Ralph Steadman on Hunter S Thompson

January 23rd, 2009

With the release of a major new documentary on renegade writer Hunter S. Thompson, Ben Cobb asks cartoonist Ralph Steadman, his friend and accomplice for 35 years, to relive the madness…

Sunday, February 20th 2005. Owl Farm, Woody Creek, Pitkin County, Colorado. 5:15pm. Dr. Hunter Stockton Thompson is sat at the worktop in his kitchen, clutching a glass of Chivas Regal whiskey and dragging hard on a Clove cigarette with a TarGuard filter. Taped to the fridge behind him is a stern reminder, scrawled in his own handwriting: ‘Never Under Any Circumstances Call 911. This Means You.’ As always, the television is tuned to CNN. Thompson’s only son Juan is visiting from Denver. He, his wife and their seven-year-old boy Will are in an adjacent room. Thompson rolls a blank piece of paper into his IBM Selectric typewriter. He should be writing his regular Monday column ‘Hey Rube’ for ESPN.com – but the 67-year-old has something more important to do right now… He picks up the phone and calls his 32-year-old wife of two years Anita, who’s a half-hour drive away taking a yoga class. He needs to set things right. Last night, they had an almighty bust-up after he waved an air rifle at her. “Come home,” he mumbles gently into the phone. “Everything’s fine. Don’t worry. I love you more than ever.” At the end of the call, Anita hears Thompson place the receiver on the kitchen worktop and then hears a clicking sound. She presumes her husband is typing and hangs up. He isn’t. He’s just cocked a .45 calibre semi-automatic handgun… At 5:42pm Juan hears a noise from the next room that sounds like a book hitting the floor. Two minutes later he wanders into the kitchen. His father is slumped in his chair: a pistol on the floor by his feet; and a bullet lodged in the stove hood behind his bloodied head. Juan notices the sheet of paper in the typewriter. On it is the last word from Hunter S. Thompson – the booze-guzzling, drug-hoovering anti-hero of American literature. That word is ‘counselor’.

“Hunter said to me early on, ‘I’d feel trapped in this life if I didn’t know that I could commit suicide at any moment’,” says Ralph Steadman, mimicking his dead friend’s laconic mumble perfectly. “I knew he would do it one day. It just came sooner than I thought.” The 72-year-old is speaking on the phone from the studio at the back of his sprawling Georgian mansion in Kent. It’s six in the evening and he’s tired. But within five minutes of being asked about past fast times and the uproarious new documentary Gonzo: The Life And Work Of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, he is unstoppable.

In Gonzo, Thompson’s first wife Sandi Conklin delivers a powerful speech to camera about the spineless nature of her estranged husband’s suicide. Steadman doesn’t agree. “It wasn’t a cowardly way out,” he insists. “It was a matter of fact. Hunter was undergoing constant physiotherapy because he went off to Hawaii with Sean Penn and broke his bloody leg. He’d already had hip operations and had to learn to walk again. He told me, ‘This is the death of fun’. And he was sick of it.”

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It was an all-together less stricken animal that Steadman first met, back in 1970. Frustrated by “the terrible Englishness” of assignments for The Times, Punch and Private Eye, the cartoonist had taken himself off to America in search of some “over-the-edge” work. He’d only been there a week when the fateful call from Scanlan’s Monthly came through. One of their writers was heading down to Louisville to cover the Kentucky Derby, a Southern equestrian institution billed as ‘The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports’. Would Steadman tag along and do some drawings?

“I’d never heard of Hunter Thompson,” laughs the Welshman. “I wrote a postcard home to Anna, who is now my wife, and said that I was going to be working with a guy called Howard Johnson – which is actually the name of a hotel chain.” Another thing Steadman didn’t know was that Thompson was returning home to Kentucky to settle some old scores. “They didn’t like him because he was a troublemaker,” he explains. “He wanted to go back and fuck them over.”

Steadman was waiting outside Louisville International Airport when Thompson pulled up in a red convertible, beer in hand, and yelled, ‘Ralph Steadman? I’ve been looking for you for two days.’ They drove two miles down the highway in silence before Thompson pulled over, produced a can of Mace, sprayed his passenger in the face and threw him out on the verge with his bags and the words – ‘You make it to the Derby and we’ll have a story going.’ Well, that’s how Thompson used to tell it. Steadman remembers things differently – in his version he was Maced over lunch. Steadman did make it to the Derby, albeit minus his pencils, pens and inks. He used lipstick and rouge borrowed from a generous lady in the betting tent to transform the great and the good of Southern society into grotesque slobbering monsters.

“What a person to meet on your first trip to America,” Steadman bellows. “It was like hitting a bulls-eye first time… Hunter and I got on instantly because we were so different. If we’d both been tough guys it wouldn’t have worked. He could be mean. But it was a meanness we both understood. Hunter triggered something. Suddenly I knew I could draw with a reckless point of view.” Thompson, though, got writer’s block. He had to be locked in a New York hotel room and supplied with “drink and whatever else he wanted” before he would start to type. The result, a scathing article titled The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, read as follows: “Unlike most of the others in the press box we didn’t give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track. We had come to watch the real beasts perform.” It heralded a new reporting style that Thompson named ‘Gonzo’, in which the writer was bigger than the story; more, the writer was the story.

Steadman heard nothing from his new friend for three months. Then Scanlan’s Monthly called again, this time with an assignment for the pair to go to Rhode Island and cover the biggest event in sailing, the America’s Cup. They took to the water on a rented three-mast sloop in search of a story, Gonzo-style. Steadman, crippled by seasickness, took one of Thompson’s pills. It was Psyclocybin. By the time they made it back to the harbour bar, he was seeing red-eyed dogs. “Hunter produced two cans of spray paint and asked me what I wanted to do with them,” sniggers Steadman. “I said, ‘Let’s spray ‘Fuck The Pope’ on the side of one of the million-dollar yachts. Tomorrow the boat’ll come out into the harbour – all the rednecks on board, standing proud with their arms folded – with ‘Fuck The Pope’ on the side… That will be our story.’”

Thompson maneuvered a dinghy in-between two yachts whilst his accomplice, spray can in hand, readied himself. A security guard caught them before Steadman had depressed the nozzle. Thompson knew the only way out of the situation was to create a distraction. “He set off two distress flares and set fire to some boats,” Steadman remembers, now hooting with laughter. “We managed to escape to a nearby coffee bar. The following afternoon we found out that Scanlan’s Monthly had gone bankrupt… the story never appeared.”

The America’s Cup trip had been a heroic disaster. But not a complete waste of time. “Hunter knew it was a dress rehearsal for something,” Steadman continues, warming to his theme. That “something” came in March 1971, when Thompson took off into the Nevada desert loaded down with two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half-full of cocaine and a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls. He returned with his undisputed masterpiece Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.

This time around, Steadman – back in England, still suffering from “flashbacks and scoured innards” – didn’t accompany him. “I would have liked to have gone,” he says thoughtfully. “But Hunter said, ‘Ralph, you can’t handle a thing like this. I need a lawyer with me.’” Fear and Loathing told the ‘fictional’ story of Raoul Duke (Thompson’s thinly disguised alter-ego) and 300-pound Samoan Dr. Gonzo’s drug-crazed journey into oblivion. Rolling Stone wanted to serialise it. Random House wanted to publish it. But there weren’t any pictures. “Hunter had brought back a few bits like beer mats and labels,” Steadman adds. “Nothing of any use. He said: ‘Get Ralph on the phone.’ They sent the manuscript and a photo of Oscar Zeta Acosta – the real Gonzo, over to me and three days – and a lot of beer and brandy – later, I’d completed it all.”

Steadman’s deranged drawings were instantly iconic. Arguably more iconic than the book itself. In the Gonzo documentary, a wine-soaked Steadman is seen sticking this very point to Thompson in the latter’s Owl Farm kitchen. The writer sneers back, wrestling between amusement and rage. “I wasn’t joking,” explains Steadman. “The truth is that, without my drawings, Hunter’s work wouldn’t have been so easily noticed. The pictures drew people’s attention to it. And Hunter knew it. He was always slightly bitter about my cartoons.”

Nothing had changed by the time Alex Cox attempted to bring the book to the big screen in 1997. The mere mention of incorporating Steadman’s cartoons blew the deal. “Hunter said, ‘I don’t want any fucking cartoons in my film,’” Steadman giggles. “He got really angry about that.” The following year Steadman’s friend Terry Gilliam made the movie. His version starred Johnny Depp – who moved into the basement of Owl Farm for four months to study Thompson – as Raoul Duke. And contained no cartoons.

With Fear And Loathing on every bestseller list, Thompson and Steadman were now a hot double-act. Rolling Stone flew them out to Africa to cover the greatest boxing match of the century, ‘The Rumble in The Jungle’. The magazine’s founder and editor Jan Wenner would later describe it as “the biggest, fucked-up story in the history of journalism.” On October 30th, 1974 world heavyweight champion George Foreman was defending his title against former world champion Muhammad Ali at the Mai 20 Stadium in Kinshasa, Zaire. Come fight night, all the heavyweights of the writing world gathered ringside – George Plimpton for Sports Illustrated and Norman Mailer, who would turn the history-making event into his bestselling memoir The Fight. But, as the first round bell rang, the seat next to them – reserved for a Dr. Hunter S. Thompson – was empty.

“I wanted to see the fight,” Steadman claims. “But Hunter had given our tickets away. He said he had no desire in watching a couple of black guys beating the shit out of each other.” So, whilst Ali punched his graceful way to an eighth round victory, Thompson was down at the hotel swimming pool, drunk on Steadman’s Glenfiddich and pouring marijuana down the filter system. Steadman caught the last couple of rounds on TV. Back in New York, Thompson failed to deliver any written material and Wenner didn’t like the drawings. On the upside, though, Thompson did manage to get his $300 elephant tusks through customs.

It’s perhaps no surprise that the one Thompson adventure Steadman cherishes above all was a rather more low key affair. He joined Thompson for two months on Hawaii in 1980 while the writer was preparing The Curse of Lono, a novel on the Hawaiian god. “My wife and daughter Sadie came as well,” he says, his voice lifting at the memory “We all had Christmas there in big ocean-side cabins. That’s the one I think of most because it was full of joy.”

Thompson and Steadman’s final collaboration was also one of their most spectacular: the writer’s 2005 funeral. Throughout the 35-year friendship, Thompson had raved constantly about plans for his final send-off. He wanted his ashes blasted out over Woody Creek from a 150-foot tower in the shape of a two-thumbed fist clutching a Peyote cactus button. In Gonzo, Steadman is seen in 1978 sketching the design for the anxious boss of the Reed Bros. Tapley & Geiger Mortuary in Hollywood – “I’ve told you a thousand times for ten years, you’ve got to put // two // thumbs on the fist!” growls Thompson, before grabbing the black marker and correcting the drawing himself.

With the help of Johnny Depp’s bank account, Steadman made sure Thompson got his wish. On Saturday, August 20th 2005, a crowd of family and friends gathered on a gondola-shaped deck overlooking Owl Farm. Amongst them, Senator John Kerry and former Senator George McGovern – who Thompson had tirelessly championed in his Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 reports; Hollywood elite Sean Penn, Jack Nicholson and, of course, Depp; Rolling Stone’s Jan Wenner; and the long-suffering bar staff from Hotel Jerome in Aspen. In front of them stood the pyrotechnics-rigged monument – with two thumbs. Parked at its base was Thompson’s beloved red convertible, a blow-up doll behind the wheel.

Steadman’s toast consisted of reading out Thompson’s lengthy faxes sent to him over the years, including one that demanded an immediate loan of $50,000 – ‘Keep your advice to yourself,’ Thompson wrote, ‘and send the money.’ “The thing I miss are those messages and the weird phone calls in the middle of the night,” Steadman sighs. “I wouldn’t hear from him in months and then suddenly he’d call. ‘Ralph, you filthy little animal. You dirty little beast. I need some work, Ralph.’”

At 8:46pm, as Bob Dylan’s voice sang out ‘Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me, I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to…’ through high-decibel speakers, thirty red, white, blue and green fireworks rocketed Thompson’s ashes into the night sky. True to form, he had the last laugh. His ashes floated back down to earth and settled in the drinks of his mourners. As local Sheriff Braudis took a sip of his Chivas Regal he was heard to say, “Goodbye, Hunter… Motherfucker.”

Words: Ben Cobb

A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #16, Dec/Jan 2008/09

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