Revelations: Ralph Steadman, Louisville, 1970

"DO YOU want to meet an ex-hell's angel who shaves his head?"

Being in America to look for work, my reply was yes. That's how I found this buddy, this soul mate, Hunter S Thompson; our assignment was to cover the prestigious Kentucky Derby in Louisville. There was this 6ft 6in guy with a chiselled bone head - it looked like a bullet - set on shoulders that didn't need any more muscle. Hunter could have been an American footballer. He had huge feet size 12 or even 14 - in these flat plimsoll-type things he used to wear. I've always tried to find a pair of shoes to suit me, but he found one early on. Hunter found out everything early on; he wanted to be a great writer but was rejected by the Athenaeum Literary Heritage Club of Louisville. So he was home to enact some kind of revenge. He didn't want a photographer, he wanted an artist who could find the face of Kentucky. I thought: Jesus, he's lived a totally different life to me. I was 33; most people would be in their stride by then but I wasn't. But Hunter had been told I could give as good as I got, and I did.

I climbed into his red whale of a car, with two buckets of beer on ice behind the front seats, and went to meet his brother. So far I had made no sketches, or notes, too intimidated to do either. But my head was buzzing with strange impressions. I pull back, mentally unwinding a spring. What I don't realise is just how intently I am watching someone, fascinated by a blemish on their nose or the way an eye works. I thought drawing was a bona fide activity and in England people treasure caricatures of themselves - perhaps the ruder the better, because you've got to make them laugh. What I didn't realise is that in different cultures, and Kentucky is a different culture, it's an insult. They are quite likely to ask you to step outside, and beat the shit out of you. I started drawing Hunter's brother and made it darker and darker and more hideous as lines covered lines. Hunter started fidgeting and making lame excuses until he told me I had a nasty habit. I asked him what he meant? "You keep doing filthy drawings of people. They are beginning to look at you and become horrified, unable to believe it's really them that you're drawing. It is obscene; you've got to stop it!" In fact, Hunter had to Mace a restaurant in Kentucky so we could escape alive. I remember a black tube and a fine hissing sound. My eyes began to sting and everybody screamed. Hunter yelled at me to get out! What he did was even worse - all I do is look at people. But he saved me. It was the first time I realised that what I do can be construed as a rather unpleasant habit. How dare I make these rather presumptuous comments about somebody I'm staring at?

The act of Gonzo might be just as mindless as soccer hooligans but Hunter and I went out of our way to actually do something - making out that we were bona fide journalists covering the Kentucky Derby. We got in because I was speaking in my very proper accent telling officials I'd come all the way from the London Times. It was a completely irresponsible way of going about journalism - no story became a story. Hunter ended up writing about what happened to us; he hadn't even started his writing while I was doing my drawings. We turned failure into a virtue - that was Gonzo. Hunter and I are chalk and cheese - that was the bond. Although entirely different, I was watching people in a way he was leeching into. I was leeching on to his use of language. Two different types of leeches doing the same thing.

Hunter also taught me that when I was doing something outrageous to double the outrage. Together we slipped in between the boats in the America's cup to write: FUCK THE POPE along the side of one of them with a spray can. We did have some noble purpose, though it was a jailable offence. These boats were manned by rednecks, some of them Catholics, and the idea of seeing them sailing into the harbour with that graffito on their hull was a brilliant political concept. We then rushed back to our boat and let off distress flares up into the bay, to symbolise our failure, and set some yachts on fire. It deflected attention, and we were able to get away.

I had the idea that there was a wicked world out there, my mother defended me so well. Hunter would criticise me for being so English and "nice" - it's a horrible word. I needed to meet somebody to blast me out of that cocoon. It took me a long time to reach the frame of mind where I decide the image - irrespective of the story that I'm illustrating. I don't give a shit if somebody understands it or not. I like it, I appreciate it and if I'm enjoying it - someone else will too. That's something else I learnt from Hunter: "if you're chicken-livered, forget it. You'll never achieve anything. But if you want to take the ride, you pay for the whole ride." The edge can be very creative. It made me realise who the real enemy are; I know who I'm after. Previously my anger had no purpose or direction. I chose to draw one person over another normally out of the desire to throttle them. Not a murderous thought, just that I couldn't stand the way their nose twitched; how some people moved their mouth was infuriating. I was going through life unable to stand the sight of people. Meeting Hunter S Thompson made me laugh at it. By easing off, I began to do outrageous things with my cartoons instead.

If I go on making mischief, I think it will be more in books - I'm not very keen on the fish-wrap approach of newspapers. If I'm doing something I want it to last, so people can look back at an opinion from that time and discover that it may still be relevant. But it would be funny if someone tried to wrap fish and chips in my new book, perhaps I should buy a portion and eat them out of it! That's Gonzo!

I have curbed my tendency to stare, judge and hate people partly with the help of therapy, because I began to think it was me that was the problem. I did three months; strangely enough the therapist's name was Dr Thompson... I think it would be worse if I stopped drawing, and didn't recycle my observations. It could become very unhealthy - at least now there is a excuse. It's for art, so I can do anything I want. Otherwise I'd be prosecuted as a stalker.

`Gonzo - The Art' is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, price pounds 25

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
exhibition Gillian Orr traces the movement from Bram Stoker to Kate Bush
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone