The Jokes Over by Ralph Steadman

[7 March 2007]

By John Carvill

Like some psychedelic cartoon character running away through a series of walls, leaving his outline in each of them, Hunter S. Thompson’s tragic suicide in February 2005 tore a cordite-singed hole through the political, journalistic, and literary landscapes of America. Ralph Steadman—Thompson’s long-time friend, artistic collaborator, partner in crime, and illustrator of many of his most famous works—pulls us back from the brink of that hole and instead plunges us headlong into a unique insider’s account of some of the key episodes in the history of what became known as ‘Gonzo’ journalism, beginning with their fateful meeting at the 1970 Kentucky Derby.

Steadman, a mild-mannered Welshman, had never been to the United States before, and endured a dose of profound culture shock by accompanying Thompson on a homecoming visit to one of the country’s most concentrated distillations of decadence and depravity. They spend their days at the Derby crunching over broken glass and half-eaten hot-dogs, swilling a stomach-churning mixture of beer and mint juleps, and avoiding pools of vomit disgorged by ‘gargoyle-faced’ rednecks. Thompson’s conflicted feelings about his birthplace, already volatile, are ignited by Steadman’s unintentionally provocative behavior, which culminates in presenting Hunter’s brother with an unflattering portrait, causing insult, outrage, and upset; a fracas ensues, and the evening ends in alcoholic blackout.

The book is a feast for Thompson fans. Reading Steadman’s gracefully rendered recollections feels like viewing footage of the JFK assassination shot by Abraham Zapruder’s heretofore unknown second cameraman: these are legendary, seminal events in the evolution of Thompson’s iconic status, and it’s safe to say that the majority of this book’s readers will already know these stories well; but here we are allowed to experience them afresh, from the entirely new angle of one of their main protagonists.

Although they came to be regarded as the Odd Couple of the New Journalism, Ralph providing the steadying Yin to Hunter’s freewheeling Yang, the distinction was never quite that clear cut. Thompson carried a considerable chip on his shoulder about his Kentucky boyhood, having been “shunned by his neighbors and especially by the town’s literary establishment,” and in Ralph he “recognized a fellow rejectee.” Both men were acutely class conscious, and shared an ambition to harpoon the bloated establishment. Yet neither one wanted to become a marginal figure, wailing in the wilderness; they were both highly ambitious, young blades with careers to carve. They wanted to be inside the tent pissing in.

Steadman has the honesty to admit often feeling bewildered, out of his depth, and intimidated, to the extent that “I felt compelled to take with me into the Watergate hearing room a six-pack of beers and a hip flask of Glenfiddich whisky.” Fueled by drink, he decides it would be a good idea to get hold of a microphone and “make a few of my thoughts public right where it mattered—in full view of an entire nation.” He stumbles into Committee chairman Sam Ervin, spilling beer on him and almost knocking him over.

Thompson was a fierce and incredibly astute political commentator, but he wasn’t entirely cynical, even endorsing some Democrats such as Jimmy Carter and George McGovern. By contrast, Steadman’s politics are “more intuitive than informed,” regarding all politicians as crooks who’re out for themselves, and “screw the needs of the electorate.” He relishes the US public’s shock at watching “the events of Watergate unfold like an old Band-Aid being peeled back to reveal the wound as it turned septic before their eyes.” Even before having his vision of America shaken through Thompson’s Kentuckian kaleidoscope, Steadman was already noticing stark contradictions in the American character: “Funny thing about Americans. They are the first to adopt weird lifestyles and radical views but they are the most conservative race on earth. It’s the wafer-thin veneer that covers their pioneer, wagon train conformism.”

The book includes some great photographs, and reproductions of many of Ralph’s stunning, often abrasive illustrations, reminding us how seriously Steadman takes his satire: “My political drawings have always been more of a weapon than an item to entertain within the pages of our newspapers.” Steadman comes across as an unfailingly decent man, but he does resent being robbed of copyright, and points out that his drawings were an integral part of Thompson’s success. When he enquires what has happened to his Kentucky Derby sketches, he’s shocked at the publisher’s reply: “How the fuck should I know, Steadman? Maybe someone wiped their ass on ‘em!” There are also numerous fascinating letters, which grow more caustic as time passes and Thompson becomes paranoid, cranky and money-obsessed. He also came to resent and downplay Ralph’s part in his success, and seemed incapable of returning the sort of love that Ralph clearly had for him, leaving Ralph feeling bruised and rejected.

Towards the end of his life, Thompson attracted a vast army of fans from among the Jackass generation, with an insatiable appetite for tales of drug abuse and wild behaviour. Ralph reminds us that Thompson was first and foremost a writer, who loved language and literature so much that he used to type out favorite passages just to feel the rhythm of the prose. He also points out that Hunter continued fighting for social justice right up until the end, in the case of Lisl Auman, “imprisoned for life in 1997 for the shooting of a Denver police officer, even though she was handcuffed and in the back of a police car when the crime was committed. Hunter was outraged and fought for her release, which came to pass after his death.”

Thompson had been depressed by ill health, but Steadman claims what really tipped him over the edge was the Bush administration’s return to office in 2004. Ralph diagnoses this as a case of “terminal anxiety,” meaning the electorate knew voting for Bush was the wrong choice, but Bush had taken them so far into the quagmire that they couldn’t stomach changing horses in midstream.

Thompson bristled at the idea of Steadman writing. “Don’t write, Ralph. You’ll bring shame on your family,” he warned him, to which Ralph replied that he could write better than Thompson could draw. And while he doesn’t have Thompson’s brio or incendiary wit, Steadman’s narrative bowls along nicely, and he can certainly turn a memorable phrase. His artist’s eye captures Thompson’s repertoire of unusual physical mannerisms—“his head jerked back when he lit a cigarette, like he was short-sighted and couldn’t see the tip of it”—and he remains sanguine about the knuckle-whitening experience of being driven by Thompson:

“One hand held the wheel, the other his cigarette holder and a beer can. Between his legs, or resting on the seat, he kept a tall glass full of ice and whiskey. His consumption of each was carried out in nervous progression ... For him there was no first, second, third or top gear in a car—just overdrive. He was in a hurry.”

It’s the world’s loss that Thompson was in such a rush to leave it. No doubt there are several posthumous biographies in the works. Steadman’s noble, rueful yet celebratory memoir will provide not only a primary source, but also a serious rival for any of them.

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