It’s not often that the corridors of a historic inn transform into a realm of intense artistry, provocation and vibrant social commentary. This summer, the prestigious Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, MA, pairs its timeless elegance with the audacious spirits of British illustrator Ralph Steadman and the literary genius Hunter S. Thompson. Their exhibit, “Ride the Thunder,” co-presented with the Norman Rockwell Museum, promises an immersive (and very trippy) journey into the soul of American art and literature.
Walking the plush, heritage carpets of The Red Lion Inn’s second-floor hallway, one can feel the heartbeat of Thompson and Steadman’s Gonzo Journalism, a journalistic form that was fearless, first-person and unapologetically subjective. With 50 original pieces from their collaborative works like “The Kentucky Derby” and “Fear and Loathing,” visitors are swept into a world where the line between observer and participant blurs in bold strokes.
Speaking of his partnership with Thompson, Steadman shares, “The unlikeliness of it ever being so [is was I love]. He was the one person in all the world I needed to meet and together we had adventures that became the stories we covered. We never knew what could happen. It was the most exciting and the most terrifying way to exist. I was continually standing on the brink of annihilation and self-destruction but never went over the edge.”
Steadman’s fearlessly candid illustrations have always been a subject of admiration and intrigue. Delving into his unique approach, he explains, “I never adopted a style. I just used drawing from its basic roots. It’s the best way to be. People can speak different languages but show them a cartoon and they can both understand it.”
The Rise Of Gonzo Journalism And Its Relationship With Drugs
The 1960s and 1970s were not just marked by the rise of Gonzo Journalism but also by a surge in the cultural and recreational use of psychedelics and cannabis. Hunter S. Thompson, often brazen about his drug use, epitomized the era’s exploration into altered states of consciousness. His works, infused with references to these substances, highlighted both their potential for enlightenment and the dangers of excess.
Steadman, on the other hand, had a different perspective, stating unequivocally, “I don’t take drugs of any kind. Hunter tried everything – that was our vital difference.”
While Steadman himself abstained from drug use, his art can be seen as an external manifestation of the drug-induced states that Thompson often inhabited. His illustrations for works like “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” are filled with grotesque, distorted figures that seem to leap out of a hallucinogenic haze, thereby visually representing the counterculture’s experimentation with altered states of consciousness. Though not a user, Steadman’s art adds another layer to the conversation surrounding psychedelics and cannabis, showing that one can engage with the themes and ideas provoked by these substances without partaking in them. For example, his 1971 illustration “Mescalito,” named after the psychoactive substance mescaline, captures the essence of a psychedelic experience despite Steadman’s own sobriety.
Gonzo Journalism, an explosive term coined by Boston Globe’s William Joseph Cardosa, gained momentum in its early days, shaking the foundations of conventional storytelling. Steadman adds, “He [Thomspson] wasn’t just a proponent, he was its father and I suppose I was the slightly confused uncle! It was a constant threat. I never really felt anything was ordinary anymore. So I was persistently on my guard, but also I had been brought up to be responsible and respectful. With Gonzo anything could be a story and you had to follow the trail, wherever it led.”
Cannabis And Counter-Culture Today
Theory Wellness, a cannabis company listed as a collaborator of the exhibit, draws inspiration from counter-culture figures like Steadman and Thompson. With the recent wave of cannabis legalization and a renewed interest in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics, this collaboration underscores the importance of revisiting the works of figures who once challenged societal norms around these substances. By emphasizing its role in confronting the norms, especially around cannabis prohibition, Theory Wellness positions itself at the nexus of history, art and modern-day societal evolution.
The “Ride the Thunder” exhibit becomes an embodiment of this ethos, giving attendees more than just a static viewing: it’s a powerful evocation of the countercultural revolution of the ’60s and ’70s. The exhibit, in a way, also pays homage to a time when psychedelics and cannabis were integral to the American counter-culture, acting as catalysts for societal change, artistic innovation and spiritual exploration.
Amidst their adventures, Steadman fondly recounts a particularly memorable moment with Thompson: “Hunter was rowing at the America’s Cup in Rhode Island. We had snuck out onto the water to spray paint one of the boats. Hunter asked what I was going to spray and I said ‘F**k the Pope?’ His response was, ‘Are you religious, Ralph?’ — which I thought was hilarious. He was rowing towards one of the yachts and he accidentally pulled one of the oars from the rollicks and tipped backward in the boat, legs in the air. Then we were spotted so he let a flare off to we could ‘flee.’ I never did vandalize the boat, which was probably a good thing as I would have ended up in jail, and never been allowed to return to the States.”
In this societal panorama, Steadman reflects on the role of counterculture in influencing his vision. “It was unusual and more intriguing to consider than being conventional. I never quite fit in with the ‘normal’ things people wanted me to do, get a job, expect a paycheck every month, etc. I was also on the outside of that looking in and I could see some of the absurdities of it and the double standards and that is what looked to reveal, especially early on when I wanted to change the world – and I did, it’s worse now than it was when I started,” he says.
Perhaps the most intimate offering within this exhibit are the fax exchanges between Steadman and Thompson, spanning over a decade and a half. Steadman recalls, “It was so curious and such an antiquated new process even at the time. I found it rather banal but very immediate. So I went along with it since Hunter loved the fax and treated it as a holy method of communication. It was both ingenious and clumsy which is its own kind of erratic genius. We would wake up reams of curled paper on the floor some mornings filled with Hunter’s thoughts.” These artifacts illuminate the depths of their enduring friendship, a rare inside look into the fervor and inspiration behind their iconic collaborations.
Describing their profound connection, Steadman notes, “He was the Head to my Tail. I was the cunningly stupid one and he couldn’t draw. We were like brothers and for all our differences I think we shared some fundamental values. We had both done National Service, neither of us quite fitted usual expectations and we were both curious to see what could happen, without a plan.”
‘An Iron Skillet With 250 Years Of Stories’
M. A. Cash, the curator of this transformative venture, views the Red Lion Inn as more than just a historical locale. To him, it’s “an iron skillet with 250 years of stories, simmering with layers of flavors.” Such an embodiment of history proves a fitting setting for the impactful works of two figures who have defined generations.
It’s worth noting that this summer, the inn celebrates its 250th anniversary, further elevating its stature in the world of art, especially when one remembers its immortalization in Norman Rockwell’s painting, Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas. The inn’s alliance with the Norman Rockwell Museum strengthens its ties to art history and American culture.
With luminaries like Richard Post (father of the famed musician Post Malone) and Bobby Kennedy III co-producing this grand showcase, The Red Lion Inn turns into more than just a hotel; it becomes an art sanctuary.
One thing’s for sure; as you leave the inn after this deep dive into the world of Thompson and Steadman, the echoes of their audacious spirits will linger, inviting you to question, challenge, and above all, to think.
“Ride the Thunder” will run from August 20 through October 31, 2023, at The Red Lion Inn, located at 30 Main Street in Stockbridge, MA.