean.
When I managed to catch up with Sir Ralph, he asserted, "I hate violence, but I love trying to encapsulate it in a drawing. Nobody gets hurt but they know who they are!"
Avaricious tyranny gets no break as far as Steadman's concerned. "I see no reason to be fair to a bastard." As for the money-hungry curs of the corporate world trying to squeeze the life out of art, he says, "they always did and they always will. You are referring to the living dead who only have one priority and goal in life. If nature didn't remind them they wouldn't even take a shit. They are full of it anyway and right now corporations are manipulating the Bush administration."
"There is every point," he adds, "in continuing to exercise the democratic process in spite of those who would abuse the system. It will not always be so, even though this present incumbent has taken us to an all-time level of dishonesty, stupidity and greed."
In between gigs with Thompson, Steadman established himself as a premier artist, arguably the greatest alive. His images of humanity lost and a world in turmoil invoke stunning ripples through the beholder, and his work has become widely demanded. Not only has he done countless pieces for the likes of Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, he was also tapped to illustrate several influential books, such as Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary, and the 50th Anniversary Edition of George Orwell's Animal Farm.
He is an artist in the purest sense. When talking about Thompson's cat Jones in The Joke's Over, he says, "I needed to capture something of him [Jones], and the best way I know how is with a few direct lines, straight from the eye through the mind to the hand. The result on paper can be fiendishly perceptive or hopelessly inaccurate, but it is always an intriguing and playful possibility."
Animals can be used to deliver a commanding image, especially when Steadman is at the pen. In 2004, he donated a piece to PETA, which displayed a tortured lamb on a cross, and it is an urgently painful thing to look at. The point was to protest inhumane conditions that sheep are subjected to in the procuring of their wool, and the point slams home like a kick in the bullocks.
The recurring theme of humanity in his work also shows up in his passion for other socially relevant causes. In 1994, he illustrated the front and back covers of Amnesty International's Drawing Blood, and in 1998 he did a series of drawings for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, celebrating its 50th anniversary of passing. They even had him write the introduction, wherein he stated:
"'I have the right to hold an opinion, express it, celebrate it, broadcast it, live by it, and travel with it anywhere I so desire and what's more convince others, by peaceful means, that they should hold that opinion too.'
"That in essence is Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and entombed within it is the right of any artist of any faith, impulse or inclination to express him/herself with unbridled passion and conviction sufficient to bestow upon the world a Pandora's Box of riches or curses we could probably live without."
He continues, "Article 19 is obviously a dangerous one amongst twenty nine other equally important human agreements, but it is probably the one article which keeps well hidden within its carefully unbiased structure the undeniable fact that its content releases the power of the individual to be both artist and maniac. The 1948 United Nations Assembly had unwittingly created a monster, an embarrassing loophole, a well-meaning but desperate humanitarian gesture. In their earnest intention to neutralize any future tyranny in the shadow of the recent Holocaust freedom of communication was paramount."
On a somewhat lighter note, he also illustrates labels for various wines, and most prominently, for all the Flying Dog beers. "Hunter was asked to write a slogan for George Stranahan's brewery Flying Dog," Steadman says. "He came up with 'Good people drink good beer.' Then I was asked to supply the label.
"The beer was called Road Dog Ale. A Road Dog is a prison cell mate. So I added another slogan which suited the rough nature of the image- 'Good Beer. No shit!' They used it and it was taken through the Colorado courts to get it removed. However, they won the right for it to remain. They had started to declare 'Good Beer. No censorship.' With the reprieve they re-instated the 'Good Beer. No shit.'
"But in these politically correct times it has now been softened, sadly to 'Good beer. No BS.' I am completely out of step with PC in any walk of life."
In addition to being a sensational artist, he is a profound writer. His books cover sundry topics, from wines of the world, to Leonardo da Vinci, Sigmund Freud, and even God. "My book The Big I Am," he tells us, "is my version of God and why he is so vindictive. It's a long story of course but it does explain a lot of things. It would be nice to think that this nice guy was looking after each of us personally, but I think that is our egos talking. But in nature there are so many mind-boggling clues like the persistent perfect numbers of proportion that give us the golden section which the Greeks relied on in their Architecture. You can read about that in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, but you would be much better off with mine!"
An outspoken critic of environmental abuse, he also wrote "Plague and the Moonflower," a play about the struggle for environmental survival in the current climate of greed-spawned pollution, and the overall apathy of the general public. It was adapted into a live performance, and earned rave reviews wherever it touched down.
He approaches writing like any other art, and it runs just as well as the rest of his work. So, when Dr. Thompson shot himself on February 20, 2005, it was pretty much a given that Steadman would deliver a memoir of his relationship with Hunter. Who best to write about Thompson than the man who worked intimately with him throughout his illustrious career?
"For nearly thirty-five years," he writes of Thompson in The Joke's Over, "I have endured, after unwittingly agreeing to meet him on his home turf, one of the most wanton, rebellious, dangerous and perfect creative collaborators I could have teamed up with, and a God-awful lot more he should have answered for. Instead, the cunning bastard checked out before he had to, leaving behind a battlefield of unexploded land mines, unused ammunition, guns, powders, slaves, several bottles of the cheapest whiskies a self-proclaimed connoisseur would ever want to be seen dead with, uppers, downers, loofahs, quaaludes, a treasure trove of hilarious prose...but he left it to others to clear up the glorious mess."
I asked him about Hunter - actually, I asked about his thoughts on suicide, which he apparently took to mean in relation to Hunter - to which he answered, "Hunter did what he had to according to his philosophy of life - Buy the ticket. Take the ride. He had decided on his own terms that he had reached the point where he could confidently say that it was the death of fun. And that in spite of the fact that he had a beautiful young wife Anita, a sober son Juan who had a good wife Jennifer and a great grandson Will who Hunter insisted must refer to Hunter as ACE! Maybe things were just too good around him and he felt strangely excluded."
When asked about the book itself, he responded, "Christ! I really don't want to write it out all over again. I surprised myself and I found that I can write better than Hunter would ever give me credit for. There are many mad bastards in the world but Hunter was not one of them. He loved the idea of law-abiding citizens and fought for their right to live so. I criticized him when I think he deserved it and applauded every goddamn good thing he did in his life. Criticism is an act of love and concern far more than it is a grudge."
The Joke's Over is, indeed, an incredible and insightful book. It's tender yet blunt, pulling no punches as Steadman details his life with a true American visionary. It works as a general timeline, beginning with their original Kentucky encounter, streaming through the Watergate era of the mid 70's, the weirdness of the 80's and 90's, and the "downward spiral of dumbness," Hunter's reference to American society in this new Millennium. It flows seamlessly from hysterical (like his account of covering the America's Cup, which was also Steadman's first and only experience with powerful hallucinogens), to utterly tear-jerking, when he talks about the loss of his dear friend.
When most folks put out this kind of book, the author either kisses the subject's ass, or they override the tale with claims that their genius far surpassed the subject's. Steadman does neither, and while he does occasionally gripe about things like lost money and recognition, it's done in a loving and generally humble manner, making The Joke's Over the most touching and astute account of Thompson thus far in print. And, of course, it's chock-full of glorious art from Steadman, detailing in his best way what it was like to work and hang with the Good Doctor.
Steadman is now at a point in his life and career where his mark is already made deep in the Path of Human History, a living legend whose work is on par with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and Vincent van Gogh. Through the years, art has grown "more personal and far more interesting," he says, "because I can do absolutely what I want even if it is not half as good." What drives him to keep it up is "a morbid curiosity to create one sonofabitch drawing that explains the meaning of life."
In The Jokes's Over, he writes, "beware of privilege. It stinks of rotten fish-heads" Now that he's known around the world as one of humanity's most brilliant creations, he could surely be considered a man of privilege - so I naturally asked him to therefore describe how he smells. "If I took myself seriously," he responds, "then I would be in danger of smelling putrid. But I don't so I just smell like a leery ole man and only really smell when I fart."
Even in spite of what some see as the destruction of creative expression by popular culture - with all its phoniness and shallow entertainment - Steadman is quick to demand that we "have more faith in young people. Their unflappable enthusiasm for change will occasionally throw up some wonderful manifestation of something equally as wonderful and inspiring as went before."
Steadman has no desire of bouncing into the ether anytime soon, and he will continue to produce some of the most thought-provoking, creative, and downright honest art this world has ever seen. "It would be a shame to stop now just when I am beginning to enjoy myself."
How does this prestigious artist avoid burning out, like so many others? "I wet myself," he declares.
The Joke's Over: Ralph Steadman on Hunter S. Thompson is now available.