I arrived at the gallery early, all coffee and nerves. Rain clouds loitering above cast an indecisive gloom over my trip from kerb to door. Inside, no one spoke as I made my way down the stairs, passing bodies busy prepping the exhibition space. I stood looking simple for a minute before a man in a T-shirt with a Ralph Steadman cartoon of Raoul Duke driving across Nevada strode over and introduced himself. I shook his hand. “I’m here to talk to Ralph.”
The man showed me to a table in the small foyer as workers ambled over and between us. They scattered branded baggies of blue non-meth sugar crystals on every surface and affixed hashtag stickers on walls at careful angles, props meant to appeal to the cool kids who’d be arriving later to drink free beer and document the scene.
I sat down heavily. “Can I get you a drink?” It was Michael. The man in the Steadman T-shirt. Still smiling. Behind him a team of dozens assembled a small bar stocked with Flying Dog beer, a brand with Steadman-designed labels. A nice touch. “I’ll take a water, thanks.” Water – I told myself – might better convince the staff that I was some kind of professional who knew what he was doing.
The three-day exhibition was set up by Sony to show off the artwork Ralph created for their special edition Breaking Bad box sets. There are six designs in total, one for each box set, featuring Walt, Jesse, Gus, Saul, Mike, and Hank respectively.
“He’ll be with you in two.” Michael was still smiling. He set the water down. I opened my laptop, a clean slice of aluminium milled to appeal to my minimal asshole aesthetic. Suddenly I hated it. There’s nothing punk about a MacBook. In minutes I’d be exposed as a fraud and the charade would end in a torrent of abuse and shame.
“Dan, this is Ralph.” Michael was now beaming. I stood up and shook Ralph’s hand. “I'm Dan.” Steadman is 79, tall, with a crop of white hair either side of his head and a firm handshake. His weathered, working hand folded over my own unspectacular paw. Michael finished the introduction. “Dan writes for BuzzFeed.”
“BuzzFeed.” Ralph sounded out the name. I wanted to explain: “You know, the internet.” I decided against it. We sat and I tried not to stare as he got comfortable. Black-rimmed glasses framed his face. He wore a denim shirt and a large necklace adorned with a dozen different pendants – among them a gonzo fist.
Ralph goddamn Steadman. He'd illustrated the cover of one of my favourite novels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and published political cartoons in Private Eye, Punch, and Rolling Stone. He and Hunter S. Thompson were kicked off an assignment covering the 1970 America’s Cup when they tried to paint “Fuck the pope” on the side of a yacht. Here I was drinking water and trying not to choke on it.
I placed my phone on the table and hit record. “I thought we’d start with Breaking Bad."
“I’d never heard of it.” He looked at me, matter of fact. My insides danced. Around us, worker bees buzzed forth with chairs and ice and mild panic. The droning hum of their unwhispered conversations made me fear for the fidelity of the recording.
In my early days of terrible journalism I lost an entire interview with an action movie star and had to email over a set of questions for him to answer as follow-ups. I don’t know if he knew they were the same questions. I suspect Ralph would know. I didn’t want to have to email Ralph.
“But you’re a fan now?”
He nodded. “Loved it when I saw it. We thought we’d watch the first three episodes. Then we started watching three a day. And was it over three weeks or two weeks?”
He looked at his wife, Anne, sitting nearby due to a lack of chairs, not a lack of trust. "Two weeks,” she replied.
Ralph introduced Anne and me. Slight of build with a grey bob, she wore a long red coat and a smile. He turned back to me. “Two weeks, we saw the whole lot. Then of course you start suffering from withdrawal symptoms.”
I asked about his favourite part of the show.
“The total disbelief of Hank when he realised Walt wasn’t as nice a person as he’d made out, and the look on his face. Well, he was, but he’d got so drawn into the evil of it, clawing him, dragging him deeper and deeper into it, and the whole thing of the laboratory starting in the back of the, the, er… what do they call them?”
"Motor home," I said, nailing it.
"No, the other one."
“Winnebago!” he agreed. “Being used for such a… It seemed like an easy enough thing to do at first, but then becoming… One of the drawings I did has a sort of...vaporised monster above it. That sort of idea.”
To talk to Ralph Steadman is to talk to one of his cartoons. The grotesque caricature incarnate, wicked and demonic and mischievous and playful. His thoughts scattered out in front of me, beads of spilled ink trailing in every direction, gathering in blots, circling back around to the question. “Where was I?”
Born in Cheshire and raised in north Wales, his accent carries a trace of that beginning. There's something almost John Lennon about it, diluted but not disappeared by a lifetime in Kent.
His thoughts – as his ink – could be mistaken for random, but were never less than carefully considered. As deft the hand, so deft the mind. I sat in awe, nodding like an idiot, taking pains to avoid hearing my own voice on the recording.
Ralph continued. “I really liked the revelation of that: ‘Oh my god! things aren’t what they seem to be.’ Jesse I thought was going to turn out to be a right little shit, and he turned out to be such a beautiful human being." He laughed.
I left too long a pause. “Were you sketching the whole time you were watching?”
He and Anne both shook their heads. “I had a small sketchbook, and I was drawing scribbles of them, and they were beginning to look like them in the scribbles. Once we’d finished, the first thing I thought I’d draw was a landscape painting of the whole scene. I’ve been to Albuquerque, you see, staying with a painter friend of mine.”
He couldn’t remember her name and turned to Anne. “Georgia O’Keeffe,” she told him.
He grinned at me. “There’s my encyclopaedia, you see.” He cast around for the original question. “So all these things sort of conspired to make me a fan of the show.”
We talked about TV. He told me they’d moved on to The Sopranos. I mentioned television being in a Golden Age, because that's a thing that people say these days.
He agreed that the prestige of TV made the Breaking Bad offer more attractive: “There’s a certain gravitas to it now, yes. But we’re Morecambe and Wise fans, you see. That was a golden age for comedy. I’ll never forget that.”
He affected his best Eric Morecambe voice: “I am playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order.”
A great burst of laughter cut right through the table from both sides. Fear and self-loathing replaced with unadmirable giggles. “Oh and the other pair, the Ronnies, The Two Ronnies.” I fell through the back of my seat as Ralph did the infamous "Fork Handles" sketch. He had a great wheeze of a laugh, the sort of laugh you’d imagine disarming the gnarling intensity of Hunter Thompson.
The hundreds of workers shuffling around the small gallery space weren’t sure what to make of two grown men hissing like children.
He relaxed. I followed his lead. My hunched shoulders lowered from ear level to mid-neck.
I tried to keep quiet as he spoke. I nodded at appropriate times. Looked for the right moment to ask the questions I had written down. Wondered if I should say anything at all. I knew my next ill-considered question could well throw off an unforeseen anecdotal transition by a great man. Better journalists have derailed interviews by trying to ask questions. As if to prove my point, he segued into Charlie Hebdo all on his own.
“That bloody Hebdo thing. I couldn’t believe it.” He put his hand to his forehead. “I’ve got a place in Paris, just down the road from the Gare Du Lyon, a couple of hundred yards from the offices, and I knew Georges Wolinski, one of the cartoonists that was shot. The 80-year-old. He used to come to Turkey with me to judge the Aydın Doğan International Cartoon Competition in Istanbul. And what they did was call out their name, and then, looking at them, cold as ice –” Ralph pointed his finger and imitated a machine gun sound. “And then the next one. I mean, how hideous is that? What torture. And then that poor guy outside, that was lying, fallen, wounded. So the guy just went up to him and ‘bang’. That was so hideous. It’s still in the back of my head, that bloody Hebdo thing.”
He shook his head. The humour disappeared under a cloud of sorrow and regret. I made a futile search for words of solace. I found none. Ralph picked up his thoughts. “We all had to do a cartoon for it, you know.”
He described his Charlie Hebdo memorial illustration. Gesturing out scene and symbolism for me, big hands painting rifles and severed limbs in the air. Mid-sketch, a great crash above our heads gave us both a fright. “Bloody hell!” He grabbed his heart. Eyebrows raised. I was somewhere under the table, cowering. False alarm. One of the thousand-strong crew had dropped a bench on the wooden floor above. His nerves fell into laughter. “There’s a certain feeling of insecurity, you know.”
He scattered his thoughts wider. “Why are people killing all the time? I can’t understand. All those news pictures of areas of Ukraine, smashed to bits. I can’t quite get my head around the bleakness of it. I feel slightly saddened. I was just thinking, I once said I wanted to change the world, when I was young man. And I reckon I’ve done it now; it’s worse.”
He laughed again. Fearful, perhaps, of any truth in his joke. I assured him that if the world was indeed worse, the blame could hardly lie with him. “No, but there you go.” He sat in self-defeat. “That’s how it feels.”
He pulled a notebook from his pocket. “Would you say that a sad pie would be crustfallen?” We both burst out laughing. Mood rescued, he turned the page. “Oh, and here’s another thought I had, a religious salad: lettuce pray.”
He told me about the work he had coming up: the cover of Anthony Bourdain's new book, and writing a follow-up to his own compendium of extinct birds, this time with critically endangered fowl. "I made up a word, 'nextinction'." He said he'd been working on a book for children called Toadstool Island, but couldn't finish it. "There’s an owl, a crow, and a pigeon. All sorts of puns. I’ve got a hairy godmother in it too. For kids. It’s that sort of thing, it’s ongoing. I’ve got a gardener in it now, called Alan. Alan, the gardener who hates flowers."
Michael strolled over. My short time with Ralph was done. I thanked him, and managed to leave the table without incident.
Later, at the gallery opening, I talked with another journalist, Tom from Esquire, a bottle of Flying Dog in my hand. Tom had brought his copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for Ralph to sign. I had not. Nor had I brought Ralph a present, as Tom had. I sipped beer and hoped nobody noticed my startling incompetence.
Beer and I don't get along. I hadn't eaten, and this was causing dizziness and confusion. I decided to have no more than two. Somewhere between my first and second, the man himself strode over to join us. Confirming my suspicion that questions ruin interviews, Ralph volunteered an anecdote about his first meeting with Hunter Thompson, at the 1970 Kentucky Derby. I’d read Hunter’s account, of course. His article in Scanlan’s Monthly, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved”, established his gonzo aesthetic, and influenced the New Journalism movement. Ralph gave us his side of the story.
Standing now and free of tabular obstruction, Ralph became his artwork animated. He gestured wildly, punctuated sentences with bursts of laughter, and superbly aped Hunter’s stern baritone with a practised metre. More than in print, somehow, the telling evoked the gulf between the unlikely pair, one a jovial British artist with a goatee and a mischievous grin, the other a bald-headed former Hell’s Angel, all whiskey and menace.
Ralph joked about the reception his art received in Kentucky. His "foul renderings", as Hunter had referred to them. “People would ask me to draw them, and so I would. And they’d look at what I’d done with disgust.” Hunter spoke of the fear and loathing with which Steadman was greeted by all he met. Ralph acted it out. “I drew a woman at the track. 'Ahm purdier than that,' she said." He drew out every vowel in his exaggerated Southern drawl. "Americans don’t seem to appreciate caricature.”
My third beer was a mistake. At the risk of foolishness I said nothing. It was impossible to ignore how full the room had become, swelled to bursting with cool kids and amateur documentarians. My shoulders raised a notch.
Ralph looked at me. “Miracle bollocks,” he said, grinning. He was referring to our interview, when he told me he'd worked out how Jesus walked on water. “You have to start rationalising about all the miracles to figure them out." We'd talked about him doing a book debunking them. Miracle Bollocks was the name he came up with. He laughed as he repeated it to me now. “I should get you to write the foreword.” I poured beer into my face to hide my blushes.
Two press photographers showed up. One a tall woman with a tiny camera, having to crouch to get shots, the other a tiny man with a camera twice the size of his head. The PR elves whisked Ralph away to work. Wearing his comedy Heisenberg prop hat, he pantomimed for the cameras. Playing up his poses. Pulling faces.
His wife, Anne, stood next to me. “He’s enjoying this,” I told her.
“Book signings are the worst.” She grinned and turned to me. “They take forever. He wants to talk to everyone, you see. Wants to make sure everyone has a good time. And he doesn’t just sign it, he’ll draw something too.” I could hear the book I didn’t bring vibrating on the shelf at home, demanding some kind of satisfaction.
I finished my beer. I sank back further into the room and considered the crowd. Young and cool. The right amount of beard. Too little of T-shirt. These were Breaking Bad fans, I was sure. Not Steadman fans. Perhaps they’d seen the Johnny Depp movie.
Then a man with a book held in front of him like a shield shuffled across the room. A laboured half-crouch of a walk, leaning back in anticipation of disappointment. To his surprise, Ralph greeted him warmly and signed the book.
I’d got it wrong. The face I'd been looking for was one of smug cool. Pretenders who came for the booze, not for the man. But it was the face I'd been projecting. Above it all, above them. I felt like an asshole. It was obvious. Every single one of these people was here to see Ralph. They people had grown up reading the same novel I had. Had the same Fear and Loathing poster on the wall. I was trying to enjoy myself in spite of the crowd. They were enjoying themselves because of it. A room full of fellow Steadman fans to share an evening with. I was the odd one out. The sore thumb. The rube. Tom from Esquire had brought his book, Michael wore his Steadman T-shirt – his perma-grin, I realised then, was for Ralph. They were meeting their hero, too.
I watched them watch him. Everyone in the room, from teenagers and bankers to artists, cool kids, and terrible journalists. Every one of us regarded Ralph with awe and admiration.
The room swayed. It seemed to be shrinking. I suspected my third beer was involved. Time to make an exit before I was crushed alive. I shook hands with Tom from Esquire. I decided not to tell him about the narrowing walls. I wasn't sure if the sounds I was making were words. And besides, I'd been in my fair share of shrinking rooms, and in these types of situations it's every man for himself.
I navigated the dozen Steadman caricatures on the stairs huffing non-meth and hashtagging proof, and fell out of the door into a long line of rain-soaked hopefuls. "You fools! You can't go in there!" I shouted. "The room is shrinking!" They regarded me with bitter indifference. That's the kind of claim one hears several times a night in Shoreditch.
I trudged home through drizzle and beer fog, a foul rendering of myself. Ink and conversation rattled in my head. “I hope I’ve given you something,” Ralph had told me as I turned off the recorder. Humble words from a man who had given me so much. I hoped he too had made it out alive.