The Joke’s Over: Memories of Hunter S. Thompson

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On the 20 February 2005, a gunshot rang out on a farm in Colorado that echoed around the world. Dr Hunter S Thompson had committed suicide. His final piece of writing: the word ‘counselor’ typed on an otherwise empty page. Thompson’s unique brand of invective-laced journalism, Gonzo (like Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism, but more renegade), discarded traditional reporting rules in favour of a subjective, free-wheeling narrative in which he was the star player. An acute chronicler of America, he was a countercultural icon (particularly at the height of the Watergate era). The “cunning bastard checked out before he had to,” writes Ralph Steadman, “leaving behind a battlefield of unexploded land mines, unused ammunition, guns, powders, salves, several bottles of the cheapest whiskies a self-proclaimed connoisseur would ever want to be seen dead with, uppers, downers, loofahs, quaaludes, a treasure trove of hilarious prose … but he left it to others to clear up the glorious mess.” 

If you’ve never read a book by Hunter S Thompson – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hell’s Angels, The Great Shark Hunt, The Rum Dairy, Better Than Sex – aside from being ashamed of yourself, you can at least comfort yourself with the fact that you’ll be familiar with one of his well-honed mantras: “When the going gets weird, the weird turned pro.” But thank god for small mercies like Ralph Steadman, partner-in-crime for over thirty inglorious years, whose reflections on his time with Hunter keeps the Gonzo spirit alive. His take on Thompson will serve you well as a bluffer’s guide, a Brodie’s Notes if you like on one elegant thug of a wordsmith and a great American man who stood, as Steadman says, as “the antidote to the New Dumb.” From their first assignment together for Scanlan’s Monthly on the 1970 Kentucky Derby (though Pat Oliphant was HST’s first choice), Ralph Steadman was Thomspon’s “hired hitman”, his “psycho-artistic vomit[s]” bringing Hunter’s “exceeding personal, desperately brilliant writings” (as Kurt Vonnegut writes in the introduction) to life. Steadman’s first meeting ended with Thompson macing him in the face, but it was to be the start of a beautiful and twisted friendship. For Steadman, Thompson was “a different animal. He seemed to gain strength from rakish marathons..he learned the balance between living out on the edge of lunacy and apparently normal discourse with everyday events,” convincing “those around him that they were the ones who were mad, irrational or just plain dumb and he was behaving as a decent law-abiding citizen.”  

That get-together made the Kentucky Derby look like Hogarth’s Gin Lane, “the gristle, the blood-throbbing veins” of the crowd, a “savage binge” in the genteel South. Their next, the America’s Cup, was “a defining moment in the evolution of Gonzo,” then it was downhill from here on in. Hunter S Thompson broke all the rules, shitting on everything until his rebellious inclinations were honed to fever pitch for a Rolling Stone assignment, an assignment that was supposed to cover a cop convention and the “fabulous Mint 400” but mutated in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Steadman wasn’t with him on that trip, but:  “It was as though I already knew the story. I had been there before. Not the same place, not the same story, not even in the same skin, but a shock of recognition from a suppressed well of personal experience and personal dread. An exciting resonance with something suicidal emerged and I settled down at my ink-stained drawing board in the back bay-window of our living room on the slightly raised first floor of a Georgian terraced house at 103, New King’s Road, Fulham, London SW6. I dipped my steel pen – now a lethal weapon – into a blood-black cauldron of bile and began, accompanied by beer and brandy chasers, the therapeutic exercise of expunging from my mind all those trapped demons that lay in wait for their mark of recognition, so that they might emerge blinking and grimacing into the harsh daylight of reality. I was there to give them life in whatever form they chose for themselves, like a theatre costume department handing out wigs, gelatine masks and rudimentary skin-tight costumes for each to play its role, as it saw fit.” 

In his introduction to The Joke’s Over (a phrase Thomspon repeated to Steadman a lot over the years, but never more as biting as when he followed it with, “You’ve sucked on my back long enough”) Kurt Vonnegut compares the relationship to a marriage, and like most marriages, things weren’t always peachy between the two men. Steadman is honest about this, claiming “thirty-five years of verbal abuse and criminal usury.” Thomspon was a notorious letter writer (he later moved to fax), and Ralph shares with the reader with some of the wild and angry broadsides the pair exchanged. Writing to Hunter for advise on parenting, Ralph, a “snivelling, hypocritical bastard” according to Thompson, is comforted with: “What the fuck do you think we’ve been doing all these years? Do you think you were getting paid for yr. goddam silly art? No, Ralph. You were getting paid to smash windows. And that is an art in itself. The trick is getting paid for it.” Taken in and flogged like a stray dog (like many who knew Hunter), Steadman came to realise that Hunter was “more into deals than personal affection.” The first cinematic outing for Thomspon was Where The Buffalo Roam (with Bill Murray as the Doctor), a film that attempted the unthinkable: “to catch the abandoned pure essence of Gonzotic madness which can only happen in uncontrolled conditions.” Steadman was stiffed on this project, told by director Art Linston that it was Hunter and Oscar’s relationship that was “an integral part of what’s been happening in American politics since flower and up to Watergate.” In fact, Steadman was kicked repeatedly in the nuts over the years – from being shut out on the copyright deal for the Fear and Loathing drawings (“Where is Winnie the Pooh without its illustrations? Where is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas without its Gonzo drawings?”), to having the drawings stolen ’til, with The Curse of Lono, he realises that the bigger the Gonzo legend grew, the less Steadman was required. In the Eighties his drawings had become baggage to Thompson. Philosophically Steadman writes, “Quite by chance I became a part of this man’s life, more as an infection than a friend. I fooled myself that there was something in me that he found important. Actually, as time went by, he hated the very idea that something as putrid as a cartoon drawing could ever capture the essence of what it was he was trying to describe.” 

Thompson never wrote an autobiography – he didn’t need to, it’s all there in his work:  “He was his own best story.” Yet, despite being the “Mark Twain of the late twentieth century” (an amazing writer), there was plenty of bullshit around Hunter S Thompson. “The gun nut and drug user and heaver consumer of grain alcohol” [Kurt Vonnegut], his ball-breaking displays of boyish high-jinks, Hunter “allowed people to fit into his world in the Owl Farm kitchen as bit-players in a grander scheme of his own design,” people like John Belushi  who “tumbled through one weekend, reeking of fatigue and rocket-fuel adrenaline.” Steadman says: “Shady people of the shadiest kind fascinated Hunter and, like a fly detecting a heap of shit, he would alight, to the manner born, on such a dump. ‘All part of the job, Ralph. You will never learn anything, or stay ahead, unless you mingle, otherwise the dump’s on you.'”  Steadman’s memories of Hunter are a unique insight into not only Steadman’s work, but  the work of Thompson’s and the very essence of Gonzo itself, that “strange kind of magic that appeals to the beast that lurks in the dark heart of most of us.” The letters, drawings and photographs that litter the text in The Joke’s Over serve as battlefield exhibits of the carnage. Playing Sancho Panza to a man that wanted to wake up the world, who lived his live in the fast lane and was “in revolt against life itself all his life,” Steadman is more “just another fish wrap who got lucky.” “Don’t write, Ralph. You’ll bring shame on your family,” Thompson once told him. But Ralph’s “gibberish” (as HST was so prone to calling it) is a berserk, warts-and-all record of an American legend and last word goes to Ralph Steadman: “Let me say it here and now. For all Hunter’s mindless self-indulgence, which is legendary and crude, he always impressed me with his blind, selfless urge to cut out the crony bestiality of modern society and political calumny that scarred that era. He was, for God’s sake, one of us. I believed him, was inspired by him and allowed him in his crusade to do what was necessary. He never let me down and as far as I know, when we were on that ride, whichever one it was, he got from me as good as he gave.”

Susan Tomaselli

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