|Ralph Steadman has been drawing the world around his chaotic visions for over five decades|
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"A half-hour into my conversation with Ralph Steadman, his cordless phone’s battery gave out and the line went dead. I was surprised it took that long. The battery had been beeping on his end every couple minutes since we’d started talking.
The reason for our conversation was For No Good Reason, the new documentary about Steadman’s life and art that focuses largely on his four decades of collaboration and friendship with Hunter S. Thompson, godfather of Gonzo journalism. We managed to talk a little about that. “I always knew he would commit suicide,” Steadman said of Thompson. “He said to me, ‘I’d feel real trapped in this life, Ralph, if I didn’t know I could commit suicide at any moment.’ He had 23 fully loaded guns at Owl Farm. I don’t know if Anita, his wife, has kept them fully loaded but that’s what he had all the time. He had a thing about guns.” We also touched on his recent painting of Esky, Esquire’s mascot: “I did it in an afternoon. I just covered my hand in ink and slapped it down.” But nearly every time Steadman began to answer one of my questions at any length, his phone’s battery would beep, throwing off his train of thought:
“If you hear that ‘boop-boop-boop,’ it’s noise of the phone battery. If I hear that noise, I’ll repeat what I said a moment before.”
“See, there it did it again. It’s happened again—that ‘beep-beep-beep.’ What? Say that again.”
“Now, did you hear that? See? I didn’t speak just at that moment, cause I knew it would cut it out.”
“If you’d phoned me in the studio, I have the older kind of phone. A Panasonic, but it’s an old one. Curls round your head. Much better than this one, which is flatter against the side of my cheek. I still like the phone. And I still think Alexander Graham Bell is the greater of the inventors than, say, Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. I love that they used to say, ‘I’ll give you a Bell sometime.’ They don’t say, ‘I’ll e-Jobs you.’ That doesn’t seem to work.”
|Penned by Hunter S. Thompson and illustrated by Ralph Steadman, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas was an instant classic|
I didn’t mind the constant interruptions. For one, I couldn’t think of much to ask Steadman that hadn’t been answered by the documentary. It’s not surprising that For No Good Reason took director Charlie Paul 15 years to complete. Narrated by Johnny Depp—who became good friends with Steadman after being introduced by Thompson—the film is an exhaustive, exhilarating look at the artist’s career, ranging from the very first drawing courses he took as a teenager with his parents’ encouragement to the iconic illustrations he did for Thompson’s society-shifting novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to his recent work commemorating extinct birds. It even offers a glimpse into Steadman’s home studio in the English countryside, where at age 77 he’s seen splattering, slathering, scraping and even blowing paint into portraits and landscapes as caustic and terrifying and beautiful and necessary as ever. Steadman’s life has been chronicled before, in several documentaries about Thompson as well as in his own 2006 memoir The Joke’s Over. But For No Good Reason—whose title comes from Thompson’s standard response whenever Steadman would inquire as to why they were vandalizing America’s Cup yachts in a New England harbor or searching for elephant tusks in the jungles of Africa or embarking on some other magazine-sanctioned insanity—is the definitive analysis and appreciation his revolutionary output has always deserved.
This is great news for audience members. Not so much for those tasked with interviewing Steadman about the film. Were it not for his phone’s dying battery, my line of questioning would’ve quickly devolved into my own version of “The Chris Farley Show.” Remember that drawing you did for Fear and Loathing where all the people in the casino were lizards? That was awesome. But even more than sparing me this awkwardness, I enjoyed the dying battery situation because it was so perfectly fitting given how integral the telephone was to Steadman and Thompson’s relationship.
It had started with a phone call, after all—and had ended with one, too. That first call came in April 1970, from an editor at Scanlan’s Monthly who asked Steadman to go to the Kentucky Derby and illustrate an article about the race written by Thompson. The last call came 35 years later, in February 2005, when a friend phoned to let Steadman know about Thompson’s suicide. And in between there were the countless calls between the two men themselves—typically in the middle of the night, per Thompson’s famous nocturnality. The sound effect of a ringing phone is used often in For No Good Reason, signaling both awaiting adventure and impending doom. Listening to Steadman apologize and fume over the dying phone battery gave me a genuine sense of what those conversations between him and Thompson must’ve been like.
After the line cut out and I called him back, he answered from a different phone.
“Well, I’m in the kitchen now,” he said. “What I’ve done is, I’ve come in here cause, you see, that other one, that battery, the charge in it was going down. And that’s why we get ‘beep-beep’ and more of that. Now I’m in the kitchen. I’m moving all over the house. I have to to find a phone that works.”
We talked for another twenty minutes or so, about all sorts of things: art (“My great favorites are people like Marcel Duchamp. And Picasso, of course. Picasso was the greatest cartoonist of the 20th century. He just played. There was a tremendous amount of enjoyment in his work.”); real estate (“Our daughter lives here now. Her and her husband. They live in the other half of the house. They have their own section. It’s that big. I bought it for a song, back in 1980. I offered Lord Shannon 75,000 pounds for it—for this mansion, you see. He said, ‘Ho, ho, no, no. I’ve got 75,000 on the table.’ I said, ‘Have you? What’s it look like?’ He said, ‘Ho, ho, having a joke.’ But anyway, we got it for 100,000. Ridiculously cheap. They’re talking about it’s worth millions now.”); his daily routine (“I go for a swim in the morning. I have a pool out back. The only thing I don’t like about it at the moment is the goddamn pigeons around here. You always know they’ve been there and they’ve done something because there’s always a white feather floating in the pool.”); his parents’ longevity (“My father was amazing really. He went on to 93. And my mother, too: she was 90. Somebody once said to my father, ‘You know, Mr. Steadman, I’m 70 today.’ And he said, ‘You bloody look it, too.’ The only thing he noticed about growing older is the undertaker raised his hat to him.”); his advice to young artists (“Get ink. And start defying the computer. Go back to basics.”) and his aversion to technology in general:
“The computer has taken over—it’s dislodged our lives a tremendous amount. I mean, important people having conversations with an iPhone in their hand. Pushing it around and squeezing the images and so forth. It’s very peculiar, the whole bloody thing. I don’t understand. Really. I’ve been on the train recently and watched a woman opposite me. She gets out her make-up kit and she’s making herself up. And she’s on an iPhone at the same time, fiddling about with that. Twiddling it sideways and twiddling it upright. I think perhaps in another generation or two, we’ll become insensate. We won’t really get that natural feeling of experience, of knowing something happened the way it happens, in reality. We’ll always be doing things second-hand.”
It was one of those interviews you occasionally have as a journalist where you think you’ve made a genuine connection with the subject and that there’s a legitimate chance you might actually be friends with them. Before we hung up, Steadman mentioned he’d be in New York this week for the film’s premiere as well as for his first New York exhibition since 2001, a two-day show sponsored by Flying Dog Brewery (which uses Steadman’s work on its labels) and held at Manhattan’s Red Bull Studio. I’ve thought about stopping by the exhibition’s closing party on Friday night and introducing myself. Yet somehow talking on the phone with Steadman feels more meaningful than meeting in person. Somehow that’s enough—more than enough."
FOR NO GOOD REASON TRAILER from Itch Film on Vimeo.