He's in that room
Second door to the right
Asleep on the couch
Exhausted from trying to make sense of it all
And from staying out of anyone's way
He can't play the person he was anymore
The clothes don't fit
The lines don't ring true
And the lighting isn't right
All of his happy endings
Added up to one massive disaster
He stood up once
To be shot down
But that bravest hour
Misreported by many
Cost him more than money
And the loves of a life
Although the fire was extinguished
Some embers still burn
When it's that three o'clock hour
And the world is silent and God whispers "Don't worry"
To thwart the attack of the shadow people
For it takes a lifetime
That the more you're taught
The less you think you know
It's all part of the process
Of shedding skins
In order to set the spirit free
From the chains of this world
For you have to be beaten
Time and time again
On your road to humility
That will eventually carry you
Above these prison walls
The world has been taken over by idiots
Gossips shows and celebrity chefs
And is a place where a couch
In a tiny room
Has become someone's refuge
As he puts on his coat
And goes walking with his ghosts
Into a familiar surrounding
That is at last bearable
As he wanders
With the knowledge that
With wisdom comes predictability
And explains God's boredom
Can you imagine?
Take this man
Oh, take him, Lord
He who lived with trauma
And the insanity of hope
And walked streets that turned back into themselves
Like people do
And was insulted, defamed and betrayed
By those he'd shown the most kindness to
How much am I bid for his heart?
It's weary from caring
But it is still in working order
What do I hear for his love
That has the capacity to extend to so many
For so little in return?
What am I offered for his feet
That have walked the world many times
And yet were still able to stand while others fell?
What will you give for his voice
That was silenced for a time by experts
Who feared his truth?
Words (c) Frank Howson 2019
photograph by Bruce Woodley.
I begin this story in the deep state of insanity, God knows where it will end. It is your fault as much as mine, that it has happened. For, you see, I was the one who came knocking all those nights you chose not to answer the door. But I have waited, without thanks or encouragement. Good things come to those who wait, my mother once told me. So here I sat, in this darkness, waiting for you to acknowledge me.
You didn’t kill me with your slings and arrows. Or your bullets and blades. No. You were crueler. You ignored me to death. I couldn’t find it in myself to forgive you. For you knew what you did. I bled in pain and, finally exhausted from hanging on too long, I suffocated.
I was taken down from my cross by the few who loved me, wrapped in cloth, and buried behind a rock to make sure I didn’t keep coming back like Judy Garland.
But I did. Many didn’t recognise me as I stepped into the spotlight on the stage of Carnegie Hall. But there I was. Transformed. In living colour. “At the top of his game,” wrote one critic, a friend of the producer. “He’s a laughter machine,” wrote another. “What the Fuck?” was the headline of the New York Times. That last review killed me. Again.
I wasn’t used to the warmth of the spotlight so my face hurt from smiling. My hand hurt from shaking others. My back from being slapped by strangers. And stabbed by a few friends. The crazier I became, the louder they laughed. My jokes were all at my expense, hence my well-publicised bankruptcy. I had no idea where I was going, so that became my plan. It has been emulated by many since, and they’ve all ended up in the toilet. Some of us have been in the toilet so long, people are talking.
Your love only gave me cancer. You kept begging me for closure, but you were really nagging me to death. I see it all now. For in death, we all become safe, don’t we? And then others are free to rewrite their memories so they can live with them. And you become enjoyable dinner party chat (gossip that, now you’re dead, becomes safe enough to become fact), to sophisticated listeners on their own way to the big fade-out.
I have kept on living just to spite you. You stole the joy from my life so that I could be as miserable as you. You paid me back for having friends. For having a future. For having a past. For having a positive attitude. For having bothered to put up with you.
I knew that by falling in love with you I’d be destroyed, so I only have myself to blame on that count.
You have more in common with those you detest than you realise.
The years I spent with you weren’t wasted as I learnt more money needs to be spent on mental health.
I’ve been on the streets and caught its madness. Even the traffic lights are wrong. Yesterday the TV lied to me. The toaster has the shits about something. The bathroom has turned right wing. And the refrigerator no longer engages in late-night conversations about literature.
I loitered on the corners of Dream and Nightmare, where I died waiting for a handout. A leg up. A racing tip. A sporting result. A kind word. A smile. A passing ex-wife. Anything.
“Live The Life You’ve Dreamed” was a framed quote on the wall of the local drug dealer.
I have found Life to be quite addictive. Like an Agatha Christie mystery, you keep wondering what’s next.
I can’t afford to travel as much as I used to, so I spend my days going up and down in the elevators of tall buildings. Besides, it does you no good to get away I’ve discovered. Jesus knew that.
I can’t go home any more because too many strangers are living there. And I’ve been away so long nobody remembers me.
I spend most of my days gathering food for the homeless. I call it lunch.
We know what got into Chet Baker’s arm, but what got into his head? Have you noticed that nobody seems to care about the important stuff once they have their headline?
Where is that black girl who showed me that Life was meaningless? She said the less you cared, the more luck you got. I have some questions for her. But I think I may have lost her by confessing that I loved her.
My father always told me that if Hitler had been able to get out of bed each day before noon, he’d have won the war. I’ve not been quite sure what I was supposed to have deducted from that advice. So, subsequently I’ve forced myself to be an early riser for fear of becoming a lazy fascist.
My dear ol’ dad took things to extremes, and no matter what time of the day or night I got out of bed, my father was always awake. I suspect he feared that if he slept in it could lead to him invading Poland. A terrible burden for a man to carry to his early grave. But so you have it. That’s all I was left with.
But what do I know?
It came as quite a shock to me when I was asked to write a book and share my wisdom with the world. I was also somewhat confused when I delivered the finished manuscript to my publisher and he laughed out loud at all the places I’d cried whilst writing it. When I inquired as to why this was, he laughed so hard he fell off his chair and shrieked, “Don’t worry, it’ll be alright!” And collapsed in hysterics again on his expensive carpet. I had to step over him to get to the door.
Later that day I returned to his offices to pick up my hat (I’d left it behind), and was told that a board meeting was in progress discussing my book and it’d been going for hours and I couldn’t interrupt it. I listened at the door and heard many people squealing with laughter, and gasping for breath.
I cried all the way home.
But no one noticed me. Anyway, I see nothing in the eyes of strangers I pass on the street. Nothing. Just an abyss that goes so deep you can’t scramble back from it. I have found myself on occasion, falling. But then, I always lost me again. So I’ve kept falling over and over and over in search of something familiar. In the end, the falling became my life.
I was shunned by everybody and then told to make my own way. I wasn’t in the club. I hadn’t gone to the right schools. My parents were poor. I’d read about universities but didn’t know where they were. This was in the dim dark days before Google Maps. When the Labour Party believed in who they were. And so did we. Everything I learnt I achieved by doing, and not from some academic book. So, I became the eternal outsider. Always looking in on others easy-come good times. Watching them through the window as they munched on expensive Government funded finger-food and sipping vintage French Champagne. Some of the organisers saw me standing outside in the rain, looking in, and felt sorry for me. They said I could come in if I promised to dry off and only have a cup of tea with the kitchen staff. But such treatment only made me stronger. And hungrier. So I developed the necessary resistance to haunt them. Eventually they thought they should give me an award as my alienation was becoming obvious. So, they gave me an award nobody had ever heard of but it had my name on it. It lasted a few years before it fell apart. Beating me by a few months. But while I was somewhat together, it got me a few easy lays and a social disease. And, for a time, it felt good to be noticed. It reminded me that I was alive.
It’s best summed up in the words of Ballsack who once said, “There is something out there that stems from something that makes no sense whatsoever to anything other than the something you may attach meaning to.” I couldn’t have said it any better myself.
I do sometimes remember to look around at the exquisite beauty of nature and am filled with humbling wonderment as well as contrasting anger at man’s obsession with destroying anything he hasn’t had a hand in. Such is our envy. Such is our insecurity. Such is our shortsightedness. Such is our spiteful will to bring about our own destruction. Although, in those last despairing moments of our self-inflicted demise we will cry and whimper like the true cowards we are. And shake our fists at our mothers for bringing creation to us and thus sentencing us to death.
Exist-tense, if we stick with it, rewards us with a present. A gift, if you will. But that can only be fully appreciated if we turn our backs on the past because what happened then was just a series of presents that we initially devalued but either gained from or lost our minds over, and here we are. At the crossroads, going forward or being pulled back into the abyss of “What if?” or “Why?”
People with rooms to spare won’t take in a friend who is homeless. Why not? Because they’re afraid you won’t leave. They don’t mind killing you as long as you don’t die on their premises. And once you do depart this life, there are so many stories they can twist to elevate themselves.
I recently saw workers erecting a monument to someone. It wasn’t finished yet so I couldn’t define who the subject was. But the shoes looked a lot like mine. I wondered whether this monument was a tribute to me and my life. A life in which everything I had ever loved I’d reduced to ruins.
“All they wanted was to be free, and that’s the way it turned out to be…” – The Ballad of Easy Rider.
I was recently saddened to wake to the news that Peter Fonda had died. At my age it has become a regular occurrence, almost daily, to hear about a dear friend, acquaintance, associate, or a boyhood hero checking out of this world.
When I lived in Los Angeles for nine years I was very fortunate to have met a large number of actors, musicians and directors that’d inspired me during my formative years. Some of them became friends, others I’d see around here or there and we’d give a nod and a smile. They were mostly nice people dealing with their own pressures, families, problems and all those things we too juggle. Just on a much bigger scale. The few I encountered that were mean or monsters were the pretenders. The ones who’d seized a spotlight or some power through bluff, marketing or manipulation.
The bigger the talent, the nicer the person is what I found. Mostly.
Which brings me back to Peter Fonda. I only met him once. It was in one of my favourite books stores, Book Soup, on Sunset Boulevard, and I was browsing the latest releases when Peter came in with some people and they began setting up a table for him to do some book signings for his autobiography, “Don’t Tell Dad.” The title referring to his father, the legendary actor Henry Fonda, who was described by his children as being strict, uncommunicative, and unaffectionate. He never told them, ever, that he loved them. One of those closed men from an era when it was deemed unmanly to show your feelings. Perhaps this explains why both Peter and his sister Jane became rebels. Pushing the boundaries, striving to achieve and seeking approval from others. Running wild in Hollywood.
Peter had nothing in common with his father other than looks. I chatted with him that day and he was a genuinely nice, kind, loving individual. Before the crowd arrived he even signed a complimentary copy of his book for me. He was a hippie, spiritually, until the end.
Carving out a film career had been difficult for Peter. When he started out he had to stand in the very large overpowering shadow of his father. Remembered not for his work, but for being Henry Fonda’s son. Then later, he would be referred to as Jane Fonda’s brother. It must’ve been a creatively lonely and humbling existence for him. In fact, in most of his early films he looks stilted and uncomfortable, devoid of any identity of his own.If the trick to great acting is total relaxation, he was a long way from it.
Not making much of an impression in movies such as “Tammy and the Doctor” “The Young Lovers” and other forgettable fluffy fare, the offers dried up as he sat on the sidelines watching his father continue to shine in major movies, and his sisterJane soar in one film after another. It must’ve hurt Peter to have been thought of as the “loser” of the family, but perhaps those forces also shaped him as the gentle, unassuming, empathetic, kind man he became. He knew, in his own way, what it was like to suffer. To be ignored. Or dismissed.
Like many outsiders of the big slick Hollywood machine, Peter stumbled into the conveyor-belt Roger Corman “B” grade movie productions churned out for drive-in market. These exploitation films had budgets less than what real movies spent on catering. Some of them were shot in two days! And those that worked on them, usually had two or more jobs to perform. But Peter joined an illustrious company of other young, eager outsiders who couldn’t get a break in mainstream movies either. People like Jack Nicholson, Francis Coppola, Robert DeNiro, Bruce Dern, etc.
The brilliant thing about the Corman movies was that you learnt on the job, from experience, seeing yourself on the big screen and seeing what worked and what didn’t. You can now observe in these mostly crappy movies how Fonda and Nicholson go from stilted, self-conscious actors to guys whobecome so comfortable in front of a camera, their true self shines through and magic is born. We see this in Fonda’s performances in “The Wild Angels,” and the LSD fuelled “The Trip.”
And so it was, with a small budget film called “Easy Rider” (directed by Dennis Hopper and starring Peter, who also co-wrote the script and co-produced it) that Peter Fonda became a huge international star in his own right, and a cultural icon to a whole generation of baby boomers. His character Captain America oozed quiet confidence and the cool factor in abundance. The way he moved, how he dressed, the manner in which he spoke, had us boys all trying to emulate him. He became our martyred hero who, like us, was so lost, confused and despairing about the world, that we dropped out of the ranks of what was expected of us.
One of the last lines his character utters in the film, just before his date with destiny is, “We blew it.” He doesn’t elaborate. It is a beautiful, sad, famously enigmatic line that in a way is a eulogy to a lost generation.
Although Peter went on and starred in many movies and won Golden Globe awards and nominations for Oscars, it is his character in “Easy Rider” that still haunts us. That cool, disenchanted, silent-type loner, searching for the meaning of life on the coolest looking motorcycle we ever saw.
The advertising by-line to the movie “Two men went looking for America, and couldn’t find it anywhere,” best sums it up.
Peter screened the final cut of the movie to Bob Dylan hoping that the famous troubadour would give permission for his recordings to be used for the movie’s soundtrack. But Dylan was so angered by the movie’s tragic ending, he said he’d only give his songs to the movie if the final scene was reshot and the bikers won. But Peter explained that the two leading characters had to be martyred. That’s what happened at that time, at that place, in America. Young people couldn’t beat the system.
So Bob took a piece of paper and scribbled these lines on it, “The river flows to the sea. Wherever that river flows that’s where I want to be. Flow river flow, let your waters wash down, take me from this road, to some other town…” He handed it to Peter and said, “Give it to Roger McGuinn to finish. He’ll know what to do with it.”
And do he did. Roger added the lines, “All they wanted was to be free, and that’s the way it turned out to be.” And “The Ballad of Easy Rider” was born. Dylan declined a credit as he’d given the lyrics to Peter, and the film, as a gift.
Peter Fonda was born to be wild. He is now free from the chains and restrictions of this earthly world. Free to ride the wind. To be a part of that beautiful dawn. To be as still and wise as the trees. And to flow with that river to the sea.
We tried to live a simple life in a complex world. Surrounded by all the dangers, temptations, frustrations and good intentions gone south. We had a simple love, in that sweet naive time before the reptilians took over and the war designed to have no end began.
All I knew was that I loved you, and you loved me. Nothing much else mattered. And if the world we knew came to an end, I’d love you in the next too.
Your beautiful face and inner joy were the only drugs I needed to keep going. You made me smile. You made me dance. You made me hope for more when I’d given up hoping.
Each day we’d plow the fields, sowing for the harvest that would keep us full during the winter months.
Life was good and the people we knew were fun. Until they weren’t anymore. But they weren’t as lucky as us and life made them bitter.
Sometimes I’d whisper your name in a reverential prayer when my road narrowed andthe nights became too dark to see ahead.
Some people became envious of our joy and sought to steal it, foolishly thinking they could replicate the recipe, but they burnt the base.
They burnt us too.
These days I don’t punish myself by thinking of love, and have accepted my life of solitude. Sometimes we have to sacrifice joy to obtain wisdom. Sometimes I long to be a happy fool again. For there is a penalty in knowing too much.
My wisdom has told me that angels must leave. They weren’t meant to be chained to this mortal earth, or to us flawed humans. And so, it is as it should be. Fly on, my darling, fly on. It was all my fault, dreaming that I could keep you.
But perhaps our time will come. Again. And I’ll not awaken my wisdom, and instead, pretend I don’t know the ending.
Once I was a child
And the world was beautiful
Loving and cruel
Much bigger than me
I looked up to everyone
Some grownups didn’t like children
You could tell by how they looked at you
Perhaps they didn’t like fellow grownups either
But I didn’t know that
I was just a child
I liked to play with little soldier figures
That I collected until I had my own army
Then I started collecting an army for them to fight
They like to hook boys on war as soon as possible
My army won every battle
But none of them got really hurt
They just pretended to be to satisfy my scenario
That’s a grownup word for story
Grownups like to show off
I also liked to listen to the radio
My mum said I could identify every singer
Just from hearing a few bars of their voices
My dad worked every week day
And sometimes he took me with him
I was made a fuss of by his workmates
Because I was a child
Sometimes my mum worked at night
I didn’t like that
I would sit on my dad’s knee
Listening to the radio
Eagerly awaiting her return
I wished that we had a TV set
And then one day Steele’s department store
Delivered one by accident
We never told them
And they never came back
My parents thought it was luck
I knew it was magic
And my wish had come true
But what did I know?
I was a child
Sometimes my much older sisters were nice to me
Most times they weren’t
I grew to accept that
I must have done something wrong to them
And they were paying me back
Or else they knew I was worthless
I should’ve thanked them for bringing this to my attention
But I was just a child
I liked watching things on TV
In those days shows always had a happy ending
And the cast would smile as the credits rolled
Sometimes they’d wave at me while they smiled
And I waved back
Before they faded out
I wished that I could be on TV
And then I was
My parents called it luck
But I knew it was magic
My wish had come true
One day my mum took me to see a pantomime
At the Tivoli Theatre
It looked magical to me
And everyone seemed to be having fun
I wished I could be up there on the stage
And one day I was
My parents called it luck
But I knew much more
You see, I was a child
And for a time my wishes came true
Then I grew up
And I wished I hadn’t
But as much as I wished
And I couldn’t go back
Then my dad went to heaven
He said he’d had enough
So I got married
Because that’s what grownups do
When you replace grownups
And take on responsibilities
And it all begins again
And I got to learn grownup secrets
There are not always
And that wishes rarely come true and it’s more to do with luck
The older you get
The more selective you become about what you wish for
One day my wife took me to dinner
And told me a happy occasion was coming
And soon we had a child of our own
I always knelt so as to not look down on him
No matter what he asked
I always smiled and gave him
And what wisdom I had
I tried to make him feel he was worth
Then one day it was all taken away
But that’s a long story
I guess I’d forgotten in my joy
To say thank you
To the one who grants the wishes
And he can be a hard God at times
My mother didn’t want to leave me
So she hung on a long time
But finally she got so tired
She had to go
Sometimes people ask me what I want
And I answer that I want what I had
A long time ago
When there were heroes
Before the press tore them down
Back when my family and I gathered around
Our hot TV
And watched our favourites
And laughed as one
Cried as one
And cheered as one
When I was a child
And the world was new
When wishes came true
If you were lucky
But now I’ve been cast as the kindly old man
And seek signs of affection
In the eyes
Of those I pass in the street
As I did when I was a child
But people’s eyes are cold these days
And they don’t see others
For they are only looking inward
I also smile at children
Remembering when I was one
But they confirm that I am now invisible
For they’ve been taught to ignore strangers
I’m no longer in the club
Expelled for growing too tall
Even though my heart remains young
The deserted alleyways of night
Are the only friends one can confide in
Walk it away
Walk it away
Around the next corner there is no light
And you can lose yourself
Sometimes I am seen
Searching for my youth
In the recycling bins
Trying to find one little toy soldier
Who might stand up for me
Take my side
Fight the good fight
And guide me
We sleep in the dark
And wake to a stark
We never learn
We wait our turn
Then forget what to say
When someone nags
We pack our bags
We push and shove
And try to love
But lonesome ends with me
Wasn’t I there for you
Aren’t I a friend too?
You sneak thoughts into my head
While I rest in bed
I used to feel alive
But now I feel
As good as dead
With that having been said…
We give what it takes
And make our mistakes
We walk alone
And turn to stone
I love you but you lie
I walk the beach
And sometimes teach
That one and one
Can come undone
And lonesome ends with me