UNEASY RIDER

“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 who  become 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.

Farewell, dear Peter. Take it easy.

(C) Frank Howson 2019

THE BRIGHTEST LIGHT

Where do you find someone
Who’ll give you their heart?
And won’t take it back
Just to tear you apart
Someone who is
Everything she seems
A dream you wake to
When you wake from dreams
I’ve been searching so long
And learned to live alone
You kinda park your life
In a holding zone
But I believe one day
If you keep on giving
You’ll stumble in the dark
And find your reason for living
For it’s a contradiction
That in the darkest night
We see in the faraway distance
The brightest light

(G) Frank Howson

DRIFTING AND FADING

When I need a friend
To send me ‘round the bend
And I’m at a loose end
I’ll call you
My best friends
Stole my best friend away
Then hacked my computer and phone
To see what I had to say
But drifting and fading
Are now part of my day
This world’s a nice place to visit
But not sure I’d want to stay

She said I’d never done anything for her confusing me with another man…

(C) Frank Howson 2019

THE YOUNG BOY CALLED ME OLD MAN

The boy called me old man but I pitied him and his youthful arrogance, for I knew the pain that waited ahead for him. Life humbles us all. Even the ones who think they are Superman in those summer days of our lives. There will be plenty of time for him to look back at how much he squandered his power on those who let him down. Like an incessant drum beat that slowly fades and diminishes altogether till there is only the relief of silence that comes to those old enough to appreciate it. Some will rage against the unfairness of the inevitable but will fall where they stand as young men step over their bodies in their excitement to enter the ring.

When we are young we dream of running away with the circus. When we are old the circus runs away from us. But by then we can see through the grandeur to the sweat, fear and blood of the performance. And the toll it takes from us all.

It is unjust that we amass some experience and wisdom that gets us nowhere but a park bench in the sun. For no one is interested in listening to what we know because they’re too busy rushing around making all the same mistakes we did. And good advice is only met with resentment from the young, like telling someone how a book ends and spoiling it for them.

Some young men have so many women they don’t know what to do with them. Eventually the women realise this and leave for greener pastures and something more substantial than big talk. Or a big car. For they were never really interested in the car.

Time is a serial killer that picks its targets indescriminantly but will eventually come knocking for us all in the dead of night.

Even for those who were once arrogant young things who thought they knew it all

(C) Frank Howson 2019

WHERE, IN THE WORLD

We live in a world where voicing the truth can have you socially banished.
Where children from the time they can walk are taught to not trust grownups. Then we grow up to not trust anybody.
Where Satanists teach the word of God.
Where marriage is for a few years at best and then you have the house to yourself.
Where an allegation can end your career.
Where originality will get you remembered after you die of hunger.
Where friendship is seen as an “investment”.
Where it’s okay to lie about everything and invent your own realty. This was once called “delusional” but now it’s called “faking it till you make it”. Make what?
Where giants are brought down by dwarves.
Where the mainstream media no longer has any credibility.
Where music is disposable and no one cares who wrote it, produced it or played on it.
Where the majority of movies are based on comic books.
Where integrity is seen as old fashioned.
Where you can steal someone else’s idea and not only call it good business but be able to look at yourself in the mirror without flinching.
Where to win at any cost is admirable.
Where a text message may offend unless you post LOL after it.
Where we know everything about ourselves and zip about others.
Where justice is not blind it is biased.
Where if your political candidate loses you must hate, riot, rally and unsettle things so that the winner can’t do their job. In the old days this was called being a sore loser after the majority of the people (which is democracy) have spoken.
Where our heroes are edited out of history because they were flawed in some way that doesn’t sit comfy with our current PC beliefs. Even Jesus lost his temper and took to moneylenders with a whip. Proving nothing other than he was human.
Where wars are invented for profits or to take the heat and attention off homeland scandals.
Where the past is never learned from because it is not respected.
Where people gleefully buy the lies that will bring about their own demise.
Politicians reach out to the poor in their election campaigns but cynically know they won’t resolve their situation as to do so would lose them their voter base. Keep the needy needing.
Where TV reality shows teach the young that if you lie, deceive, backstab, and play everyone against each other, you will win.
Where people fear the existence of a God because they fear being judged.
Where sex is mistaken for intimacy.

(C) Frank Howson. 2019

WHERE DID WE LEAVE THE STORY?

Where did we leave the story?
Oh, that’s right, you left me
Were we out of our minds
To ever think we’d be free?
What’s the name of that street?
No, wait, it’ll come to me
Did we throw away our good fortune
Whilst searching for destiny?

“I knew a man who went to sea
And left the shore behind him
I knew that man for he was me
And now I cannot find him”
You once sang me that song
On our way to the gym
I think it’s about a legless man
And how it was he could still swim

Where did we leave the glory
We’d fought so hard to win?
Perhaps God was insulted
And deemed it a sin
What is that condition
When we’re too scared to win?
But perhaps we can’t blame it on theories
The truth is we’re made of tin

Where did we leave those tablets
That got us through the night?
Who said we had a chance
And that we were in the right?
You know me so you know
When I glow in the light
I don’t give up till I’ve given my all
Although this time I just might

Why did you leave our story
Just when things had worked out?
Were you afraid to express
All of the things that you felt?
Well it snowed this Christmas
Alone I watched it melt
Then I toasted us with aged whiskey
Although our drink is stout

(C) Frank Howson 2019

THE FINAL STAGE – Adrian Rawlins review of what he called “My lost masterpiece”.

It started out like a normal day for the man of the house. He had breakfast with his wife. She was no warmer or cooler towards him than she had been for a long time. He read the morning paper, donned coat, picked up his briefcase and left for the office.

She reminded him that there was no office anymore. He had to acknowledge that all that is now part of “the past”. Putting aside momentary chagrin at the loss of anticipated freedom he feels safe. There will be no more journeys into the outside world.

He and his wife relapse into a conversational sortie we know they have ventured into often before, their discourse, though completely Australian, throws up the cliches and truisms of everybody wisdom and in almost Pinteresque way introduces echoes of Oscar Wilde’s sublime parable “The Happy Prince”.

A telephone rings but nobody answers. It has no dial – like the clock face in Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries.”

There is an unexpected knock at the door and a man with failure written all over him seeks admission. He has about him the air of a failed vaudevillian/cabaret performer. Like T. S. Eliot’s narrator he has seen the moment of his greatness flicker…but…”I am not Prince Hamlet…”

The dialogue is cryptic, enigmatic, redolent with oblique references to poems, books and cultural assumptions, skirting banality while continuing the Pinteresque reference to the daily metaphors which have been the cliches while still retaining their nugget of “the truth” and providing many moments of genuine “comedie noir”.

Another visitor bursts in, this time no stranger. Stinky Radford is an actor, lover, a forceful extrovert character, beloved by both Man and Wife. Asked about his life, he bravely lies while we see that he too is not Prince Hamlet, nor was he meant to be.

While the husband muses upon the remembrance of the past, Stinky makes love to his wife, who was once his wife too. Then, girding up his loins, he leaves to…try again?…to solve the riddle?…face the music?

By the time the audience have accepted the essentially metaphoric nature of this work of cinema: the room is none other than the stage on which Sophocles presented his vast and mighty tragedies, or Aristophanes his satires: the same stage which Shakespeare saw as emblematic of the world, “on which stars in secret influence comment”.

Another visitor – a youth, streetfighter, violent, working-class poet and thug – shades of Jean Cocteau here – bursts in and now we are given our first inkling of the exact nature of the metaphor we have been watching. Despite his bravado and overt displays of machismo, he is terrified by the wife’s advances. We are justified at this point feeling that perhaps all of the male characters are aspects of the husband’s psyche and that we are witnessing a revelation of Everyman/Everywoman in a decidedly contemporary encapsulation.

The wife reminisces volubly about a lover, a lawyer with an earring in one ear.

Stinky Radford returns, having failed to discover anything. The streetkid wants to go back but Stinky assured him “there’s nothing out there”.

The husband has already asserted “we are kindred spirits,” and “this is the room of the lost”.

Finally, Music and Light and mysterious opening of a door heralds the moment when Man and Wife must Face the Music in an upper room (the Upper Room?). He is the Happy Prince, denuded now of all his finery, and she, the Swallow who will not leave him. They are translated into Light.

Immediately they are gone, another figure bursts through the front door, demanding explication. He is obviously the Lawyer who has been the wife’s lover, and in the manner of lawyers he threatens to sue everyone until “you’ll wish you were dead!”.

As his three auditors laugh and laugh we now know exactly where we are and the form of the film, which has been hovering at the corner of our consciousness now snaps into place – and everything makes sense.

“The Final Stage” is, at its deepest level a work of art covering in an original and ground-breaking way the same philosophic and metaphorical terrain covered by Jean Paul Sartre in “No Exit”. It is also a funny, sad, poignant, piquant, witty and disturbing story which amuses us while it reminds us of the – dare we say? – eternal verities of Life and Death.

Because of the way “the story” unfolds – similarly to the creative method employed by Peter Carey in his best short stories – the film is decidedly out of the ordinary – its unusualness and the charm and variety of the performances, induce us willingly to suspend our disbelief. Those viewers familiar with poetry, the theatre, and great literature will find echoes of those other forms and discovery of such connections gives the film’s delightful tension. Theatre-goers, one hopes, will appreciate more fully the slightly theatrical edge to the dialogue. But everyone should be able to see that “The Final Stage” makes a significant, even historical contribution to our understanding of film form in the deepest sense.

– Adrian Rawlins
Critic &. Poet
1994

Review written for Farrago.

Produced, Written & Directed by Frank Howson starring Adrian Wright, Abigail, Tommy Dysart, Michael Lake, Zachary McKay & Tiriel Mora.

photograph by Luzio Grossi.