High On Hunter

Confession: we didn’t think much of Ralph Steadman’s bug-eyed illustrations for Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas when we first saw them. Maybe it was the drugs we were on. A friend explained it best: “Steadman’s acid trip isn’t my acid trip.”

Sure, Steadman’s drawings for Fear and Loathing, and other of Thompson’s books, had all the qualities of a bad acid trip: strange perspectives, exaggerated body parts, scoured expressions. They just didn’t resemble anything we’d seen when tripping. But, then, we’d made the wrong assumption.

Of course, sometime later…maybe when the acid wore off…we realized Steadman wasn’t even along for the paranoid road trip that became the book and later a Johnny Depp movie (which does have some wonderful hallucinogenic scenes, maybe the best faux-acid shots in film). When Rolling Stone published its 2005 post-suicide tribute to Hunter, we learned Steadman had done hallucinogens only once in his life; when Thompson slipped him some psilocybin for sea sickness during their coverage of the America’s Cup. Otherwise, Steadman’s hallucinations were his own.

How does one get into the bizarre world of Hunter Thompson without the aid of mind-bending drugs? Steadman tells us in his new memoir The Joke Is Over: Bruised Memories: Hunter S. Thompson And Me. Just jump in. And don’t forget the whiskey. “He stimulated my art,” Steadman has blandly explained elsewhere. And of course, it’s true. Steadman’s work for and of Thompson is more surreal than most of his other illustrations. And the surrealism of the rest of his art always recalls Thompson. Maybe that’s because we’ve always associated the two, ever since the writer introduced us to the illustrator. As Thompson fades, Steadman’s art grows stronger in our minds.

From the beginning, the artist and Gonzo journalist had a relationship based on rejection. Shortly after Thompson first picks Steadman out of a hotel crowd during the 1970 Kentucky Derby, he declares, “Ye Gods, Ralph! A matted-haired geek with string-warts! They told me you were weird, but not that weird.” Steadman, on hearing of Thompson’s suicide, is notorious for saying, “It’s about time!.” And the good Doctor’s opinion of Steadman’s work, recorded in his introduction to Gonzo: The Art, is not flattering: “Most of your art is rotten and looks like it was copied off subway walls at three or four in the morning,” he writes.

Indeed, it’s the unattractiveness of Steadman’s work that makes it so wonderful. He sketches flat, ugly caricatures that still manage a posture of nobility. His monstrous portraits are like something Goya might have drawn if he’d done psychedelics. Ink is splattered on the drawings like buckshot. He’s a master of faces that reflect confusion or resolve. Steadman’s many drawings of Thompson are always part Mad Hatter, part Cheshire cat. Not surprisingly, his celebrated illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland (begun three years before he met Thompson) are in large part fear and loathing.

Steadman is something of a writer as well as an artist, having penned tomes on wine, Freud, his cat and the notion of Gonzo. His books on viniculture and whiskey are much better written than anything here (see his section on South African wines in Untrodden Grapes). But then it has to be easier writing about good drink than writing of Thompson’s vinegar. Hunter’s own advice to Steadman, noted at the beginning of the book (there’s also a pithy forward from Kurt Vonnegut), is something Steadman never honored: “Don’t write, Ralph. You’ll bring shame on your family.”

Shame it is. The memoir reads like a poor excuse of a Hunter Thompson book. Anecdotes mix with Steadman’s journal entries and letters from both our heroes. Steadman casts a wide net for images but captures very few. He tries to hard to explain his friend as a rejected child who let loose “an all out scream into the blackness of a wounded creature that had no identity but his own.” He struggles to give us insights into Thompson’s decline: “Hunter was the lie [of American life] because the lie represented everybody. Every louse, every bestial schemer, every low-down scumbag, every sick wank-sack drove their nails into Hunter’s vulnerable skull and weakened that part of him that was his strength.”

Many of the incidents recorded here are better witnessed in Thompson’s writing and Steadman doesn’t bring much new to what we already know. He does dress out some of Thompson’s lesser known adventures—like the 1974 journey to Zaire to record the Ali-Forman fight—but what’s really pictured here is the illustrator. Steadman doesn’t avoid self-promotion and his embrace of the outrageous often seems out of character. But his fear of it is real. Fans of the late-great Hunter S. Thompson are going to revel in these memories. For admirers of Ralph Steadman’s art, this book is a revealing study.—Cabbage Rabbit


A version of this review first appeared in the Inland Empire Weekly

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