Quick on the draw: Thompson and Steadman
Published: 11 October, 2012
by DAN CARRIER
IT was his first big art commission in America. His mission was to accompany the famous Gonzo writer Hunter S Thompson to the Kentucky Derby and sketch images to accompany Thompson’s crazy words for the coast-to-coast magazine, Scanlan’s.
But for Ralph Steadman, an aspiring artist looking to make a living in the US, the gig didn’t get off to a good start.
Never mind he was having to accompany a man renowned for his heavy drinking and massive drug abuse: no, the first hurdle he had to overcome was when he took a taxi to meet Thompson and left all of his art materials in it.
“I had my pens and inks in a bag,” he recalls.
“I went there in a cab, got out and then realised: Oh shit, I’d left everything behind.”
The wife of Scanlan’s editor Donald Goodard came to the rescue: she happened to be a sales rep for the Revlon make-up company and provided him with lipstick and eye liner to draw with instead.
While some would see this as a setback, for Steadman it simply gave him a different way to approach his artwork that fitted in with Hunter’s own chaotic way of working.
Now Steadman’s life and work is the subject of a new documentary – For No Good Reason: The wild life, and wilder art, of Ralph Steadman, with Johnny Depp, Terry Gilliam and Richard E Grant. Made by Kentish Town-based film director Charlie Paul, it is being screened this week at the London Film Festival.
Steadman speaks with great affection of his friend Hunter S Thompson. “He died on February 20, 2005, and something that day left me,” he says.
Before their trip to the Kentucky Derby in 1970, Steadman had not heard of Thompson. He’d found himself in New York after flying there in search of art and adventure.
He recalls “walking through Skid Row taking hundreds of pictures of down-and-outs, street drinkers and the like. I found something fascinating in their faces and made them the subject of a project. I’d wear a waistcoat with pockets and I’d fill it with coins. I’d walk through the streets and when someone asked me: ‘Buddy, can you spare a dime?’ I’d be able to give them one. These boys would always say the same thing: ‘Hey buddy, this is a tough city to get started in!’ And I’d look at them and think: this really isn’t a case of you waiting to get started...”
Then he got the call offering him a trip south. “He wanted someone who was crazy, and a mutual friend suggested me,” Steadman said. “From then on we had a long and close relationship. He was an extremely inspirational figure.”
It started a career of being commissioned by leading magazines across the Atlantic, including his seminal artwork for Hunter’s words in Rolling Stone magazine. “I always found a tension in America,” he says. “It was a love/hate thing. I hate what it now stands for, but I also love the crazy way of life over there.”
They did a lot of work together, making nuisances of themselves in the search for Gonzo copy covering beats like presidential elections and sports events such as the Ali/ Foreman fight in Zaire.
He says the loss of Hunter has robbed the American political system of an enquiring and insightful eye. “He would have loved Sarah Palin,” he chuckles. “Hunter would have been wonderfully rude about her, calling her an Alsakan Whore.
“And he would make absolute mincemeat of Mitt Romney – he’d have loved what an arsehole he is.”
He admits, unsurprisingly, he is a fan of Obama but he calls for realism among the Democrat supporters.
After four years of Democrat rule, he admits to being a “little disappointed,” but adds: “at least he is gentle and honest, and he is doing the toughest job there is.”
And the more unpleasant the person, the more reactionary their politics, the more fun it is to commit them to paper, he says. “Nixon was one of the most unpleasant people I have ever set eyes on,” recalls Steadman. “He helped me loathe America but he also helped me by allowing me to create some really good drawings. I took great pleasure drawing him with Spiro Agnew as his arsehole.”
He is still hard at work, pouring buckets of cold water on the pretentions of the art scene. “There is so much bullshit in the art world,” he chuckles. “I’ve faced a fair amount of nonsense from galleries and collectors over the years with their snobbishness about my work, saying they are are ‘cartoons’. But as Wittgenstein said: The only thing of value is the thing you say – so I say it with a picture.”
• For No Good Reason: The wild life, and wilder art, of Ralph Steadman is showing as part of the BFI London Film Festival at The Vue West End, Cranbourn Street, Leicester Square, WC2, on October 12 (6pm) and October 13 (12.30pm); and at the Screen on the Green, Upper Street, Islington, on October 14, 2pm. The London Film Festival runs from October 10-21. Full listings at www.bfi.org.uk/lff