Craig Johnson talks to Ralph Steadman about the death of Hunter S. Thompson, paranoid flashes and the “terrible betrayal” of modern politics
“One of the reasons he’s fun to work with – he has a really fine, raw sense of horror. By way of exaggeration and selective grotesquery. His view of reality is not entirely normal. Ralph sees through the glass very darkly.”
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, June 1974
One of the many facets that sets Hunter S. Thompson’s 70s works apart from other forms of classic American literature are the growling, snarling, punch-between-the-eyeballs illustrations of Ralph Steadman. Roaring from the pages, his pictures visualise the horrors of corporate America, ripping the surface to reveal the political greed and other grotesqueries that contort and degrade the human forms within his pictures. With his method of isolating and focusing on a physical idiosyncrasy, he explodes his subjects, capturing a hidden truth that was hitherto unseen; it’s as if Steadman sees with the naked eye of a schizophrenic.
Bloodsucking business men, venal politicians, dollar drugged gamblers, archetypal beholders of negation and power transmogrified into grinning reptilia, squarking sharp-beaked birds, gorgons of sheer inhuman greed. In the ferocious stroke of a few simple lines he trans-atlantically expresses all the negative facets of the human condition to a terrifyingly hilarious degree. If we think of the old metaphor of the artist’s pen being a sword, then Steadman’s scribe is nuclear.
Below is an almost verbatim conversation I conducted with Mr Steadman via a phonebox on Kings Street in Manchester city centre. His rumbling Welsh accent was full of charisma, his personality very accommodating, meditatory, thoughtful and warm. When talking about the death of Hunter S Thompson a real sense of bereavement -the only sort that can be when a real friend passes by- was prevalent in the tone in which he talked about him. Amidst rush hour traffic and passing packets of suit-encased, office imprisoned flesh, the conversation went thus …
You must have been gutted when HST committed suicide.
I always knew he’d do it, but I didn’t know when. It was always the case of I always knew that that one day I would take this journey but I did not know yesterday that it would be today. That’s how it felt and it was way too soon. So upset about it. And I knew he’d do it but I wished he’d just shot his dick off. Something that would give him pain but have him talk about it, because instead of shooting away the one exceptionally wonderful piece of machinery in his body: His brain! The centre of all his being. The centre of his genius really. And he is a genius, no doubt about it as for going down as a great, great journalist writer. He didn’t write novels, he took William Faulkner’s advice about fact being far more stranger than fiction.
I mean I just wonder why he did it? You know if only I could have talked to him. Once! Just to say ‘What the fuck! Don’t be daft, Hunter, for fuck’s sake!’ That’s why I thought if he’d shot himself in the foot or something… But, you see, if you can imagine: in a wheelchair, a man of action, a man who always done exactly what he wanted to do, suddenly realising he has no control anymore and he’s gonna end up in a home with a lot of old people scared him. It’s that thing: ‘In the end it was no use, he died on his knees in a barnyard with all the others watching.’ It’s that indignity he couldn’t stand the idea of.
What was he like as a character?
He could be mean. He didn’t like sloppy drunks, even though he imbibed so much stuff he was just on another sort of level I suppose. I don’t know how he carried on like he did. Like he said: ‘I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.’ That’s the well known phrase. He wasn’t no pusher. But he couldn’t stand sloppy drunks and he wasn’t a sloppy drunk cos he never seemed drunk.
Did he ever frighten you?
Yes, many times in the car. I wrote a song with him once called ‘Weird And Twisted Nights.’ One of the lines is “Drive your stake through a darkened heart / In a red Mercedes Benz / The blackness hides a speeding trap / The savage beast pretends.” We’d driven. . . And this was another one of his tricks, he used to like to drive at night with his lights out because the police wouldn’t see him, a starlit night – “The scar heals black . . .”. There’s a record of it you can get from EMI, it’s called ‘I Like It’ (1999).
What is Gonzo Ralph?
Gonzo is a strange manifestation of ones intentions to go somewhere to cover it (the story) euphemistically as a journalist and yet end up being part of the story, not part of the story but become the story. You make one, you have to generate some sort of tension, some oddness, some unexpected freaky thing that makes it go, ‘Yes that’s it!’
The other thing is there is no accreditation for gonzo journalists, so you go there as an outsider. Like we went to the Miami Convention in the Seventies and we had to get inside without accreditation, that was part of the target. It’s to be a rock and roll journalist. What’s a gonzotic frenzy? Well it’s me in the throes of an ink splattering attempt to capture the feeling I have at that particular time.
I like the gonzo logo that HST used for his Sheriff of Aspen campaign.
That red fist – by the way it’s got 2 thumbs and 4 fingers. Have you noticed? Hunter always said to me ‘2 thumbs Ralph, don’t forget 2 thumbs!’ It’s the idea of a freak isn’t it? Anyone with 2 thumbs is obviously a freak or a monkey of some kind, a gorilla. And the flower in the middle of the palm, the green flower is a peyote drug plant.
Have you taken much peyote in your time?
No. Hunter was the one who enjoyed all that shit. I’ve taken coca leaves, I’m very fond of coca leaves but I can’t get them in England. I tried them in Peru, between Cusco and Machu Picchu is a little stop off on the train called Olan Taytambo, and there they sell it to you with wood ash and you roll the leaf around the wood ash like rolling a joint or a cigarette. You put it down the side of your gums and just leave it there and you don’t suffer from mountain sickness, anxiety or anything at such a height which is 13-15 thousand feet above sea level. I’ve got a wonderful book which is probably 100 years old called ‘The Divine Plant of the Inca’ (W. Golden Mortimer – 1901) and it’s all about the coca leaf.
Tell me about when you ended up screwed and shoeless in New York City on one of your first assignments with HST…
‘The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved’ was how it all started, the meeting with Hunter for the first time. . . There’s innocence and experience meeting for the first time! The shoeless episode was the second trip where we went to Rhode Island to cover the Americas Cup and I was shoeless and luckily I’d kept my ticket and passport home.
I had my ticket back to New York from Rhode Island (Boston Airport) and then I got a cab and got to 42nd Street where the bar was thankfully still open, the magazine (Scanlan’s Monthly) had closed and I was in a terrible state and coming down from psilocybin. A drug trip, which was the one and only trip I ever had and that was when I said, ‘Right, drugs are out entirely.’ I enjoy a drink. And I was palpitating, so I borrowed a quarter from the Irish barman, cos I had no money in New York, nothing in a hell of a city! I phoned a lady friend called Vendetoce who I knew from the Bologna Bookfair. I made the call and she said “I’m just going out.’ I said ‘Please, don’t go out, stay there till I get there, please!’ She could tell I was losing my voice and she did stay in.
When I arrived I was purple with palpitations and she got a doctor right away and he gave me a librium injection that put me out for about 24 hours. The irony of all this was that before this happened I put her in hospital with a fracture in Italy when we went into a ditch via my car. Imagine how mad she was to speak to me again! Bless her heart. Anyway that proves there are good people in the world. . .
HST once described you as having a paranoid flash within your character. What did he mean?
A sudden desperate fear that everything something terrible is about to happen. Because I always thought that my heart would stop beating just like that. Bang! Why? My question was: ‘Why should it keep beating?’ It’s an odd question but at the same time that’s a paranoid flash. Why take it all for granted for Christ’s sake? So I never did, and then of course I kept thinking about the fucking thing all the time you know and now I’ve come to terms with it. Touch wood and touch wood now even. He (HST) gave me a lovely head, which I’ve got on a cord around my neck. Sort of a strange primitive face and a long thin piece of what looks like clay or stone. He said: ‘Wear this Ralph, it’ll ward off evil spirits.’
Do you see an essential beauty or aesthetic in the grotesque?
There’s an aesthetic even in watching an operation, there’s an aesthetic in putrefaction. I mean to watch how things breakdown and there’s a kind of aesthetic beauty in that. But it doesn’t mean to say you’re being sick, you do see that but you’d rather not watch it. It’s not ugliness, it’s just a rather unpleasant beauty, because there’s nothing ugly in nature. . . I’d love to be a fly on the wall or to be a fly on their piece of shit! Hahahaha!!!!
How do you get those ideas when you transform people in such frightening animal forms?
I see if I can make human beings look like reptiles. I see if I can make them look like hideous creatures that would not come out of anything but perhaps. . . turn a human inside out. . . take a human being, supposing you can sort of like a rubber glove, turn him inside out and then look at it. That’s how it’s really like. When I’ve done a drawing like that and I’ve done a few, I tried to make the person look as though they’re completely turned inside out and I called him ‘The Perfect Gentleman.’
What’s your idea of a living hell?
Not really being the slightest bit interested in what it is I’ve done all my life. Not wanting to do it and then not knowing what to do next. That would be a living hell. I must have a feeling that: ‘Oooh I’m really excited about this!’ The most depressed times I have is when I just don’t wanna do anything. A living hell is not being creative, being utterly devoid of any creative impulse whatsoever.
Does the new political scene make you shudder more than it ever did?
I can’t be very interested in what are no more than P.R. men. That’s all they are – P.R. men for a policy, or a new sort of: ‘Oh why don’t we try it this way?’ As Hunter said of George Bush: he was a message boy for the big boys, the corporate interests in America. That’s all he is. And that’s what’s happening over here, we’ve got spin doctors, people that manipulate everything and everything is manipulation. It’s not winning through a feeling one has about a person. ‘Wow! I wanna follow that person. I’d vote for him.’ Not because you’ve heard something spun about him, but because he feels something. Like you do about Nelson Mandela, you can’t help feeling the guy’s a good man. It’s passion, yeah! Something wonderful. Maybe Tony Blair started out like that, when we suddenly thought: ‘Wow at last, a fresh air politician!’ The man was clean and then he had his dour man, but nevertheless honest dour Scotsman, Gordon Brown.
What are the elements in society that piss you right off?
I’m afraid of the ethos of reality T.V. which pisses me off. It’s not reality television, it’s completely phoney, things that are made up, phoney! It’s not even fiction, it’s contrived bullshit! And celebs that have done nothing and they have to be celebs and they have to go on television. It’s a terribly sad culture to develop or to pursue and take it further and all in the name of the god Mammon. There’s nothing else in it and I just wish there were. And I wish that kids weren’t being fed it all the time. The kids are not brought up to have minds of their own as individuals. Some do, some break out. Maybe it’s always been like that but in a different form?
We’ll probably get by you know, but I think we might not be able to overcome what which is we’re doing to the planet. You see, nature will do exactly what it must, and if we are a hindrance to its development, to even its destructive powers to reform itself and we are in a way, we will go. No doubt about it. We seem to think we have some control over this planet. I once saw a lump of Greenland breaking off into the sea and moving south, which of course will affect the atmosphere and us generally, and it’ll happen more and more. And as the South Pole starts to melt! We were down in Patagonia in December and it was such a wonderful wilderness, just across the water was the Antarctica and I felt: ‘What an extraordinary thing and what puny pieces of nothing we are!’ I’ve just been doing a series of paintings of that area. Look, all in all I’m trying to be an artist, the fact that I was a gonzo journalist-artist of a type, met Hunter Thompson and went that way. That happened. I can’t do anything about that, I’m glad it happened. It was like hitting a bullseye first time in America. But I wonder what I’d have done if I hadn’t met him?
Was is you that did that famous caricature of Mick Jagger with those over inflated lips or was that Gerald Scarfe?
Mind you don’t get me mixed up with Gerald Scarfe! I’ve done the Rolling Stones eating each other. Don’t worry, because people always say: ‘Ooh I love your Pink Floyd.’ No I didn’t do that! Gerry came up to me and said: ‘ Can you help me? I like your line.’ And so I said: ‘Why don’t I introduce you to my art teacher? Leslie Richardson.’ Whose daughter Lucy by the way, is Lucy from ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’. They lived in Weybridge and that’s where John Lennon used to go into their antique shop with Julian. And John used to come in there and Lucy was always playing with lovely old bits of antique jewellery, they were sparkling things and Julian liked them. And that’s when he thought ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, that lovely song. It doesn’t detract that L.S.D. became part of it.
She was only 47 and I went to her funeral about four months ago because she died, and her mother Lesley said a really nice positive thing to say: ‘She had a good life. I couldn’t stop her dying . . .’ You know but . . . She was in film, she worked on all sorts of things, on Lord Of The Rings and was doing very well. A lovely lady. And everyone had to drink pink champagne at her funeral. ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ was played in the church, it was lovely.
What sort of music have you been into?
The Grateful Dead of course. I loved Eric Clapton. And Chet Baker the trumpet player. And I loved Dvorak and loved listening to William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg reading to music. And I’ll even listen to Gyorgy Legeti. I’ll tell you what he wrote was the theme for ‘2001’. He was a modern composer who then just went off into all sorts of weird stuff.
I was thinking of ‘Thus Spoke Zarathrustra’ but that was Strauss. You like Nietzsche don’t you?
Yeah I do. There’s another guy called Max Stirner who wrote some very radical things about politics. He wrote a book called ‘The Ego And Its Own’. I don’t know whether I can find it here. . . [Sounds of shuffling through papers]. . . Yes he’s German. ‘The Ego And Its Own’ Max Stirner:
“Question: What does man believe in?
Answer: I believe in myself, the answer of the common soldier.
Question: What is the principal of the self-concious egotist? Answer: Change the question to who instead of what and name the individual. Man is the horizon or zero of my existence as an individual. Over that I rise as I can, at least I am something more than man in general. A somebody rather than a nobody.
Stirner dispels morbid subjection and recognise each one who knows and feels himself as his own property, to be neither humble nor be fobbed but henceforth sure footed and level headed. A mist of this body who has a character and good pleasure of his/her own, just as he has of his/her own.
This is not transcendental generality. This is the transitory ego of flesh and blood. You and I cannot be reasoned into one, we are separate beings, two separate egos. It is important to be a self-concious ego in a self- conscious self-willed person. This is not self-obsession.
Those who pretend selflessness are constantly acting from self-interested motives but clothing them in various guises. Watch those people closely in the light of Stirner’s teaching and they appear to be hypocrites, full of good moral and religious plans of which self-interest is at the end and the bottom, but they are not aware of this. That this is more than coincidence. In Stirner we have the political development of egotism, to the dissolution of the state. The union of free men is clear and pronounced. . . ”
Is that boring the shit out of you? Hahahahaha!!!!! Just that whole thing gets to me because it is about self and yet you’re not being selfish. You care about people. But you want people to be straight forward and honest in reply, if they can help you or you can help them. Surely that’s better! That’s community, that what we’re afraid of doing and we’re killing it. You know, we’re really destroying ourselves because we’re really making the motivating force of anything we do selfish. Really acquisitive in a way that’s really not the point of it.
If there was one book that you could now illustrate, what would it be?
I think it’s gotta be Rabelais’ Gargantua And Pandegruel, about the big baby creature. It’s a tough one. I tell you what I’ve just illustrated: Fahrenheit 451, which is the temperature at which books burn, and Ray Bradbury wrote the book 50 years ago, (he’s still alive), and together that’s what I illustrated for him. When I’d done it, he said: ‘You’ve brought my book into the 21st Century. Thank you’. Which is the nicest thing to say.
The book is as important as 1984 and Animal Farm as real powerful social comment, because it’s about a fire brigade burning books. So that they try and stamp out ideas and a group of people get together and each of them take it upon themselves to learn by heart one book before they get burnt. It’s really worth a read. I’d say get the book but you can’t at the moment because there’s only 451 copies, a limited edition. But I’m sure Simon & Schuster or someone’ll do it. He wrote another wonderful book called The Illustrated Man. To write ‘Fahrenheit 451’, Ray Bradbury hired a typewriter and a room for 38 cents a day and he wrote it in 9 days. Try and read the book cos it’s kinda interesting, a definite must to read because of the implications of burning every book in the world.
You worked on Private Eye didn’t you?
I did in the 1960s. That was when I got involved firstly with Punch, but they weren’t really interested in social comment, they wanted jokes. And I went to Private Eye with a joke called ‘Plastic People’ and Private Eye bought it for 5 pounds and said: ‘More power to your elbow!’ And they published it with a double page spread in issue number 11. That was when Willie Rushden was there, Paul Foot, all those sort of people. Do you know I’m frightened that most of them are dead. Willie’s dead, Paul Foot died. I think it’s something to do with dying, I don’t know what it is? [Goes introspective and semi-silent for a second or two] He was a good journalist Paul Foot, very strong left-wing old Labour guy. But never mind, there’s nothing wrong with that, he believed in something!
That’s what’s wrong with them today, they don’t really believe in anything, they’re paying lip service to something. And that’s not belief but something entirely different. Ad-men is what they are absolutely, advertising a product. ‘We’re selling you this, it’s called New Labour!’ Or bright new Conservatives [chuckles], I don’t know what they are. People I don’t know hahahaha!!!
Didn’t that style over substance politics start in Nixon’s time or even Kennedy’s?
The thing about Nixon was that he really believed . . . He was just venal. He didn’t realise how evil he was. I think he was a genuine politician but with a remit of his own. A huge, deep belief in his own fabulous qualities. His dark scowling face made him a bogeyman. For a caricaturist he’s a . . . a gift! I was able to do all sorts of things with him. The light at the end of the tunnel. Offering cyanide pills to Spiro Agnew his Vice-President, and his was in the stocks being offered pills by Nixon. Who was always dressed in black. He was wonderful to draw. That’s when I had my best times in political cartooning.
It became something when we all suddenly felt: ‘This isn’t about domestic things, this is about life and death! Our lives are being fucked around!” Used to anyone’s ends, particularly corporate power with Enron and the rest. It was the “respectable” companies in Nixon’s time, who became monsters as time went by, and they ran politics and they still do and Bush is merely the bagman, the messenger boy for the dark players. I’m not into conspiracy theories, but I think they went into Baghdad for all sorts of reasons which are not made clear. And the way they use the word: ‘Terrorist. . . Terrorist. . . Terrorist!’ That’s become a mantra or even a trigger for fear. Mention the word ‘Terrorist!’ in George Bush’s voice and it’s something else. We can see through it but we can’t do anything about it!
You see that’s what I think is such a terrible, terrible betrayal, the trust that people have in government. The betrayal of people’s good will, good trust that things are being done for the best and they actually ARE being done for the best. Perhaps. But people betray that and let people down and cheat them. To me that almost fits into the same category as crime and torture. One of those unforgivable crimes that torture is for me. . .”
The sound of exasperation and anger in Ralph’s voice was genuine, a real rage about the dubious world order of our times. Whatever his age, this guy still has the growling edge and essential punch that makes him the greatest caricaturist of the modern era. We tied up our conversation with talks about wine, the fact that the British government wanted to eradicate the use of the Welsh language, polite regrets that we hadn’t conversed over a pint and an imploration that I follow and woo a woman who had mistakenly opened the door to the phone-box; sagacious sounds drowned out by passing road sweeps tidying the days litter from the floor of Manchester’s premier street of designer shops and parasitical employment agencies.