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Gonzo, but not forgotten

An interview with Ralph Steadman

When British artist Ralph Steadman first came to America, in 1970, he was hired by Scanlan's magazine to cover the Kentucky Derby with writer Hunter S. Thompson. Their subsequent collaboration was best known for producing "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and for spawning the unruly school of gonzo journalism. Steadman, who has illustrated numerous books including the 50th-anniversary edition of George Orwell's "Animal Farm," is also the author of "Untrodden Grapes," "Gonzo: The Art," and other works. "The Joke's Over: Bruised Memories -- Gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson, and Me" (Harcourt, $26) is the enormously entertaining recollection of his wild collaboration with Thompson, who committed suicide in 2005.

Steadman spoke from his home in England.

Q. When did you decide to write this book?

A. I waited until after the memorial, then I simply put everything aside and wrote about 170,000 words. Hunter always said to me, "Don't write, Ralph. You'll bring shame on your family." But I did it as a kind of therapy. I was trying to scramble out from under the shadow of something huge that had fallen. I miss the guy, you know, for all the insults he threw at me. They were only twinkle insults anyway. He used to call me a "greedy suckfish," things like that.

Q. Did you keep copies of all his letters?

A. Yes, pretty well everything. I should throw stuff away, but his were just too good. Things like "Ralph, your psycho-gibberish is always welcome here ... But keep your advice and send money."

Q. What was Thompson like as a collaborator?

A. I was too innocent to run screaming from it. I just thought "This is great. He's putting me right on the edge," and I immediately got used to working outside the system. Hunter, for his part, found an innocent who resented government. That's the best kind to have, you know, they'll do whatever you tell them. I just tried to match Hunter with my drawings, to give as good as he gave. He set the pace. He was in the fast lane, and I had to follow.

Q. So he really did influence your drawing?

A. Oh, totally. Although it was the drawings in my first book in 1969 that the editor of Scanlan's magazine found in London and took back to America, saying "This is the guy we want to work with Hunter Thompson." I just wanted to do the right thing. I'm like my mother that way. She was a miner's daughter, and when the wartime government told people to stop speaking Welsh because it might be subversive and could assist the enemy, she obliged. I think that must have been the beginning of my resentment of government.

Q. But you found your own subversive language.

A. Through drawing, yes. I learned to undermine authority that way while still appearing to be gentle and nice, when I'm really a dark bastard underneath.

Q. What was Thompson's enduring contribution to American journalism?

A. I think he opened the door for all of you, the way H.L. Mencken did. He was a kind of Mark Twain as well. I think we'll look wistfully back on his work and say what a great time that was: People were still smoking and drinking; there was a freedom we'd all fought for in the '60s; we were on the road, fearlessly.

Q. What killed him?

A. I think the re-election of George W. Bush. That and the excruciating pain he was suffering from pressure on the base of his spine. He'd had two hip replacements, and he suddenly thought "This is the death of fun." I wondered if he would see another term out and crucify Bush. One of the last things he said to me about this administration was "Ralph, we have to kick ass or get our ass kicked. And who should I turn to at a time like this but my friend Ralph Steadman to try to make an image of absolute evil?"

Q. Is your drawing always a response to something?

A. It's not drawing for its own sake. In a funny way, I don't like drawing. But at least I found something I could do, having tried aircraft engineering and being manager of Woolworth's in Colwyn Bay, north Wales, which I was sacked from. My old headmaster was passing the shop one day and he said, "Look at you, a grammar-school boy sweeping the floor. Your parents must be very ashamed." ... I think that was when I began to hate authority. I coined a phrase which I used later when I was covering the Watergate hearings: "Authority is the mask of violence."

Q. Why did you stop drawing politicians?

A. I just thought, these people are so pedestrian, I wouldn't have them to dinner, why would I want to draw them? Then what I started to do -- because it's more insulting -- is just draw their legs. That way I could use the backside and the private parts. ... But I'm more interested in social comment than political comment now.

Q. Which artists do you particularly admire?

A. They're mostly from the past, you know. Picasso, of course. And true subversives like George Grosz and Otto Dix from the 1930s, the ones who were really up against it.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached via e-mail at ama1668@hotmail.com.

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