Gonzo, but Not Forgotten

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

The barefoot, broke, and blathering artist was rescued by a friend. A doctor was summoned, and he tranquilized Steadman with a shot of Librium.

Steadman relates that his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas drawings for Rolling Stone magazine (and later Thompson's book) were possible only because of the America's Cup insanity six months earlier. He calls them "a regurgitation, a psycho-artistic vomit, a creative, cathartic cleansing of my inner being."

Even though Steadman's grotesque, mind-scarring imagery unarguably enhanced the insane dimension of Thompson's book, the artist got shafted out of the copyrights.

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

"The worst part was the journalistic scroff of pretending 'wow, man, we dig what you do and we need it for our next issue, and fuck you because we'll use it anyway' attitude, and I was too stupid and nice to say anything against such people," Steadman writes. The artist lost many of his later drawings in Rolling Stone as well when the publication informed him they were part of a "work-for-hire deal."

Although many of the letters between Thompson and Steadman deal with issues of money and ownership of their work, Steadman doesn't dwell. He admits having been more concerned with fame at the time. "The level of dishonesty and betrayal were incomprehensible, but after a while, one learns about getting used to cheating. If you look at what happened during the Enron scandal, one has to confess to themselves that the only way we are still being taught to get along is to cheat. Everything we believed about democracy in America has eroded and has become reflected in all aspects of society today," he laments.

As it turned out, Rolling Stone paid $1500 for the use of all 24 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas drawings and then purchased the originals at $60 apiece after his agent assured Steadman it would be a wise move. In his book, the artist "rues the day I let him convince me."

Random House later paid Steadman $500 to use the drawings in the 1971 hardback edition, plus $250 for their subsequent use, including millions of paperback copies worldwide.

To this day the artist asserts that his drawings drew many readers to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in the first place.

"Drawings, or 'illustrations,' as they are miserably called, can be the means of energizing the life of a text," Steadman writes. "Where is Winnie the Pooh without its illustrations? Where is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas without its gonzo drawings?"

That realization might not have been lost on the increasingly insecure Thompson, who later insisted Steadman mail him the drawings for The Curse of Lono before he sat down to write it. The book is about his coverage of the 1980 Honolulu Marathon.

"We actually had a 50-50 deal on that one. I think he fed off of my drawings, as I did off of him. Even so, Hunter complained, 'This is your book, Ralph, not mine,' before saying we should split the earning 49/51 in his benefit," Steadman said with a laugh.

Some of the most striking drawings in Steadman's new book include a picture of Richard Nixon and another of Chuck Colson, a top Nixon aide during the Watergate years.

The Nixon drawing depicts the former president sporting a reptilian snout and leaning over a podium, while another grisly face belches smoke from the commander in chief's ass into a battery of microphones.

The other drawing was provoked by one of Colson's quotes about the American people: "Once you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow."

At the time, a drunken Thompson raged that Colson should be dragged by his scrotum behind a huge car down Pennsylvania Avenue. Steadman obliged in a ferociously funny ink-and-pen savaging of the slimy pol.

Thompson, who had nothing but contempt for Nixon, once described the late president as a man "so crooked he needed servants to help him screw his pants on each morning."

In one of his last articles for Rolling Stone, "Fear and Loathing: Campaign 2004," Thompson wrote, "Nixon was a professional politician and I despised everything he stood for — but if he were running for president this year against the evil Bush-Cheney gang, I would happily vote for him."

Steadman once dreamed of becoming an American citizen but was discouraged by Thompson, who angrily admonished him that the founding fathers were "practicing democracy before the Welsh learned to bathe." Steadman writes that when "George W. Bush, a certified half-wit, got re-elected in 2004," it killed his friend. "That was the thinking process that really killed Hunter S. Thompson. That broke his spirit. That was it. Not even gonzo could cut through that Gordian knot."

After Thompson died last year of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, he was cremated. His ashes were shot into the sky from a cannon atop a 153-foot tower while Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" blared from speakers. Thompson had designed his funerary monument with Steadman's help: a double-thumbed fist clutching a peyote button.

"Sometimes it was a bit scary working with him. I often thought that when I went off on a job with Hunter, I wouldn't come back," he croaked over the phone. "Somehow I knew that one day I would be making this journey, but yesterday I didn't know it would be today."

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