Gonzo, but Not Forgotten
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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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