words & art copyright Ralph Steadman
by Ralph STEADman
Editor’s Note: 2015-10-06 11:19 Ralph STEADman responds to an email from GonzoToday Founder & Publisher Clayton L. Luce:
NOW you ARE being rude!!! But being Welsh , I am prepared to let bygones be bygones – and send you an America’s Cup account from all those years ago…probably before you were even born – but that makes you lucky cos you missed Hitler!! He tried to BOMB me and my Family in an Anderson Shelter – and THATwasn’t good-ole fashioned FUN!!!OK – so it’s GONZO yesteryear……..- so folks wont have read this…….>RALPH
As it happened, I had just begun work on my second Alice book, having published Alice in Wonderland in 1967. The flat we were renting was full of mirrors which were having a strange effect on my mind. Reflection became a strange presence and suited my new project perfectly: Alice through the Looking Glass. It became vital in the production of the drawings and the book obsessed my mind.
Then a letter arrived from Hunter on July 6th. He was busy running a Wallposter broadsheet, a kind of campaigning propaganda handout in his bid to take on the local Sheriff and kick him out on his Freak Power ticket. He wanted drawings from me and said I had been listed as the Chief of the London Bureau. I was flattered. I think he had been impressed by my perverse use of women’s lipstick and eye make-up to colour my drawings. He felt that the approach had caught the depravity and decadence he was after in the writing.
He sent me photos of his ugly opponents holding guns in front of the court house. They looked like thugs from the Sidney Poitier/Rod Steiger film, In the Heat of the Night, about small town politics and corruption. I sent back a couple of drawings trying to get a handle on the kind of thing he was looking for. I didn’t hear back for a while and returned to my grappling with Alice and English politics. Hell! There was not much difference really except that our crowd didn’t wear big hats or carry guns.
- * * * * * *
In June of 1970, I was prompted by an invitation from the London Times to cover the British General Election…the one that would decide forever that Britain was indeed becoming a Socialist State, and the white heat of Technology was indeed burning a hole through the consciousness of the population; that the old order of national conservatism was a spent force, and we would prevail with our socialist ideals.
Harold Wilson was top dog, and Edward Heath was the Opposition. I remember that the first drawing I did on my return was to set my point of view. It was a picture of two large voters looking down upon three pedestals with the three main contenders fighting it out from their respective pedestals. The caption was Happiness is a small politician — my mantra then and forever more. On Monday the 8th I decided that the two main contenders were indistinguishable from each other. They became Mr.Weath and Mr. Hilson. I followed with a desert landscape of a sun burning down on the figure of Edward Heath dying of thirst. In the sun it read A Better Tomorrow, and foolishly I thought that would nail him. It didn’t of course because he won.
But I had decided not to like any of them, and I followed that with another landscape called Early Morning Scene of Heath in his pyjamas watching the sun come up with Harold Wilson’s face on it. Then another landscape followed on June 18, Election Day, with Heath, Wilson and Jeremy Thorpe the Liberal Party leader…their faces making up the undulating details of the earth. I called it The Wasteland. The media was awash with these figures and their aberrations of a better future. I think I was against all of them on principle, and my wholly negative stance was not an objective attitude in political cartooning. It was even more intuitive than informed. I don’t think that at the time, or even now, I gave a damn. Foolishly, I wanted truth and idealism, but there was none to be had. I felt early on that these people were merely electioneering and none of them stood for much except themselves. I had become an incurable sceptic who had no secure place on any newspaper, but I needed the work.
I persevered in that vein, however, and one particular cartoon from that period called The Unhappy Clown contained a kernel of truth. All the political figures of that time were dressed as clowns and were beating each other over the heads with balloons on sticks – except one – Enoch Powell. But nobody would play with him because he was standing there holding a mace on a chain. He was the only one who wanted to play hardball. There were the troubles in Northern Ireland and the fast emerging race issue, and Enoch wanted to face them both, not to mention Rhodesia and South Africa. His “Rivers of Blood” speech some time later marked him down as an embarrassment to the Tory party. He was saying what many thought to themselves, right or wrong, but he was hardly a vote catcher.
On June 16th I did a picture of Enoch Powell as a fly sitting on a heap of shit. Ian Paisley, a rabid Unionist, was beginning to make a lot of noise and was flying in to alight on the same heap. Edward Heath was creeping forward with a fly swat to hit them both and Enoch was saying, ‘Go find your own heap, Paisley!’
After the two weeks I spent covering the 1970 election, and the final drawing of a silhouette shattered shape of Harold Wilson smashed out of the door of Number 10 to express his speedy exit, that seemed to be it. Contrary to predictions that Labour would win with a comfortable 12.4% majority, the Conservatives, including some help from the Ulster Unionists, made Edward Heath the new Prime Minister with a late swing putting them 3.4%, ahead and giving them a 31 seat majority over all other parties. It was the beginning of the consumer boom in England.
Ominously, the Tory win coincided with a huge boost in the sale of armaments to South Africa and the Middle East, mainly to the Arabs…though India, Pakistan and South America were fast becoming growing markets. The common wisdom at the time was that we were merely selling insurance in an increasingly dangerous world and maintaining a balance of power!
The only reason back then that they were selling to the Arab States and not to the Israelis was claimed to be because the Israelis had not been in touch yet. Humph!! Men in high places were accepting CBE’s for their contributions to the export trade, never having to make moral judgements for what they were doing or just what a Rapier Missile System could do, even though their glossy Sales brochures proclaimed high lethality in densely populated areas, and these craven bastards returned home with fat order books for a pat on the back from MP’s and a kiss from their wives living the life.
Selling was the new religion after the privations of austerity and was just getting into its stride big time. In spite of large numbers of conscience stricken sections of society holding ban the bomb rallies and marching against the arms race in a cold war atmosphere, blind eyes were refusing to see, and our attention was diverted by Heath’s insistence that we move towards a united Europe and a Common Market, as well as forming an Anglo-American Pact against the forces of evil that lay beyond the Iron Curtain and the vague yellow peril. We were learning to enjoy money and spend like drunken gods. The age of affluence was upon us and we had changed.
Assuming that was it with the Times, I started looking for work elsewhere, but almost immediately I was offered another trial period as a staff cartoonist for three months, which I accepted. Most of the work from that period was morose and uncompromising. I assumed that Old Age Pensioners and the Yuppies of Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were on the same side behind the barricades challenging the Establishment, and that was the side I was on. The editor at the time was William Rees-Mogg who was continually warning me that my attitudes were dangerous and subversive, but the late Charlie Douglas Hume was on my side. I was quite unaware that my opinions were the source of some embarrassment at editorial meetings.
I moved into a borrowed flat at 40, Elm Park Gardens, Chelsea, with Anna, my now wife of 33 years and attempted to hold down this uneasy job. I had four children from a previous marriage and therefore needed to sustain outgoings of a serious nature. I hunkered down and set about earning a decent living. Anna, a remarkable teacher and patient love, unswervingly accepted my status as an artist and man with a mission. Together we set about making something unsettled into a framework for a promising future. That we have achieved that is unquestionable. Anna remains the centre of my universe, my muse and much loved friend to my four children, Suzannah, Genevieve, Theo and Henry. Sadie, the fifth, is our child and has recently branched out with a son of her own named Oliver.
My oldest daughter Suzannah also has two children, Grace and Rebecca. All my children and my grandchildren are artistic in their own ways, especially Oliver, who can deliver creative dumps of an extraordinary hue before you can say Pampers. Suzannah is a reflexologist, now an aromatherapist, and studying to become a Homeopath with a mission of her own to save humanity from itself.
Genevieve, my second child, designs shoes for the world-famous company called Clark’s, possesses an innate sense of style, designs beautiful shoes and seems to find something ridiculously funny about most things in life.
Theo, my oldest son, is perhaps the most sensitive of all. He is a printer by trade, but a composer musician of rare and vulnerable abilities. He has reduced me to tears on many occasions with his music that touches me in places that nothing else can reach.
Then there is Henry, who never knew me as a father at home as it were but grew up to become a designer of supreme direction and articulate knowledge of all instruments that he uses in his work, both mechanical and electronic. He is ingenious in the methods associated with these diverse disciplines. Being an artist too, he confounds me with his imaginative approach to photography which he integrates into his work. All of us turn to Henry when we are helpless in the modern world. He too has embarked on the journey towards parenthood with his beautiful young wife, Tina, yet another artist from the other side of the world. Henry once declared that, ‘I went out of my way to be indispensable’. Life will now take him at his word!
Sadie loves the theatre, wallows in creative projects in the theatre and in film. She not only tackles each project with voracious enthusiasm, she throws herself upon each element within it like a maniac unleashed from captivity. Motherhood is arguably her greatest theatrical production to date, but she has engaged the services of her husband and willing slave Andy, a stage manager by profession, at Theatr Clwyd in Mold, who fulfils her every precise desire and direction, absolutely free….
Anna and I settled down for the rest of the summer. I received a letter from Hunter dated June 2, 1970, the first since my return to England. “You filthy twisted pervert,” he wrote. “‘I’ll beat your ass like a gong for that drawing you did of me. You bastard, stay out of Kentucky from now on. And Colorado too. Fuck you!” Then he went on to mention the Scanlan’s Kentucky Derby piece and how they had screwed up our collaboration, but he had enjoyed our time together and wanted to try something else soon. He wanted us billed as a package, for good or ill. Nothing binding, he added, but a notion worth trying. What was I up to now?
Then a letter arrived from Hunter dated July 18, 1970.
“Prepare yourself,” he wrote. “I suspect we have struck a very weird and maybe rich vein.”
One of his friends had seen the Derby piece and suggested, “Hey, man,” bound to have said, “Hey man!” Probably shouted as they do, some loud mouth in the Woody Creek Tavern outside Aspen in a tartan shirt and ripped jeans, probably someone I now know and like. “Hey, man Why don’t you just travel around the country and shit on everything? The two of you just go from New York to California and write your venomous bullshit about everything that people respect!” Then a list of events and places were reeled off: a series of Ky Derby-style articles (with Steadman, he added, in parenthesis) on things like the Super Bowl, Times Sq. on New Year’s Eve, Mardi Gras, the Masters Tournament, the America’s Cup, Christmas with the Chicago Police Commissioner, Miss America in Atlantic City, the Calif. State Fair, Grand National Rodeo in Denver. Rape them all, quite systematically. Sell it as a book! Amerikan Dreams. Ah, yes, I can hear them weeping already… where will the fuckers show up next? Where indeed? Ponder it, & send word…
Scanlan editor Warren Hinckle replied damn quick. “Yes! Let’s try it!” Warren suggested that we call it The Thompson-Steadman Report and bill it right from the start as a long and awful series.
Hunter was full of joy and I got excited by this. There was something about the project which was more life enhancing than just another job. He described the whole prospect as a Rape Series king-bitch dog-fucker of an idea, so weird and frightful as to stagger every mind in Journalism…That we got some way down that road is testament to the soundness of our judgement and our terrible ambition, but that we did not go further has more to do with the vagaries and fate of magazine publishing and the ambitions of others and perhaps, to a lesser extent, the uncertain commitment of our collective drive. Our respective lives were so different though, I think we were willing enough to go just about anywhere.
There was a point when I suggested Fear & Loathing on a slow boat to China and Hunter replying,”Goddammit, Ralph! I knew if I waited long enough you would come up with something truly monumental” – but we just didn’t get around to that one, or the Highland Games, or A visit to the Queen of England, which strangely, and later, was a project that Simon Kelner, editor of The INDEPENDENT, attempted to initiate as something Hunter might like to undertake. They would fly him over, with a companion if necessary, wine and dine him in London, give him everything he needed, then fly him up to Scotland and engineer a confrontation between him and the Queen. The big mistake was that they put him up in a cheaply expensive hotel on the A4, from Heathrow into London, from where he railed against the grizzly treatment he was receiving. Hunter can be fun, but he was probably the worst of invitees to treat like visiting luminaries, who as a rule swallow their pride and go along with things as they find them. I had him speedily transferred to Claridges on my Amex card, and he relaxed.
But I don’t think that was the same time that they brought him over and took him at his request to Smithfield’s Meat Market to get some whisky at 6AM. Hunter holed up in his room and refused to come out. I got a call from Simon who asked if I knew how they could get him to come out of his hole. I suggested a wheel–in tray of room service…Bloody Mary’s, Caesar Salad sandwiches and a bottle of Chivas Regal and Heineken beers. The room service tray was sent up closely followed by an army of journalists, who previously had been waiting in the lobby for him to appear. I got a call from Heidi, his companion–des-temps inside the room, asking why there was a knock on the door. “It’s room service,” I said innocently. The door was opened, the tray was pulled in and the door slammed immediately. During the night, Hunter and his companion slipped out unseen and made it back to Heathrow and the U.S. But a fine piece, in retrospect, was delivered which was published in the INDEPENDENT Colour Magazine some weeks later.
For a month or so there was silence again and I returned to Alice which had become a major theme for me. I pursued the idea with an intensity that does not enter the spirit every day, but my job at the Times was faltering on the sharp shoreline rocks of reader complaints.
BACK TO AMERICA TO LIVE ON A BOAT
I got another call. Hunter had been asked to get me to meet him in New York and then the both of us would take off for Newport, Rhode Island, where every year American muscle bound deckhands struggle to keep a boat upright and compete with another similar craft and crew from Australia. Together they zigzag a given course and hope to outwit each other using wind tactics and brute strength. Each boat is worth the price of a new University and they are watched by gin-soaked, yachting types in captain’s hats, male and female, lounging in deckchairs inside Perspex covered enclosures at the front end of yet more expensive floating country houses — elegantly vulgar expressions of dodgy wealth. He said, they are gin and tonic people, your type of people, Ralph.
I met Hunter in New York. We went downstairs to the Irish pub on 42nd and 3rd, just around the corner from Times Square. Donald Goddard, Scanlon’s well-respected English Editor, was with us smoking his hand-rolled Havana cigars as usual. It was in dear Donald that I put my trust. As long as he was there at the helm, I figured, this would be a kosher journalistic venture.
J.C. Suares, the art director was there too and he wanted some weird “pitchers ta put in da magazine. Sumtink off da wall. Ya know what miracles are, right? We need sum o’ dem! Know what ah mean? Sum o’ dos tings we seen in yor book Don browt in heah. Da skies da limit ‘cos dat’s why you are heah! Udderwise, dere’s no reason fer any o’ dis.”
His Brooklyn accent spelled out our brief. His Brooklyn accent spoke panoramas to me of what was expected, and I wondered if this may be the beginning of something unprecedented. Perhaps he did not know it at the time, but his was a signal to break all the rules and go for a massive effort to take everything on board and give it the shot I had never been able to give to anything in England. In England, in spite of the so-called Satire Boom, everything was still, in its quaint way, under wraps. But now I was in a foreign land, and I felt it my foreign duty to deliver something they had never seen before
We took a bus to the airport. I don’t think there was much money left of the three quarter of a million dollars with which Warren Hinckle III and Sidney Zion had been entrusted just nine months earlier. First-Class travel between San Francisco and New York every 48 hours in the interests of Journalistic perspicacity soon eats away at the edges of a small fortune. On the bus, Hunter had taken one or maybe two little yellow pills, not unlike Diazapam. I let it pass and even assumed that perhaps he had a medical condition: the kind of condition one does not ask about of someone one hardly knows. Perhaps. I thought, he may be grieving. I had no intimate knowledge of any American thus far and maybe all Americans take these pills to withstand the pressure of responsibility thrust upon them as Defenders of the Known Free World. I may need to take care of him. I would be prepared, I reckoned, being as I was an ex-Boy Scout and indeed a Troop Leader with proficiency badges of high degree.
We arrived at La Guardia to take a plane to Boston where we would pick up a small internal flight to get us to Newport, Rhode Island. Before any flight, long or short, I get nervous, and a drink or two always reaches the tiny innermost parts of my being and gives me courage of a kind I cannot get from religion. It became obvious that Hunter also saw fit to partake, and so it was with light hearts that we boarded Flight A157 to Rhode Island
Hunter explained in flight that we were not staying in a hotel as was previously suggested, but becoming instead part of the crew on a three-masted sloop owned by ______ whose record at sea was not something we need to discuss. OK by me, I mumbled, at this point more concerned that we were going to live on a boat at all for at least a week.
“D’you like boats?” Hunter asked me. I shrugged and laughed off my disquiet.
“They’re OK.” I replied, “but usually in shallow water so I can wade ashore whenever I feel like it.”
“Well, never mind Ralph. This is only journalism and the boats are rich men’s playthings. If we fuck up, that’s just part of the story, right? There will be a Rock Band on board for entertainment too. They have no name as far as I know – and neither does the boat, for security reasons. Heh! Heh!”
I nodded and looked through the small window as we approached the runway. I showed no emotion. When you are on assignment you don’t ask questions. When you are building a career, who needs to know?
We emerged from a taxi right on Sayer’s Wharf, the heart of Newport’s jetty district where boats bobbed and jostled to the lap-lap of a gentle coastal inlet breeze where all the real boats come in — or so it seemed. Back in 1970, things were still good, rough and basic with decking boards defining the fisherman’s domain. It reminded me of an old fishing port in England called Whitstable where fresh fish is the definition of a rough and healthy way of life, and still is, as long as you accept the tourists as part of the scenery. Newport is probably as old as Whitstable. In fact it had a Golden Age, prior to 1776, the oldest library in America and the oldest Synagogue. It groaned with restored Colonial buildings and swelled with privileged pride. I think I noted this more than anything else. Beware of privilege. It stinks of rotten fish heads, many of which were lapping the shore beneath the jetties. There was another terrace of jetties full of yachts and seamen of an entirely different type. Weekend seaslobs who were fast developing the elevated new cream of Newport society. They, I believe, were who we were there to observe and report back. Gonzo was about to rear its undefined head….
A couple drinks at the bar on the harbor, with a piano played by someone who had probably seen more bar fights than a whiskey optic, gave me enough dutch courage to face the boat which Hunter had already located more or less out front. A vision of well-varnished old wood and worn deck boards. Safe as houses as it transpired. It was about fifty feet long and knifed the water in an extremely elegant way. We were welcomed aboard by a willowy bloke, our captain. He had the suggestion of a beard, and he wore a polar neck sweater but was no hoary sea dog. I think his name was Andy. And he was amiable enough. I went below and, sitting on my own bunk, I relaxed but kept all my stuff in my case. In fact, it stayed in there for the whole week. There was no privacy down here. Hunter had already lay down on his bunk and gone to sleep. It was a surprise to me. There were no social niceties, no polite tittle tattle. Just a gentle snore. He was out of it. I decided to go up on deck and look around trying to get the feel of being a seasoned sailor.
I walked around to the prow of the boat, rolled myself a cigarette and lit up. I puffed out my chest, held my arms behind my back and stood with legs akimbo. I looked out to sea beyond the boats in the harbour and gazed upon the flotilla of ocean-going luxury yachts moored out in the bay drooling money. I could just make out the social scene inside the Perspex covered lounges, men in captain’s hats, navy blue jackets, golden ephemera, city men tarted up for the occasion, sporting big cigars and glasses of gin. Lounging women of all shapes and sizes, whorish, glamorous, bosomy, good time, and others who had managed to hang on down the years with face lifts and plastic surgery. It was a predictable scene and part of the reason we were here. They, along with the crass Olympian sea gods who manned the two boats, the American Intrepid II and the Gretel from Australia, taking part in this annual event, were the enemy. I immediately felt like an outsider, which was good, of course. I needed the buzz that came from a them VS us confrontation to inject any drawings I might produce with a strong sense of corrosive contempt.
Whilst I was honing my rebellious inclinations to fever pitch, a new group had just come aboard. Four guys with fashionably long hair heaved their luggage and what looked like an orchestra aboard. I turned to a haze of “Hey, Man! How yer doin?” and clasping of bravado driven handshakes between men on a mission. I met the Rock’n’Roll band. I remember thinking that they were about as familiar with back ends of boats as they were with the front. This was the rest of our team — the distraction, and if that wasn’t the name of their band it damn well ought to have been.
They were shown below, and they galumphed their way down into the crowded berth. This re-ignited my disquiet, but I let it pass. Hunter was awake now, and beers were passed around as we got to know each other. Slimy, rock and roll, heavy metal characters, they were all right but I didn’t feel safe on a boat with them. A lot of my things got pinched. A bottle of ink exploded in my suitcase. These guys jumped ship after half a week.
After three or four days I hadn’t done a drawing – it was boring. Hopeless. I kept getting sick. I had to stand on deck all the time without throwing up all the time. I hate boats to this day. I loathe men together. We remained incarcerated in this hell hole for a week, during which time we attempted to entertain the enemy in between yachting jousts with loud music and me, yes! me on bongo drums. We had transformed ourselves into a ship of dangerous fools who turned out to be the only entertainment in the bay. Out at sea in the area known as Rhode Island Sound, where the races take place, the wind had dropped to near zero and the racing jousts were slow. Almost nothing was happening, particularly for the gin set who had been lured onto their boats by enthusiastic diehards with promises of limitless drink, which was true, and exciting demonstrations of true yachtsmanship by monarchs of the sport, which was not, unless, of course, you are in the race.
For a spectator, it was all so boring. When there is no wind nothing moves, except for a lot of fumbling around on state of the art decks by sunburned rednecks trying to get the wretched crafts to move.
Motorized, we cruised in and out of these daft buggers, and the rock band was having a whale of a time. The gin crowd loved it and cheered our Pirate ship whenever we appeared. At nights, moored now centre stage in the harbour, we, and I say we, gave rock concerts every night to a coastline alive with nightlife. Bongos became my art form for the week. Marihuana became a weed of great expression for me for the first time in my life. I became hooked on the cheers that erupted from the shore. We were the real champions. Small dinghies full of energized fans clambered aboard and wanted to become part of the action. The women hung on my Bongos and wanted to learn how to become a star. They couldn’t, of course, but they wanted to be part of the action — and the Marihuana.
But it didn’t last. The band wanted to pack up and leave, sensing a sinking ship. Rock bands are the first to know when the gig is over, man! — and Hunter and I had no story. Worse than that, I had been getting a queasy stomach for the last couple of days. Every time we sailed out to see if the race had got going, I began to get seasick. To try to keep it down I took the wheel and stood upright against what was becoming a dull and rainy seascape. I recited to myself, “The boy stood on the burning deck, whence all but he had fled, my stomach tells me all is lost, And I should be in bed.”
It was on Friday, our last day during the finals. whatever they were, since there had been no fierce action from the racing yachts. Some of the luxury boats had started to leave. Hunter appeared and suggested a walk along the jetties and mooring bays as a change of scene and maybe a talk about what our strategy would be. Since we still had no story, an idle walk on dry land and an inspection of the boats, especially the two racing yachts, and where they are situated at night may give us some hint of a wild plan. We were running out of money too, and a call to the Scanlan’s office might be a good idea. As it turned out it was the worst idea, as we were calmly told that the magazine was folding and this was their last issue, our’s the last story — if we had one!
We idly walked in and out of quayside shops inspecting all manner of yachting goods, clothing and equipment. It was in one of these shops that Hunter picked up a jackknife with one of those rounded ‘pig-sticker’ blades used the world over by Boy Scouts for extracting stones from horses’ hooves. Hunter bought it there and then. “Whatdy’a buy that for?” I asked. “Just in case!” he snapped “Just in case of what?” I persisted. “Who knows, Ralph. I bought it on impulse.”
I didn’t pursue it any further. We did our tour of the jetties and noted the location of where the racing yachts would be moored when they came back from the race. Hunter had taken careful note of just where they would be and asked a few idle questions about how they bring them out each morning.
Tomorrow would be their final public display before being wrapped up for another year. I learned that each boat was 12 metres long, and America’s Intrepid was the favorite. And not only that, but revolutionary. It was the first Twelve, as they referred to them, to separate the rudder from the keel, build in what they called a bustle or kicker, and finish the keel off with a trim tab. The designer, Olin Stephens, was well–respected worldwide and had built this elegant craft out of double planked mahogany on white oak frames, and no expense was spared. It was state of the art — yessir! — it won the race in 1967 and was going to kick the butt of the Australian Challenger, Gretel II, that very day. You ought to be out there right now and watch history in the making — but I was watched-out and still pretty sick. Hunter was thoughtful.
We strolled back towards the main cluster of shops and bars. “Fancy a drink?” I said. “I’m still feeling sick but sometimes a shot and a beer just hits the spot.” OK. Why not. “By the way,” I said, “what are those little pills you keep taking.” They keep me sane and hopeful. Why? “Well, you never seem to feel seasick, but I thought you had some kind of — er — condition.” Fuck, no! I feel as right as rain. “Well, maybe they would cure my seasickness,” I said. Maybe, replied Hunter, but you only need one.
I swallowed one and said, “What happens now?” Nothing, said Hunter, for about an hour, then you may feel a little weird. “‘OK,” I said, “Let’s get a drink.”
The bar was filling with the Friday evening crowd, and the pianist was playing requests. You’re the cream in my coffee, Let it be and Do you want to know a secret? were just a clutch of favourites. I remember a couple of dogs under the piano looking bored. Obviously yachting dogs, lashed to the boom, squared and hoisted to chair legs like accessories to rent. Splice the main brace, Jim lad! Give the dog another ship’s biscuit! That’s more like it. Drinks all round. Toddle the pissle! What? Cringe the pound. Griddle the Poooooooo-o-o-o-o—o—o—rk-oooohho—o—o—o-arck- wait- arcgrhhhgrh- what?? HooontrrassTomgbutt. My fairy issssss—look over thereee –aaarrrghhh. Pull yusself togertherrrrrdddd – Wha?!!! There are snarling red eyed dogs eating my socks…I had begun to feel weird. Richard Nixon’s brother, and I think it was his brother, was leaning diagonally against the piano talking nonchalantly to other red-eyed yachting types and paying no heed to the red-eyed snarling dogs I was trying to avoid. People were beginning to melt, and I felt incredibly good. Wherever I walked, specific salty types tough as they come melted out of vision. I was a king at this moment. Hunter was there, but Hunter was no longer significant. He was watching me, and he was following me like a Nannie, and we were outside looking at the perfect moon over the harbour.
“I think it’s time we got back to our boat. We have things to talk about.”
“OK-arrrrrrrrrarghhhhhh’ I replied. Weeeeeeeee-ssssstillll neeeeed a sssssssstoooooooory0opp!’Hah!!”
“Settle down, Ralph. We have a long night ahead.”
Hunter was pretty good at manipulating oars in a clumsy kind of way, and it seemed natural that he got us back to the boat. Soft water lapped the bulkhead, and the boat was quiet. The whole bay seemed quiet. The intense moon pierced the sea with shards of light which were beginning to play strange tricks on my eyes. My senses seemed unnaturally alert. I was wired into every detail of every surface I looked at. I saw nail heads in the bulkhead gleaming from the moon’s light. Metal boat fixings shone like beacons, and rigging glowed like electrified wires on fire. Every touch on any surface felt like the skin of a dinosaur, and the deck looked like a severe drop to god knows where. My senses had been warped through what seemed like 90 degrees. As I looked along the deck, what I really thought I was seeing was a plunging cliff face. Hunter steadied me and said, “Keeeeeeep goooing, Raaaaaaaaaaalph. The cabin is just here.” I grabbed an upright, the door frame, and groped my way inside but stayed on the floor. “OK Ralph. You are having a rush. It’ll pass. Listen to me! You are having a rush. Waaaaaiiiitttttttt-Hooo- steeeeaaady. Iiiit wiiiiilllll paaaaaaaasssss”.
I don’t remember how long this feeling remained, but gradually I began to realise that I was on some terrible high which was not drunkenness. I knew that I was on this hideous beast for the ride. My mind had been hijacked
“Wharwe gonna dooooo?” I could hardly speak and tried to lift myself up to sit on something other than the floor. Hunter was there but wasn’t there, supporting me into an upright position, and didn’t, but did.
“I have no idea whaaaart we are goooing to dooooooooo, butttttweeeee nnnnneeeeeeeeeed a plan- ooooooorrrrrr weeeeeeeee’re fuuuuuuuucked right now,” he seemed to slur.
“I neeeeedddd sooome aiiir riiiight now.” I gripped the door frame and stagger-fell outside into the air. I put my right hand finger up in front of my eyes and watched it very specifically be a finger, then a monument statue of liberty, a ship’s bollard, and then a finger again. It was at that moment that I knew we were into something I had never known before. This wasn’t just pissed; this was another world. I was strange.
I put my hand up to my forehead and wiped my brow. Jesus!! My hair, which I still had, felt like Hitler’s! I was Hitler in that moment and as evil as anything he could wish to be. I was trapped inside some heinous plot which grafted itself onto my captured paranoia like a limpet mine. At that moment I knew I was capable of anything. I was calm. I knew I had something important to do for whatever cause I was here to support. I fumbled myself back inside the cabin.
“Where’s the rock group?” I said.
“Long gone,” replied Hunter. “Thank god you didn’t leave your passport and your ticket home behind in your suitcase.” I fell down into the hold and scrabbled around inside my suitcase. Most things were gone, and instinctively I felt around my person. I had with me my ticket home and my passport, secreted in an inside pocket with a few dollars. Most of my other gear was gone, and the only other thing they had not taken were the socks on my feet.
“On shore somewhere. But that is not the point Ralph. We still have a job to do.”
“Oh, the job,” I said. “That’s easy! Let’s do it now. I’m up for anything.”
“Anything?” said Hunter.
“Anything, you bet”‘
“OK, Ralph. Well, you remember walking around the jetties this afternoon, seeing where the boats are moored and all that?”
“Yep! Remember that. So what we gonna do about that?”
“YOU! Ralph! What are you gonna do about that?”
“Me!??’ What can I do?? I’m only an artist!”
“Yes! Ralph. You are only an artist, but you are full of ideas.”
It was at this moment that Hunter produced two spray cans, one black and one red. “I bought these,” he said, “while I was waiting for you in New York. I wasn’t sure if we needed them, but right now we have Absolutely No Story.”
“Shit! You’re right. I had forgotten about the story. So why the cans of spray paint?”
“Well, you’re the artist Ralph. What do you suggest?”
“Something crude on a wall!” I said.
“OK,” said Hunter. “But what? You’re the artist from England. Something about the IRA, perhaps?”
“Nah!” I said. “HOW about FUCK THE POPE on the side of one of those fancy yachts. It is almost unthinkable. No one would imagine such a thing”
“Hot damn, Ralph! Are you a Catholic?”
“Nope! Why? It was the first thing that came into my head.”
“Ok — just wondered. But if you are game, let’s do it. I reckon I can row that little dinghy in between the jetties and get us between the two racing yachts, then the rest is up to you. In the morning when the crew sail out into the harbour, only then would they see your scurvy act of vandalism and blasphemy.” A gentle smile crossed his face and his eyes gazed into the middle distance.
“OK,” I said. “Let’s do it!” By this time, trapped inside the drug’s reverie, I could have sprayed out Michelangelo’s Last Judgement on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. A yacht would be a beggar’s handcart by comparison.
My mind had become a clear mechanism of wilfullness. Hunter proved to be a quite a boat man and skilfully maneuvered our little craft in and out of the jetties. The reason for our afternoon stroll was becoming clear and logical to me. I instinctively knew that what we were doing was up-to-no-good, but my drug induced state over-ruled anything but this specific mission. The Guns of Navarone had to be destroyed at any cost, do or die, for God and country, them or us.
We arrived at the two jetties between which, silently moored and battened down, were the two racing yachts, the Gretel and the Intrepid, with a chain strung between the two jetties and a Keep Out sign hanging from it. Hunter was now very quiet and signalled to me with a finger over his lips. The moon was a pure white ball, but the flashing reflections in the gently undulating sea were strangely red to me. There was red on one of the boats, and I must have been seeing a duality of these elements. One of the boats was slightly in shadow, and Hunter quietly steered the dinghy towards it. We wobbled between these two amazing machines which now resembled floating Jackknives like the one Hunter had bought that very afternoon.
‘OK’, he whispered to me, ‘it’s now or never’. I held the black spray can up in front of my face, and I shook the can as one does to mix the contents. There was this terrible clicking sound from inside the canister, the last thing we wanted to hear.
A torch from above picked us out and the voice said, “What are you doing down there? This is a cordoned off area, didn’t you see the chain?”
“Oh, just looking at the boats.” (Flee, flee, I remember him saying that.) “We’re a bit low in the water. Better get back to our boat”‘
“Where are you guys from”‘
“From England. We’re interested in the boats.”
Hunter cursed and snarled in a tight whisper, Fuck! No, Ralph!! We are doomed. We’ve failed. There’ll be pigs with guns and dogs crawling all over this place. We must flee, and he pulled on the oars desperately to move backwards and out of the area. One of the oars came out of the rollocks, and I have this abiding image of Hunter’s shorts and his bare legs stuck up in the air, with his back on the deck. He cursed and flailed to right himself, cursing and muttering the whole time and pulling again on the oars, out under the chain and out to sea into the darkness amongst the other moored boats.
“Pigs everywhere” and “we must flee like hunted animals” were all he kept saying, and “we’ll hole up on the sloop until we can make it to dry land.”
No one was yet following us and probably didn’t. Nobody would imagine what foul deed we had been about to commit and probably thought we had been merely looking at the boats, as Hunter had said. Hunter took out his wire bound notebook and started to write things down. I began to tremble uncontrollably as flashes of sense returned to my addled brain. I started to gabble like an idiot and Hunter was writing it down feverishly. “That’s good Ralph. What else did you see. Great! What were you thinking? That’s good. Go on. What else?”
I gabbled on automatically, shivering with shock and horror at what I had nearly done. Hunter continued to write, urging me to continue. I was holding my shoulders tightly and curled up on the cabin floor. I remember that. I thought I had been set up. This was my paranoia: that I would be left on board to be found in this gibbering mess and Hunter would be gone, everyone’s gone, and I would be arrested, charged with God knows what, and I hadn’t done anything, really.
“Get your case Ralph. We’ll hail a passing boat coming in — but first we must make clear our failure!”
“Whatdya mean,” I said.
“We’ve failed, Ralph. It’s a better story. We must alert everybody. I’ve got these Leary flares here. I’ve got these Leary guns here.”
Out of his general junk bag he took a pistol with a wide barrel. “It’s a Leary distress flare gun. It will light up the harbour, and people will be so startled to see one of these buggers right in the harbour they will be too freaked out to notice us, and we’ll be outa here.”
A red and a green flare left the gun in quick succession. One of the still flaring distress signals fell unerringly onto the wooden deck of a yacht that had until that moment not been in distress.
Bedlam erupted around the bay. Fires on boats are serious matters, particularly in a safe harbour, but more so when an SOS signal had only moments before alerted the whole of Newport that something was up. Those things are capable of lighting up square miles of an area in mid-Atlantic and are a matter of life or death. They weren’t the hand held waving variety, so fire safety would be the last requirement with miles of water all around. In the general panic — a fire engine had already arrived on the scene — Hunter hailed a late-returning fishing boat like a desperate survivor. That there was one passing right then must have been a sheer fluke. No one was asking any questions at that moment. It was all hands on deck, and we looked as though we were in trouble.
I grabbed my bag. The rock band had pilfered my Scanlan’s T-Shirts and anything else they could easily carry. Bastards. The fishing boat took us aboard and into a jetty. We holed up in an early morning coffee shop, for it was now dawn. People were talking about some fucking maniac setting fire to boats. I was feeling like a whipped puppy doing my damnedest to be philosophical. Hunter was immediately on the phone, looking busy, calling Aspen and registering his intention to enter the election to stand as a candidate against the corrupt law and order kind of Sheriff of Aspen in the upcoming election on what he called the Freak Power Ticket.
He also hired us a Cessna light aircraft on his Amex card to get us out of Newport and back to Boston, as though what we had just attempted to do was far in the past, which of course it was. Meanwhile, I was still descending from this god-awful experience. I had lost my shoes and most of the stuff in my case. The plane ride to Boston was still within the bounds of reason within my confused mind, and I nodded off for a while but awoke startled whenever the plane hit an air pocket.
Paranoia strikes deep in the heartland, and when we landed I began to look around for signs of police patrols looking for two crazy characters who had just tried to write FUCK THE POPE on a multimillion dollar yacht. I lurked behind pillars and hid in the toilets. Hunter was on the phone again, ringing the New York office, trying to get someone to meet me at the airport. He was describing me as a basket case. “‘If someone doesn’t meet him he is likely to get himself arrested as an anti-social foreign vagrant. He has been raving incoherently for ninety straight hours and I think he is likely to take on the whole Boston Police Force. He vows he will never set foot in this county again if he doesn’t get justice. He still thinks he is in the colonies. Someone has to meet him and calm him down. I have to get back to Colorado and get involved in civil duties.”
NINETY hours??! I had been raving for ninety hours? Hunter assured me that I had. He made his excuses that he had to go, but someone was going to meet me in New York. We said our goodbyes. He assured me yet again that there would be someone in New York to meet me at the airport, then he went off through a gate to catch a plane, leaving me to wait another couple of hours before I could get a flight to New York. I felt like a fugitive on the run and either sat at a bar with my head in a beer or shuffled past police security behind cars, pillars or groups of people moving purposefully towards flight gates going to Atlanta or San Francisco. My eyes were wide with terror and lack of sleep. I felt like a guilty fugitive, a miscreant who had no right to be on the loose. I hadn’t done anything, I kept telling myself, but the sight of anyone looking like an official sent me into a cold sweat, a blurred panic and a reflex action clutching at my passport and my ticket home in an inside pocket.
My flight came up on the departure board, and I seized the moment to begin the walk to the gate. I slowed down, trying to control my schizophrenic behaviour. Then I stopped dead and realized that I hadn’t checked in my suitcase. It was so light — suspiciously light. There was hardly anything in it! Dirty underwear and a sketchbook. No socks! Not even on my feet. No shoes, and the police were looking for me. Had to be. I was on the run. Get a grip. Just walk to the check-in desk and try to be charming using my most English accent to appear respectable. If they thought I was eccentric, so what? Lots of English visitors walk about with no shoes. “Is this your luggage, Sir?” Er, yes — such as it is. Had a spot of trouble on a yacht — washed overboard, most of it. Damned new suit went over too. “First time?” First time, what? “On a yacht?” ‘Oh, that. Huh! Never again. Not cut out for it I guess. Can’t wait to get home. “I’ll bet. Have a nice flight.”
When I got on board there were two things I could not do. The first was sit down. I insisted on standing near the back near the galley, clutching the back of a seat. Today my behaviour would have had me escorted off the flight, but this was 1970 and Laila Khaled had only just hijacked her first plane on a flight from Rome in August 1969, which she had redirected to Damascus, but no one was hurt. In spite of this it was still possible to display strange behaviour in an aeroplane without connections being made, and terrorist activities were still a remote possibility. Neither were there many in-flight precautions against insisting on standing the whole way. I pleaded a rare condition that I never sit down when on the move. My bloodshot eyes and terror-stricken expression reassured the air hostess that I was sincere. And one other thing — I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing moving purple flesh pulsating under my eyelids and veins of some green substance which was puzzling medical science – and really my doctor had advised me not to fly. Thank god I was on my way back to England, I said. The air hostess smiled nervously and showed sympathetic concern and said that if there was anything I needed just press the steward’s button above the seats.
I remember flying and shaking. We’d been there a week and this was the final part of it. A week of marihuana and booze. And the pills. Hunter was gobbling them to sleep. It’s not a metabolism that goes with most people. Most of us get hangovers and swear they’ll never do it again.
It was a short flight, and I held on to that seat all the way. I was really no trouble. My bag entered the hall almost the same time I did, and I rushed out to see if JC SUARES or anyone from Scanlan’s was there to meet me. I went straight to 42nd Street. It was closed. Nobody there to meet me. Luckily, I had made friends with the Irish barman. He gave me a Guinness. “You’re really looking terrible, sir. Make the phone call over there, sir. Is it local”‘ I found the number, Ann Beneduce. She said, “You sound terrible.” I think I need a doctor. I got in a taxi – I remember sitting there, my heart was going like that – tap tap tap. The last I remember is knocking on the door. I was purple. She called a doctor who came quite damn quick. He said, “Are you a regular kinda guy?”
“Hell! No!! Of course not!! I have four lovely children. I am devoted to them, although I am going through a painful domestic situation.”
The doctor gave me a Librium shot. The thing I remember was coming-to the next day. The next day I said I must try a drawing of a jack knife in the water. In fact, I made a drawing that very day with the racing yacht looking like a jack knife in the water in the moonlight, the FUCK THE POPE graffiti against the sky, and the aura of vicious red ink permeating everything.
This trip, probably more than any other, established a pattern of journalism, if that is what it was, that cemented my friendship with Hunter and laid the ground plan for future assignments and that by their very nature could only be classed as pure GONZO.
As soon as I got back to England, I had to go into The Times to do a drawing of Jo Grimmond – he was a liberal leader. I had a little room in The Times and I started drawing him on a tight rope. I’d half drawn it, and someone said, “Ralph,” and I was asleep at the board. I was so tired after a week of being wrecked.
The next six months was a combination of social skills and trying to look normal. I lost my job at the London Times for what was referred to as mild sedition — a contradiction in terms, I would have thought. Perhaps they meant the mild indifference of the reader response suggesting the seditious nature of my work. I had always been a combination of untroubled law-abiding nerdiness with a decent community profile and an ambitious young man with a mind-bending desire to succeed at any cost, so it was no problem at all. If it wasn’t for the mind flashes and troubling nightly surfing of nocturnal imagery, I could have withstood the psychological turbulence and eventually get through it.
Unfortunately, the turbulence did not subside, and I drank rather more than usual. Anna was my constant support and seemed to understand my predicament. She knew that something dramatic had happened but, to her great credit, never really pushed her curiosity. I hadn’t heard from Hunter in a while, found editorial work where I could, continued the work on what I have to say became my classic version of Alice through the Looking Glass, and happened upon a Bookshop in Kensington Church Walk, W8, run by a wonderful little man called Bernard Stone who became a lifelong friend.
The next time I saw Hunter was Miami in 1972. A long time after. Because Scanlans went broke. There was a gap – it was – 6 months, after that I got a call from Hunter, “I’ve got a story here. I know you know about it.” He wouldn’t take me to a police convention. He wanted someone he could rely on. A lawyer, Oscar Acosta. He suggested that I do drawings for this sort of thing. My responses were natural responses which gave him a lot of fodder. Things to play with. The idea of having an accomplice. He could take me to the edge and bring me back. My role was being pulled back. That’s why the maverick idea was part of it, not having accreditation was part of trying to get in there, that was part of the story. The story was more about what happened to us, while reflecting the place we were in. It seemed to have a definite satirical colouring and function. He used Oscar in that way. Oscar was crazier than me. I would have aborted the thing at some stage. I wouldn’t have been crazy in a bath with a knife
He said to me, “I have the story and we can bring the fuckers to their knees.” It’s the nearest he has got to a novel. It transcends journalism. The diabolic way he thinks about things.
Miami was ’72. I stayed three days. I got sick. In and out, cold and hot. I also drank too much, going over and got dehydrated. We’d got ourselves in without passes. I used my Englishness to great effect.
In 1972 what was his relationship with Wenner? Hunter has always gone for the unofficial magazine. He needs all that. He had to have proper accreditation as far as hotels, room service 24 hours a day. That’s what he needs. Hunter said he made $1000 a month in those days. There wasn’t any real money going on – maybe they paid for his drugs. In Washington at Watergate he bought a field telephone.
I said I’d do the Miami drawings at home, the alligators, Come home America, George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, Nixon as part of a swamp. A lot of the drawings I did from the three days – it was always night time. It was a sickening life style, a screaming life style that broke my spirit. No one could be that right. I found that there was a lack of human warmth. Flamingo Park. I did a whole lot of graffiti. At the airport there was a machine to make your own alligator. You put in a quarter. It was thrown into some kind of mould. A warm plastic brown alligator – it represented all I needed. That was it. I had the symbol for my series of drawings. I did 12 drawings for that which appeared in the America book and 12 drawings for the Democratic which I did from the television when I got back. I couldn’t deal with another visit. He suddenly realised I didn’t need to go anywhere. I’ll just tell you about it, and you just draw it.
Jann had cancelled Hunter’s life insurance when he was coming back from Vietnam – it was on the plane. He met someone who was a helicopter pilot. You’ve got to ask Hunter. He didn’t tell me everything about that, except that when he came to London after the Zaire fight to look for John Daley and the money, where the scam was, where did it go to, where did it come from to make the fight in Africa happen…David Frost was involved, John Daley – and where was the coke, there was a big coke deal…the pilot’s dead apparently…he was a journalist as well… He helped Hunter get out of Saigon. He said we could do a book about everything we ever did. You can write things about me, and I can deny them. He was saying all sorts of things about how demoralised the soldiers were – they cut the text out – He’s got the real stuff – kept a copy. With Wenner it was like the Judas moment. He never forgave him for that. Jann called the Zaire story the biggest fucked up story in journalism because it cost about $25,000, and we never had a story.
Lono was the last thing we did together. I said to him once– “you understand, Ralph, I love you like a Siamese brother” –I said to him, you’re not coming to see me? You know, when they cut Siamese twins apart, they never see one another again.
And now, 35 years later, I remember the America’s Cup well, that particular America’s Cup, the America’s Cup of my nightmares and daymares, ugly flashbacks and palpitations, dreamscarred eyes behind pulsing flesh lids, trying to sleep, trying to forget the aftermath of what appeared to start as an intriguing and pleasant week.
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson — ah yes! Him and life on the ocean, a time honoured code of seafaring ways, no cares, free, at sea and awash with good buddies, for a romp on a fifty foot sloop, seasick but sod it. It was a defining assignment of Gonzo and work was the last thing on our minds. Scanlan’s magazine was going down anyway, but the sloop was afloat and we were on it with enough of their money to keep us flying, at least until the end of the race. That is if they didn’t keep stopping to review the positions of the two racing yachts fighting it out for some kind of advantage on a heaving Atlantic swell.
There is no knowing what you do with a nervous captain in charge of two freak journalists and an unknown rock band along for the ego trip, except maybe ignore him and hope that he understands the irrational behaviour patterns of artists at work.
I don’t remember how he took the strange downhill turn when I finally overcame my miserable three-day seasickness with a pill that drove me from reasonable consciousness to wild and dribbling vandalism, intent on only one act, an act so unthinkable as to render it impossible under any other circumstance. To me it remains a defining moment in the evolution of Gonzo and without doubt a dress rehearsal for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and for Hunter, living proof that going crazy as a journalistic style was possible.
The drawings were only possible for me because of the America’s Cup 6 months earlier, which injected the drawings with the eerie sense of being there to record the sensations. It was a kind of regurgitation, a psycho-artistic vomit — a creative cathartic cleansing of my inner being.
I TOLD HIM IT WAS WRONG
with all the others wh/atching
Res Ipsa Loquitor
You must be logged in to post a comment.