GonzoYesterdaze w/ Ralph Steadman: Drawing Vegas

I received an email from Ralph accompanied by this photo. We’ve been back and forth at each other since he sent me a bunch of gibberish making fun of my grandfather’s school bus. – Clayton Luce, editor-in-chief

Dear Clayton,
I wrote this shortly after returning to the UK after meeting and working with Hunter for the 2nd time. You may already have read it somewhere though I don’t recall where or when……..and the first time Hunter was sounding excited and enthusiastic……GONZO YESTERDAZE……


By Ralph STEADman

. . . And here it might be worth mentioning that Fear and Loathing began as a 250-word caption for Sports Illustrated. The turgid investigation of the accidental murder of a Chicano journalist called Ruben Salazar by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was getting him down – and Hunter was a mess of nerves and sleepless nights, kicking and screaming as was his way- a desperate frustrated writer who really didn’t want to be a journalist but a proper writer. His one novel, The RUM DIARY was a failed experiment and kicking and scratching was all that a trapped animal can do. He called the one man who may offer him some kind of refuge. Oscar Acosta forever surrounded by mean gringo/gabacho hating friends who wanted no part of Hunter but his head on a stick.

In desperation, Hunter kidnapped Oscar in a rented car and drove him over to the Beverly Hills Hotel, away from his own environment and poured out his heart, nay! schemed in the Polo Lounge. Although Oscar was sympathetic to his predicament, Oscar was also head man to all these disparate souls and they needed their appointed leader. But Hunter needed Oscar at this point. Someone at Sports Illustrated had asked if Hunter would be interested in going to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race called the Mint 400. Hunter suggested that it just might be a good idea to get away from the madness of the Salazar/Murder implications and clear their minds by doing something completely mindless. Hunter agreed to take on the ‘Vegas thing’ if he could take along his new assistant, and a lawyer no less.

After the trip, which was supposed to be about the race, Sports Illustrated rejected the 2500 words he filed and refused to pay even his expenses. Though he had ridden with and written about the Hell’s Angels. Hunter knew nothing about motor bikes, except perhaps the Vincent Black Shadow, and maybe a (find a few pathetic machines to fill this space). His mind was somewhere else. Hunter holed up in a Ramada Inn in Arcadia, California, near the Pasadena Auditorium and right across from the Santa Anita racetrack. He was still working on the Salazar piece and his days were spent sleeping while his nights were a fuel injected writing frenzy about Salazar and some of the straight talking from Oscar about the case. But his mind was also freewheeling through a Vegas landscape of strange people, racing freaks and hack journalists. It was obvious that he was sick.

A time like this was the best time to invent something weird and significant. Hunter calls it a ‘qualifier- the ‘essence’ of what, for no particular reason, (HAH!) ‘I’ve’ decided to call Gonzo Journalism’. Noooo! Conveniently inaccurate. It was a strange chemistry that brought it about and Hunter thought the whole Derby piece was a Goddamn failure until it appeared in Scanlan’s magazine and a journalist friend from The Boston Globe called Bill Cardoza, wrote to Hunter and said, ‘Hey, man! That Derby piece was crazy!! It was pure GONZO!!! And that was the very first time that Hunter, or me, had ever heard the word. Hunter picked it up immediately and made it his own, but he rationalised it by describing it as ‘a style of “reporting” based on William Faulkner’s idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism—and the best journalists have always known this’.

His idea was to buy a fat notebook on spiral wire and record everything as it happened, then get it published exactly- facsimile -– without editing. He wanted it to feel like his mind and his eyes were functioning simultaneously as with a Cartier-Bresson photograph- no cropping but the whole negative without the usual futzing about in a darkroom later. He hungered after a mind picture. He welded into one the talents of a master journalist, the eye of an artist photographer and the ‘heavy balls of an actor. Only Rolling Stone seemed ready for this kind of inspired accident- his fired up resentment towards a fascist/Nixon government who was likely to get re-elected, along with the Sports Illustrated blank rejection and his 250 word ‘experiment’ all conspired to jam his mind full of the hate he needed to go wild in the most artificial city on the planet, Las Vegas, break the law and leave behind a litany of felonies that would put anybody else behind bars. It was a last ditch attempt to live up to the wild freedom of the Sixties before convention and ‘common sense’ closed it down forever. He called it ‘conceptual schizophrenia, caught and crippled in that vein, academic limbo between “journalism” & “fiction,” hoist by its own petard.

But Jann Wenner, who owned and edited his Rolling Stone baby, and who, like a Hogarthian wet nurse, kept it comatozed on gin, vodka and drugs. He seized the wildness and gave it its head. That was all Hunter needed along with his wild Samoan lawyer, drawn in by the progress of the ‘story’ – the subject of Ruben Salazar was all but wrapped up. The craziness was now affordable and nobody could overhear their plans as they plotted in a top-down red beast of a red shark on the road to Las Vegas, a crazy plan, then living to tell the tale. The ‘famous’ hitchhiker that they contrived to pick up on the way, never came forward to identify himself, and is still an anonymous mystery. I believe it was a stuffed porcupine that Hunter kept in the back seat of his own red shark whenever he drove to the Aspen airport to pick up visitors.

The concept was written by him but the pictures, drawn by me, augmented the crazy dimension Hunter had hoped he could single-handedly create in his fat notebook. Following my own contribution everything was done, processed and realised in two copies of Rolling Stone Magazine, Issues 95 and 96, November 12 and 25. 1971, respectively, In the book which followed seamlessly in their wake, it reads:

Copyright c 1971 by Hunter S. Thompson.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by “Raoul Duke” first appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, issue 95, November11, 1971 and 96, November25, 1971.
Drawings by Ralph Steadman originally appeared in Rolling Stone issues 95 and 96, November 11 and 25, 1971, respectively, © Straight Arrow Publishers. Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.
ISBN: 0-394-46435-4
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 76-37082
Manufactured in the United States of America by The Colonial Press Inc., Clinton, Mass.
First Edition

…but not a breath of copyright for me, Ralph Steadman. I didn’t notice at the time, Never read that page before in a book, naturally, because the buzz was great. Praise was overwhelming and chicanery was the last thing on my mind. The book which appeared was noticed mainly for the drawings. They were milked and used mercilessly, unbeknown to me. They instantly became iconic and an integral part of this great new book by Hunter S. Thompson, so far declaring himself a Doctor of Sophistry- (ie; any thing that fits is OK by me, he said, explaining the definition). I was being gently screwed and separated, ever so silently, from my own baby. It never occurred to me that my work would be subject to so much greedy frenzy. There was a kind of use made of my work that I can only describe as a hyena scrum. The worst was the journalistic scroff of pretending the ‘wow man we dig what you do and we need it for our next issue, and fuck you because we’ll use it anyway’ kind of attitude and I was too stupid and nice to say anything against those people. They were scum but I had not yet learned to know the difference. Rock groups have gone through the same legalistic sponge, and they learned the hard way like I did.

I remember asking Hunter what had become of Oscar. I had met Oscar a couple of times at Jerry’s Bar just across the road from Rolling Stone’s San Francisco offices on 3rd Street which seemed to me a kind of old shunting rail yard area and warehouse district, sand blasted brick walls and submerged rail tracks. I had said that Oscar had appeared to me to be such a gentle private soul who told me of the poor young kids who had got themselves a police record simply for smoking pot. Oscar said it was unfair to mark these kids with what was not a criminal act. He said that he defended them as a kind of crusade of principal. HE struck me as a genuine and humane man. Hunter didn’t say anything specific about his fate, but pointed to his solar plexus and pushed, suggesting that he had been shot in some drug running scam, or maybe, and I prefer this version, he had got involved in a mini-revolution in Puerto Rico and was shot fighting for the rights of those people he had spent much of his life defending. In fact, Hunter preferred I didn’t ask.

Early in 1971 I got a letter from Hunter, who had finally tracked me down to our new home. With the letter was a gruesome manuscript Hunter had been working on- something experimental- he said, and would I be able to do some sick drawings to express the awfulness of what he had been through with a man called Oscar Acosta, a ‘Samoan Lawyer’, who turned out to be a much maligned Chicano Lawyer, fighting for the miserable rights of Chicanos who sought out his help. He had met Hunter by accident in a bar in Aspen. Hunter had come within 500 votes of winning the Sheriff’s Campaign on a Freak Power vote, which was to say, ‘any drug worth taking shouldn’t be paid for’ and all complaints could be taken up with the Sheriff – in front of his office, on the lawn, on any Saturday afternoon, along with any other matters relevant to maintaining a decent community. Hunter won 34% of the votes which was a magnificent rebuttle against those who would prefer that a community be run on corruption, blackmail, bullying and deceit.

Oscar captured Hunter’s spirit and got him drawn into the causes of Oscar and his Chicano clients in East LA. One case in particular got Hunter started on his journalistic crusade with Rolling Stone Magazine – a magazine which had begun in San Francisco in 1967 by Jann Wenner with $7500 he had borrowed from Ralph Gleason, Jann’s mentor and dear friend. The story was not so easy but engaged Hunter in what became one of his substance-fuelled protest crusades against injustice.

Let me say it here and now. For all Hunter’s mindless self-indulgence which is legendary and crude, he always impressed me with his blind selflessness to cut out the crony bestiality of modern society and political calumny which scarred that era. Hunter was, for god’s sake, one of us. I believed him, was inspired by him and allowed him his head to do what was necessary. He never let me down and as far as I know, when we where on that ride, whichever one it was, he got from me as good as he gave.

The Salazar case which appeared on April 29, 1971, was probably a hint that Hunter was not merely playing for effect, but while doing that for the sake of his own survival, believed that his writing was worth more than a one-off appearance in a new fancy rock’n’roll magazine, which Rolling Stone was at the time. He legitimized the paper and people began to take it seriously as the magazine to watch and read. Since our lucky bull’s-eye meeting in Kentucky, I was along for the ride, but I knew instinctively that my images, when I produced them, put Hunter’s words into a truly legitimate scenario. I could visualise every nuance of meaning he wished to project. I knew it from day one and I knew it right up to the case of Lisl Auman who was imprisoned for life for the shooting of a Denver police officer, even though she was handcuffed and in the back of a police car when the crime was committed. Hunter was outraged and fought for her release which came to pass after his death In that way he was a genuine crusader whose generosity knew no bounds. She is released to the eternal gratitude of Lisl’s mother.

But I digress:

I got a call from him in the spring of 1971 and I was all interested to know what he had been up to. He told me he had been working on a political story about a Radio Announcer on an Hispanic station called Ruben Salazar. He was also a journalist with the Los Angeles Times and was covering a riot in East LA. with a radio reporter. The story goes that they had stopped for a beer in a bar on Whittier Boulevard. Somebody told the police that two men were in the bar, Ruben and his colleague, and one of them had a gun- a highly irresponsible thing to say under the circumstances. They were asked to come out with their hands up. Nothing happened so the police shot tear gas canisters in through the door. One of the canisters hit Salazar on the head and killed him. The police denied any involvement with the death and tried to blame it on the Chicano rioters, but there had been many witnesses, and so the police were forced to admit that it was one of them who had fired the fatal shot, which was confirmed by the coroner’s office. The Chicano community used Salazar’s name to further their cause for equal rights and ‘Remember Ruben Salazar’ became the war cry and his name the symbol of their repression.

‘I met a guy called Oscar Acosta in a bar in Aspen, said he was a lawyer’, said Hunter ‘who told me about these filthy goings on and I got interested’. Oscar is a bit fucked up , by the way. He suffers from Ulcers and self-doubt. And he doesn’t have many clients, well, one actually, an actor who fell off my motor cycle and broke his leg. Yes, Ralph! It was because of me!’

‘How unusual’, I replied, ‘-and then what?’

‘One thing led to another and I asked him to accompany me on a journey to the Heart of the American Dream. I was going to ask you but after that Rhode Island business, I reckoned you would have had enough. And I needed a lawyer- even a Samoan one’.

‘I thought you said he was Hispanic’.

‘Well, he was Ralph’ but for the sake of this story I have written, Samoan sounds better. Anyway, what I really called you about was whether you would be up for doing some vicious drawings for it if I send you the manuscript?’

‘Yeah, OK !’ My heart pumped faster and I got butterflies in the stomach. ‘Send it over!’ I said with false bravado…’I’ll see what I can do- and whose it for?’

‘This music magazine, Rolling Stone. They’ve never heard of you but I assured them that no one else could do what I want.’

‘Then I had better not disappoint them then!’ My confidence grew and I began to feel that at last I had found an outlet for all the pent-up traumas and mental turbulence I had suppressed over the last six months. I had been pretending that there was nothing there; Anna and I had resumed a pretty good domestic balance and I was seeing my four children every Saturday.

It was as though I already knew the story. I had been there before . Not the same place , not the same story, not even in the same skin, but a shock of recognition from a suppressed well of personal experience and personal dread. An exciting resonance with something suicidal emerged and I settled down at my ink stained drawing board in the back bay window of the living room on the slightly raised first floor of a Georgian terraced house at 103, New King’s Road, Fulham, London, SW6, dipped my steel pen, that was now a lethal weapon, into a blood black .cauldron of bile- and began, along with Beer and Brandy chasers, the therapeutic exercise of expunging from my mind all those trapped demons that lay in wait for their mark of recognition, so that they might emerge blinking and grimacing into the harsh daylight of reality. I was there to give them life in whatever form they chose for themselves, like a Theatre costume department handing out wigs, gelatine masks and rudimentary skin-tight costumes for each to play its role, as it saw fit. Then I did the same for Part II.

One day, maybe, they will set a blue plaque into the wall outside that house which says ‘In this house in the summer of 1971, the artist, Ralph Steadman(1936-2036), poured his soul out onto paper to liberate the evil demons from a manuscript by Hunter S. Thompson, entitled: Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. Res Ipsa Loquitor ‘.

I felt purged and better. It had been a psychological throw up, a mental mess of half-remembered terror, agonizing flashes of an assassin’s self-doubt, a half-healed scar, a screaming lifestyle expelled. I hardly drew them myself. I simply let them happen before my very eyes. I sent them off sometime in late September, informed my agent Abner Stein and resumed my work on Alice through the Looking Glass, a less haunted person than I had been for some time.

About three weeks later, I received a letter from Hunter, which I feel compelled to relate in full.

OWL FARM. Oct 19 ’71

Dear Ralph…..

I’ve tried to call you at about 19 fucking numbers—and everywhere I call, they curse your name. Then I got your card from the south of France, so at least I know you’re alive.
What I wanted to tell you is that the whole Rolling Stone office in SF flipped, freaked & went crazy when they opened the “London packet” and saw your drawings for Vegas I. All I had to say was, “Shit, that’s my man. Who else could have done it?”
Who else, indeed? They were fucking beautiful. I told Wenner right off, that nobody else could possibly catch the madness of this story & that I refused to let anyone else illustrate it…. but, jesus! I was overwhelmed when I saw the shit. Fantastic…. & I’m awaiting velox copies of your drawings for Vegas II which Wenner says are even better than the first batch.

Your snout-bike will be on the cover. We dominate the whole issue…. And in the meantime I went to NY & sold the Vegas horror as a book to Random House, and I’ve told my editor (Jim Silberman) that we must have your drawings for the book version. He’s agreed, but he’s nervous about the cost. Neither illustrations nor photos seem to help a book sell in this stinking country; all they do is jack up the retail, per copy price, and that’s naturally a critical matter, to everyone involved—including me, and ultimately even you.’

Etc,- etc,-etc re the letter went on quoting all the reasons I have heard since ad nauseam publishing economics began, and Hunter was always as cautious as the rest.

“But’, he continued, ‘I definitely think we’re on top of this one, unless your agent runs amok and demands something like 10 grand- which would kill it all. (the drawings: not the book—it’s already sold and heading into print. Incredible. I still can’t believe they would pay me for writing this kind of mad gibberish’.

What actually happened was that Rolling Stone paid me $1500 for the use of all the drawings(about 24 of them) and then offered to buy the originals off me, which my agent urged, ‘was a good move!’. He sold the whole damn treasure trove to Jann Wenner for the princely sum of 60 dollars per drawing. I rue the day I let him convince me. Random House paid me 500 dollars for the use of the drawings in the 1971 hard back edition plus another 250 dollars for their subsequent use times millions of copies worldwide for the soft cover version. No royalties were forthcoming to me until a lovely lady, Octavia Wiseman, who worked for Abner Stein at the time, managed to convince the publishers that I do indeed deserve some residual compensation and financial interest in the book’s continued success which still assume an important role in the book’s performance. It has been tentatively and grudgingly acknowledged and I have received a sort of 1% interest in something but am not yet convinced of what is an ‘interest in’. This has been a lesson hard learned and still they catch me out. It was the drawings that alerted potential readers in the first place that this was something to take note of. Drawings, or ‘illustrations’, as they are miserably referred to, can be the very signal to energise the life of a text.

Where is Winnie the Pooh without its illustrations? Where is Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas without its gonzo drawings? Impossible to say now in retrospect, and I wonder still, but I wouldn’t have missed the trip for the whole world….


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