The Decline and Fall of the Gonzo Empire

Book review: The Joke’s Over by Ralph Steadman

(2006, Harcourt Books; ISBN 0156032503; Amazon link)

  • Fear and Loathing in AP European History Class, the Kentucky Derby from the artist’s perspective, an aging legend who eats like a pig, making sense of an An American Genius, a Bitter End and throwing in the towel

  • When Rolling Stone magazine re-published parts of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in the mid-90s, probably trying to revive interest in the old rag during one of its countless dips in popularity, I sat and read it in European history class, laughed my ass off, showed it to people sitting near me, and realized the modern resiliency and potential of the written word.

    Hunter S. Thompson was the finest writer of his generation.  After a considerable amount of reading between then and now, of that I feel sure.  I can only aspire to be the finest one of my humbler, less literate Generation.  But the greatness, ambition and determination of America that Thompson reflected and amplified seems to be a wasting asset.  How have things gone so wrong in this country, anyway?

    That seems to be the chief question Ralph Steadman is asking in The Joke’s Over. Recalling one of the last times he visited Thompson, Steadman says:

    “We watched the great debate between Kerry and Bush on video tape and stared in horror at this feeble-minded twit trying to take on John Kerry.  I don’t know how anyone could vote for such a man and many said they wouldn’t, but as I have said before, many were lying. [p. 378]”

    Steadman, who drew the illustrations for many of Hunter S. Thompson’s writings, has written a book detailing his adventures with the leading proponent of “Gonzo journalism.”

    Certainly an important part of Thompson’s success in creating a twisted version of the New Journalism from the ashes of the 1960s counterculture, Steadman sometimes doubts himself and also frequently portrays Hunter as a cold, mean and twisted, though often wounded and idealistic, icon.

    It can be remarked that the real Hunter S. Thompson may have lost sight of his original ideals, but seeing the time Steadman knew him as an evolution ignores the changes the now-Hells Angels-hardened Thompson had already undergone from the idealistic old-school aspiring novelist that he saw himself as in the early 1960s, an era perhaps best captured by the novel The Rum Diary.  But so much for all that, as Thompson would often write in his pieces.  Ralph Steadman captures a somewhat dark, certainly tragic and highly brilliant American genius as well as any observer might be thought capable of.

    Steadman starts from the beginning, when he met Thompson for an assignment in 1970 at the Kentucky Derby.  The resulting article and drawings for Scanlan’s magazine, as well as their subsequent work for the America’s Cup, were the experiences that laid the groundwork for the words and drawings of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1971, and are relayed in this book from Steadman’s perspective–an enjoyable read, especially for those who have already read those pieces that Thompson wrote all those years ago.

    Throughout the book, drawings that were made by Steadman during or about the events he writes about appear in the book, offering welcome companion images which, after all, are probably even better illustrations of what Steadman was thinking rather even than what Thompson was thinking.  Several series of rare photographs are also reprinted in the volume.

    Later Steadman talks about his time in San Francisco and dealings with the Rolling Stone magazine staff, then Washington D.C. during the Watergate era.  Venturing out into the Rockies, he also captures a bit of the early days of Hunter’s home life out in Woody Creek, Colorado.  Talking about a visit involving the filming of a 1977 movie about Thompson for the BBC, Mr. Steadman makes some of his most interesting points and observations about Hunter S. Thompson, including:

    “That’s the other thing–Gonzo is controlled madness.  It would use anything within its range to activate something.  There’s not really anything sinister in it.  I mean, I’d be very unhappy about some of the people I have met who would tote guns and, you know, you’d fell that they were doing it with a certain malevolence, which is certainly not the case with Hunter.  [p. 141]”

    Moving into the 1980s, Steadman writes about the Hawaii marathon and his time on Kona with his family and Thompson and his girlfriend Laila, including a diary that discusses marlin fishing, which formed the backdrop the The Curse of Lono.  In one of his diaries, Steadman lets loose with what he thinks of the furthest west of the states:

    “Hawaii is not trying to be the centre of the world.  It has a cheapness I despise and a worthwhile cheapness.  Cheapness is what we have all been striving for.  Cheap like we are.  Cheap style and cheap tricks.  It is not worthwhile but it feels like life.  [p. 221]”

    A description of a fishing expedition gone wrong ends with this reflection:

    “There was no shame in our Captain.  Couldn’t he just cut his losses and make for shore–save his crew–and lose his own face?  However, the complexity of his seafaring mind was beyond understanding and he was not bending to wind or circumstance.  [p. 219]”

    Thereafter the question becomes–is that an adequate way of describing Hunter S. Thompson, especially from the 1980s on until his death in 2005?  Is there symbolism in Thompson’s unconventional ashes-scattering-through-pipes-near-Owl-Farm memorial service, which Steadman had sketched for Thompson and seen him try to describe it to a fascinated funeral parlor manager in Los Angeles years before?

    Perhaps Ralph Steadman uses the memorial service and its long planning as a coloring detail to darken the mood of the book, or perhaps he conveys a much better version of what people actually saw of Thompson rather than the man’s own buoyant spirit as it came through in his own best writings?  Though Thompson was quite open about being a “dope fiend,” sometimes the level of drug and alcohol use (and the amount and severity of physical injuries later in life like broken bones) described by Steadman is somewhat shocking.

    Steadman’s account of their trip to Zaire in the 1970s to cover the Ali-Foreman fight includes lots of strange incidents, including Joe Frazier stealing his pen [p. 127], George Foreman telling Steadman that he’ll go into the dough business after boxing, and Hunter selling off tickets to the fight, along with a bunch of “African grass” to the frequent visitors to their shared room.

    During the 80s, Thompson tried to keep him at a greater distance in terms of the Gonzo brand, according to Steadman.  Periodic requests for help, often spiked with or followed by insults, seemed to be Hunter’s way of communicating to Ralph as the fax machine era of the 1980s rolled on into the 1990s. Over time their working relationship appears to have broken down at times, started and stopped, although Thompson and Steadman appear to have been friends at least through much of it.

    Though it’s hard to be completely sure that this was really much of a friendship, with Steadman saying things like this:

    “When I began this book I thought it was going to be a journey of pleasure and warm memories, but as I write I feel more of the icy winds of rejection that were probably there from the beginning.  [p. 144]”

    Steadman witnessed the rather dysfunctional domestic environment Thompson tended to cultivate.  Although his son Juan is discussed (mainly in the 1990s and later) and admiringly described, and his first wife Sandy comes off as tolerant and supportive when Steadman describes the scene at Woody Creek in the 1970s:

    “They would never know the whole Hunter.  Nobody ever did, though I believe that Juan and his mother Sandy fought his corner, nurtured him even, and protected his right to be lame.  [p. 145]”

    The marriage to Sandy didn’t last.  Later on the divorce drags on in the background and in the 1980s Sandy is out on her own, as this letter from Thompson attests to:

    “Sandy has been touring for most pf the year, & not even Juan has any idea what she plans to do when she gets back–which will happen just about the time I was planning to hit the wall in Kona.  [p. 247]”

    Some of Thompson’s later girlfriends are mentioned, notably Nicole during a bizarre and unproductive England visit and Anita toward the end.  We’ll probably hear more from some of them, especially his wife Anita who is cast by Steadman as a guardian of his legacy.

    The later chapters of the book read a bit like a maudlin fan’s diary, even though Steadman still casts a sharp, critical eye toward the aging icon, as an artist would I suppose.  For example, having known him for over thirty years and having seen it over and over, Steadman still seemed to be shocked at “Hunter’s filthy eating habits.”

    “Hunter was still mucking with his food, picking something up and putting it down again and then looking at the TV game.  [p. 378]”

    Still most of Thompson’s foibles are forgiven on the basis that Thompson was, after all, American, up there in Colorado at the last frontier, and this perhaps appeared to endow him with super writing abilities along with super flaws from a foreigner’s perspective.  But whatever.  Certainly the Welsh Mr. Steadman is a also a fine writer, and his vast differences in habit and personality from Mr. Thompson must have been awkward but they certainly bring a different perspective than Thompson’s, a very valuable service indeed for those of us who have read more or less every sentence written by Thompson that they’ve been able to get their hands on.  In the end, whether he’s right or not, Steadman sees Thompson’s death by apparent suicide as a symbol and result of the decline and fall of America’s greatness.  As he puts to a now-deceased Thompson in a final Memo -to- The Sports Desk:

    “Those who grew to be a threat to your America continued to burgeon.  You faced them and made your choice.  The brutal contempt of the majority convinced you to let it be, throw in the towel and give up the ghost.  [p. 386]”