The first words Hunter Thompson ever wrote about Ralph Steadman were filled with foreboding: “All I knew about him was that this was his first visit to the United States. And the more I pondered the fact, the more it gave me fear. How would he bear up under the heinous culture shock of being lifted out of London and plunged into the drunken mob scene at the Kentucky Derby? There was no way of knowing.”
That was in 1970, when Scanlan’s Monthly decided to pair Thompson not with a photographer but with an illustrator already known for his vicious eye for satire. The piece they created together, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved”, became the world’s first taste of “Gonzo journalism”. It was the start of a partnership that would go on to produce 35 years of brilliant and iconoclastic work, including Steadman’s intense and visceral illustrations for Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas and a whole series of lurid Rolling Stone covers.
When we meet on London’s Southbank, Steadman is on the hunt for Sauvignon Blanc. We’re here to talk about For No Good Reason, an honest and candid documentary about his life and work that he’s put together with the help of Johnny Depp and the filmmaker Charlie Paul. The conversation soon turns to powerful hallucinogenic drugs, why America’s “heinous culture shock” was the best thing that ever happened to him and the true meaning of Gonzo.
GQ: You say in For No Good Reason that you want to use your art to bring about social change. Where did that impulse come from?
Ralph Steadman: Well, that was the bullshit I used! I actually did want to change the world. I decided that I wasn’t just going to be an advertiser. I had worked for an advertising agency, I had worked in Woolworths and I had worked for de Havilland Aircraft Company, where I was going to be an engineer. That all went out the window. I took a course when I was doing my national service. I saw an advert for Percy V Bradshaw’s Press Arts School Course. It read, “You too can learn to draw and earn £££s.” It was a bit of an old fashioned course, but it got me going. I started sending pictures to the Aberdeen Journal, the Leicester Mercury and the Manchester Evening Chronicle. The very first cartoon I had published was at the time of the Suez crisis. It was a lock-keeper sitting in his chair looking at a newspaper and saying, “Nasser, who’s he?” It seems rather a long time ago now. All those guys are gone and I’m still here.
Having lived through the events of The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved, were you surprised when you first read the piece?
I was quite flattered to read what he’d said. “Waiting for Steadman…” became one of our things! He invited me to meet some of his old friends. There was a girl there and I started drawing her. She says, “I’m purdy, aren’t I? You ain’t drawn me purdy! Why aren’t I purdy?” I said, “Well, you have a go. Draw me.” She went crazy with anger because she couldn’t get anything down without a scribble. That’s when Hunter said, “Stop doing those filthy scribblings, Ralph! You’ll get us thrown out.” He took me to the airport and threw me out. I think he says I was half-naked at the time. I wasn’t really, but Hunter embroidered the truth. It was truth and it wasn’t truth. Hunter told me I’d lost it, and I didn’t think he’d ever invite me back. I didn’t think Scanlon’s would either, but then they did.
After the Kentucky Derby you went to cover the America’s Cup yacht race together…
That’s the one! That’s the only time I took drugs. Psilocybin. If I’d have completed what I thought I was going to do I’d never have left America. Hunter had got these spray cans. I said, “Why did you bring those along?” He said, “I don’t know. I thought maybe we could use them.” We had a few drinks in the bar in Rhode Island. Hunter had a Lille flare gun with him. He kept that on him, “You never know when you might need a thing like this.” We had drinks then went back on the rowing boat to the three-masted schooner we were staying on. Then we took off in the boat, me with the spray-cans and Hunter trying to row. The oars were coming out of the rollicks. I can seem him now, with his legs in the air. “Fuck this goddamn boat. Hurry up and do the job!” I was to write “Fuck the Pope” on the side of one of the boats. It was the Gretel and the Intrepid. They were beautiful things, worth £500,000 each. If I’d done it I don’t think they’d have let me leave America. Luckily we were caught. Someone had shouted down, “Excuse me, what are you doing down there?” Hunter said, “Oh, we’re just looking at the boats.” Unbeknown to them was what I was planning under the influence of that drug. Luckily I didn’t do it. It makes a better story than it felt in actuality at the time. It was terrible.
I remember getting a plane back to New York and for some reason I wouldn’t sit down for the whole journey. At the time you could smoke and walk around, there wasn’t security like there is now. I just refused to sit down. I got back to New York and I remembered I’d met a lady in Italy who’d said, “If you’re ever in New York…” I remember ringing her and saying: “I’ve just been on this terrible journey with Hunter.” I went to see her and she got me a doctor. He put me out for 24 hours. I’d got myself into a bit of a state. It’s weird that Jann Wenner says I’m crazier than Hunter. It’s not true.
George Plimpton met you and Hunter in Kinshasa when you were all there to cover Muhammad Ali’s “Rumble In The Jungle”. He wrote: “[Ralph] seems to pep things up, and inspire a corporate rather than an individual madness”.
That’s rather a good quote, isn’t it! Dear old George Plimpton. I mean, everybody was there. There was a queue of all the greatest names you’ve ever heard of from the journalists of the time. They were all queuing to get out of Kinshasa. That was surreal. I don’t know if anyone got any film of that line of great journalists.
But Hunter didn’t finish the story. Rolling Stone editor Paul Scanlon told us you were very angry, because that meant they didn’t use your pictures. Did you worry Hunter had lost it at that point?
No, they didn’t use them and I’d done all these pictures! Hunter was still producing, in a way he was just about to begin. I think I was a bit upset because I considered it to be one’s duty to fulfil the assignment. That was important. I went out there always with a sense of responsibility. I’d get as crazy as I could but I’d do the job. I did what I was being paid to do, or not paid to do. Half the time I never got paid, but it was something to do.
Were you more reliable than Hunter?
He had to see the work before he could write anything. Then he said to me, “Don’t write, Ralph. You’ll bring shame on your family.” I did the drawings first. He used to say he’d “get off the back of them.” “You do something, Ralph, anything. I’ll write after that.”
In 1980 you worked together on The Curse Of Lono book, the only time you shared equal credit. How did that come about?
With him saying, “Ralph, we’ve got to go join the marathon.” I spent some time in Honolulu and thought there was a book there somewhere.Hunter wanted to call it The Hawaiian Diaries. I thought that was a boring title. I’d heard about Lono, this god figure rowing away into the distance across the sea. I suddenly thought: Hunter’s the god Lono. Hunter was always on about the curse of things, so I thought: “We’ll call it The Curse Of Lono.” I did the drawings first. Hunter wanted to hang them up, so he pinned them up all around in Owl Farm and wrote with them as a background. We split the credit on that one.
What did you think when you were first sent the manuscript for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?
I recognised the process. He was with his “Samoan lawyer”. In some ways I’d been dropped. I think he wanted to go with somebody who could represent him if he got into difficulties. The Samoan lawyer was more useful than the mad “English” artist. I couldn’t argue with that. He’d already done it, anyway. He’d taken off in this car, but I knew exactly what it was like to do it when I drew the illustrations like the hitchhiker. The art intrudes over the text. There’s someone leaning on the letter ‘E’, sort of a Kentuckian. That was a nice thing to think about and work on. I think Rolling Stone were quite trailblazing at the time. It was a hell of a good thing. The best thing I did was go to America in 1970. I found out about things that weren’t in your local paper.
Did going to America also give you an enemy to fight?
I hated Nixon so much. I felt it was my duty to destroy him somehow. Drawing became a weapon. If I had a long nib I could have stabbed him with it, but instead I had to do it on paper. In some ways, drawing has always been for me a very real alternative to violence. “The only thing of value is the thing you cannot say.” Wittgenstein said that. That’s true, but you can draw it. Drawing can, sometimes, in just a few lines say what you’d want to say in a long paragraph.
What’s your proudest achievement?
I think I Leonardo is the most comprehensive set of pictures I’ve ever done. It was very personal. It meant a lot to me, to do. I did a book about God as well, called The Big I Am. That was quite interesting.I was able to play God, just as I had “become” Leonardo. When I did a book about Sigmund Freud I was lying down on the floor in his actual consulting room, looking up at the ceiling and imagining what it was like to have him standing above you. That all became part of the book. I think process is really quite important when you’re doing anything.
That’s a very Gonzo idea, to place yourself inside the story.
You become the story. That’s what Hunter always liked the idea of best. Don’t stand back and do it like an official bank clerk filling in a form. You’re actually creating the story as you go. There is no story, until you start one. That’s how we did it. That’s why it always was fun. That’s why it was hopeless when he killed himself.
How did you learn he’d died?
It was from my friend Joe Petro III, a screenprinter from Louisville, Kentucky. He rang up in the middle of the night on February 20th, 2005. He said, “Take your phone off the hook, Ralph. Hunter’s just committed suicide.” It was… a downer. I think it’s remained so, although I’m still doing my own thing. I’ve been thinking what a dimension to my life Hunter has been. I couldn’t imagine living life without the kind of stimulus that came from him. People are still interested in Hunter the man, crazy man that he was. He was physically big. Enormous. He had a head like a lump of granite.
Do you have any regrets?
You can’t. It’s past! It’s gone. No regrets. The best thing I did was go to America and get work from Scanlan’s magazine in New York. Scanlan was a little-known Nottingham pig farmer – that’s how it got the name. Their whole quest was to impeach Nixon. I went along with that idea.
In the end, did you change the world?
I think the world is worse now than when we started. That’s really what happened. It’s awful now.
Originally published by British GQ.