Thank You Ralph, An Unforgettable Encounter with a Gonzo Legend
Haight Street 2018, a buzzing motorized hallway filled with Ubers and Lyfts, and I’m in one with an eccentric former artist and now, photographer of “women over 50,” Denise, who has lived in San Francisco for 20 years.
“What’s going on at the gallery tonight?” She asked, nearly killing a pedestrian on a bike jetting through a dark intersection.
I caught my breath and said, “Ralph Steadman is in town, you know…” I trailed off, and figured that she was just trying to make conversation so I’d tip her, but she wasn’t.
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“That’s amazing. I didn’t think people like him came to places like this anymore.” She was right about her assumption, that the San Francisco of today would be unrecognizable to people like Ralph Steadman and his partner in crime and art Hunter S. Thompson. I wondered how he would feel about it, the tech and the cold insincere glow of the Salesforce Tower.
“Here is good, thanks!” I said, almost rolling out of the car and onto a steep Haight Street hill where the art center stands. A long line of freaks and now, elderly freaks stretched from the humble hall’s stone entrance. Some were wearing Gonzo art T-shirts with famous works of Steadman’s printed across the front, splatters and all.
As the line started moving, the chatter of the chilly San Francisco crowd grew larger and louder, taking up the space surrounding them. I, alone, buzzed internally at the thought of meeting one of my favorite artist, after all, the reason I started adding ink to my fledgeling paintings was because of him, and most of all, he knew my literary idol so intimately and made his work come to life so vividly, that just being in his presence would probably be a life-altering event.
So I muddled down the hill almost knocking out a 60-year-old woman wearing a bucket hat, when I tripped on a piece of concrete, but made it into the Haight Street Art Center in one piece. I even got a free button too. It reads, “Americans for Ralph Steadman 2018.” Beyond the doors, a world-famous statue confronted me, gilded in bronze. “Vintage Dr. Gonzo,” the towering relic of a time gone by, and a writer immortalized with his cigarette and briefcase full of drugs. For a moment, I pictured myself in the iconic pose, one leg outstretched and a face searching for the truth.
All around me were the images I had seen only on paper, after spending my last 20 dollars on a Thompson book. The Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas book cover, the Rolling Stone art, the drawing that started it all for “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” and of course, a glass window full of the ink that Ralph Steadman used to create them.
There were portraits of Nixon all billowing out with warts and spit, and the now famous Baby Donald Trump photo with his red hulking face jumping out of the canvas like an exploding blimp, and of course several exotic bird portraits that made me want to pick up a paintbrush immediately. But there, in the vibrating chaos of an opening night gallery, in a corner where you’d almost miss him if you didn’t know who you were looking for, sat Ralph Steadman, the legend and the myth, a man who was once described as, “the only person crazier than Hunter Thompson.”
His larger than life presence was boiled down into a chair behind a small, almost coffee-table in a crowded gallery full of art patrons. Steadman was surrounded by handlers and artsy women in their 50s carrying glasses of red wine. People schmoozed and sauntered past him as a small line of die-hards formed.
“the only person crazier than Hunter Thompson.”
“This is it,” I thought, clutching a program from the event, wishing I had brought one of the eight million Thompson books I had for him to sign. “This is my chance to meet him. When will this come again?”
So I got in line, behind another young woman and her boyfriend who were anxiously waiting their chance to hold court with Mr. Steadman. “I’m going to die,” she said with the tone of someone waiting for a Justin Bieber concert to start. It wasn’t the sort of thing you’d hear from someone waiting to sit next to an elderly gentleman, but Ralph Steadman isn’t just an elderly gentleman, he’s a rock star, a supernova who is still sharp as a tack. The line moved forward and each person who wanted to speak to him was asked to sit down with him. Normally, with an artist of this magnitude, you’d expect a cold PR person guarding an even colder table where you couldn’t even go near the person behind it.
But this was different. The young couple ahead of me chatted and took a photo with Steadman and got on their merry way, back into the gallery and sea of patrons.
Then, it was my turn to sit and hold court, a jester in the presence of a king. “Hello Ralph, I’m Tess Stevens, it’s so nice to meet you,” I said holding out my tiny white hand for a shake.
“Well hello Tess Stevens,” Steadman said with a smile. I then gave him a pink envelope, which no doubt will surprise him when he opens it.
It’s covered in glitter. They were the only thank you notes I had.
“What’s this?” He said.
“A thank you note, for everything you’ve done and everything you continue to do for art and artists like me,” I said, almost shaking. I was getting the Justin Bieber feeling now.
He sat forward in the chair, contemplating the hot pink envelope. I was at first, afraid that I had done something wrong, or broken some unknown Gonzo protocol. “I’m shocked.”
I didn’t know how to respond so I just said, “No one’s ever said thank you to you before?” And he looked at me, with this inquisitive look, the look of a young boy who had just taken the last cookie from the cookie jar and said, “No,” smiling again.
Then of course we talked about art, and how I love the splatters and it made my work better to see his. He said to me, “You know that’s only because I’m clumsy.”
I laughed,”I’m about the most clumsy person on the planet. I’ve fallen down several flights of stairs in my young years.” Steadman laughed. I made Ralph Steadman laugh. He signed the exhibit pamphlet for me and we said our goodbyes. His kind face sending me off into the ether. The line continued, 20, 30, 40 more people, and Ralph was ready to meet every single one, arms open, chairs ready for sitting.
“A thank you note, for everything you’ve done and everything you continue to do for art and artists like me”
I stumbled through the crowd to the bar, or rather, the line for the bar. “Imagine that,” I said to no one, “A bunch of Steadman and Thompson fans waiting for alcohol.” Several people around me laughed, and I remembered I wasn’t alone in a dream. Canvasses flew by me splattered in india ink and watercolor, depicting the violent and accurate world of Steadman, bats and cars, cigarettes, and portraits. Thompson’s words ringing out through the images, cutting through the glass protecting the priceless paintings.
I finally got to the front and of course got the Gonzo stout from Flying Dog Brewing, a beer company that Ralph collaborated with for the labels. Sipping the dark nectar I dodged the San Francisco art elite, trying to get closer to one piece in particular — a mural from Hunter S. Thompson’s funeral, where his ashes were shot out of a rocket into the sky above Woody Creek, Colorado, a place he called compound, war room, and home.
In the piece, the trademark Gonzo fist looms large over a desert sculpted by tan ink and black cactuses. On it, are messages from Hunter’s closest friends, giving Ralph the praise he has always deserved for bringing the words to life. “Ralph, all my respect — The Col.” The Colonel is Johnny Depp. That’s how he used to sign his letters back and forth to Thompson. Other messages stood out too, but the signatures were impossible to read. “Ralph, why do they still lie to us, Ralph.” “Ralph, I loved you first.” After reading the scrawl on the artwork and stepping back, I nearly spilled my beer on a man who had just bought a $990 print.
“Whoops!” I said comically, reaching backward for a wall to crash into. He scowled. I lost my balance after realizing that these works, these pieces of history were much more than the sum of their parts. Ralph Steadman himself is a work of art, a man full of experience and iconic moments, so many that they may be unknown to the public forever. To this day, when he speaks about Thompson, he gets this little glimmer in his eye — it may be water, a tear. Because deep down, he knew that no one could save the great Dr. of Journalism
from himself. I left the memorial and launched out of the gallery and down its stone stairs, to the still of the fragile San Francisco streets, and I clutched my purse close, knowing that it contained the signature of a legend, the mark of someone who will only exist, to me, in this moment, as a kind soul with legends running through his veins. Into the Uber I went, hoping that somewhere, someone else is holding a thank you note for Ralph Steadman.