The trouble with asking Ralph Steadman about the meaning of Gonzo journalism is that he first throws you a glance that asks whether you are having him on - or are merely congenitally obtuse - then he rabbits on about its derivation in terms of the precise name, style, occupation and preoccupation of the man who coined the phrase, plus the date of the coinage. It's rather like gazing upon a Steadman illustration and expecting to get the point in one hit without drowning in the detail of shadowed meaning. Eventually you just have to accept that the man who coined the phrase might just as well have said Bimbo or Bloggins, but since he said Gonzo, Gonzo was what Hunter S Thompson and Ralph Steadman cooked up between them when they began their collaboration 35 years ago and decided to carry on with it, boldly going where no writer/artist combo had gone before - like pilgrims with an avowed intent to shit all over America.
That was the plan. And Gonzo was only a word that might or might not encapsulate the general style in which they would go about it. Make of it what you will. It wasn't even their idea. As ever, someone else, a man with an art-dealer's sense of propriety and reluctance to let a good thing go to waste, was so impressed with Steadman's drawing of Richard Nixon with Spiro Agnew emerging from his pimply bum, he thought up the shitting-all-over-America campaign. They merely went along with it because, 1) it was honest work, and 2) they thought it might be fun. That was the word in those days. Fun. Grown men weren't ashamed to say it. Hey, Hunter would fax with incandescent enthusiasm, let's do the Democratic Convention, the America's Cup, the Hawaiian marathon, the Watergate hearings, Disneyland, let's find ourselves a lynching, let's take ourselves to wherever in God's own country we can be sure to find grotesque evidence of the wretched excesses of a self-congratulating, capitalist democracy hell-bent on the pursuit of happiness. "It'll f be fun." And Ralph would pack his bags and trek across the Atlantic. A lamb to the slaughter. Which was where it all began.
It was all getting a bit bland for Steadman when the 1960s began to peter out. He'd done Private Eye, got himself a reputation for sedition and kept finding himself in chemists' asking if they had anything for abject misery and downright wretchedness. When an American editor asked him if he'd like to come over to talk about teaming up with Hunter S Thompson to cover the Kentucky Derby, he might as well have offered him the antidote to terminal dread. He was just too British. That was what was wrong with him. It was time for a rebirth. Steadman went to America to combat despair: looking for trouble somewhere he'd never been before and from where he knew he might never come back.
There is a snapshot of Steadman, taken at this time. He looks much younger than the 31 or 32 he must have been. It's a boy's face, unmarked, anonymous, under whose mouth a little dark goatee beard has been cultivated and upon whose head grows a mass of prematurely white hair, which puts you in mind of an upside-down Santa wearing a shrunken goblin's hat. This brave little attempt to distinguish himself from the more prosaic in our midst must have been what Thompson saw that day at the Kentucky Derby.
"Where the hell you been?" he said. "I've been looking for you for days." Then, "Christ, they said you were weird looking. Some kinda stringwart growth on your face, why the hell you got that?" And Steadman regarded this "big piece of bone". Six-and-a-half-feet tall with the gait of a gorilla, but fine-featured like a young Tommy Lee Jones. Awesome. "Like to take a beer?", said the bone brusquely. "Like to bet?" So they had a beer and another beer and another, and Old Granddaddy chasers and a few bets and Hunter let him in on his professional assignment. "I wanna nail the face," he said, waving his arm in the general direction of the fetid mass of drinking, gambling, hot-dog gobbling, puking desperation that is this proud American sporting event. "The face of all this ... "
Right, Ralph thought, nail the face. And had another drink. Later that night they were in some kind of snooker hall and Ralph started drawing people, using a fine collection of cosmetics; lipstick, eye-shadow, pancake daub given to him by a kind lady to make up for the fact he'd left all his inks and pens in a taxi somewhere between New York and Kentucky. Hunter was horrified. "You've got to drop that drawing," he commented in his laconic way. "It's a filthy habit. Filthy, dirty, ugly." But Ralph was well away, Old Granddaddy took care of the butterflies; he was nailing the faces. Doing the job. Nailing the enemy, because that's what they were, enemies. America was all monstrous and he was innocent; a stranger, an outsider, a coward, whatever. And Hunter would boast he'd taken him to the edge from which precipitous position he could do his best work. Wow, yes. Get him to the edge, just before he freaks out and then see the filthy little beast go...
So they got to know each other. In the first place they were mutually disarmed. Hunter saw Ralph as an alien weirdo, someone tantalisingly beyond his control who, in some dangerous way, threatened his own imaginary respectability. Ralph saw a kind of charismatic giant sauntering through life while the world watched his progress. And he saw an unselfconscious elegance; the long cigarette holder held in the slightly arthritic fingers which he was eager to demonstrate and recommend for its neat way of capturing poisons that would otherwise enter his lungs. Ralph knew better than to smile at the implicit absurdity of this singular devotion to purity.
Tacitly, they were creatures of their culture, members of a generation imprinted with an existential ethic each had always striven to tear the arse out of: men who bravely faced the benign indifference of the Universe without recourse to the infantile fail-safe of religious compunction. God and his cohorts had been consigned to the same pyre as the Easter Bunny, Father Christmas and lucky charms. All alone in this Vale of Tears we have the responsibility to expand our consciousness to bursting point and to guard our insouciance with the liberty of knowing that we can always, when the chips are down and it all gets too unbearable, top ourselves.
In those early days Hunter told Ralph about a book he ought to read. It seemed to be his current bible and for the outlay of $5.95, Ralph acquired a copy of Dr Robert S de Ropp's The Master Game, published in 1968 and devoted to the notion that a man can separate himself f from the ordinary and draw power from himself through the judicious use of drugs. De Ropp's theory seems to be predicated upon his personal definition of what Freud called the superego. Far from being the psychological device that operates as the human conscience as posited by Sigmund in his simple way, De Ropp, clever little chemist that he was, reckoned it was some kind of pesky personal detractor, lodged in your brain to nag, scold and inhibit your psyche from its natural desire to soar to greater creative heights. Hence, shut up the superego with whatever it takes and you're on your way to high-potency self-realisation.
Hunter always made it abundantly clear that snorting cocaine and chomping up handfuls of hallucinogens was what fuelled his tank. He didn't press anyone to share his stash, though. Ralph is uncertain whether Hunter actually ever read De Ropp from cover to cover. He doubts it on the grounds that years later, he denied all knowledge of its existence. Besides, Hunter was never much of a reader, though he knew what he liked. And he knew he wanted to be a writer; a great writer.
He'd sit at his electric typewriter and bash out screeds of F Scott Fitzgerald, Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, to find out what it felt like to write as they wrote, as though by some osmotic force he would empower himself. He loved that. He loved the rhythm of it, he loved the paper coming out, the visibility of the words and the feeling of having written them. He never did get on with computers. Too much invisibility. When the two of them were on the road he wrote in notebooks with curly-wire backs, in red ink - always red ink, and sent the whole caboodle to a commissioning editor close enough to a nervous breakdown waiting for copy he'd be thrilled to get it.
During the course of their first week together, Ralph got his first insight into his own drinking habits. He knew he liked it; his was never the hand that tremulously separated glass from bottleneck before it was all gone. But this was different. Hunter made it clear from the outset, he couldn't stand sloppy drunks. He couldn't tolerate, he'd say while refreshing himself on Wild Turkey chasers, all that staggering about and tearful word-slurring. No, the goal of excessive drinking was something else. You hit the peaceful stage, carry on, pass rapidly through the sloppy phase and then find the level, through assiduous repetition, you want to be on. In other words, you get completely plastered but somehow recapture stark sobriety, at which point you'd be on top of your game. QED.
"That first week we spent together was a disgrace," Steadman said, for all the world as though he remembered the episode well enough to condemn it. Yet Gonzo journalism had been born. It was not going to go away. Nor, come to that, was the brooding, evilly mischievous sprite that seemed to have replaced the superego of Hunter S Thompson.
Their second gig together was the America's Cup yacht race on Rhode Island. So far as Hunter was concerned it was going to be a tiresome assignment involving a lot of frustrating hanging about for boring things like tides and weather. Naturally - for this was his nature - he prepared himself for the ordeal with a generous supply of psychedelic drugs - psilocybin if memory served him four years along the line - to add to the usual stash of coke and booze. They'd hired a 50ft sloop to help them with their journalistic endeavours, but after three days of waiting for the action, even this neat toy began to pall. Ralph was becoming edgy. Why not, Hunter suggested, take one of these medicines? He found them useful, he advised, and he was taking four or five a day, just to keep everything in the right sort of twisted control. And Ralph, in Innocent Abroad mode, got one down. He was off his head for the next four days, during which time Hunter put Plan B into action, a fine piece of mayhem for which he had, weeks earlier, equipped himself with six cans of red spray-paint, a flare gun and three huge parachute flares. So there was poor old Ralph, out of his mind, being rowed about in a yellow dinghy in the bay among moored yachts of incalculable value while Hunter apprised him of the master plan.
The great jape was that Ralph, being the artist of the duo, would take the spray can and write "Fuck the Pope" in huge jagged letters on the side of biggest, shiniest racing machine in the harbour, while Hunter, being the more manly man, would do all the rowing and fulfill the muscular task of holding the dinghy steady against the side of the yacht. All bewildered, Ralph obediently began to shake the spray-can so the little ball-bearings inside could mix the paint up nicely. In the pre-dawn silence it made such a hell of a rattle the security forces f were alerted, all the harbour lights came on and Hunter, never one to use words injudiciously, explained to his befuddled collaborator that they must now flee: "We must flee!"
Ralph relishes the archaic elegance of the phrase. He is less enamoured of what came next. Hunter rowing for the open sea, letting off his parachute flares in the hope the fireworks would confuse their pursuers, somehow snatching a few belongings from their hired launch and running for the hills. It is all a bit of a blur. Barefoot and barmy, Ralph wound up on a plane to New York and Hunter took himself back to Colorado with the express purpose of filing his candidacy for sheriff in his home town. Steadman has told this unsavoury histoire many times and though the details always show up the sheer wickedness of Hunter's premeditation, none of it ever seems to alarm him unduly. Thirty-five years later, all that sticks in his craw is the fact that he was such a twerp, such a total patsy, he allowed Hunter to con his socks off him before he got on his flight to New York. His shoes had gone down somewhere in the harbour at Rhode Island, but he still had his socks. The last thing he can remember is Hunter explaining to him that no one wears socks in New York; that if he were to turn up there with socks on, he'd be a laughing stock. Bastard, he says. The bastard took my socks.
As the years of their association rolled on, Ralph began to take a more mature stance towards the obvious fact that as a practising junkie, Dr Hunter S Thompson was going to dream up any rationale that would win himself the lion's share of whatever was going. "What", Ralph asked him once, "are you a doctor of?" "Sophistry," replied Hunter, quick as a wink. Ralph rather liked that. Why not? What's wrong with being a doctor of sophistry? There's plenty of expertise to draw on in that little specialisation.
But you had to see Hunter at home in Aspen, Colorado, to see what kind of an American he was; up there in the thin air, where the local chief of police was a big enough man, morally and physically, to be able to punish a thoughtless driver by picking up his Winnebago and turning it upside down. This was the idyllic small pond in which the big fish have a ball. Ralph got his first whiff of the American pioneering spirit there; the whole westward the wagons, God's own country, get-off-my-land redneck bravado of it all. And part of him felt a deep affection for its blatant simplicity. He watched American manhood gathered around the big fish that was Hunter Thompson while they hung out to watch various sports programmes on about five television sets in the Thompson kitchen. How they watched Hunter, imitated his voice, cheered when he cheered, laid bets on who would win at whatever "spawt" (Ralph's pronunciation) was in the offing, wanted what he wanted as though repetition might make them grow into Hunters. It took him years to realise they were all probably drug pushers and that Hunter was upping the ante on the betting to pay for his next fix.
In the heady, mindblown days of their initial collaboration, Ralph thought little about the sheer dangerousness of Hunter's eccentricity. Hunter would drive some cricket-pitch-sized American car at breakneck speed, cigarette holder in one hand, refreshing can in the other, while Ralph kept a hopefully steadying hand on the steering wheel. He'd chuckle appreciatively when Hunter explained the purpose of their hysterical velocity: "Faster and faster," he said, "Until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death." Always a sucker for the well-turned notion, Ralph was less sanguine about the games Hunter played with guns, stood aloof when hangers-on joined in Hunter's wheeze of making life-size models of people who incurred his displeasure and blasting them to smithereens with a hunting rifle before daubing them with paint and trying to flog them as artefacts. And when the games with speed and guns accelerated into potentially lethal disasters, he tried to understand the underlying desperation. It was something to do with an Edgar Allan Poe offering, "The Imp of the Perverse", he imagined, an unequivocal tale of a man who followed his compulsions from murder to confession, of which Hunter was particularly enamoured. "Pay the ticket; take the ride," he would say in his laconic way. "Never let yourself off your own hook."
For years, Ralph was treated to the fruits of Hunter's insomniac energy; long, rambling faxes hot-wired across the Atlantic to assure him that he was a filthy-twisted-perverted bastard and morphing into plans for "more strange binges" together, as though the violence of the habitual abuse in some way merely raged against his apprehension of dependency. "You keep me on the rails," he wrote, "you venomous bullshitter." To Ralph such incivilities are transparent displacement mechanisms: "He only accuses those he loves of what he himself is most guilty." And, quoting Samuel Johnson, Ralph's safe bet for the elucidation of what he calls "unusual" behaviour, "He makes a beast of himself to get rid of the pain of being a man." Ralph was always seduced by Hunter's way with words; how he wrote like an angel, even when he was only describing something as prosaic as a football match. He once showed me a copy of a Thompson collection of sports stories. He f had implored him to sign the fly-leaf for him, a favour Hunter was loath to grant. But he did, eventually. "Here's your fucking book," he scrawled, "now jam it up your arse." Ralph specially cherishes the use of the word jam. So much more eloquent, he remarks, than stick, shove or ram.
In all the years of their partnership, Hunter Thompson made only one visit to England. It was a dismal enterprise for all concerned. "What's this?", he asked, smashing his head on a low-lying beam in the Steadmans' imposing homestead. "The servants' quarters?" That first night much welcoming hospitality was consumed, achieving much ebullience, noise and unusual behaviour. By the small hours, Ralph's wife grew nervous about the rip-roaring manner in which huge logs were being hurled into the open stove and, fearing imminent conflagration, suggested it might be bedtime. Hunter was so outraged he not only took his thwarted self to bed, he holed up in his bedroom for the next four days, refusing to speak to anyone and pushing notes under the door expressing his displeasure. "He was", said Anna Steadman, a woman with a mind of her own who does not mince her words, "a horrible man.
But the breach closed over. Pretty soon, back in Colorado, Hunter was firing missives across the ocean, letters upon whose envelopes he stamped with his special stamps such epithets as: Sexually Explicit Material" and "URGENT frozen semen". In the words of the popular song commemorating the indefatigable spirit of the egomaniac, Hunter Thompson continued to do it his way.
By the time he was 50, his arthritis had proliferated itself through his bones, effectively crippling him, and his nasal passages were so buggered by the incessant cocaine snorting, he was obliged to push the stuff directly down his own throat, followed by copious dressings of Nivea cream.
There was spinal surgery, hip- and knee- replacements, thrice-weekly physio sessions and inevitably, a wheelchair. He told Ralph he didn't want to become old in this way and Ralph could easily grasp that no, it wasn't good for a man of action. But men do not dwell on each others' physical deteriorations in the way women can. It is with empathy that Ralph remembers Hunter's comment on his helplessness. "I don't want some old biddy fiddling fondly with my balls." That and the felicitous juxtaposition of the words fiddling and fondly. If only he could leave it there. Since he has been left with the violent confusions and contradictions of grief occasioned by suicide, he is aware that no concept of physical pain comes close to the enormity of mental desolation.
In their later conversations, Hunter would say that it wasn't fun any more, that the American Dream whose nature he had so rigorously nailed throughout his career, was no longer negotiable. "I can't do it any more," he said. "I can't make the connections." And he would grow nostalgic for the old days, when the vicissitudes of the likes of Richard Nixon were a barrel of laughs, a walk in the park. "It's now absolute," he said. "You look at the absolute evil of the Bush administration and that's it. Absolute. It's a brick wall."
Of course Ralph and Anna flew to Aspen for the bizarre extravaganza that passed for the funeral of Hunter S Thompson. Ralph stood in Hunter's kitchen and looked numbly at the neat hole in the hood above the cooking stove where the bullet that passed through Hunter's brain had continued its trajectory. And he looked again at the familiar notices and posters Hunter had stuck on his walls, blown-up quotations from Oscar Wilde, George Sand and Kahlil Gibran. "The final mystery is oneself," said the largest. "Who can calculate the orbit of his own soul?" And, white-on- black on the fridge door it said, "Gunshots will be heard during this performance."
A year is not a long time for a mourning process. Ralph Steadman has muddled through in his own way. There's not a lot anyone can say about grief because it disguises itself all the time. The initial shock comes out as a sort of lackadaisical shrug. What? He's shot himself? About time, too; what kept him? Phases of denial, disbelief and anger churn into each other and emerge as their diametric opposites. What can you say?
Steadman said it feels like the love of your life has just gone over a cliff. And left it at that. But he's an ineffably generous man and later removed a small artefact from among others in the hall of his house. He said it's a sort of haiku, but not really a haiku, only he saw it on a paper bag and thought, well, that says it really. And indeed, inside the frame is a smoothed out brown paper bag upon which someone has printed these words. "I have always known that at last I would/ Take this road, but yesterday/I did not know it would be today."
'The Joke's Over: Memories of Hunter S Thompson' by Ralph Steadman is published by William Heinemann on 5 October at £20. To order the book at a special price (including free postage & packing) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897Reuse content