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December 06, 2006

When the Laughter Stops - The Anatomy of a Friendship: The Joke's Over - Bruised Memories: Gonzo, Hunter Thompson and Me - Ralph Steadman

Posted by A S H Smyth

The Joke's Over - Bruised Memories: Gonzo, Hunter Thompson and Me
by Ralph Steadman
London: William Heinemann, 2006
Hardback, £20

I write now in my own chosen loneliness, missing the man like a lost leg.
These are not the words with which Ralph Steadman begins his long-awaited memoir of his relationship with Hunter S. Thompson, the man who told him:
Don't write, Ralph. You'll bring shame on your family.
But they are the words which best sum up what he's really driving at in The Joke's Over - Bruised Memories: Gonzo, Hunter Thompson and Me.

Steadman's choice of title is revealing. On the one hand it's an obvious reference to the death, in 2005, of Steadman's colleague of thirty-five years, and the end of their times together. On the other, it's a direct reference from Thompson's letters (he uses the phrase about five times in the correspondence quoted), normally under circumstances that were far from jovial. So in these three words Steadman is letting us know the two central themes of his memoir: Thompson was the most significant catalyst in his artistic life, and he was also a bloody nightmare.

In some respects, The Joke's Over is a pleasantly nostalgic reminder of freer times, of a school of lightly written irreverence: part Jack Kerouac, part Ray Manzarek. It's partly in the subject matter of wild drinking, drunken driving, shooting expeditions and unrepentant, artistic self-absorption. A bygone literary era. But it's partly in the style of the book, too. Steadman has a carefree writing manner, and a generally laid back approach. Some of his sketches have a lot in common with the visual efforts of Kurt Vonnegut, perhaps not surprising given that they share a producer - the charmingly-named Joe Petro III – who not only does the printing of many of their pieces but runs both their websites, as well [www.vonnegut.com and www.ralphsteadman.com]. Vonnegut, also, wrote the foreword for The Joke's Over.

But you don't have to be a Gonzo fanatic to feel at home with this book. There's lots of good stuff here, for new-comers and for people who are familiar with the detail (and the slightly dated nature) of the Gonzo industry.

The book exudes so much chaos, and I am so in awe of the protagonists (so many heroes in only one book!), that my heart was racing after merely flicking through the photo-plates. That said, I was also suspicious of a let-down, the result of self-inflicted hype. But I was not disappointed.

For those die-hard Thompson fans seeking a little something that's new, the unflinching references to his outrageous consumption - drink, drugs and even food - are so grotesque as to make the stomach churn. We are also treated to reminders of his extreme and hilarious contempt for all things average and mundane, the world of the bureaucrat, the life of the law-abider. These are all the things that made Thompson's reputation as "Dr Gonzo".

Steadman is unequivocal on the subject of Thompson's wildness:

My observations are very personal and Hunter did not go out of his way to hide his nasty habits. I suppose it is best to discover one’s friends’ proclivities as soon as possible to ensure that they are habits that can be forgiven at a moment's notice. All of his habits were forgiven by me almost instantaneously. And there were many.
The book is not totally consistent on this, so I tried to read it with this forgiving attitude in mind. Accordingly - allowing for my being alone, uninhibited and half-cut on antipodean plonk - the first letter which Thompson sends to Steadman after their Derby debut is one of the funniest things I've read in ages:
You filthy twisted pervert. I'll beat your ass like a gong for that drawing you did of me. You bastard… stay out of Kentucky from now on. And Colorado too… Fuck you!
The letter lightens up immediately, but what a way to break a months-long silence and cement a collaboration that would last unto death! Luckily, Steadman seems to have felt the same way.

Where Steadman gives the narrative to his own voice, it is angry. Angry about politics from Nixon to now, and angry, too, about Thompson. Angry about the rot that ate into the American dream; angry because he feels Thompson finally broke when Bush ("a certified halfwit") was re-elected; angry because Thompson was a pain in the arse; and angry because Thompson left him behind, to clear up the mess like a bereaved widow. And he is bereaved. Those who command more attention than me and have been able to interview Steadman in the last year remark that when he speaks of Thompson it is highly reminiscent of a man who has lost the light of his life. Very possible, I'd have thought, since his working partnership with Thompson was more dynamic to the end than many married couples manage to be even at the outset.

As Steadman writes of an original Thompson idea:

He was full of joy and I became intoxicated by this. There was something about the project which was more life-enhancing than just another job.
And that is the point of this book. Not another coat-tails biography by some minor player, but an assessment of the impact two people can have on one another, even beyond the grave, and the creative magic they can draw out, however troubled the process may be. A case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

In discussions of this book, the "married couple" analogy has perhaps been over-used. What we are getting here is two biographies for the price of one, and better-written than the usual rehashing of well-documented events by some hanger-on (witness the various books which trade in a similar way on the name of Jim Morrison).

Steadman, for example, was nowhere near the Mint 400 (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) trip - a testament to his artistic skills that he pulled off such a great coverage of the trip and that his pictures are synonymous with that book to this day. But he was at several other events, including the Kentucky Derby, the America's Cup, the '72 Republican and Democrat conventions, and the Rumble in the Jungle… all of which have faded from folkloric memory by comparison with the trip he wasn't on, but all of which inspired drawings of an equally superlative standard.

Reading The Joke's Over, you have to wonder at times how two seemingly dissimilar people managed to form such a powerful creative duo. Well, clearly there is something in the notion that opposites attract. But it is also clear from this memoir that the attraction perhaps appeared rather stronger on the page than it really was in day-to-day life. For a start, Steadman and Thompson spend whole years apart (albeit with regular enough contact); but when they are together they drive each other up the wall.

In Lunar Park, Bret Easton Ellis suggests that:

the occupational hazard of making a spectacle of yourself, over the long haul, is that at some point you buy a ticket too.
Perhaps Steadman managed to keep himself on the right side of this thin line; but Thompson did not. While Thompson became his own show, Steadman had the sense to stand to one side, and record it. If "Gonzo is controlled madness" - as Steadman once suggested in an interview - then it's pretty clear that his control mechanisms were a lot better than Thompson's.

The biggest flaw in their relationship occurred and recurred because each was convinced of subordinating his art to the service of the other. The Joke's Over certainly gives the impression that Thompson was the more unreasonable of the two in this respect. But maybe neither was being done down. Maybe each artistic ego was simply painfully aware that his career relied on the other, in the main if not in every last detail: for people who work in the creative industries, that's not an easy pill to swallow.

Steadman is not shy about his skills, and neither was Thompson. The whole issue revives the age-old argument about the dividing line between confidence and arrogance (a matter of justification, really). Thompson wrote to their publisher at one stage, saying:

I've never written ANYTHING that didn't make money for somebody. And usually for everybody.
Which may or may not be true.

Because if you ask someone to tell you who wrote Fear and Loathing they will say it is by Thompson, not by Thompson and Steadman. This seems reasonable… Wouldn't most people agree that drawing augment text, and rarely the other way around? Indeed, Steadman's art transformed Fear and Loathing from a good book to a great book; but would Thompson's text really have flopped without the cartoonist's support? And how would Steadman's cartoons have fared, in isolation? And yet both Thompson and Steadman were damn sure that the book sold on the strength of the drawings and words combined.

Or were they? In one letter to Thompson, Steadman openly refers to himself as:

"your high priest", the herald of the coming of the god, John the Baptist.
He plays Boswell to Thompson's Johnson (if you'll pardon the phrase). And it doesn't read like irony. Either Steadman is humouring Thompson, in which case it shows that Thompson, at any rate, thought this was the order of things; or he genuinely felt like second fiddle. Later he writes:
I estimate you above all living writers.
The real title - i.e. the one that's actually on the cover - is The Joke's Over - Memories of Hunter S. Thompson. Which is rather different, and suggests that even now Steadman knows he's selling this book (or even just broadening the readership) by open reference to his more-famous colleague. The rights and wrongs of this fame are not really the point. But Thompson is mentioned in big red letters, there is a Steadman drawing of the man in his trademark red Chevy (Steadman himself hardly visible in the passenger seat), and the car's licence plate reads "Gonzo". It couldn't be much less subtle.

In Mike Leigh's Topsy Turvy, Gilbert's wife asks of the new libretto:

Surely Arthur likes it?
The terse Gilbert replies,
He hasn't said otherwise.
It is quite literally a thankless task, working with a collaborator who thinks less and less of himself as time passes, and blames you for it. Luckily - for himself, his partner and their audiences - Gilbert was willing to go the extra mile for the sake of the product.

Steadman is Gilbert to Thompson's Sullivan, the humour-monger putting up with the tantrums and delusions of grandeur that beset his mercurial partner who (at the time, but less so now) took much of the credit despite general awareness of a joint effort. And who also took himself far too seriously, frustrating himself and endangering a brilliant and highly lucrative creative partnership.

For make no mistake: Thompson was a bastard. He could be cool, spontaneous, savagely witty, and all the other things that Johnny Depp brought out in Terry Gilliam's rendering of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But he was also capable of stealing Steadman's artwork, making ludicrous demands, terrifying his host's family, risking several people's lives on a regular basis, and refusing to carry out obligations unless given substantial sums of cash (which he wasn't owed) in advance. Or even just big loans:

Ralph, your baroque style of psycho-gibberish is always appreciated here but what I really need is a six-month loan of $50,000 at whatever per cent rate you can handle. Keep your advice and send money. Thanks.
During an interview by Andrew Billen in The Times [Times2, 12th October 2006], Steadman remarks,
I suddenly realised that it was no longer a friendship, that it was more a business deal.
The comment simultaneously reveals an awareness of their inextricably entwined careers, and masks the fact that Steadman nevertheless clearly viewed Thompson as a close friend to the end.

The most revealing aspect of their relationship comes – perhaps by accident – in the correspondence which Steadman reproduces. Thompson was wrong about Steadman bringing shame on his family: he writes very well. But the letters (from both men) are the real key to their two minds, and - not unimportantly - the stuff that even the serious fans probably won't have seen before.

Thompson wanted Steadman's friendship and respect, but he struggled to offer it, sincerely, in return. Like a father who can't bring himself to hug his son, much of the time the relationship is totally dysfunctional, if not actually detrimental to Steadman. But occasionally there is a glimpse of what Thompson might have been like, if he had been a different person:

You must visit, Ralph. This may be our last chance.
There is spite and real anger in the letters. Spite from Thompson and anger from Steadman. Though you could hardly use Steadman's narrative in court, his grievance certainly seems justified: there's enough in Thompson's own words to convict him of being an awful friend. Some of the worst examples of Thompson's acrimony and disrespect emerge in the increasingly sour correspondence over their Hawaiian collaboration, The Curse of Lono. This culminates in Thompson telling Steadman,
It's not my book, it's yours.
Steadman is like a beaten wife (albeit a rather intellectual one) from some trailer-park sketch by Bill Hicks. Despite all the horrors of his time with Thompson, and their inevitability, he keeps coming back for more.

He spends a lot of time annoyed by Thompson, or by events involving or caused by Thompson. The line

I was generally so pissed off, anything was worth a try
refers to his discovery that Thompson had sold their front row tickets to the Ali-Foreman fight in Kinshasa. But it could appear anywhere in the book without ever being out of place.

But Steadman also seems to acknowledge (as perhaps he must) that it was exactly this chaos and struggle that generated his best work. Artists, after all, thrive on a challenge. Like the man says, "controlled madness". His overt analysis of the relationship comes during the filming of Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood, an edition of Omnibus for the BBC:

Well, out of it I got some of the best drawings I've ever done. It seems like a masochistic thing, you know, to go out on these assignments and end up like a washed out rag and punish yourself.
Also, though they may have rested on opposite sides of the thin grey line, he and Thompson were not so different:
You see, often I can't start without being in a certain frame of mind on some of these things, there's no energy there to do it, to really get down to it, to be incisive and aggressive on the page. It's a better way of doing it than actually going out and beating up old ladies, isn't it, this type of journalism? It does get rid of all my aggression.
Thompson would certainly have endorsed that sentiment.

So impressed was Steadman by Thompson's extreme, pioneer spirit that he decided to become an American national. He only stopped when Thompson told him that it was totally unacceptable, a response which he found startling and confusing:

It was then I knew I was a pariah in his life. I never understood why he hated the idea so much, but he did hate it.
It is easy to imagine that Thompson hated the idea merely as an extension of his hatred of another important and unresolved idea: that Steadman's cartoons, far from being amusing adornments to his writing, were a vital and even equal aspect of the finished product.

One can only assume that Thompson's company must really have been worth it when he wasn't behaving like a complete tosser. I'm a big fan, and I hadn't kidded myself that he was 100% smiles and joy. In fact, I'd rather relished the idea that he'd not think twice before tearing a strip off anyone, at any level, who offended his sensibilities. But I was genuinely shocked at how unpleasant he could be to the man who was supposedly his best friend.

Although Thompson is no longer around to defend himself, The Joke's Over gives no impression of Steadman getting even. The only flag I am tempted to raise is that which marks the notable absence of anyone telling Thompson where to stick his ludicrous rantings. Admittedly, Steadman says Thompson's coterie (himself included) were

idiots who behaved like circus dogs.
And those closest to Thompson clearly did feel that he had a gift which warranted special treatment. But was he really worth it? I'm not seriously suggesting that Steadman was a prima donna, or that he was guilty of all (if any) of the things for which Thompson blamed him. But he and everyone else in the circle would have needed the patience of saints to contend with Thompson on even an average day. Did they really manage it as well as this book suggests? Well, maybe Steadman did: after all, he only had to see him for a couple of weeks every few years.

Though I finished it feeling a little sorry for Steadman, I was delighted by this book. But I was also relieved by it, and grateful. Grateful that Steadman has given me this unique view of himself and his 35-year colleague. And relieved that - great writer though he was - this book is the closest I will ever have to come to the dark realities of Hunter S. Thompson.

A S H Smyth is a freelance journalist, specialising in foreign affairs, conflict & security, and Southern Africa.


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