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Irascible genius … still from Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr Hunter S Thompson
For Ralph Steadman, the end of an era came with a phone call three years ago. “Take your phone off the hook,” said his friend Joe Petro, “Hunter’s just shot himself.” Steadman was, if it’s possible, shocked but not surprised. Hunter S Thompson, 67, his longtime collaborator, was an irascible genius of letters whose life had been every bit as violent as his demise. His literary stardom began when he rode with scary bikers in the mid-60s, endured when a journalistic assignment in Las Vegas turned into drug-addled chaos and went supernova when he covered the US election in 1972.
“When he shot himself,” says Steadman, “he was on the phone to his wife, Anita, who was down at the gym. He was talking to her and suddenly she heard the click-click as he pulled the hammer back. And then she heard the bang. Juan, his son, was in the next room, and he thought he heard a book drop. Now, if you’ve ever known what that sounds like … Well, it’s worth doing it to see what it sounds like …”
Steadman strides across the floor of his study, picks out a big, square hardback and drops it. BANG! “It sounds like that,” he notes. “Now, what a perfect analogy. ‘Like a book dropping …’ And it bloody well is, isn’t it?”
At 72, Ralph Steadman is the unsung partner in Hunter S Thompson’s strange odyssey: Ernie to his Eric, Laurel to his Hardy, the artist whose aggressive, blotchy scribbles infested the pages of all his books, beginning with the landmark Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas in 1971. If Francis Bacon had drawn for the Beano he might have come up with these images; instead, they come from this jolly Welshman. When we meet, his drawings lie in piles around his Kent studio. A clockface on the wall, with no hands, says, “Why worry — it’s late!” A drawing of a creature with fangs, exposed organs and human feet is captioned “A Surprise Pet”. And most mysterious is a book entitled Diseases Of The Rectum, Anus and Sigmoid Flexure.
But the real treasures are in a wide, deep wooden drawer, and these are the pictures that grace the screen in Alex Gibney’s fine documentary Gonzo: The Life And Works Of Dr Hunter S Thompson. Named after the acidic, factional writing style Thompson pioneered, and narrated by Johnny Depp, who mimicked the writer so perfectly in Terry Gilliam’s film version of Fear And Loathing, it’s an honest and revealing insight into a writer who wanted to be a novelist but wound up revitalising journalism while simultaneously despising it. “Journalism is not a profession or a trade,” he once wrote. “It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits — a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.”
Steadman still remembers the assignment that brought them together: they were to cover a race meeting in Kentucky, where Thompson was born, for a new magazine called Scanlan’s Monthly. Steadman was a jobbing illustrator at the time, doing political cartoons for Private Eye. “I wasn’t very interested in doing things that were polite or respectful, where there was nothing vicious or visceral,” he says. “I think that’s where people started thinking, ‘He must be a nasty piece of work!’ Me! But no, it was just mischief. Anyway, this guy called and said, ‘Would you like to go to Kentucky and meet an ex-Hells Angel who’s just shaved his head. He wants some drawings. Faces, mainly. He wants to nail the faces of Kentuckians.’ Hunter had said, ‘I don’t want to take a photographer. They don’t get involved in the story.'”
It took two days for the pair to meet, but despite their differences they soon found a mutual interest in alcohol. “By the end of the week,” laughs Steadman, “we’d drunk so much beer and whisky — we were just chasing, chasing, chasing — we were totally sozzled. Of course, I went thinking that he was just like any other guy and would be up in the morning. No! Lunchtime, I’d knock on the door. He’d shout, ‘Go away! Fuck off ! What’s the matter, can’t you sleep?'” He laughs: “That’s how different we were. I had a sense of responsibility. And I didn’t want to fail, because I’d come to America looking for work. In a way I hit the bullseye with that very first assignment, getting Hunter; it resulted in 35 years of association with this extraordinary guy.”
Steadman didn’t go with Thompson on the fateful trip to Vegas, but he was there in spirit. “He thought of taking me, but in the meantime he’d met this lawyer called Oscar Acosta,” he laughs. “They had a lot in common, drugs-wise. So that’s why he decided not to take me. And anyway, as he said, ‘I might need a lawyer!'”
But if he was concerned about the writer’s drug-taking, he doesn’t show it. He remembers, with surprising affection, the time he hooked Thompson up with a dealer in New York in 1971. Inside the dealer’s apartment, they found a glass coffee table with six lines of cocaine chopped out. “So I said to him, ‘Well, there you are, Hunter. Is that what you wanted?’ He says, ‘Fine. Excellent.’ And then he gets a dollar bill, gets down on his hands and knees, and he goes SNORT! One … SNORT! Two … SNORT! Three … SNORT! Four … Then he stops, looks up at the drug dealer and says, ‘Ralph doesn’t like drugs, you know.’ And he hoovered up the other two!”
Thompson’s fascination for guns didn’t faze him either, even though he had 22 and kept all of them loaded. Steadman smiles, “They were just part of the ammunition of his life.”
The final “accident” came on a Sunday morning in February 2005, when Thompson pulled that trigger. His wake was beyond lavish. Paid for by Johnny Depp, it was a $4m party held in Thompson’s compound in Aspen, Colorado, with a marquee kitted out to look like his den at home, complete with Post-It notes stuck to every available surface. Outside was a 150ft totem pole bearing “the gonzo fist” (a clenched hand with two thumbs), and the writer’s ashes were launched into the air in fireworks. It sounds anarchic and spontaneous, but it wasn’t. Thompson had been planning it since 1967, entrusting Steadman to make sure it happened exactly to his spec.
But why did this once-vibrant writer give up the ghost? Steadman sighs: “He once said to me, ‘I feel trapped. The death of fun has occurred.’ He’d had a hip replacement operation, and the one thing he couldn’t stand was the idea of being incapacitated. I think that was it. I’d seen him being manipulated by a physiotherapist, and when he got up he’d have to hold on to the end of his desk to sit down. It was painful to watch. He starts to growl, mimicking Thompson’s tics. “He said to me, ‘I have this image, Ralph. Me, strapped into a wheelchair in an old people’s home. They’re all looking at me. And out of the corner of my eye I can see an old crone. And she’s crawling across the floor towards me.’ He pauses, ‘And she’s going to fondle my balls.'”
Steadman roars with laughter. “You know,” he says softly, “I’ve still got a very clear idea in my head of how he speaks and when he speaks. It’s so distinctive. Like no one I’ve ever known.”
He chuckles. “Ralph!’ he’d go. ‘Ralph!’ He loved saying my name; it’s like a bark, isn’t it? I often wonder whether, if my name had been Trevor, our time together would have been the same …”
A friend recently pointed out to me that artists of all kinds often make their discoveries early in their working lives. Writers, painters and musicians, he suggested, frequently know what they want to say and how they want to say it by the time they are 30. The rest of their careers are then spent refining these initial discoveries.
It’s an idea that has a great deal of truth. Look at the retrospective of Francis Bacon that has just opened at Tate Modern, and you see an artist who discovered as a relatively young man a small but resonant set of images that spoke to him. He then refined this personal iconography over decades. Major events in his life may have rearranged the furniture a little, but the twisted bodies in the little rooms remain essentially the same.
Samuel Beckett is perhaps the starkest example of a writer whose work was not about discovering new perspectives as he got older, but about refining his vision; his diminishing word count is evidence of this. After emerging from the shadow of Joyce, Beckett moved from the novel to the theatre, and his theatre work gradually became shorter and sharper. The four rootless adults, the boy and the tree in the two-act Waiting for Godot, seem recklessly extravagant compared with the stark images of his later work: the isolated, babbling mouth in Not I, the brief glimpse of litter and the sound of exhalation that constitute the tiny play Breath.
Great artists such as Bacon and Beckett distil; lesser artists become self-referential and self-conscious as their work goes on. A personally defined landscape can easily become an enclosed and introverted prison, referring only to itself.
I like to think I’m open to new experiences and new ways of writing, even though I am now, by anyone’s definition, middle-aged. It gets harder to encounter new people and new experiences as you get older – not just for artists, but for all of us. The wide network of friends that I moved in as a young person has now become a handful of familiar faces. When I was in my 20s I worked in the laundry of a mental hospital, a building society and a drug rehabilitation centre. Now I sit at a desk all day and write.
Whenever a novel starts with the character of a writer sitting in a Hampstead kitchen, struggling to finish a novel, I throw the book straight in the bin. I recognise where that impulse to write about writing comes from. From time to time, I find myself thinking of ideas for plays about screenwriters working in Hollywood, or actors putting on a play. This terrifies me. There has been some great writing about writing, terrific films about films, brilliant television about television. There’s an inevitability about the fact that Ricky Gervais began by telling us stories about an ordinary workplace (The Office), and then, once he was massively successful, moved on to stories about showbusiness (Extras). But this seems to me something of a dead end. If it’s a struggle to stay connected to the world as you get older and more established, I think it’s worth it.
It’s not as though the outside world isn’t ready to embrace artists. Recently, I ventured out into north London with a group of young actors, stopping Camden market-goers and asking them about their lives. We started nervously, assuming that approaching strangers with the opening line, “Hello, I’m a writer and this is an actor and we’re researching a play,” would meet with a frosty response. But almost everyone wanted to talk to us, often at great length. We were humbled by the way many of these people told us deeply personal and often painful things about their lives. We came away with a great sense of responsibility for the complex and difficult insights into other existences we had been given, often within minutes of meeting people.
No doubt a Freudian would tell me that the outside world only reflects back to me my own inner conflicts. They may be right: work that seems objectively researched when I’m writing it is often surprisingly autobiographical when I look back at it later. Still, I remain committed to seeking new experiences to inform my writing. If you’d like to invite a writer to your factory, or mosque, or family get-together, please get in touch. Kafka once advised writers to sit in a room and wait for the world to reveal itself to them. Right now, I’d rather get out and explore.