THE BLOG

An Evening with Ralph Steadman

Feb 14, 2007 | Updated May 25, 2011

I'm sitting in an epic traffic jam on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood on early evening October 31st, 2006 as George W. Bush staggers in front of my car, accompanied by Harry Potter and Paris Hilton. I slam on my brakes to keep from mowing them down, as tempting as it is, and repeatedly blow my horn to express my displeasure.

"Whatsa matta, sweetie? Havin' a bad day?" asks Ms. Hilton, who displays a three-day growth and an Adam's apple.

In fact, I'm having a bad century thus far. President Bush flips me the bird as she passes by and I'm rendered deaf and jumpy by the ubiquitous, hovering LAPD helicopters policing the annual Halloween parade. My loathing for this spectacle looms on a list just under Los Angeles, the United States of America, and the human race in vehemence. The relegation of the act of celebration to specific holidays has always mystified me. Spontaneity does not fit into capitalism's schedule and these costumed junior studio executives will need to cram in as much acceptably aberrant behavior as possible tonight before they return hungover to their cubicles tomorrow.

Daily life in the 21st Century, from micro laptop crashes to the macro cluster bombs in Basra, is unbearable. I think often of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson and his decision to relieve himself of a beating heart. Lately I ponder that option and wonder whether it's just what the Doctor ordered. As Hunter warned sometime prior to his demise, "NO MORE FUN," and he wasn't referring to a lack of wage slaves in drag on a Tuesday night, for they are visibly in supply. Despite this solitary respite to trick-or-treat, the everyday "wild epidemic of Dumbness and overweening Greed" is considered acceptable, even normal.

I'd contemplated hiding out in bed with the covers drawn, but I'm seeking out the last of the authentically spontaneous like a parched man seeks water. I'm determined to meet Steadman. Three blocks and forty-five minutes later, I pull into the parking lot of Book Soup, a literary oasis in the dumbest major city in the continental United States.

"Uh, Ralph. You filthy little animal. You dirty little beast. Hi Ralph, it's Hunter. I have a job for you."

Thirty seconds after meeting each other, Ralph Steadman, the Father of Gonzo Art, and I are seated at a table in the bookstore for an interview while hundreds of fans wait in line outside. He has mounted his microcassette recorder on top of mine doggie-style, and it's ejaculating into mine a message he'd received from Hunter about the assignation of a paying gig. For thirty-four years, the seventy-year old Welshman was Sancho Panza with a sketchpad to the Kentucky native's Don Quixote with a typewriter. From "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Curse of Lono and other books and articles, Ralph illustrated Hunter's obsessive theme of The Death of the American Dream. His satirical trademarks -- the misshapen or skeletal monster with a hole for a mouth -- embody The Ugly American, unable to ever shut the fuck up, especially when he has nothing to say, which is usually always.

Ralph's written a memoir of his years as Hunter's collaborateur called The Joke's Over. He's here at Book Soup tonight to read from it and flog signed copies. I devoured it in one furious sitting the night before, howling with laughter, fascinated by the tales of two mavericks who leap without benefit of parachute. The concept of 'nostalgia' can be hideous but it left me longing for a time I remember well: when a critical mass of our brothers and sisters refused to bay like sheep. Steadman is one of the greatest and most popular artists of the last half-century. He's also a dangerous subversive whose target is that person who stares back at us from a mirror.

Saddled with a squat pit bull physique, and despite his unforgiving portraits of grotesque archetypes, he's kind, gregarious, and a relentless instigator of unruly mischief. In exchange for giving me Hunter on tape, I gift him with a Rowan Atkinson mask, which he eagerly, if not nimbly, attempts to place on his face. Unable to get the cheap cardboard to stay put, he cuts the mask's strings, re-ties it over his mug and lapses into a passable Mr. Bean imitation.

"Notice how I am very practical," he triumphantly admonishes with pride.

"I notice. You must be an artist," I reply.

"Yeah. Some say not a writer."

"Au contraire," say I, praising his book.

"Tell Hunter," he advises. "He warned me, 'Don't write, Ralph. You'll bring shame on your family.'"

I ask about his characterization of the command "DON'T" as "the American mantra."

"AH! It's not about what you should do or are allowed to do; it's about 'thou shalt NOT.' The Americans adopted that from the Christian ethic of pioneers who crossed America. 'You must not invoke the anger of God.' He may have been in a covered wagon too, somewhere up ahead. He knew the way and they all followed. Americans have kept that part of the Christian ethic because it was a positive quality of survival to NOT do something, but to do the one thing they had to do, which was to cross the Great Divide."

"Sort of a way of saying 'Don't fuck up," I suggest.

"Exactly. Don't ruffle feathers. Don't sleep with your father's wife."

This leads to a discussion of the wild frontier spirit in conflict with blind social and religious obedience, how that established a schizophrenic nature in the American character, and how suppression of questioning authority in pursuit of the Protestant work ethic deified entrepreneurship and created acquiescence to the modern corporate state, leaving many citizens impoverished.

"Poverty was one of the things that upset Hunter. He thought his Constitution represented something worthwhile. He wholeheartedly believed in the Rights of Man - Thomas Paine - and Thomas Jefferson bringing over basic principles from the French Revolution."

"But why did Hunter have empathy for the poor?" I interrupt.

"Because they had no chance!" Ralph's voice rises with passion. "It was unjust! He actually believed in justice for all! 'All of you guys out here, you have a voice, you can vote. Vote for somebody you can trust, who's fighting for your rights.'"

Ralph developed what he calls "corrosive contempt" as a youth, during his "terrible experiences in school when I realized that authority was the mask of violence. Authority does not mean decency, honesty, and fair play. Authority means keeping you in line and we can be violent if we wish to. When I draw, I'm trying to rip the mask off. Get down to the skin and bones. Get down to the flesh underneath. All those wonderful veins, arteries, sinew and bone. If people think I'm being sick by drawing just sinew and bone and keeping the face down to skeletal proportions, I'm actually trying to unmask a pleasant face, a so-called respectable face.

"Hunter thought he had to change things, take on the worst in society, and bring about change by being rude, unflinching, and intense in order to overcome the stern, conservative stance. To do that, you have to do something outrageous. That's what Gonzo is. Thinking the unthinkable and doing the impossible. The problem with America at the moment is its total conformism."

That Ralph survived Hunter's outrageousness is a testament to his ability - to paraphrase his partner - to turn pro when the going got weird. The duo managed to infiltrate the front lines of journalism, scare the horses and enrage the gentry and return with classic stories that revealed truths about the American psyche from political campaigns to sporting events. Like a deranged Buddhist teacher, Hunter also tested Ralph's mettle, from macing him in the eyes to dosing the novice with mescaline. "He was fascinated by what I might do. Hunter was equipped to deal with American life, but I was an innocent abroad and I trusted him," the whipping boy ruefully cops.

"We were so different. Chalk and cheese. There was an uneasy resonance between those differences. I came to America to reveal what I saw and I ended up becoming part of the hideousness, the screaming lifestyle of it all. Tried to outdo Hunter with his drinking, but I had a thing about drugs because I have a rather tender inside. I would freak out on the edge, but freak out in the best possible way, that is draw weird things. Do things he'd never even imagined. To his words, I was his eyes."

The Joke's Over ends with a letter from Ralph to Hunter in the afterlife in which he writes "But you leave us with a blueprint, ole sport." I ask him what he means. "The blueprint is that he expanded peoples' idea of how they can have a vision and gave them the opportunity that most forgot they had. Like H.L. Mencken or Mark Twain. He's one of those guys. He could be mean, desperate, horrible, vicious and pernicious. All those 'iciouses!' But he actually had a sense of honor about people who have no way of fighting back. He was going to protect them come hell or high water."

We finish our interview and Ralph gives a delightful reading to an adoring throng, sings a song he wrote (he's a fine singer and songwriter), plays an exotic wind instrument and decorates body parts. Afterwards, along with his beautiful wife Anna and friends, we repair to the Sunset Marquis Hotel for dinner. As we consume more liquor, the noise from the Halloween celebrants on the streets outside becomes musical rather than oppressive and I realize that while I have no desire to join them, I've permitted my justifiable revulsion at the low ebb of contemporary events to embitter me.

I shall not become a raging optimist in the near future and I'll always respect Hunter's decision to choose his destiny. He was one of a kind, and so is Ralph. I see the seventy-year old artist sitting across from me laughing, drinking, singing and relishing the battle for justice and I realize that I have more than one option. For a moment I'm not only grateful, but I'm actually having fun.

This article, in a different version, runs in the March 2007 print edition of Artillery Magazine.