(Beep) RALPH, YOU FILTHY LITTLE ANIMAL. YOU DIRTY LITTLE BEAST. Hi Ralph, it’s Hunter and I have a job for you… A wide, booming drawl, the gist vague but imperative to “kick ass” on an unspecified assignment. It was the last message that Hunter S Thompson would leave for Ralph Steadman, his co-conspirator, illustrator partner and friend of more than 30 years, before ending his life at home a month later, on February 20, 2005. In the studio at his country pile in Kent, Steadman clicks stop on the tape player.
Best known for his drawings in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Steadman is a savage and sharp-witted satirical cartoonist who started his career at Punch, Private Eye and The Telegraph in the 60s, before hooking up with Thompson to cover the 1970 Kentucky Derby for Rolling Stone. In the 80s, he spent three years “as” Leonardo da Vinci for his book I Leonardo, and proudly shows off his version of “The Last Supper” on his bedroom wall (“a third scale”, he notes, slightly ruefully). Later, he will head off to create an illustration for Will Self’s column in The Independent, wryly noting it’s “the only proper job I’ve ever had”. And this month, The Joke’s Over is published, his memories of his life with Thompson – from attempting to spraypaint “FUCK THE POPE” on the side of an America’s Cup yacht, to Thompson’s ashes being blasted from the Gonzo memorial tower in his hometown of Woody Creek in Aspen, Colorado.
Dazed & Confused: Did Hunter’s memorial service go as you had both planned?
Ralph Steadman: It wasn’t quite how I imagined it – too many Roman candles, and no one had any idea where his ashes went. They were meant to go up into the stratosphere and explode out in one BOOM. At one point, this explosion was meant to happen every year but you can imagine how much that would cost. As it was, the party cost $4million – very nice of Johnny Depp to stump that up.
D&C: Do you ever wonder how things would have turned out if you hadn’t met?
Ralph Steadman: Well, he wanted Pat Oliphant from The Washington Post but he was coming to England, funnily enough, that week for a convention. Never go to a cartoon convention, you miss out on the best jobs…
D&C: Did you have any idea what you were getting yourself into?
Ralph Steadman: Well, Gonzo is driving on the wrong side of the road with the lights out – because you’d see whoever was coming the other way before they’d see you, and you’d make alternative arrangements.
D&C: Do you think Thompson had any regrets?
Ralph Steadman: He used to write, actually copy out, Scott Fitzgerald to see what it felt like, and copy Ernest Hemingway, just to see what it felt like to write like him... and Joseph Conrad. He wanted to write like them – he wanted to write novels and look what he ended up doing, this cheap punk journalism...
D&C: Someone once said you drew like a schizophrenic, and Hunter often said Gonzo was controlled madness. Did you think madness was the sane response to the politics and people you were depicting?
Ralph Steadman: In 1983, I spent three years as a genius – I thought, “I’ll pretend to be Leonardo and write about it,” and that way so-called academics couldn’t contradict me, because I actually was Leonardo. In a way, trying to be a genius is controlled madness isn’t it? But I think we’re out of control now... we go round pretending there’s nothing wrong, and every day there’s bombs going off in holiday resorts. I tell you what they haven’t done yet, nobody has bombed Jerusalem. Now, I think if they bomb Jerusalem, everything’s over because that’s the headquarters for just about every religion in the world. I went to Israel in 1970, in the safe period... although it wasn’t all that safe.
D&C: What were your impressions of the country?
Ralph Steadman: I was amazed by it all, I loved it. I did a series of drawings; they have an indigenous bird there called the bulbul bird. We had to stay miles from the West Bank. They’d built a barrier and the bulbul bird used to sit on the barrier between the two territories, I think there’s something significant about that.
D&C: You worked on the Nixon re-election campaign, in 72. Do you miss having him around to draw?
Ralph Steadman: Yes, Nixon had a lovely ski nose. But there is also an extreme lifestyle that we don’t go for here. There is something completely lunatic about Americans... although of course, a lot are my friends. They’ll try anything; I don’t mind that spirit as long as it’s not that wildly reckless, pissed out of their heads ‘you better be in our gang’ attitude...
D&C: Are you likening the US administration to a drunken gang of thugs?
Ralph Steadman: I think they’re more venal than that, more calculating. Committing acts of evil for very good reasons, for the sake of the President to keep everything in place. It didn’t matter if the whole damn administration was based on evil, that wasn’t the point, it was whether the evil was working.
D&C: The Fear and Loathing drawings are your most famous, but which mean the most to you?
Ralph Steadman: Well, those were actually pretty much stolen from me for 60 dollars each. Rolling Stone took the copyright, saying, ’Oh no, those drawings are just work for hire’ – my agent said this was a good career move. It was the worst thing I ever did. I threw away what really could have been a substantial body of work, but then I’ve got Leonardo, I’m proud of that. And I like my drawings of Sigmund Freud...
D&C: What do you imagine Hunter’s reaction to your book would have been?
Ralph Steadman: I think he’d tell me that there was only one writer in our family... (affects deep drawl) ‘I don’t know how you feel about it. Maybe you feel proud of it but I think you should feel terrible... look at what you’ve done – you’ve come into my house, you’ve seen me work, you’ve seen the rest of my family, you’ve seen how I live and now you’ve just gone, as usual, and spilled the beans to all and sundry... and for what? For nothing. You’re fulfilling what I always thought about you, that you’re cursed by your goddamn two and a half per cent instincts.’
D&C: Did you want to prove him wrong about you not being able to write?
Ralph Steadman: Yes, I sort of had to get out from his shadow. I was feeling terribly gloomy after he killed himself, it was like a piece of cliff face had fallen away from my life. It was quite… as you can imagine, having a friend like that. You could really kick against the pricks, you could insult him just as much as he insulted you, and that was part of the relationship. It was a form of love. Although it probably wouldn’t have survived as a relationship – I don’t think we had much in common… I didn’t like guns, and I didn’t like football.
The Joke’s Over: Memories of Hunter S Thompson is published by William Heinemann
The interview appeared in the November 2006 issue of Dazed & Confused