Ralphing

An item in the current edition of Westword features a few words with illustrator Ralph Steadman, who makes appearances this evening at the Denver Press Club and the Denver Newspaper Agency auditorium. Turns out, though, that Steadman had more to say about his new book, The Joke's Over, and his thirty-plus year collaboration with gonzo progenitor Hunter S. Thompson. A lot more.

What follows is the majority of an interview conducted in mid-October, while Steadman was in his native England. Along the way, Steadman talks politics, sings a show tune, recites a poem he's written about the state of the world, and generally dishes about the life and death of a Coloradoan who insulted just about everyone he knew, but somehow managed to engender tremendous loyalty and affection anyhow.

WW (Michael Roberts): I've just received my copy of the book, so I've only had a chance to look over a few sections. So if you can overlook my ignorance, I'd appreciate it.

Ralph Steadman: I like drawing people's attention to their ignorance [laughs]. I find it a therapeutic exercise.

WW: Well, in that case, I don't want to stand in your way. Is that in some ways a description of your career — that you draw people's attention to their ignorance?

RS: Yes! I love drawing people's attention to their ignorance and stupidity. I'm just writing a little piece for this question-and-answer thing, and I keep being asked what Hunter would have thought of political developments subsequent to his death: the new impetus for the environmental movement, the continuing corruption and duplicity in foreign policy, etc. So I've said, "I think he would have said, 'I told you so,'" because we've all felt that. But Voltaire wrote, "Those who can make absurdities can make you commit atrocities," and that's what I think has happened following the bloody Iraq war. In some ways, I suppose you could say that 9/11 was the most frightening provocation. And yes George Bush took us all to war in the wrong direction somehow. I don't know why. It's hardly even a Christian response.

WW: It does seem strange that we invaded the country that said, "We don't have any weapons of mass destruction" and ignored the one that said, "We do have them."

RS: And they're smiling right now. I loved that someone said, "What are we going to do about Korea?" and it sounded like The Sound of Music. [Sings to the tune of the "Maria" line "How do you solve a problem like Maria"] "What are we gonna do about Korea?"

WW: With what's happening around the world right now, it seems that Hunter would have loved to be around to say "I told you so" in very interesting ways. But from what I understand, toward the end, news developments depressed him instead of firing him up.

RS: It was a combination of that and his physical state. It was grim, with all the spinal problems, and I think he'd had a double-hip replacement. Christ, he was in a wheelchair much of the time, and it just didn't look like Hunter. He used to like to sit at his desk and be upright on one of these high stools and be at his typewriter, or be at the control of his television set to watch his wretched football and all that crap, or have the phone going, like now, say. You're on a private phone, but him, he would have had your questions, your chat, broadcast all around the whole room — all around the whole farm — so that everyone would hear what you had to say. You knew when you spoke to him that everyone was listening, everyone who was there. It was a very strange thing. How he needed to have it all out in the open. Maybe he had a dark secret I never knew about.

WW: He seemed committed to sharing those dark secrets rather than keeping them.

RS: In one story I read recently, he said he wanted to say that Lyndon Johnson is a child molester, a buggerer. And whoever he was with said, 'God, Hunter, you can't say that. It's just not true.' And Hunter said, "I know it's not. I just want to hear the bastard deny it!" [Laughs.]

WW: I did get the chance to look at Kurt Vonnegut's introduction to the book...

RS: It was a nice one. I liked it. He was being kind.

WW: I thought he used an interesting image when he said that when you came to Colorado for Hunter's blast-off ceremony, you looked as if you'd lost someone as close to you as a wife is to a happily married man. Did that ring true to you?

RS: It was a creative partnership of a kind that I don't think comes around everyday. When I met him in 1970, it was as if I'd hit the bull's-eye. I came looking for work and I found him. I couldn't have wished for a more combative friend — a person who'd be as rude to me as anybody, and so insulting. It was terrible — but it was also funny, and often just what I perhaps needed. We all need a kick in the ass occasionally. He'd tell me, "Nobody's perfect, Ralph." And I'd come over an innocent — I'd come over to set the world to rights. I'd come over and there was this screaming lifestyle of America, and I was shocked, horrified. And then there was Hunter, who'd tell me how I could teach us all a lesson in duplicity — in mendacity. He loved using words like that. So I think that he kept me on my toes in that respect. I just think he was the most extraordinary human being I could have met.

WW: The way he talked to people could be very extreme. But at the same time, he obviously inspired incredible loyalty among so many people.

RS: A lot of people miss that invective.

WW: What was it about that invective that didn't make people want to flee, and to instead accept it as part of his personality?

RS: You had to accept it as part of his lowdown approach of dealing with the human race through his friends. His friends were like conductors of electricity — of hurt. And in a way, they were prepared to be disciples to his brutality. It was a kind of brutality, really. Let's face it, it's just verbal brutality. But it can hurt.

WW: Especially from someone who was as gifted with words as he was.

RS: Yeah, I know. It was the way he used the damn things. They were used like a kind of fireworks display in a sentence. Beautiful stuff. He said to me, "Your psycho-gibberish is welcome here anytime, Ralph. What I need right now is a loan of $50,000 at any percent you can handle. Keep your advice and send money. Hunter." [Laughs.] He also went on about my writing being a pain, terrible. He said I wrote like some little old lady who should be weeding the garden, and 'no wonder his hair turned white at sixteen years of age, and his nuts dropped off and shriveled [laughs]. And he sired five children, all of them with obvious brain damage!' [Laughs.] And I'd tell him, "You're dead right, Hunter. It's the nicest thing you've ever said to me. Thank you!"

WW: A lot of people who write about Hunter Thompson try and write like Hunter Thompson. It seems that you didn't want to fall into that trap.

RS: I didn't want to do that. I just wanted to write it without being sycophantic, and just write the way I write, which is as a Welshman. I'm Welsh, so there's some peculiarity about it. I tried to prove that he was wrong about my words. I always said to him that I could write better than he could draw. And he wanted to draw as well. He had that Faulkneresque thing about him. He thought the best journalism was fiction, and that's how he considered it would be, and he happened to be able to do a stream-of-consciousness approach to any subject, and become a part of it. And then his demeanor, his attitude toward the outside world would be one of "Don't fuck with me. I'm onto you, and I'm going to tell you what I think, and you'll have to accept that. I'm not going to give you a load of bullshit. I'm going to tell you what I think." Which he did, but he did it with a lot of humor. And when the anger came — anger that was so caustic and vicious — I imagine he was unloading something when he felt it deeply. He was mainly the old-fashioned American whose Constitution had been fucked over for so long, and he was watching its time-honored traditions disappearing because of an administration that was beneath contempt. And I think it's been like that ever since. He came up decently through Jimmy Carter, but it didn't last long. I personally don't think the American people want a decent leader. I've got a horrible feeling. Half the people I asked who said they weren't going to vote for Bush voted for Bush, and they're bloody liars if they say they didn't. I don't understand what happened, but I think it's the way they wanted it. I've written a thing called "Voting Wisdom," and this is what it says:

Who can a trusting human being vote for?
Who is old enough and wise enough?
Who is so devious and cunning
That they can conceive our darkest unspoken desires
Who can outwit the barbarous hordes
Beyond the boundaries or place will call home?
And who can give our trembling souls
A sense of security we only ever knew at our mother's breast?
How can we vote for the noblest and best
When we want the most manipulative, the most ruthless, the most sadistic?
Who is man or woman enough
To fulfill our wildest and most elastic desires?
Who dares step forward to represent and quench our appetite?
Only an effigy will suffice: a graven image we can imbue
With heat-seeking instincts, computerized, unanswerable and indelible

So that's my bit of wisdom about it. That's what people want.

WW: So do you think Bush was reelected in 2004 because people were terrified of what kind of terrorist attacks might happen, and they wanted the biggest group of bastards they could imagine to make sure they wouldn't?

RS: That's exactly what I think! And Hunter knew it, too. And he wasn't giving any quarter. He wouldn't say anything nice about people like that. He just tarred and feathered them as best he could. And I think he was right in many ways. I think Hunter showed that you can get away with a damn sight more than you thought you could.

WW: In the letter that ends the book, you talk about being contacted by so many media outlets after his death. At what point, did you decide, I don't want to talk to them, but I want to tell the story my way?

RS: That was pretty much after the first two weeks. It was really frenetic for two weeks. The first phone call I get the next morning was from the Independent to write the lead story — not just the lead, but the front page of the Independent newspaper, which is a national newspaper over here. So I wrote that, and I think that gave me the idea that I may as well try and write how I felt about him in relation to the world we lived through, and strangely, a little bit of what happened afterwards. Because I think what happened is beyond belief, it's frightening. I can't believe how many yes men there are in the world.

WW: Here in Colorado, there was debate about whether Hunter's suicide was glamorized or glorified? What's your take on that?

RS: He was on the phone with Anita. He had a gun with him. He thought about it because he'd invited Juan, his son, up for the weekend. Juan, he said he trusted him more than anybody. And Jennifer was there, his son's wife, and their son, Will, Hunter's grandson, who he insisted call him "Ace." So they were in the next room and Hunter was on the phone to Anita, who was at the health club: How's that for an irony? And she must have turned away from the phone, or so I'm led to believe, because when she turned away from the phone is when he pulled the trigger. And his son, Juan, said, "It sounded like I heard a book drop." You know when you have a big book and slap it down on a tile floor? It was that kind of crack or slap or thump — a terrible noise. When he came in and saw Hunter, he got one of Hunter's guns and went outside and shot it three times. He hasn't talked a lot about it yet, but we correspond. And then he called Bob Braudis, the sheriff, who alerted all the sheriffs in Pitkin County, who all converged on Hunter's farm. And they all stood around Hunter's body, and they took a book, a piece of Hunter's writing, and read it over the body as a mark of respect. It's kind of a moving moment. So I don't think that was romanticized in any way. It's what they did. They may have cursed his goddamn name, because when he was on the drink, the drugs and drinks trial back in '97, there was an Officer Glidden who had apprehended Hunter driving back home from Aspen on the top road above the Roaring Fork river, and Hunter in the court was put on the stand, and they asked him, "What's your version?" And he said, "I was driving home, perfectly sober, and Officer Glidden and his men were waiting under the bridge like trolls." And there was laughter in the court room, and it just put them in the right place. And people, they just admired him. They thought, That's just what Hunter does. I've been with him when he's been drinking, had a whiskey between his legs on the seat, driving along with one hand whilst he feels for another beer in the ice bucket behind the seat. And I've had to hold the wheel while he's taken the whiskey bottle and unscrewed the top and poured some in on his ice and then put it back and taken it back again. And I never felt afraid of him. It was as though he was completely in control. He hated the idea of a sloppy drunk. He hated people who were drunk around him. And I know that seems ridiculous for a man who consumed so much liquor. I have a picture of him in a deck chair... Well, it's not a picture of him in a deck chair. It's his liver, on holiday.

WW: So the liver's taking a break because being inside Hunter Thompson was too much work?

RS: Exactly. That's the way he was. I can't imagine him giving up drink for lent or something like that.

WW: In the last section of the book, in the letter you write to him, you use the book's title, "the joke's over," and you also talk about the death of fun. For you, is "fun" still alive and kicking?

RS: In some ways. There's a shadow. I can't deny it. I feel sad at the loss of him. The letter the title came from was March of '98: "Okay, Ralph, the joke's over. This time you've gone too far. Your brazen, slime-coated effort to cheat me out of fifty percent of earnings on this book is a horrible joke and my lawyer will take it personally. It might be easier to settle this thing with a one-time payment to me of 50,000 pounds. That would be easier than haggling about royalties later. Anyway, here's your stinking forward." You see, he wrote the forward to my book, Gonzo: The Art, and the editor said, "That's a bit strong. You can't have that in there." And I said, "Of course you can. That's exactly how Hunter writes, and talks. So it has to be like that. I wouldn't ever have him write a polite bloody reference to my book." So that's how it was, and he said, "Anyway, here's your stinking forward. Fuck with the bull and get the horn. Why not? This could be good publicity. The Brit's love scandals. Let's whoop it up. You're bleeding host, Hunter."

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