Art & Photography / AnOther Thing I Wanted to Tell You

Ralph Steadman on the death of Hunter S. Thompson

Ralph Steadman, the definitive Gonzo artist of the age, describes the moment he heard that his friend Hunter S. Thompson had died

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas
Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas Illustration by Ralph Steadman

“Hunter told me he would commit suicide at any moment. And, in fact, when he did commit suicide, he did it on the phone to his wife Anita who was at the health club. The bullet went through the cooker hub, there’s still a hole in there. I knew he’d do it one day. I was rung up in the middle of the night – about 2 o’clock in the morning – by Joe Petro, who said, “Take your phone off the hook, Hunter has just committed suicide.” I was like, “Oh God, he said he would. OK.” So I did. That was February 20th 2005. In fact, for the next 6 years, on the 20th February, at that hour of the day, I would take a piece of paper and put it on the board, and then whack it with the paint brush. I’d then note down the time that I’d whacked it. I’ve got six sheets of it. Did you know the word ‘gonzo’ is Portugese for ‘hinge’? So it can become unhinged, can’t it? Bill Cardoso, who coined the phrase – Hunter said to him, ‘Gonzo, what the fuck is Gonzo?’ It’s gonzo, it’s just crazy. Off its rocker, you know? It’s quite a good way of putting it. He did say though, he couldn’t carry on with it any more. That’s why he did it. It’s a hell of a story.”

"Hunter told me he would commit suicide at any moment. And, in fact, when he did...he did it on the phone to his wife" — Ralph Steadman

Ralph Steadman’s scabrous, fantastical drawings are as synonymous with the psychedelic Gonzo writings of the late Hunter S. Thompson as gunplay and alcohol. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thomspon’s drug-addled attack on the state of the nation was memorable for its scrawled images of monstrous barflies and bats on the highway as much as for its spiky and hilarious text. Often described as the Sancho Panza to Thompson’s wild Quixote, Steadman, a mild man from north Wales, time and again found himself roped into Thompson’s capers. From attempting to spray-paint “fuck the pope” on a yacht at the 1970 Americas Cup to jeering at exhausted runners on the home stretch of the 1980 Honolulu marathon, Steadman was something of a wingman to madcap Thompson when they were on assignment.

Their odd couple friendship is remembered in new documentary For No Good Reason, detailing their picaresque jaunts and shared commitment to excoriating corrupt politicians. Narrated by Johnny Depp, a friend of both Steadman and the late Thompson, the film provides a unique insight into Steadman’s working methods, which almost always start with a flick of paint on canvas. From writing a gardening column for Rolling Stone in the 1980s to books on Leonardo da Vinci and Sigmund Freud, Steadman has had a long, and varied career and while the shadow of Thompson looms large, he has always remained his own artist.

For No Good Reason is out on DVD on September 8.

Text by Laura Allsop