Arts & Culture
4:17 am
Sat November 3, 2012

The Story Of Steadman, Drawn From His 'Gonzo' Art

Originally published on Mon November 5, 2012 8:36 am

Every morning, British illustrator Ralph Steadman wakes up in his country estate in rural England and attacks a piece of paper, hurling ink, blowing paint through a straw and scratching away layers to reveal lines and forms that surprise even him.

Steadman is known, in part, for his work with writer Hunter S. Thompson, a collaboration that would come to be known as "gonzo journalism," where the tale-teller becomes the tale. Beginning in 1970, the duo produced books, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and several articles for Rolling Stone and other magazines. Thompson killed himself in 2005, but at 76, Steadman continues to work; and his ink-splattered, anarchic drawings, paintings and caricatures continue to inspire artists and musicians on both sides of the Atlantic.

Now, For No Good Reason, a new documentary that's been 15 years in the making, takes a close and personal look at Steadman's life, rise to prominence and irreverent approach to art.

Case in point: One scene in the film shows Steadman and beat writer William S. Burroughs using Steadman's drawings for target practice. It's not so much "creative destruction" as "destructive creativity." The film's director, Charlie Paul, agrees.

"He believes that by taking it to a point of no return at the very beginning, he has nothing to lose," Paul says.

The Right 'Venom' For Professional Chemistry

Hunter S. Thompson's presence permeates For No Good Reason. The film's recurring telephone ring marks how most of Thompson and Steadman's collaborative jaunts began — with a call from the writer. Then there's the title, which was pulled from something Thompson said whenever Steadman asked why they were going on a particular errand, chase or quest: "No good reason at all, Ralph."

In the film, Rolling Stone's co-founder Jann Wenner explains why he felt Steadman's art illustrated Thompson's caustic, stream-of-altered-consciousness reportage better than any photograph could.

"The thing about Ralph's work — it was just the energy, the anger, the venom that was just spewed out," he says. "And that's what I loved."

Steadman says he could keep up with Thompson's drinking, but never had much use for the drugs. Thompson never met a substance — or politician — he couldn't abuse in pursuit of his brand of journalism, and his relationship with Steadman was difficult. Still, Thompson's suicide hit Steadman hard.

The actor Johnny Depp serves as a guide in the film. Depp, who was a friend of both men, starred in the movie based on Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In For No Good Reason, both Depp and Steadman try to make sense of Thompson's suicide.

"The way I came to terms with it was that this is a man who dictated the way he was going to live his life," Depp says in the film. "He was most certainly going to dictate the way he left."

In Search Of Someone To Fear And Loathe

The press launch for For No Good Reason was held in an enclosed, jungle-themed courtyard — complete with a rushing stream and the occasional bird squawk issuing from unseen speakers — at London's Barbican Center.

Producer Lucy Paul says even the youngest, hottest musicians instantly signed on when they heard the film was about Steadman.

"Somehow, Ralph reaches the whole, kind of, creative world, on all spectrums," she says.

In person, Steadman has twinkling eyes and a kindly manner — it seems that all his rage is channeled through his art. The illustrator also contributed to Thompson's Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail, about the 1972 U.S. election. He shakes his head regretfully at the lack of grist for the satirical mill in the 2012 race.

"The problem is there are no Nixons around at the moment," Steadman says. "That's what we need — we need a real good Nixon."

Under Steadman's pen, then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon leans over a podium, his nose morphing into a vulpine snout. Steadman longs for a contemporary figure that would inspire, well, fear and loathing, "to give something for other people to get their teeth into," he says, "to really ... loathe him, to become themselves more effective as opposition leaders."

Today he says he still approaches every blank sheet of paper with no expectations, and with the same blazing desire that first drew him to cartooning five decades ago. He talks about wanting to change the world.

"And I think I have changed the world, because you know what? It's worse now than it was when I started!" he says, laughing.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In 1970, writer Hunter S Thompson and a British illustrator named Ralph Steadman began a collaboration that would come to be known as gonzo journalism. Hunter Thompson committed suicide seven years ago, but Ralph Steadman, who's now 76, continues to work. His ink-splattered, unruly drawings, paintings and caricatures continue to inspire artists and musicians. A husband and wife team has spent 15 years working on a film about Ralph Steadman called "For No Good Reason." Vicki Barker attended the London premiere.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VICKI BARBER, BYLINE: Every morning, Ralph Steadman wakes up in his country estate in rural England and attacks a piece of paper - hurling ink, blowing paint through a straw, scratching away layers to reveal lines and forms that surprise even him, he says.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCRATCHING)

BARBER: At one point in the film, we see Steadman and beat writer William S. Burroughs, using Steadman's drawings for target practice. Not so much creative destruction as destructive creativity. Filmmaker and friend, Charlie Ball:

CHARLIE BALL: He believes that by taking a work to the point of no return at the very beginning, he has nothing to lose.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

BARBER: A ringing telephone is a leitmotif in the film, as in Steadman's life.

RALPH STEADMAN: Well, the phone rang.

JOHNNY DEPP: (As Hunter S. Thompson) Ralph, this is Hunter.

BARBER: It's how most of his jaunts with Hunter S. Thompson would begin. Thompson, who never met a politician or a substance he couldn't abuse in the pursuit of what he famously called gonzo journalism, where the tale-teller becomes the tale. Rolling Stone's co-founder Jann Wenner explaining how he first sensed that Steadman, better than any photographer, could best illustrate Thompson's caustic, stream-of-altered-consciousness reportage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JANN WENNER: The thing about Ralph's work is it was just the energy, the anger, the venom that just spewed out - and that's what I loved.

BARBER: Under Steadman's pen, then-candidate Richard Nixon would lean over a podium, his nose morphing into a vulpine snout. Steadman could keep up with Thompson's drinking, but never had much use, he says, for the drugs. Their relationship was difficult. Still, Thompson's 2005 suicide hit him hard.

DEPP: I haven't seen Ralph since the signing of Hunter's memorial poster.

BARBER: The actor Johnny Depp serves as our guide in the film. Friends of both men, Depp starred in the movie based on Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." Depp and Steadman try to make sense of Thompson's suicide.

DEPP: Way I came terms with it was that this was a man who dictated the way he was going to live his life. He was most certainly going to dictate the way he left.

STEADMAN: Yeah.

DEPP: And he did.

STEADMAN: He did exactly that, yeah.

BARBER: The press launch for "For No Good Reason" is held in an enclosed, jungle-themed courtyard at London's Barbican Centre, complete with rushing stream and the occasional bird squawk issuing from unseen loudspeakers. Producer Lucy Ball says even the youngest, hottest musicians instantly signed on when they heard the film was about Steadman.

LUCY BALL: Somehow Ralph reaches the whole kind of creative world on all spectrums.

BARBER: In person, Steadman has twinkling eyes and a kindly manner. All his rage seems to get channeled through his pen. The illustrator of "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail" shakes his head, regretfully. There just isn't much grist for the satirical mill in the 2012 race.

STEADMAN: You see, the problem is that there are no Nixons around at the moment. That's what we need. We need a real good Nixon.

BARBER: A figure to inspire - well, fear and loathing.

STEADMAN: To give something for other people to get their teeth into, you know. To really loathe him, to become themselves more effective as opposition leaders.

BARBER: He says he still approaches every blank sheet of paper with no expectations, but with the same blazing desire that first drew him to cartooning, five decades ago.

STEADMAN: Wanting to change the world, you know, and I think I have changed the world. Because, you know what? It's worse now than it was when I started.

(LAUGHTER)

BARBER: The title of the film turns out to have been one of Hunter S. Thompson's set phrases. When Steadman would ask him why they were going on a particular errand or a chase or a quest, Thompson would reply: For no good reason, Ralph. For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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