Gonzo, but Not Forgotten

Ralph Steadman relates fear and loathing from the book-tour trail

While covering the 1970 Kentucky Derby with Hunter S. Thompson for an obscure sports magazine, Ralph Steadman had his sketchpad hurled on by a julep-sodden horse dealer before a race.

The artist had put his money on a nag called Holy Land but turned from the track to scan the stands, hoping to capture what Thompson, whom he'd met only the day before, wanted for the piece: "the essence of a Kentucky face."

Steadman spotted a bloated man with a pair of binoculars dangling from his elastic pelican neck. In the Welsh artist's new book, The Joke's Over: Bruised Memories: Gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson, and Me, he describes the guy's pearlies as a "22-carat gash ... somewhere around the place where his mouth was supposed to be. It was like the back of a goat with its tail up." Steadman's drawing of the slavering lug ended up illustrating Thompson's piece for Scanlan's Monthly. "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" is today considered the seed of gonzo journalism.

Ralph Steadman
Ralph Steadman


Ralph Steadman will be speaking and signing copies of his book Friday, November 10, at 8:00 p.m.
Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave, Coral Gables; 305-442-4408

In The Joke's Over, Steadman, whose pen-and-ink interpretations of Thompson's drug- and alcohol-fueled prose cemented their professional partnership, relates his behind-the-scenes story of their complex years together, combining memoir, photographs, and letter exchanges to offer an unvarnished account of his colleague's life.

In addition to numerous well-known drawings of Thompson, the book oozes with dozens of Steadman's kick-in-the groin illustrations depicting monstrous and degraded human forms. In them the artist often seizes his subjects' physical idiosyncrasies and ruptures their anatomy to brutally transmogrify crooked politicians, corporate leeches, and other transgressors into snarling, leering, livor-mortis-mottled grotesques.

Examining Steadman's bone-jarring visual autopsy of America's rotten core, one finds it difficult to think of any contemporaries who have so hilariously exposed the negative aspects of the human condition to such an effective degree.

"I wrote the book as a sort of therapy," Steadman says. "I wanted to capture my time with him. And it is a memoir, not a biography. Thompson influenced an enormous number of people with his style, even though he warned me never to write because it would bring shame upon my house."

Written with mordant wit and a jeweler's eye for detail, Steadman's book aspires to set the record straight: More than being just a talented sidekick riding Thompson's coattails, Steadman argues, he was a founding father of gonzo himself.

From their first meeting at the Kentucky Derby, to the America's Cup in Newport, Rhode Island, to the last days of Watergate, to their final meeting at Thompson's "fortified compound" in Colorado, Steadman's book weaves a bizarre and compelling account of their unusual bond.

During a phone interview with New Times, he characterized his relationship with Thompson as "more of a working dynamic, and he probably never considered me a social friend."

He described Thompson as "an old-fashioned American frontiersman with a deep sense of pride willing to fight for a lost cause. He was an extraordinary human being who loved his Constitution and wanted to protect the rights of all Americans."

To sum up the nature of gonzo, Steadman said, "Hunter lighting up a cigarette in his oxygen tent after hip replacement surgery," captured it best. "It was about doing something other people might never dream of doing."

In the book, Steadman recalls losing his ink and colors in a taxi on the way to cover the Derby and borrowing a Revlon makeup kit from a friend's wife, which he later used for his sketches.

He writes about riding to dinner with Thompson after their first meeting; two buckets of beer and a bottle of Wild Turkey sat in the back seat. After arriving at the restaurant, where Steadman began sketching patrons through a drunken haze, Thompson intervened on the artist's behalf by spraying mace on an enraged waiter who charged Steadman. The gonzo journalist nailed the server, but not before gassing the artist and other diners.

One of the book's most memorable chapters chronicles the pair covering the 1970 America's Cup for Scanlan's Monthly before the publication went belly-up. Steadman calls the experience a dress rehearsal for the seminal drawings he later contributed to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Thompson had rented a boat, where the twosome stayed with a rock band during the week-long event, and Steadman, inspired by his first encounter with pot, wailed nonstop on a set of bongos, attracting crowds and annoying his partner.

Near the end of their stay, without a story to file and having heard from their editors that the magazine was folding, Steadman asked Thompson for one of the little pills the writer had been popping all week.

Thompson handed over one of the hallucinogens. Steadman ate it and then asked, "What happens now?"

"Nothing," Thompson replied, "for about an hour. Then you may feel a little weird."

Before the night was over, the duo tried to spray-paint "fuck the pope" on a million-dollar racing yacht and nearly got nabbed by security. To distract the guards during their getaway, Thompson fired a flare, which landed on a nearby boat, nearly setting it ablaze.

Fearing arrest, Thompson later ditched a shoeless and incoherent Steadman at the airport.

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