The two first met at the 1970 Kentucky Derby. As Steadman explains, they were both blind drunk and in serious physical danger within an hour of meeting each other. As Thompson wrote later: “The rest of that day blurs into madness. The rest of that night too. And all the next day and night. Such horrible things occurred that I can’t bring myself to think about them now, much less put them down in print. Steadman was lucky to get out of Louisville without serious injuries, and I was lucky to get out at all.” This encounter was the blueprint for their working relationship over the next three decades. And yet, somehow, it mostly worked. Hunter’s style of Gonzo journalism where he put himself at the centre of the story and blurred the line between truth and fiction was perfectly complemented by Steadman’s incredibly vicious art.
Over 400 pages Steadman gives you the inside story on pieces of journalism that have become the stuff of legend. Here are the two of them at the America’s Cup, at the Watergate hearings, and, perhaps best of all, at the “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974. And as he recounts these tall tales he doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to impersonate Hunter’s style. Indeed the stories often derive much of their humour from Steadman’s peculiarly Welsh sensibility.
But it’s not all blotters and beer for breakfast. Hunter could be a mean, cruel man and Steadman doesn’t shy away from showing this. Their most famous work together, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, seems to have left a particularly bad taste in Steadman’s mouth. He feels he was cheated out of the copyright on his most famous artwork. There is also a hint of feeling under appreciated when he says: “Where is Winnie the Pooh without its illustrations? Where is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas without its Gonzo drawings’.”
This darker mood is evident in the latter stages of the book as Steadman chronicles Thompson’s decline into professional self-parody and personal despair. But he never lets you forget that you are in the presence of an original, a one off, “a pioneer, frontiersman, last of the cowboys…a conservative redneck with a huge and raging mind”.
The final chapter of the book is a letter from Steadman to Thompson. In it Steadman makes explicit the implicit point of the book. For in the end this is an attempt to understand and come to terms with his great friend’s suicide.