Cartoonist Ralph Steadman on Hunter Thompson and counterculture days

Artist Ralph Steadman is the last of the original Gonzo visionaries who worked alongside Hunter S. Thompson.
(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

NEW YORK — Few figures epitomize the counterculture more than Ralph Steadman. Wicked satirist, outlandish cartoonist and, of course, longtime Hunter S. Thompson co-conspirator, the British artist has been making mayhem for five decades. In “For No Good Reason,” a documentary 15 years in the making, director Charlie Paul examines Steadman’s creative process and, through a conversation between Steadman and Johnny Depp and rare archival footage featuring Thompson, captures the artist’s mischievous spirit.

Steadman recently traveled from his farm in England to New York for the film’s premiere (whose afterparty included Steadman’s long-awaited reunion with Tom Wolfe and Jann Wenner) and a new gallery retrospective showcasing his work. At 77, still feisty and prone to his famous digressions, Steadman continues to exhibit the kind of sparkly eccentricity that made him a standout in publications such as Punch and Rolling Stone as well as in numerous books and shows. The Times caught up with him at the gallery about his colorful career and views.

It’s clear from the film you have an obsession with, a bit surprisingly, Leonardo da Vinci. You wrote a book about him, an illustrated biography, and he seems to fascinate you. Why?

What I always wanted to know is what it feels like to be Leonardo da Vinci. I started the book because of a book about Sigmund Freud, who said Leonardo was “a man who woke up in the dark.” And I’ve felt like that. We all feel like that. I was inside my mother’s womb for nine months and I was a genius because I figured how to get out.

You’ve lived through so many social changes and in fact you’ve been a part of them, agitating for the world to be a better place through your political cartoons and cultural bomb-throwing. Has all of this protest art made things better?


I don’t think so. There was something quaint about the world back when I started. It was the lovely Beatles. “Eleanor Rigby.” What happened to all of that? I don’t think anything’s come along like that. It seems to me now that money doesn’t talk; it screams. Back in the ‘70s there was still a certain kind of innocence. The bankers hadn’t yet taken over.

What do you think went wrong?

In the 2000s Steve Jobs developed all this technology, and I think he realized the terrible position he put us in. The world will never be the same again. People always with technology instead of other people. Does loneliness make you more connected? Do people enjoy loneliness? I’ll tell you what is good: Skype. Because you can still see their eyes. That’s still in the realm of animal behavior.

It’s impossible to think of you without thinking of Hunter Thompson. How did that relationship flourish?

Subverting was key. He and I always believed authority was used as a weapon, not as control. We had a healthy disrespect for it. We’d call them [police and authority figures] pigs, but that was an insult to the pigs, who are really sweet little lovely things.

What was the adventure that best reflected your relationship?

Well, when we went to Kinshasa to cover the fight [Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire in 1974], and I’d brought him a bottle of Glenfiddich because he’d never heard of it. And I said, “Are we going to the fight?” And he said [goes into baritone Thompson impression], ‘No, we’re not going to go the fight.’ Instead he bought this giant bag of grass for $40. He called it medicine. And he said he would give it away. So people would come to the door. “Can I have some medicine?” And he would give them some. And then the moment the fight was over he said, “Let’s get out of town.” Because he always said that the minute whatever it is we were supposed to be covering was over even though we never covered it. I still don’t know what he did with the rest of the grass.

There’s a striking moment in the film in which we can see Hunter tormenting his pet bird and you say you sometimes felt like that bird. What did you mean by that?

He had that bird, Edward. And he’d rattle its cage or hold it and squeeze it and say, “Edward, there’s no bird god that will save you now.” And sometimes I was the bird. I’d internalize what he was doing to that bird. Because I was the innocent abroad, you see.

What was your reaction to his suicide in 2005? Did it shock you?

He had said to me that if he didn’t know every minute of his life that he could commit suicide he wouldn’t be able to live. He had that all his life; that is what he was going to do. So I knew he would do something crazy. It’s just that old phrase, “I always knew I would take this journey, but I didn’t know yesterday that it would be today.”

Is it strange to reflect like this about Hunter and your relationship with him? Does it feel recent?

Last night I met Tom Wolfe, who rarely goes out. It was so nice to see him, but it was hard. Age is terrible. That’s the worst thing about old age: old age. Someone once said to my father he’d just turned 70, and my father said, “You bloody look it too.” He couldn’t stand anyone going on about their age. My father, by the way, is why I became an artist. I knew exactly what I wanted to do in life because my father couldn’t do what he wanted to do. He wanted to build cars like Ford; he wanted to be an engineer. And he was something else [a traveling salesman] instead.

Speaking of being an artist, one of the notable insights from the film is how you make your art without a net, just kind of drawing and seeing what comes of it. Why do you choose that approach?

The idea has always been that I don’t use a pencil first. People say, “Why don’t you use a pencil?” And I say, “No, I just go in.” And they say, ‘Don’t you make a mistake?’ And I say there’s no such thing as a mistake. A mistake is an opportunity to do something else. We can’t plan too much. We can’t plan a boring life or an exciting life. That’s the title of the film. “For No Good Reason.” That came from Hunter. “Why are we doing this, Hunter?” “For no good reason, Ralph. For no good reason at all.”