From The Comics Journal #131 (September 1989)
In this 1989 interview, Gary Groth picks Ralph Steadman's brain on the topic of his growth as an artist, changing interests, loss of faith and times working with Hunter S. Thompson in a career-spanning conversation that always finds its way back to politics and all that's wrong in the world.
EVERY ARTIST’S WORK IS DEFINED BY HIS OBSESSIONS, or put more baldly, by what he loves and what he hates. As a commonplace, so far so good, but I think one can go further and say that no artist becomes himself until he discovers precisely what to love and what to hate. Ralph Steadman’s collaboration with Hunter Thompson, which began in 1969 and continues to this day, appears to have been instrumental in helping Steadman focus his passions, and marked a turning point in his career as an artist.
Prior to this time, Steadman had done good work, but it was only that: good, not inspired. It was at this point, or so it seems to me, that Steadman’s work attained a scabrous authority that has become his recognizable trademark. It was as if he had been waiting for just the right subject matter to unleash the fury within, and the vulgarity, greed, delusion, and limitless folly of what had become the American Experience (and continues at a frighteningly accelerated pace today) combined with Thompson’s catalytic presence, was it. Not that he was, even then, only or even primarily a political cartoonist; in fact, his political cartooning took on another dimension because of his intense interest in personal expression.
Steadman was born in 1936 in Wallesey, England, a suburb of Liverpool. His high school years were marred by persecution by the headmaster, which proved something of a defining conflict. He left school at the age of 16, became an apprentice at an advertising agency where he stumbled into cartooning almost by accident, and, because he knew nothing about drawing, took a prominent mail-order drawing course. This led him to acquire enough competence to sell political cartoons to a number of newspapers beginning in 1956, including the famous English humor magazine Punch in 1959, and do an innocuous one-panel gag cartoon called “Teeny” for the Helmsley papers. He also attended art school, where he cultivated his great love of both drawing and social commentary.
Throughout the ‘60s, Steadman appeared in various magazines and newspapers on a freelance basis, but rarely agreed to a steady gig that required turning out work on a continuous basis or on a weekly deadline (although his stint as the Statesman’s editorial cartoonist for over three years in the ‘70s is an exception to that); he illustrated children’s books as well as the work of such authors as Lewis Carroll and Flann O’Brien; and started drawing for Private Eye, a satirical political magazine, an association that lasted nine or ten years.
Then, in 1969, Scanlan’s magazine called him and asked him if he was interested in covering the Kentucky Derby with a little-known writer by the name of Hunter S. Thompson. Scanlan’s was a radical, left wing magazine with money, and offered to fly Steadman to New York and on to Louisville, Kentucky, where he’d join up with Thompson on an expense paid journalistic foray into the landmark sporting event. During the course of the assignment, according to Steadman, Thompson soaked a restaurant full of people with mace and, at the Derby, even managed to spray the box of the Kentucky Governor.
Thus began a long, artistically prosperous, albeit volatile, relationship. (Its volatility is fruitfully — and amusingly — chronicled in an exchange they had over an illustration of Thompson that Steadman drew for the 91 November 1996 issue of Rolling Stone; see sidebar at right.) Steadman went on to illustrate Thompson’s travelogue of the 1972 US presidential election, and though he did most of the drawings in England (“Because you don’t keep up with Hunter Thompson; I think I would have died.”), he did accompany him to the Republican and Democratic conventions. Two years earlier, at America’s Cup, Steadman nearly expired from ingesting an hallucinogen given to him by Thompson, who told him it was a sea-sickness pill.
Steadman had found his creative footing and was incredibly prolific from that period, not only illustrating Thompson’s various books (Campaign Trail ‘72, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, The Curse of Lono, and others) but completing a dizzying array of large-scale projects, from illustrating Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island to writing and drawing a huge, full-color first-person narrative of (or by) God.
He is most identified in the public mind as a purely political cartoonist, the quintessential visual equivalent of gonzo journalism, which is something of a mixed blessing, because although this association with Thompson marked a turning point in his approach to political cartooning, it also has had the unfortunate effect of over-shadowing his other, perhaps even more personal and artistic, creative work. Like Jules Feiffer, Steadman’s interests and needs as an artist were not confined to politics and political commentary. Feiffer, for example, dealt with the social, the psychological, and the sexual in his strips, and examined these subjects further in his plays and screenplays. Although much of Steadman’s art is driven by his outrage over political injustice, he’s also something of an aesthete who can talk unabashedly of the “spiritual” dimension of life and art.
So political cartooning could never encompass Steadman’s total needs as an artist. After a breathtakingly prolific period from the ‘60s into the early ‘80s, creating some of the most potent social and political commentary ever committed to paper by a cartoonist, he had something of a crisis of faith in the efficacy of political cartooning. He became thoroughly disenchanted with politics, politicians, the political process, you name it; even the single political system to which all must pay strict obeisance, democracy itself.
As everyone knows, in the ‘80s the principles of the left started to erode in both Reagan’s America and Thatcher’s England. Steadman was an idealist, not a political insider or pragmatist, and the constant compromising on the part of the left represented a betrayal that affected him deeply, politically and artistically (since for Stead-man the two are inextricably linked).
In the ‘80s, then, he moved away from specific ideological commentary, toward a number of artistic and intellectual passions by way of writing and drawing the biographies of Leonardo da Vinci, Sigmund Freud, and God, in that order. This allowed him to remain thoroughly engaged but without the suffocating (and depressing) baggage of contemporary politics.
All of which leads somehow inevitably and logically to Steadman illustrating George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Steadman is still obviously passionate about politics in the broader philosophical sense that politics represents the practical, collective moral expression of civilized man. Orwell was not merely a political gadfly; he was a humanist and a literary figure who in all his novels (as well as his essays) attempted to combine political insight and truthful observation of the life of ordinary human beings. Not unlike what Steadman appears to have been moving toward all these years. Moreover, Animal Farm seems a particularly apt choice given Steadman’s disillusionment with politics, since it is essentially a chronicle of Stalin’s betrayal of the communist revolution in the form of a fable. Or, as Steadman himself has put it:
“Animal Farm is a great book with uncanny insight, which grows brighter with the benefit of hindsight. It would be nice to dream that it might be timely enough 50 years after its first appearance to inform a new century that this century was not the way to go, then disentangle the wisdom from the bullshit in our own world, throw it away and never go that way again … “
I conducted the first, long interview with Ralph (composed of several conversations) in 1989 over the course of a few months, once or twice by phone and once in his home in Kent. When his illustrated Animal Farm appeared in 1995, I interviewed him specifically about that project. He is one of the most prolific artists I know, in perpetual aesthetic motion; I knew that three of his books — Gonzo: The Art (1998), Alice in Wonderland, Tales of the Weirrd, and Freud had been reissued in 2003 by Firefly, a Canadian publisher, but I hadn’t kept up on what he’d done since I last interviewed him (shame on me). So, in June 2004, I asked him. This is his characteristically spirited reply, a combination of philosophical tidbits and hard facts:
I done good, OK! I have tried for nearly five decades to put cartoonists off cartooning, but they keep playing the stoopid game. Cartoonists make themselves unworthy of the title. To be a Cartoonist proper is to be so utterly independent; you become unemployable in the conventional sense. At their best Cartoonists are the suicide bombers of Art and are social pariahs in the general annual round of silly prize giving Dinner Prattle. Prizes are the badges of mediocrity, but cartoonists are unhealthily hungry for them. Since Animal Farm, where you bin?? Shit! you ain’t been seen’ wot I done boy! GONZO the ART, Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce. Animal Behaviourists — a study of bestial splendour. Wine, an outsider’s guide to where to get it when everyone throws you out the door. Crack and the common man. God’s Drawing Board. A musical play for a third Creation (see my website!). Love Underground. A tragic love story on the subway. The classic though, has to be — don’t know where you get your ideas from. AND Threshold. Bum Skid. Time for Bed. An old people’s Guide to sex. PLAGUE & the MOONflower — an eco-Oratorio, music and pictures with Ben Kingsley and Ian Holm, with John Williams on Guitar. Then countless New Yorker pics, Vanity Fair, Outside Magazine, The Independent weekly column with Will Self called PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY. Wine labels, Medical Foundation for the care of victims of torture — drawings for them and events. I haven’t started any wars or beaten up old ladies though living with my 101 year old Jewish Mother-in-Law, I have come close! Re-publications of ALICE Books, Tales of the WEIRRD, sage, prophet of Doom, friend of little furry creatures in my garden. Nothin’! I done nothin’!!
There you have it. It’s been a privilege to know Ralph these last, almost 20 years. I think the following interviews accurately capture his honesty, his passion, and his liberating, unorthodox, life-affirming perspective that makes him such an uncategorizable genius.
GARY GROTH: Let’s start at the beginning, or as close as we dare get. You were an apprentice engineer at the age of 16?
RALPH STEADMAN: Yeah. I actually left school with a very poor certificate. I hated school because I was persecuted by the headmaster.
GROTH: You’re referring to high school or its English equivalent?
STEADMAN: Yeah, high school. We call it grammar school, or we did. They don’t exist now. Now it’s comprehensive. Everything is the same. However, I was at this school, it was in North Wales. I hated it and I used to make model airplanes to get away from it all. I didn’t do much drawing, though I did do a bit, moons and landscapes.
GROTH: How old would you have been at this point?
STEADMAN: 14,15, or 16.
GROTH: Prior to that you had never drawn?
STEADMAN: No, I didn’t really do much. I didn’t do much until I went to de Haviland aircraft company because I got a job there. And I found that I was very good at engineering drawing — that is, I had an aptitude for it and I was encouraged. I actually started drawing in columns, looser things, combinations. The engineering drawing would start off sketchy. That was discouraged because it was all supposed to be engineering. But I knew there was something in there I liked, but it wasn’t that. I even got 100 percent on the exam. That’s almost unheard of. I think he gave me that because I used to be a bit cheeky. I think he disliked me, but at the same time thought I had promise. So to show that he didn’t have any bad feelings towards me, that there was no persecution, he gave me 100 percent. Anyway, after 12 months I left. I didn’t like factory life.
GROTH: Now those engineering drawings would require incredible precision, wouldn’t they?
STEADMAN: Well, if I have to be I can be precise, or I could be. I say I could be because my sight is not as good as it was, and I find I hate wearing glasses to draw; it takes the sense of three dimensions away from the paper; it does for me anyway. It’s a weird thing. So, I try not to wear them when I draw.
GROTH: You’re farsighted. You need glasses to read?
STEADMAN: Just to read, yeah. But that’s only happened since I started wearing glasses. [Laughter] I used to be perfectly good before I “needed” glasses. I used to read before, then I got glasses and I couldn’t read any more. I’m sure that glasses are bad for you. Well, they make you nearsighted, they help make you rely on them. I think they make them slightly out of sync with your eyes, so that your eyes adjust to them, then without them you need them … So that’s part of the larger plot in the world to get me. [Chuckles] I’m sure there is one. I’m sure there’s a huge conspiracy.
GROTH: I’m sure we’ll get into that more later.
STEADMAN: Well, the world is conspiratorial. I find that absolutely everyone seems to be out to get you. And those who join the bureaucratic regime seem to be saved from it because they just become the oil in the works.
GROTH: Can you describe your upbringing?
STEADMAN: Well, you met my mother. She’s a gentle soul.
GROTH: Yes. No one would possibly believe that she spawned you.
STEADMAN: No. It’s funny that way. My father was humorous.
GROTH: What did your father do?
STEADMAN: He was a commercial traveler. He used to be a surveyor. And he wanted to be an engineer; he wanted to make cars. It was the turn of the century. He was born in 1893. He died a few years ago, in 1982. I was born late. So in a funny sort of way — actually in a very real sort of way — there was a great gap between me and my father. Except that we got on OK. But he was very often on the road traveling. He went into the First World War and he got wounded three times and he came out, never once thought of dying. He was in the trenches. He never told me much about it; he’d occasionally mention something about a horse or something. He had a way with horses apparently because he was in the cavalry to start with. He had a big sword which he used for making toasts. His regiment became redundant because tanks were coming in. He told me a few things. It was a funny little place near Liverpool where I was born. I have early recollections of standing on the street corner waiting for my father to come back. I’d walk out to see if he was coming. Of course, at that time there wasn’t the fear that a little boy standing on the corner would suddenly get kidnapped.
GROTH: What was your neighborhood like?
STEADMAN: Very basic, fairly lower-middle class. We have a terrible class system here.
GROTH: Was that the city or the suburbs?
STEADMAN: That was Wallesey, a suburb of Liverpool. And it was good for my father because he worked the whole of the northwest of England — Manchester, Liverpool, Chester, Lancashire. He was very nice indeed and I used to go with him on his trips but I’d wait for hours in the car because once he got talking shop he wouldn’t be selling anything, he’d just be talking. He was very charming. They liked him arriving, because they were old-fashioned ladies’ emporiums, which is sort of a grand name for a shop, but it was a large place and sometimes they’d have beautiful ceilings in them, like nice glass conservatory-type roofs — that’s where the light came from, otherwise the shop would be completely dark inside; they got their light from above. There’d be racks of things and boxes on the shelves. They always liked to see something come out of a box. By the time they served a customer the counter would be piled up with stuff that they’d shown the customer that the customer didn’t want. Then they’d have to spend the next quarter of an hour putting it all back in the boxes and back on the shelves again before they could serve the next customer. But they had time for that then; it was easy. There was no hurry. In fact it was part of the day: if you’re going shopping, down to Mrs. Morgan’s Emporium, she knew you, you knew there were only two people in the shop. It would take all afternoon because they’d have a talk; they talked about all the different things in the village and there’d be all that gossip. So, shops were used in a community sense.
GROTH: With the advent of shopping malls, retail commerce has lost even that value.
STEADMAN: Yes, absolutely. Get in and get out.
GROTH: Was there anything in your formative years that was exceedingly influential?
STEADMAN: I don’t know, you mean like a shock or something? I think the most formative thing was this wicked headmaster giving me the fear and hatred of authority. I’d been at the school one year — I was 11 — and this new, vicious headmaster came who liked canes, whipping boys. He was sick, really. I think within seven years of arriving at that school he developed a tumor and got some problems. He was hated by everybody; nobody liked him, even the teachers. So, I really wanted to leave school as soon as I could, which I did. I used to immerse myself in model airplanes to hide. I used to do my homework immediately because I was afraid of the retribution. So I was fairly well-behaved and did what I was told. And I left school as soon as I could. I was lucky to get this apprenticeship at de Haviland, but then after 12 months I didn’t like the factory. And so I then got a job at Woolworth’s as a training manager, sweeping floors, making paper bales in the stock room. The headmaster actually saw me outside sweeping the front of the shop, and he said, “You’ve messed your life up.” I was too young to know that I’d messed my life up; I was only 17. He said, “You had a good chance there and now you’ve thrown it away. Now look at you — sweeping the pavement.” An unpleasant bastard. He couldn’t even say, “Well, at least it’s honest work,” I hadn’t taken to crime or anything. Anyway, I tried then to go into the Royal Air Force as a pilot, but I couldn’t do all the tests so that was that. Now when would this have been? This is 1952 to ‘54. I left school in ‘52. From ‘54 to ‘56 I went into the forces and lived in military bases in Devon and Wales. In ‘56 I came down to London and became a cartoonist with a northern group of newspapers based in London. I got the job by chance. I started writing letters to this group with cartoon drawings and then started to do it. I was very influenced by a cartoonist in England called Giles who works for the Daily Express and the Sunday Express. There were lots of things going on in the cartoons, landscape-shaped pictures, and it was my dream to do that for some reason, to be that cartoonist doing those drawings. I used to try and copy his drawings. During the time I was leaving school trying different jobs, I started doing this kind of weird drawing. So I knew I couldn’t become a pilot — I just digressed for a moment and now I’ll try to get back to the point, which was that I couldn’t think of what to do next, so I went to the youth employment office. The man there said, look you’ve tried this, you’ve tried that, you’ve tried the other — I even tried to get into a bank. He said, “It’s hopeless, so I’ll tell you what; I’ll give you this Careers Encyclopedia and you take it home and look at it over the weekend and come back Monday, and if there’s nothing in there you want to do I can’t help you because that’s all there is.”
GROTH: How old would you have been at this point?
STEADMAN: Seventeen still. One thing I came up with — and I don’t know why I chose it — was advertising. It said, “Employs artists, writers, to do drawings, copy ... “
GROTH: Perhaps you were too lazy to get past the “A”s.
STEADMAN: Yeah. [laughter] Maybe it was because it was the first one in there. So I went back and he said, “I know someone; in fact, I’m playing golf with him this week. I’ll have a word with them.” He actually did get me a job as a tea-boy with an advertising agency in Colwyn Bay, right by the seaside in North Wales. Holiday town.
GROTH: What is a tea-boy?
STEADMAN: A tea-boy just makes the tea and runs errands down the road and things. And I was getting 30 shillings a week, one pound-fifty. And gradually over the nine months I was there, before I went in the military service, I was given the odd thing like a trademark to do, and there was a guy working in the office there called Mr. Fidler and he had had polio — he’d hold his pen in a certain way, but he still drew. He was the one who was supposed to be the cartoonist amongst the advertising staff. And they were awful cartoons, and they were very stylized. They said, “You’re the one that does that; you seem to have a facility for it.” In retrospect, he had absolutely no facility for it, no humor in his drawing. It was the kind of drawing where he’d do cartoon eyes — the flat bit at the bottom, the semicircular top, and the round black eyeball with the white V-shape to make it look shiny; you know that type of convention? But nothing humorous. But it sparked something in me because that was when I started doing cartoon drawings. So it might have been Mr. Fidler.
GROTH: But as a teenager you were never preoccupied with drawing?
STEADMAN: No, it never held my interest. Actually, I would copy drawings because they said to me, “You have to do some work to learn to draw.” So I didn’t know what to do; there were no art schools around, and I hadn’t done my military service — I knew that was coming. So I used to draw things; I copied Rubens. My mother’s still got one, a pencil drawing of a Rubens head called Annunciation. It’s very religious — funny that it’s coming out again. It’s a peculiar thing; I’m not religious, but I’m now very involved with themes like life and death and God, so it’s odd as time goes by, seeing odd reflections of your past coming into play again. I find in some ways we all go full circle.
GROTH: Perhaps that’s where life leads.
STEADMAN: It does. It goes back to where you start. You start getting interested in your own past, which you wanted to reject at first. Then it becomes an estrangement with which you need to re-familiarize yourself. So, anyway, I eventually had to go into the forces. But before I went I saw an advert which said, “The Percy V. Bradshaw’s Press Art School Course. You too can learn to draw and earn pounds.” So my mother and father who were by this time a little distraught because I didn’t have a proper job, and I didn’t know what I was going to do, said, “If you’d like to take the course, since you’re drawing now, we’ll pay for it.” It was 18 lessons: 12 lessons spread over 12 months on how to draw, and the other six months learning how to be a cartoonist. The whole course cost 18 pounds — a pound a lesson, something like that — very cheap. My mother and father paid for it and then I went into the forces and whilst I was in the forces I did the course. I wish I kept the letters from Percy V. Bradshaw to me because of my complaints about the old-fashioned style of the course, and he’s saying, “Ah, my boy, the principles of drawing never change.” He’d get me to draw a pair of boots, put them on a table and draw them in dots, a pointillism technique, and gradually build up a pair of boots, and that would give you a sense of tonality. And then I’d do these various exercises and send them back to him. The guy would do a fairly descriptive criticism of what was either wrong or right, but what he couldn’t do by post was really demonstrate that strange thing about breaking down a two-dimensional surface into three dimensions, of relating one thing to another, of really learning how to put the hand and the eye and the mind together in some kind of coordination so when you’re drawing, if you wish to exaggerate, you can exaggerate, or, if you want to try and get it right, you can actually get it right because you can do it by relating various points in any given scene as if you’re looking through a glass window — you can put everything into a related place, because it has a place in that space. You look at a window there; you can draw those trees by making a linear grid and then draw the bits in and get it almost photographic. And that’s what he didn’t go into. But the cartoon course was very interesting. What he said is, “What you need to do is go out into public places and look at the people and keep a sketchbook and that way you’ll learn something about caricature.” He said, “It’s no good trying to think of a funny face and believe that’s cartooning, because it isn’t.” That was quite a good little piece of advice, because he’s right: there’s more to a cartoon face than just getting a funny nose. In fact, it’s almost impossible to teach it. What he got me to do was draw in pubs — which of course started me drinking. [Laughter] I mean, I used to draw and get a pint. “
So, it went on like that and I actually did learn about caricature, but I still hadn’t learned to draw properly. But I was learning to draw cartoons; I was getting more and more like Giles, and I started selling these pictures I’d done to Punch and to various newspapers. The Kemsley newspapers had a northern group and asked me to come see them, and I had three months to go with my national service. I went to see them and they said, “How would you like a job; you seem to have ideas ... “ They probably liked my resemblance to Giles — there were always a lot of cartoonists like Giles on Fleet Street because editors found it popular to have a Giles-like cartoonist because he’s like a national institution. There’s about four in England that draw like Giles for national newspapers; that is the state of cartooning. He’s been going since before the war and he’s still going. I think he must be nearly 80, and he’s still doing it. The marvelous thing about him is that he had an extraordinary facility for capturing a scene in the simplest possible way, the whole scene: an old street, the sense of summer, a lazy afternoon, flies, the smell of manure, all in black and white. Really quite an economic draftsman. I learned a lot from that. Eventually, I learned to go against it. The thing I never did is draw for reproductions; I was always drawing just for the drawing, and it’s always been a problem. We always have this thing about my work never looking right in reproduction.
EDITORIAL CARTOONS, PUNCH, GERALD SCARFE, ET AL
GROTH: When did you begin with Punch?
STEADMAN: I got my first one in Punch after three or four years of submitting, and I started submitting in the forces — 1955 — and it was near the turn of the decade, ‘59-’60. I finally got my first cartoon in Punch after all that time of trying, week after week, and they finally said they’d take one. I couldn’t believe it; I went out in the street and told a complete stranger.
GROTH: I understand in 1956 you did something for Manchester Evening Chronicle.
STEADMAN: That was the northern group of papers. That was where I did my first literal cartoon — I did one about Nassar, and I did another one about Bulganin and Kruschev. My first cartoon was a tank with these two in it. I can’t remember what the cartoon was now, but it was done in sort of quasi-David Low style, because that was the sort of thing that was expected: if you did a political cartoon, it had to look like David Low. Nothing had come on the horizon yet for me. I hadn’t yet found George Grosz. I hadn’t even found Picasso. I had not really found anybody at that time.
During those years, the late ‘50s, I was going to a night school and that’s where I met Leslie Richardson, who taught me a lot about connections between all the things that happened in this century, that art isn’t in a tower, that art is a part of life, and that it’s connected in all different ways by all different impulses and influences from all over the place; photography’s a part of it; music’s a part of it; engineering’s a part of it in a sense. So these are the things I found fascinating, heady, and I knew there was something I could do in drawing if I could ever find a way in, and it wasn’t what I was doing, but I had to earn a living somehow. I would go in at 10 o’clock in the morning and finish by three. I’d do my cartoon and I’d do six roughs and show the features editor; he’d say, “They’re not very good, but if you must — that one.”
GROTH: This was where?
STEADMAN: In London, for the Kemsley newspapers. I didn’t work properly for Punch. That was just as freelance.
GROTH: These were editorial cartoons?
STEADMAN: These were editorial cartoons, and I did a weekly panel as well, a little teenage girl called “Teeny” which ran for two years. This little girl and her little friend, and they’d talk about boys — a bit zany. It would be a shock for people to see those today.
GROTH: These would be very lightweight, kind of gag panels?
STEADMAN: Yeah, with one-liners underneath. I had to do five a week, from Monday to Friday. Then I’d also do social comment which they’d send around. One of the funniest cartoons I remember ever doing is a guy going into the optician’s [stands up and demonstrates] and there’s the door and he’s going [bumps into the wall, laughs]. And it’s just the way his hat was flattened; it made everyone laugh for some reason. In fact, that sort of idea was used by Peter Sellers in one of his Clouseau films when he said, “And have a word with your architect.”
GROTH: Were you politically astute at the time?
STEADMAN: No, no. I just felt it was something I ought to do. I felt I ought to be able to do cartoons because it seemed like a respectable job.
GROTH: But you didn’t have a passion for it?
STEADMAN: No, I was afraid of politicians, actually. They represent the authority, so there was this fear in the back of my mind, a fear of people in important places. I’ve often wondered if I hadn’t become a cartoonist I might have been an assassin.
GROTH: Some people would say you are.
STEADMAN: It’s just that I don’t think I could pull the trigger. I wouldn’t want to get myself in that position because it’s irrevocable, isn’t it? The one thing about a cartoon — you can sort of say, “Chew on that, dick-head,” and it hasn’t really done anyone any harm. When you’re pulling a trigger, that’s it, isn’t it? You can’t reverse the film to get out of that situation. There was a thing on television the other night about the Turkish man who shot the Pope in 1982 and you find yourself thinking you could get into that position. It’s a frightening thought that you could become one of those people.
GROTH: Do you see yourself capable of doing that?
STEADMAN: I think most people — I don’t know. Maybe most people wouldn’t, but it seems as though part of the thing I did with Hunter Thompson was that kind of subversive stuff. Politics are about subversion. How we approached the Nixon regime — to get the bastard out somehow. It was the only time I got really intense about it. For Hunter, of course, it was a damn sight more personal and close because, of course, he’s American and he feels, and still feels, that it’s his Constitution and that Nixon was walking all over it. He’s a proud kind of redneck in some ways; he believes in the flag and all that stuff. But at the same time he believes that the country’s there to be molded and pushed decently by decent people, not pigs and swine.
GROTH: Now, you don’t mean to minimize the importance of your work by comparing it unfavorably with an assassin, do you?
STEADMAN: My work isn’t really — I don’t think it is that important, because it is disregarded. Did you see the thing last week in Time magazine: “Mighty Pens” — completely disregarded! I thought I fit in there somewhere. I meant to show it to you, a piece on political cartooning in the world today. They mentioned [David] Levine and people like that. Not a bloody mention of me. And yet they rang me and asked me about it and then that’s when I told them this idea I had about ignoring political figures, which might have gone against the grain of the article. It’s all bull, of how every day these cartoons are the scourge of politicians and they save them and so forth. And there were these terrible cartoons in there. It was so bad. Most of them can’t draw — they’ve got no bloody idea of anything.
GROTH: Did they have Oliphant and Feiffer in there?
STEADMAN: They might have had Oliphant. It was peculiar, actually. They chose some rather odd ones — an Argentinean and a Puerto Rican — what the press are doing around the world, “mighty pens.” But it had Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan on the cover with all these pens going towards them done as a model from Spitting Image. I was a bit upset with it because I should have got a mention. I know that I have done political cartoons in the last 12, 15 years that have influenced a lot of people, a lot of other cartoonists if not a lot of other people. I’ve never known if my cartoons have much of an interest to the layman, but they get noticed by other cartoonists.
GROTH: I believe you said at some point that you thought you were about the only cartoonist in the ‘70s in America who had drawn blood.
STEADMAN: The magazine Scanlan’s that I worked for got on a blacklist — I got that from John Dean, who told me what had happened. Scanlan’s was beginning to get noticed as a magazine: it got a bit nasty for Nixon’s taste — he was the only one allowed to be nasty.
GROTH: But do you believe that’s true, that you were the only …
STEADMAN: See, I don’t know what the others were doing. There was not anyone really being savage, was there? Oliphant is the only one I can think of that had any kind of bite.
GROTH: What about Feiffer?
STEADMAN: I never think of him as savage — incisive, but not savage. But, a lot of people would say, “All Steadman ever did was throw up all over the bloody page!” [Laughter] Maybe I did; maybe that was me being savage with myself. Anyway, if you want to go back to my first cartoon in Punch, I went out into the street — and I think I had just got married for the first time; I was 23 — and I stopped an old man in the street and I said, “I’ve just sold my first cartoon in Punch.” I had to tell somebody. He got a bit weird; I got a funny feeling when I looked at his face. And the next week I sold two and after that I didn’t sell any and I couldn’t sell any for ages. Then one more. Then I’d have to redraw them at the request of the editor: “Don’t like the feet; the way you draw feet is too extreme. You don’t need to be extreme to make a point.” I was trying to find my style, trying to find my way. If I was drawing funny feet — in fact people wear shoes like that, so they weren’t such funny feet. There’s a couple in Between the Eyes.
GROTH: You did work for Private Eye in 1961?
STEADMAN: Right, in issue number 11. I was the first outsider to get in it.
GROTH: How did that come about?
STEADMAN: I did this cartoon called “Plastic People” for Punch. They were complaining: I was doing cartoons of a social nature and they weren’t going down too well. They said, “No, we want New Yorker-type gags.” I was writing in this way which is a bit Feiffer-ish, I suppose; it was just lots of words that went with the pictures. They said, “What are you trying to do? Either be a writer or a cartoonist.” I said, “I just wanted to do this kind of cartoon which somehow told a story about the situation.” I did one called “The Speculator,” another one about remembering grandma, but instead of thinking back to the old days I was drawing it from some future looking back to today. They didn’t like those, but they were taking them uneasily. About this time, Gerry Scarfe came up to me at the one and only meeting I went to of the newly founded Cartoonists Club. He said, “I like your line; I’d like to come see you.” So he came up one day in his car and he brought his drawings with him and they were awful drawings. He had some funny ideas, very good ideas, but his drawings were sort of commercial art drawings. The kind of cartoons that lack humor because they were drawn in pen and wash and the wash was done as a very conventional — a bit on that side, a bit on this side to give it a sense of depth and breadth, and three dimensions. No real contribution as a funny part of the drawing, nothing aesthetic; not like that guy I showed you, Descloseaux: very delicate, sublime. A bit of wash is sometimes right when it’s needed. Anyway, he showed me these things and said, “Can you help?” I said, “I’ll introduce you to my teacher, Leslie Richardson.” And after awhile we became so alike, which is where the whole thing began of our similarity, and we never really got out of it. I know where lots of things came from and he knows where lots of things came from because we had an interchangeability about our styles.
RAPLH STEADMAN & GERALD SCARFE
GROTH: You became known as a twosome.
STEADMAN: Yeah, we were the terrible twins. We went to Punch together with our cartoons.
Really, it’s sad that we fell out. It became irksome. Neither one of us liked to accuse the other that we were copying each other, but you can’t help it when your styles are somehow similar. People were writing to Punch asking, “Are they the same person?” Leslie still sees both of us occasionally and tells me of Gerry’s new work, but we never meet, never refer to one another — although I do. I think he had an extraordinary effect on caricature. He’s taken caricature to extraordinary places.
GROTH: Can I ask why you fell out?
STEADMAN: Yeah, I’ll tell you why I fell out. I went into Private Eye with a drawing. We went in together and I said, “I’ve got to sell something; Punch doesn’t seem to want them. I’m going to take one in.” And Gerry sort of got upset and said, “I don’t see why; we said we weren’t going to do anything unless we did it together.” So I said, “Do something.” He said, “No, I can’t.” Well, I said, “I’ve got this cartoon; I’d love to see what happens.” “OK.” So I took this thing along called Plastic People and they looked at it and they gave me five pounds and said, “We’ll publish it. More power to your elbow.” I was thrilled to get into this new weird paper. They gave me a double-page spread for this Plastic Family Tree — you hung your relatives up as they died on the tree, and you could have plastic guests and pump them up and they’d flatter you for hours, plastic babies, plastic love and affection.
It was coming in, that sort of feeling that everything was getting very tacky.
GROTH: You and Scarfe had an agreement where you would submit everything in tandem?
STEADMAN: It was a tacit agreement. We used to do everything together. He said, “I’m really fed up with you” after that. I said, “OK, Gerry, I won’t do it again. Forget it, we’ll do everything together.” So that was agreed upon. The very next issue there was one of his in there. So I thought, “Shit, this is terrible.” He said, “You did it, so … “ I said, “OK, that’s fine.” But something had started then. And then my first wife got pissed off at him and she wrote him a letter, which she should never have done, which accused him of copying and faking everything from me, and now preventing me from submitting my own work again. However, it was open for grabs by then because both of us were submitting work weekly. It was sort of peculiar. That’s how it broke, just a silly thing like that.
GROTH: It broke quite decisively.
STEADMAN: It definitely did. And the letter from my first wife hurt him so deeply that he never wanted to see us ever again. And he’s my first daughter’s godfather, my daughter Susannah who’s 26 now.
GROTH: Do you regret the rupture?
STEADMAN: I’m sad about it. I’ve always said hello to him. We’ve always had a kind of uneasy talk when we’ve met. But I don’t think you can forget something, particularly if it’s written down. I wish she hadn’t sent it. She asked me, “Should I send it?” I Said, “I wouldn’t send it, but it’s your letter.” So she sent it.
So then Gerry started getting stuff in a lot and did that more and more. And I kind of took a side track and started doing my own serious work in a little more esoteric way. I did things based on Hogarth, early pictures called “Marriage a la Mode,” and I did a series of things called “The Gospel According to St. Eadman,” which were biblical sayings that have a relevancy today. Then I did a thing called “New London Cries,” which is also based on older themes; I did pastiches of H.M. Bateman — there’s a cartoonist you should look at: really funny; he did these cartoons like “The Man Who Dropped His Rifle on Parade” and everyone’s reacting; “The Man Who Asked for a Gin and Tonic at the Pump Room at Bath.” So he was doing the faux pas of society. In that time, in the ‘20s, it was really quite shocking.
We have a thing called the “two-minute silence” in England on November 11th for Armistice Day, on the signing of the peace treaty of the First World War, when every year a group of veterans go to the Cenotaph and stand in silence in respect for the dead of the two wars. It is observed on the Sunday nearest to November 11, and they sell poppies; it’s poppy day. I met H.M. Bateman — I went to see him and he was 80. I was going down with Michael Bateman, who wasn’t a relative but was going to do a book called The Man Who Drew the 20th Century. I met H.M. and he drew me and I drew him. He said, “Promise me you’ll never do one thing” — I had shown him the pastiches I did on him: “The Man Who Asked for a Private Eye,” “The Man Who Touched a Bunny,” “The Man Who Stood for the National Anthem” — and he said, “What’s that?” He said, “The Man Who Farted During the Two-Minute Silence.” That’s the one he thought of doing. He said it wasn’t fair, “old chap” — he was an old English chap. He said it wasn’t cricket: “It’s going a little too far — Promise me you won’t do that.” It made me laugh, but I didn’t do it. It could be a good one to do. The thing is, the irreverence — it’s about a caring time for a few people who lost members of their families and it’s unnecessary. However …
Anyway, Gerry and I fell out. He got involved with the Sunday Times as well and started doing his cartoon, which he’s kept going for the last 20 years.
GROTH: Is that a weekly cartoon?
STEADMAN: Yeah. And I never worked for anybody. I was more the maverick again. I started illustrating children’s books, and books such as those by Flann O’Brien, an Irish writer.
CARTOONIST RALPH STEADMAN
GROTH: Let me skip back a little bit. I wanted to try to trace the genesis of your artistic evolution from when you were still groping to fully express yourself. At some point you obviously reached a satisfactory approach.
STEADMAN: No, I was never satisfied with anything. Always apprehensive, uncertain, and then suddenly have a flash of something which gave me comfort, and then it would disappear again. That’s how it was, like a cycle. Being an artist is continual uncertainty, continual self-doubt. It’s constant — it never leaves you. Two minutes after you’ve done a cartoon and felt pleased with yourself, it starts to trickle away.
GROTH: Was there a point, though, when you became recognized as Ralph Steadman the cartoonist?
STEADMAN: It started to happen in the late ‘60s in Private Eye. It really became apparent that there was a sort of line, but then it was unfortunately evolving along the same lines as Gerry Scarfe. And it was a bugger, but I couldn’t help it. Luckily, his stuff started to go into a sort of elasticated form. I found this most peculiar. But I got more angular and angry.
GROTH: At what point did you diverge?
STEADMAN: I think it was about 1966. I tightened up actually where he loosened up. I think he had a facility that came from the time he used to illustrate a mail order catalogue, before caricature really took him over. He used to do those: bed sheets, coffee makers, anything like that. And he’d draw them in watercolor wash. That’s how his cartoons started, that commercial art wash, that weird style that everyone associates with commercial art because it’s got a slick look to it. So that, I think, is what gave him that facility which he then pushed. He had a thing about distortion, how to draw the race, so he tried pushing the face as far as he could and still keep the likeness. I wasn’t quite so interested in that; I was still interested in illustration, drawing. So my line was tighter — my framing had been tighter; I had more control. I don’t think he ever really got deep into a course of intensive life drawing, and I did; I had folders of the stuff.
GROTH: At what point did you actually learn drawing, learn formal composition, deep space, and so forth?
STEADMAN: Whilst I had this job at Kemsleys and whilst I was doing freelance cartoon work — Fleet Street stuff — I was also going to art school. Because I was knocking off at three o’clock in the afternoon, I’d go up to the art school. I’d be out five night a week at night school. And Saturday mornings, Wednesday afternoons, and sometimes Tuesday afternoons, all day Thursday, I’d be at the Victoria and Albert Museum drawing from the antique. For seven years. That’s a lot of time drawing.
GROTH: So you were a pretty vigorous student.
STEADMAN: I was intensely interested in learning how to draw. This is what got in the way of me being just a cartoonist — it always has. I always thought maybe I should be an artist, but I don’t know what being an artist is if it isn’t being what I’m doing. I believe in a certain area of art, which is about social comment — Daumier, Dore, Goya, Hogarth. They’re the sort of people who were sort of outside the mainstream of what people consider to be art. Daumier wanted to be a painter, but he’s known as a cartoonist. Goya, of course, was acknowledged as a painter but part of his work were etchings that were really cartoons: The Capriccios; the Napoleonic Wars [The Disasters of the War]. So that was the area that really excited me because I knew that within it I could be honest. I didn’t feel that I was being arty-farty; I was being genuine. I was actually using drawing for a real purpose; I wasn’t trying to decorate people’s walls. I was actually trying to do something worthwhile, but within my scope. I suppose it’s always been like that, and I know when I’m being fancy and not doing it properly and simply doing something to make some money. Unfortunately, I have to do it. What I could do, I suppose — and I had thought about it — is sell this place [Steadman’s mansion-like house] and not worry about money again.
GROTH: You could move to Seattle.
STEADMAN: Who knows? Stranger things have happened.
GROTH: When you refer to decorating people’s walls —
STEADMAN: I meant modern art, say, which I would consider to be interior decoration, nothing more, nothing less — nothing in it. I don’t know what I can justify as content. It’s just that there is something coming out of the paint that speaks things, independently of what you think; it actually gives you thoughts; it actually has a proper dialogue with you. So I guess that’s what I consider to be content and there’s not a lot of it about. It’s not just eye titillation; it’s something else; it’s something in the mind stirring. It’s that provocation, I suppose: mind provocation. And that’s what I’m trying to do. I try to align myself with people like that, and I’ve decided that the top was with the best, the Goyas of this world. And Van Gogh became wonderful because in his drawings he was portraying the peasants in Belgium, and miners — the peasants in the field which he learned from Millet.
GROTH: Do you like Brueghel?
STEADMAN: Oh, he’s fantastic — a Middle Ages cartoonist. Brilliant. Hieronymus Bosch: another cartoonist. It’s all in there, that thought. I realized, “Jesus, that’s the area where painters really get expressive, when they become a cartoonist.” So what is this fine art thing? It’s something galleries work out for themselves because it fits their economic yardsticks: “How can I flood this thing and keep it precious?” It makes light of the thing we now look upon as art, because they’re rare and fine and beautiful. I figured it wasn’t really what I wanted to do, just to be a painter. First of all I couldn’t sit at home trying to think of gags everyday, and I couldn’t sit at home trying to paint paintings every day to suit people’s walls, to go with the wallpaper. That wasn’t right. So, gradually, out of this terrible conflict about what the hell I was trying to be, evolved an approach to cartooning which I consider to be my own, as near as I can get to being me. And, awkward as it was — and I must say it was awkward — I still like Still Life With Raspberry; you can see in that the parts which are good and the parts where I’m struggling and searching for something.
GROTH: When did you not think that you could express yourself truthfully through painting?
STEADMAN: Well, I’m still trying, actually, but I go soft. Maybe it’s because I need the incisive line. I don’t know what it is, but that speaks for me, that does something.
GROTH: Do you think that a good cartoonist has to be a good draftsman?
STEADMAN: I think so, although not if he’s James Thurber — and that’s another kind of drawing I love. I laughed at William Steig. Oh shit, I’m trying to think of some of those people …
STEADMAN: Wonderful. I felt these were my people. I wanted to be part of that.
GROTH: Did you go through a period where you discovered all these cartoonists?
STEADMAN: Yes. When I found Grosz … It was Leslie Richardson who introduced me to a lot of people. But he said, “Be careful of them. Don’t try to suddenly draw like them. You’ve got to feel it. They came out of a period, a certain situation, a certain feeling. Be very aware of the changing, fickle nature of fashion — and not just fashion but also the pressures of social change that created these things.” He tried to make me aware of the events that caused it. It’s not just a style; it’s very much a part of a response that came — it’s like a stylistic response, but it’s definitely not a style. You don’t simply say, “I’ll do this for a style” — bang! — and that’s your style. It came out of your stringent approach, an acid-tight way of how to draw these poor bastards of the Weimar Republic.
GROTH: Which gives the style meaning.
STEADMAN: Absolutely, because there’s a reason for it. It’s like the technology around today: use it if there’s a reason for it, but it has to be a content reason. It has to be expressive of content, not just expressive of itself. Just another technique: “Oh, that’s wild!” It has to be the very driving force, the purpose overrides the style. All style is secondary, but if the style is helping to express the thrust, then go for it and augment your intentions. It’s that serious if it’s good.
GROTH: Were you ever under another cartoonist’s stylistic spell?
STEADMAN: Well, Grosz. And Picasso. I thought Picasso the most exciting painter, artist, and draftsman — still do, actually. A great draftsman. He’s a liberator. He’s also a bloody nuisance because he’s invented it all, done it all. It’s tough to beat the rap of Picasso’s limitless invention. And if it wasn’t for age, he’d have gone on. That’s an extraordinary thing. Titian is the other one in the history of painting. Most of them — Goya, Renoir, Rembrandt — suffered from arthritic complaints, poverty and general debilitation, but still drawing marvelously. The Rembrandt self-portraits must rank with the most incredibly incisive investigations of self.
GROTH: Aside from obvious vestigial antecedents, do you consider yourself pretty much original?
STEADMAN: Um, I’m original only inasmuch as I don’t think I’m particularly easy to deal with as a cartoonist. Like editorial work in the bloody newspapers: it works for a while, and then it gets awkward because I get restless and want change. I don’t want to stay there; I don’t want to fill the space up like this; there must be another way. I always had this hankering for a new kind of cartoon, which is where the Paranoids came from, but I don’t know whether that’s going anywhere because in a funny kind of way I should have invented that in 1972 when the bloody thing first came out. If I had had all that time to use them against Nixon — bringing those out in Rolling Stone in the ‘70s would have been terrific: melting the bastard.
GROTH: Can you explain what the Paranoids are?
STEADMAN: Well, it’s a way of taking a picture or a combination of pictures from any source whatsoever, putting them together — preferably parts of the same face of a person making a collage, photographing that with a Polaroid SX70 camera, and warming it next to my heart. There are three places on the body where you can warm them: next to your heart, under your armpit, and I forget the third. [Laughter] That’s what I tell people, anyway. And you warm it, because you need that kind of moist heat. If you put it on the stove, I find it goes brittle for some peculiar reason. The moist heat keeps it gently soft.
GROTH: And it melts it somehow?
STEADMAN: Yes, it keeps it in a gelatin form. Then with a pencil — about an HB with not too sharp a point, because if that point starts to break through the back of the Polaroid with too much pressure you can never move it again — what you’ve got to do is keep the gelatin moving and you almost ease it down. You move it backwards and forwards with tremendous pace with the pencil. You have to try to do it in one movement, like that. [Demonstrates] You gradually ease it, so you’re feathering it down. Gradually the stuff starts to give and you start pulling it and the stuff actually goes. So what you’re doing is moving flesh around. It seemed to suit me perfectly.
GROTH: Plastic surgery.
STEADMAN: It isn’t too far removed from that. Then I found a new way of doing it when I did the collage. I found I could put different relative sites of the same face together and recreate the face even more radically. I could meld them together, because once you’ve taken a photograph of it I can lose the joins so that I can make it look like the same picture. There’s one that came back today in print, in the London News — the first politician I’ve drawn for ages, Cecil Parkinson, Maggie Thatcher’s favorite man. I said I wouldn’t draw him, but I’d do them a Paranoid.
GROTH: Is he the one in charge of the EEC? She replaced somebody with him.
STEADMAN: Yeah. He’s damn near chairman of the party.
GROTH: His job is to slow down the coming of the Common Market, right?
STEADMAN: Yeah, he’s the one. There was this kind of scandal: he gets his mistress, Mary Keays, pregnant, and now he was married, and he had to leave office. Now she’s brought him back to the fold. It’s terribly sad — the child is autistic. However, he’s one of those men, old school tie, a “Hooray Henry.”
Anyway, I never really wanted to have a regular job, so that’s been a problem, getting a political cartoonist position, although I did it for The Statesman for three or four years towards the end of the ‘70s, and did their weekly cartoon. And I enjoyed it. I used to like going in there Thursday, taking the cartoon in; I’d get a nice reception. So that was the only time I worked as a regular cartoonist, and it was a political-left-wing politics. At the same time, I was doing stuff for Hunter [Thompson], Rolling Stone, covered the Watergate hearing.
ENTER HUNTER THOMPSON AND DRUGS
GROTH: How did the Scanlan’s job come about?
STEADMAN: I was in America. I’d been with Private Eye about 10 years. It was 1969, my marriage broke up, and I decided I had to do something else, so I thought I’d go to America. I went in April 1970, stayed two months, then was called back to be the Times cartoonist. Then I went back to the US again in September to do the America’s Cup with Hunter for Scanlan’s. But that was when Scanlan’s was dying. The first time I went, I got a call from J.C. Suares — quite well known in the graphics world, a wheeler-dealer kind of person. He rang up and said [in a gruff voice], “We’ve been trying to track you down. I got your number from somewhere in London and they said you were in East Hampton, Long Island. Can you come to New York this week? I want to talk to you about an assignment. Do you want to go on assignment? Do you want to meet an ex-Hell’s Angels, just shaved his head? He’s in Kentucky. He used to live in Louisville. Have you ever been to Louisville?” No. “Well, do you want to go?” So I went into New York and J.C.’s office, and they were all ex-pugilists running the place: Sydney Zion, Warren J. Hinkle III. It looked like some part of an underworld operation. They got three quarters of a million dollars from somewhere to run this magazine. They ran through it in nine months, they spent it all and ripped off all the drawings I did for them. Never saw them again. They were flying backwards and forwards, West to East coast two or three times a week, eating at the smart places of that time. I met J.C. and I met the very charming editor Dan Goddard, an Englishmen who had found my book Still Life With Raspberry in England, brought it back there. Hence the search for me: “Get this guy, he might just be the one to go with Hunter Thompson.” So the book had some effect. I met him with J.C.; haven’t seen him in ages, but he’s such a nice guy. He used to be the foreign editor of The New York Times and then he took on the editorship of Scanlan’s.
Scanlan was the name of an old Nottingham pig farmer. For some peculiar reason they decided to call it Scanlan’s. They did marvelous articles on dirty kitchens which caused quite a rumpus, and they did a few weird articles by Hunter.
GROTH: Did you know who Hunter Thompson was?
STEADMAN: No, I had never heard of him before. Anyway, I went down there [to Louisville] and I met him after two days and we spent a drunken week looking for the rattled face of Kentucky, the ghastly sight that Hunter knew so well, and we finally found it in the mirror of our own face at the end of the week. The ghastly look, the rattled look [Chuckles]. I had done my drawing before I got back to New York. I spent a lot of the time in his hotel room drawing these pictures and he hadn’t done anything. He was in this stage of trying to help his mother with a personal problem; he didn’t talk about it much. He had a few family problems. He introduced me to his two older brothers, and he also maced someone that week, in a restaurant. Everybody was maced because when you spray mace in a bloody closed area, everybody gets it, everyone was going, “Ahhh!” In a restaurant!
GROTH: What were the circumstances?
STEADMAN: To get me out, because I stated drawing people and things were getting ugly. If he hadn’t had mace, we would have been in trouble.
GROTH: Who did he mace, the waiter?
STEADMAN: Somebody stumbling over: “Hey buddy, you can’t do this to me.” Hunter would say, “I wish you’d stop that ugly habit of sketching people.”
GROTH: He just carried a canister of mace with him?
STEADMAN: Yeah. And I guess we got on well because I was quite different. He said I always said everything was “teddible” — not terrible, but “teddible.” He had a funny way of saying it. I used to listen to what he said. He made me notice things I’d forgotten. So, anyway, I went back to Scanlan’s with the drawings and I hadn’t drawn a single horse. The editor said, “Didn’t you see any horses? Can’t we have one with horses in it?” So I did one drawing of a horse with a big dong, and also a Texan with his pants open and his own dong hanging out.
GROTH: Thompson wrote a reminiscence about you and him in Playboy, and he made reference to macing the governor of Kentucky. Is that true?
STEADMAN: Yeah. He did it from above, but he did it sort of surreptitiously. It was just a disturbance. It was in the open air so it got in people’s eyes and they were saying, “What the fuck’s going on?”
GROTH: If I remember correctly, he said you were appalled and shocked by his behavior.
STEADMAN: No, I wasn’t appalled. I was just observing him. He made me realize the things you could do and get away with that I had never considered. But it just wasn’t my scene to mace people. He carried spray cans and weird things for some reason: “I might need this, y’know, a grenade.” [Laughter] We got on well; we worked together well, but I was also in a strange frame of mind having just broken up my marriage. I was a little crazy, so I went along with it all. And we found in correspondence what we were going to do next. There was an idea if the magazine had gone on that we would cover a southern wedding, go to Alaska, go down to Mexico, cross America together and do this wild thing. It never materialized because the magazine went bust. We did a few things together in Rolling Stone. We covered the Republican convention in Miami, and the Democratic one.
GROTH: How did that come about?
STEADMAN: It was after the America’s Cup thing in September 1970. I did the drawings; Hunter messed around on the boat we had, and we spent a week drugged with a rock band on board trying to screw the race up, getting in amongst the boats. We became entertainment; we had a rock band and we had a couple of big speakers lashed to the mast. I got terribly seasick and Hunter gave me one of these pills, said it was a settling pill. For three hours nothing happened, then it began to take effect. I began to see red-eyed dogs, everything looked weird.
GROTH: Had you taken drugs before?
STEADMAN: Not like that. Not hallucinogenics.
GROTH: What was it?
STEADMAN: Psilocybin, a form of mescaline. Hunter was gobbling them all week. He must’ve been somewhere else all week.
GROTH: Does he take as many drugs as he actually claims to?
STEADMAN: I think he takes more, but doesn’t like to admit it. I don’t know why he’s still alive, but he is, and he’ll probably outlive us all; he has that kind of constitution. He doesn’t deserve to. People that do usually don’t deserve to, but that’s the way it is.
GROTH: That’s right.
STEADMAN: So that became a sort of a dry run for us to do Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — that weird week at America’s Cup. Hunter decided, I think, that he wouldn’t take me along because I became a basket case by the end of the week. I got back to New York with three dollars in my pocket, no shoes. I needed a doctor when I got to New York. [Groth laughs] I did! I was actually palpitating; I was blue in the face.
GROTH: Because of the drugs?
STEADMAN: Coming down from the drugs had such a traumatic effect on me. It scarred my insides. I had a friend in New York, Ann Beneduce, and the funny thing is I had put her into a ditch, actually broke her ribs in a ditch in a car in Italy some years before. But she saved my life, which was nice of her after me doing that to her. I rang up and she happened to be in. She said, “You sound awful.” I said, “I’ve really had a peculiar week and a bad experience, can I come up?” She said she was just going out, but sensed something in my voice. I went round and she got a doctor immediately and he gave me an injection. Then he asked me, “Are you a regular kind of guy — do you often do these kind of things?” So I said, “Of course I don’t. I’m regular; I’ve got a wife and four children.” I was sort of put out by this question. So, I slept for 24 hours and I woke up on Sunday afternoon and I tried to draw what I remembered — blood in the water, jackknife, boat. I remember Hunter had bought a jackknife that week. You know what a jackknife is? A big pigsticker. And I saw the boats in the water like a jackknife, shark with a peculiar blade, and the water was red, and the moon was making jagged white knives in the water. And I was going to write “Fuck the Pope” on the side of one of the boats. I couldn’t close my eyes; I kept seeing purple skin moving. They couldn’t get me to sit down on the plane. It never really worked, this America’s Cup thing, and [Rolling Stone publisher] Jann Wenner called it the biggest, most expensive fucked-up story in the history of journalism — no, that was the Zaire story. But this one was also a fucked-up story because Hunter didn’t file his copy and Scanlan’s was going broke. Hunter rang up for more money and they said, “We haven’t got any more money; it’s gone.” The one big thing in his mind was to get back to Aspen, Colorado, to register for Sheriff on the Freak Power vote for which he got 34 percent of the votes. His maxim was: “Any drug worth taking shouldn’t be paid for. If you have any complaints, see me. I’m the sheriff.”
GROTH: How did you get the London Times stint? You were in America at the time?
STEADMAN: Yes. I was covering the Kentucky Derby with Hunter, and I got this call. I was in Greenwich Village in New York when I got back from the Kentucky Derby and I was drawing — I was trying to do those drawings for the Kentucky Derby piece — and I thought it was a marvelous idea. They said, “Can you come back [to London] in a couple weeks time?” So I thought, “Well, I’ve been here two months now so I could go back.” So that’s what I did, I went back and took this job. In a way I wish I hadn’t. I wish I’d stayed on in America a bit. I’d always harbored this notion of doing something really worthwhile in American politics and in the end really did it from afar, from a distance, which may be a good way as well. The Rolling Stone stuff was done really as a stranger.
GROTH: You were in America when you did that?
STEADMAN: Well, yes, I was in America, but I was going home again. It was like I was nippinginto America for two, three weeks at a time, and then nipping back home again and drawing at home. Or maybe occasionally drawing in a hotel room. But I made such a bloody mess of the place; it became embarrassing, throwing ink around. [Laughter] That’s the problem: my whole room — I used to tell the maids to just leave it because the wallpaper was covered in newspaper and pictures and things I needed, and the whole floor around me was newspaper because I was worried about their carpets. It was just like a studio. It just became really ridiculous. You couldn’t explain, and then the bloody maid would clean up and then you wouldn’t know where the hell anything was. Then you can’t get back into it again, because I have to get a bit of a mess to get any work done.
GROTH: This would be your average Holiday Inn?
STEADMAN: Yes, or the Hyatt Regency occasionally, if you’d get a good job.
GROTH: Just so I can get the chronology straight, the London Times called you in …
STEADMAN: June 1970, to cover the election. Edward Heath and Harold Wilson were the antagonists. I did daily cartoons just the two weeks prior to the elections for them, and after a couple of weeks they called me back and asked me to come and start as a regular contributor. So that was a great idea at the time. I had nothing else particularly because I had never really worked for anybody. So I did it, and three months later they said, “Do you want to continue; we’ll renew the contract.” So I said OK, and then three months after that I got a call from a guy called Charley Douglas Humes — he’s dead now, poor chap; died right young. He called me in and said William Reece Mog, who was then the editor of the Times, was beginning to “feel your cartoons are a little seditious and I don’t think we need them in the pages of the Times, so I’ll have to ask you to leave.” And that’s what happened. I never really worked for anyone again.
GROTH: This is the same William Reece Mog who is on the Broadcasting Standard Council now?
STEADMAN: You know him! I wondered whether you had picked it up. He’s the new vacuum cleaner of filth in our broadcasting. So, anyway, I went back to England then and six months later I got a call from Thompson saying, “I got this manuscript; I’ll send you a copy; I’d like some drawing for it. Will you do it?” It was like the America’s Cup but instead of taking me he needed a lawyer to get him out because he was going to a police chiefs’ convention, a drug convention. The Mint 400 Bike Race was the same week. He thought I’d know about it. I sent him some drawings when it started coming out. I did the lizards in the bath and the blood-soaked carpet, things like that, the hitchhiker. When Hunter saw them, I got this telegram: “We’ll bring the fuckers to the knees with this one. This will beat some gongs.” [Laughter] Hot damn! This is it! Rolling Stone came out and splashed this whole thing. Jann [Wenner] was thrilled to bits. The next thing I knew, he wanted to send me to Miami for the convention and it was going to be as a team — and it became a team; we went there, and to the Watergate hearings; then they sent us to Zaire to cover the Ali-Foreman fight. That was the biggest fucked-up story; that cost almost $30,000.
GROTH: Thompson didn’t deliver?
STEADMAN: No, he didn’t do it; it was just too — I don’t know. Mayhem was taking place in his mind. He couldn’t really concentrate on the bloody thing. He went through periods — and this was one of them — where he couldn’t find the story. Eventually, it was in England; he knew that John Daly and David Frost were involved in this money scam over where the money came from for the fight, and how John Daly wasn’t allowed to leave Zaire until he had given so many thousands of pounds to President Mobutu. We sold our tickets on the night of the fight, or gave them away — one or the other — got a huge bag of grass. People were knocking on the door day and night. There was never any sleep at night. We just kept awake on coffee and drugs and whiskey.
GROTH: Was it like being with Thompson on the campaign trail? Do you have any particular recollections?
STEADMAN: Well, I didn’t do a lot of that stuff on the campaign trail except for the Miami thing, the Watergate thing. I wasn’t, for instance, in New Hampshire with him. I think they thought that wasn’t a necessary part of it because Hunter was like a roving reporter. What he wanted to do was to try to continue with me somehow, which we did sporadically because I kept going back to England — cover things like the main events. It was during those years — only three or four years in time; it wasn’t a long time — when the Nixon thing was rising to the surface, the scum rising; it was during that time that I developed this approach to drawing which became far more visceral. It was a kind of anger, really. Partly induced by Hunter, but also the screaming lifestyle of America, and I was just party to that; finding it positively exhilarating, and hateful, a combination of all that’s harmful, marvelous. I was always glad to get home again. It’d be so complex to imagine how the various events came about. I know that there was no order in it all; there was no sense of direction, but something seemed to happen which was good. It was this anarchic terrorist approach to things. We were like journalistic terrorists — and it was also essential to be on the outside looking in, scrutinizing and not be part of them. In fact, it was difficult sometimes to get a bloody visa for me to get into the country, but I managed to get one eventually.
GROTH: You mean it was difficult to get a visa for political reasons?
STEADMAN: I don’t know what it was. They made it difficult. There was always a difficulty. There was always last minute stuff. But somehow it was part of the headiness of the thing. I used to like it. I don’t any more. I can’t stand it any more, not being able to get somewhere for some bloody silly reason, because you’re a bit shifty or something. I didn’t think it could last long as a team, although we did it again in 1980 in Hawaii for “The Curse of Lono.”
GROTH: When you illustrated “Fear and Loathing On the Campaign Trail ’72” for Rolling Stone, were you actually on the campaign trail with Thompson most of the time?
STEADMAN: Not most of the time, no. Because you don’t keep up with Hunter Thompson. I think I would have died, although he wanted us to do something quite different, which was travel America from coast to coast and up and down and cover everything, go to a southern wedding, even touch Alaska — we were going to go to Alaska at one stage and do something up there — and just generally try to cover America in the same way we had done “Fear and Loathing.” But it never materialized because magazines that we worked for always seemed to go broke, except for Rolling Stone, which wasn’t prepared to do that.
GROTH: They went yuppie instead.
STEADMAN: Exactly. I’m afraid it’s a shame. You look at the magazine: it’s so full of banality. It’s a pity.
GROTH: Status quo.
STEADMAN: Exactly: Don’t rock the boat; don’t make waves.
GROTH: To what do you ascribe the evolution of Rolling Stone from what it was in the late ’60s and early ’70s, which was a fairly radical political magazine, to the kind of tedious rag it is now?
STEADMAN: Well, I think basically comfort and success, and then a lack of belief: “If you can’t change anything anyway … ” I think that’s the worst and most distressing thing about living generally, that it cancels out your belief. You feel as if you can change things when you’re young, and then somehow you sour with life. Some don’t. Maybe there are some around who say, “Oh, I don’t agree with that,” but somehow something goes from you. You just don’t have the same energy level of commitment or set of beliefs. You can no longer believe. I’ve known many people who can simply believe even if it’s a simple religion.
GROTH: Is there a sense in which that’s happened to you at all?
STEADMAN: Well, yes, I suppose so. But I did feel once upon a time that I could do something worthwhile and that there was going to come a time when people were reasonable and understanding. But it’s not happened. People have just gotten worse and they’re more trite; they’ve just somehow curled up into stupid antics. They’ve just developed a lifestyle of banality and empty entertainment. Everything’s like that somehow. It doesn’t feel like a healthy world at the moment.