An Afternoon with Ralph Steadman
“Don’t you think it’s a bit thin?” Ralph Steadman asks me, swirling a nice glass of wine, bolstering his weight against one of his kitchen’s walls, his piercing expression ultimately putting me on the spot.
“Pardon?” I say, unsure of the proper response, somewhat uncomfortable even though I’m supposed to be the one doing the interview.
“Doing a thesis on The Curse of Lono,” he repeats, taking a deep and thoughtful drink of his wine, taking time to examine its legs—which are very thick and luscious, by the way—and draw in the fragrant aromas. “It just seems a bit thin for a Master’s thesis to me.”
“Maybe that’s why there hasn’t been much written on it,” I quip, adding “yet.” Ralph gives me a knowing smirk. But knowing what, exactly, I’m not sure. I take a drink of wine, also trying carefully to notice the subtleties and flavors. After a few seconds of contemplating the wine, I remark, “I suppose any story where Hunter beats a giant marlin to death with a Hawaiian war club is worth looking into.”
Ralph laughs and nods. “I suppose so,” he says.
I explain that questions like his are one of the chief reasons I’d wanted to dissect The Curse of Lono for my thesis.
When Lono was released in 1983, it was all but dismissed by critics and consumers. Only years later has it gained an underground cult following and I’d like to know why. I’d like to know why Hunter Thompson hated sharing the book’s byline with Steadman—a morsel of information I gleaned from Thompson biographer and my Steadman connection, William McKeen and later corroborated with Steadman. Why didn’t Hunter want to write the book in the first place? What did Ralph think about the project 24 years later?
Steadman sits down at his kitchen table and carefully, expertly rolls a cigarette.
“So I don’t get it,” I start. “How come this project was such a catastrophe?” I ask.
“Hunter really didn’t want to write the damn book at all at first,” he says. “I had to cajole him with crazy ideas about Cro-Magnon man (a reoccurring theme in the book) and how he suddenly declared that he was Lono, before I ran too far with the idea.”
“Jesus, it sounds like it was a mess.”
He nods. “In fact, I had to produce all the drawings first which were hung all around the ‘war room’ at Owl Farm—Hunter’s compound in Aspen, Colorado—before he would get started,” Ralph says, exhaling, stubbing out the butt of his cigarette. “He was spoiled rotten and he loved every minute of it!”
He lights another cigarette and takes a deep pull. “You know, years ago, I actually considered applying for US citizenship.”
“No shit?” I ask.
“Yeah, really,” he says. “But when I told Hunter about my idea, he was having none of it.”
When Ralph told Hunter of his intentions, Hunter nearly flipped. In a terrific impersonation of Hunter—and really, what else would I expect? He was Thompson’s closest friend for 35 years—Ralph stands up, pushes his chair back and mutters:
“Ralph, er… I’m going to uh… do everything in my power to make sure that doesn’t ever happen.” The similarity with which Ralph mimics Hunter is shocking eerie, uncanny.
I laugh out loud, nearly spilling my glass of wine and ask Ralph, who’s still standing and gesticulating like Hunter, why Thompson didn’t want him to become a red, white and blue citizen. Ralph smiles and, again, in a perfectly-mimed voice of Hunter says, “You’re Welsh Ralph— you can never be an American.”
“Still have any ambition to get that citizenship?”
“Nah, not really,” he says. He doesn’t explain further but briefly glances at an old copy of the London Times. On the front page is George W. Bush, so I can only assume the recent political climate is to blame. As the day progresses, Ralph and I begin talking, not only about Lono, but everything before and after the book as well.
Ralph asks what I’m studying in graduate school and I tell him I’m getting a Master’s degree in English—Literature, in fact.
“Ahhh, literature,” he says, “American or British?”
“Both, actually,” I reply, laughing nervously.
“Read anything interesting lately?”
“Well, I just finished up a course in British Lit,” I tell him, “It focused on British writing from Beowulf to 1830.”
“What was your favorite?” he asks.
“I’d definitely have to say Paradise Lost,” I reply. It occurs to me that I probably should be asking more questions than he is and somehow directing the conversation back to Lono. “I actually wrote a paper on Milton and the idea that fate and free will are mostly incompatible.”
Ralph’s eyes get momentarily bigger. “Have you read my book, The Big I Am?” he asks. “You might find it interesting.”
Ralph gets up and walks around the table, stretching his arm toward a shelf directly behind me. On his tip toes, he reaches toward the top and pulls a large, illustrated hardcover book down and hands it to me.
“I decided to try and show my own version of religion and God,” he says. “And why the hell he’s so damn vindictive!” he laughs.
Anna, his wife, calls us to lunch for the something like the fourth time and Ralph tells her once again that we’ll be right in.
“We should probably go in, shouldn’t we?” he asks.
With an empty stomach, I can definitely feel the wine, can positively feel it in my vaguely numbed nose as well as a slight ring in my ears. I especially notice the effects when I stand up to make my way into the giant dining room, following the smell of something delicious.
After lunch, Ralph asks me to get the books I brought for him to sign.
He gets out his signature fountain pen and fills it with ink. He then begins sketching on the inside title pages and signs each one. The wine must be making this process seem even more exciting. I silently hope I’m not outwardly embarrassing myself.
Ralph goes on to ask me whether or not I have seen any number of books he has either written, illustrated or both. I tell him truthfully that, many of them, I have not. He and Anna get up from the table and begin whipping books from the shelves and showing them to me. Once he starts signing and sketching inside these books as well, I realize I must look like a (drunken) kid in a candy store, grinning uncontrollably as if there’s something wrong with my central nervous system.
I’m left with a giant stack of books in the middle of the dining room table: DoooDaaa, The Devil’s Dictionary (in Greek no less as they are out of English copies), Untrodden Grapes, I, Leonardo, Paranoids, The Grapes of Ralph, plus my own three books (two copies of The Curse of Lono and Steadman’s memoir depicting his longtime friendship with Hunter titled, The Joke’s Over).
Now finished with lunch and the somewhat-tipsy mini-fan session, Ralph asks if I’d like to see his studio. This is an opportunity many people would gladly trade limbs for. As clichéd as it sounds, I tell him I mean this literally, as a cashier at a Borders bookstore in the middle of Iowa told me he’d quote, “give his left arm” to meet the Gonzo artist.
We walk around the back of the Steadman estate, past their heated in-ground pool, emerging in front of a garage-like structure with an electronic security keypad adorning the outside. As I wait for the security door to rise, I peer in through giant picture windows.
There are bottles of paint, every size and color imaginable sitting on an enormous drawing table. In the middle of the room is a new piece Ralph is working on, depicting the 1968 riots in Chicago.
“Holy shit! I could get a lot more writing done if I had a studio like this!” I emphatically tell him.
Ralph takes me across the main floor, through a doorway wrapping around toward the back, leading into a room I can only describe as “the gallery.” Here, there are countless pieces of Gonzo artwork, most of which have never been seen by fans of Steadman and Thompson— at least not in person.
Ralph pulls out a bin full of items I can’t quite make out from across the gallery. As I step a little closer, I see that it is collection of Hunter’s various effects: sunglasses, hat, cigarette holder, and many other assorted items.
Ralph puts them on and asks if I’d like a picture.
“Are you kidding?” I say. “Hell yes!”
Ecstatically, I snap a couple of photos of Ralph wearing Hunter’s things and can’t help but feel slightly cooler than everyone else in the world right now. (Ed. note: Two of these photos would later go on to be published in William McKeen’s definitive Hunter Thompson biography, Outlaw Journalist.)
Ralph opens drawer after drawer, revealing spectacular piece after spectacular piece of Gonzo artwork, some of which I have seen, yet many of which are brand new to me. Finally, he takes out a piece I am intimately familiar with—the original cover artwork for The Curse of Lono and without hesitation, I ask if he’d pose with it, to which he obliged.
After spending a great deal of time with the artwork, Ralph takes me for a tour around the rest of the studio. He shows me the camera room where he creates slides to send his artwork to magazines for print. He also takes me into a side chamber, which houses more books he has written, illustrated or both.
The studio building is deceptive in its seemingly diminutive size. When you think you’ve seen the whole thing, it snakes around yet another corner into another chamber. We end up back in the main section of the studio and begin talking about music.
“What kind of music do you listen to in Iowa?” he asks.
“Oh man,” I say, scratching my head. “Honestly, I listen to a little of everything. Except American Country music.”
“Oh yeah, yeah,” he says, nodding. “Right.” I’m not sure if this is in agreement but for argument’s sake I’ll assume that it was.
“I’d say I’m mostly partial to 60s and 70s classic rock, Euro electronic music, and newer indie rock,” I add.
“Hmmm…” he says, walking over to a stack of CDs, haphazardly stacked on a shelf near one of his drawing tables. “You might like this then.”
He puts in a disc of his son, Theo’s band called “Flat Earth” and we just stand around listening. I tell Ralph that his son is really talented, to which he unabashedly agrees.
“He’s not Bob Dylan,” Ralph says. “And he’s not John Lennon, but he sounds like him. He can’t help that because he’s my son and I was born in Liverpool.” I assume referring to his accent.
We are standing around listening and talking when Anna comes in and let’s us know that it’s beginning to get late and asks if I’d like for her to call a cab. I’m not sure if I’ve worn out my welcome or not so just to be safe, I graciously accept the offer. Much to my surprise, five-and-a-half hours have ticked away.
Ralph, Anna, Sally Vincent and I are all sitting around a patio table in the back yard by the heated pool. We begin chatting about this and that but it’s hard for me to recall the conversation exactly. I think my brain has finally reached the point of Gonzo overload. Ten minutes later, a cab pulls into the drive of Old Loose Court and I say my goodbyes.
It isn’t until I’m on the train headed back to London that I realize I didn’t bring my tape recorder or take any notes. I’d gotten so wrapped up in meeting Ralph Steadman that I forgotten to do what I’d come there to do. Fortunately the afternoon is so vivid in my mind that I immediately start writing a piece, sketching out quotes in my notebook as the train rumbles down the tracks toward The Big Smoke. I’ll email Steadman later with some questions I couldn’t remember answers to and eventually I’ll attempt the impossible, making sense of a man who never wanted to make sense. And I’ll realize that was never the point. Like Steadman and Thompson at the Kentucky Derby, the scene they came to see wasn’t the scene at all, it was themselves. I didn’t come to see Ralph Steadman; I came to be a part of something special, to be a small part of everything that is Gonzo.