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
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor