MY MOTHER

My mother had suffered. While other teenage girls were carefree, my mother's 
youth was robbed from her by polio. And the result was she'd walk with a limp 
the rest of her life. She'd also been denied an education because she'd had 
to leave school at 12 to work in a florist shop to help financially support
the family. Her father, whom she'd adored, was thrown out of the house by her
mum, and although he'd occasionally return to beg a reconciliation with his
family, it never eventuated. 

I was told that he couldn't keep his feet still if he heard music and loved 
to tap dance. It's one of those spooky things in life that I too loved music
and told my mum I wanted to learn tap dancing when I was all of 7. I guess
somehow in that mysterious way of the world I'd inherited his love of that. 

One night he was hit by a car driven by a drunk and died instantly. No doubt
my stubborn Irish grandmother felt guilt that she'd never taken him back into
the family and household he'd loved so much. But all actions have ripples, and
some turn into tidal waves.  

My mother missed him all the days of her life, and always told me what a
lovely man he was. 

Some say wisdom can't be taught, it has to be earned. And perhaps all the
early heartbreaks my mother endured explained her inherent wisdom. She had
a calm soulful way of smiling and imparting her wise words that would cut
to the heart of any problem you had. 

She was also the greatest mental arithmetic exponent I've ever witnessed, and
could correctly spell any word by sounding it. She was never wrong. Perhaps
She had a love of words that rubbed off on me. Her mathematical skills did 
not. 

She loved people. Another trait I inherited. And like me, she sometimes
trusted the wrong people. At the age of fourteen this pretty, naive, 
friendly girl was raped by a much older man. At fifteen, before her life
had really begun, she had a child, which was brought up by my grandmother
as hers to avoid a scandal and being ostracized by society at that time. 
My mother assumed the role of the baby boy's sister. A common story in 
those days, and much later gave me the insight to write about it in the
musical based on the life of Bobby Darin, "Dream Lover." I had witnessed
first hand the aftermath of the pain, shame and fallout of that situation. 
Hence the line in "Dream Lover" that "once you tell a lie, it must become
your truth forevermore."

In her early twenties my mum met my father. It was obviously, on my dad's 
part, love at first sight. But my mother steadfastly resisted any commitment to him. 
Still, he persisted. Phone calls, flowers, visits to the house, all
intended to wear her down and make her fall in love with him. His desperate
Quixote delusion. These days such a romantic fool would be arrested for
stalking. Back then it was considered "woo-ing."

He and his two brothers were all steeple chase jockeys, and although my
dad wasn't yet earning big money, healthy prospects loomed. All the 
brothers had been brought up as stable boys so they had a great gift with
being able to handle horses. It was second nature to them. My father offered
to give up his promising but tenuous career to get a steady job if only
Pearl Walsh would marry him. She refused his proposal. Then one night he 
showed up at her mother's house, drunk and crying, and threatened to kill
himself if she didn't marry him. My mum's oldest brother, Bill, told her
to "let the silly bastard off himself so we can all get some sleep!"

My mother, cursed with a soft heart, married Henry Francis Howson (Jacky 
to his friends) and they set forth to try and build a life together.  

She'd thought her child would move in with them and the wrong could be 
righted, but he'd grown too attached to the familiarity of her mother by 
then. My mother carried the hurt of this rejection the rest of her life. 
In his later years he'd desperately sought my mother to acknowledge him 
but she never did. He had made his choice. In Irish Catholic homes 
betrayals and vendettas ran hard and had a way of icing even the sweetest 
of hearts. 

I never knew any of this until I was a teenager. I was staying at my
uncle's house once, and his kids kept referring to him as my brother.
Suddenly, it was unraveled and and revealed.

My father's drinking accelerated and one can only assume as to why that
was. He went to his grave with so many inner feelings unvoiced. Like most 
men of his day. Perhaps he regretted what could've been if he hadn't given
up his racing career. He watched both his brothers go on and gain much
acclaim culminating in his oldest sibling winning many Grand National
Steeple Chase events and ending up in the history books. 

Or perhaps it was because he was sensitive enough to know that my mother's
love never matched his. After he died, my mum told me that she hadn't loved 
him and had only married him because he seemed so lost. That hurt me very 
much to hear, and made me sad knowing my father had endured a life with that
knowledge. She'd married to get away from living in her mother's home with
her two older opinionated brothers. Suffocating living under too many 
people's rules with a child she wasn't allowed to acknowledge as her own. 

At times I've thought that some people marry in order to kill each other. Or
themselves. Not sure if there's a name for that syndrome but it surely does
exist. As much as day follows night. 

I guess I always dreamed that I'd one day have a normal family life of my 
own, not damaged by denials, guilt, recriminations, and shame. And, for
15 years of a marriage I did, but lost it all when I stood up over a
principle (that Irish streak again). I won big in the integrity stakes but
lost in the financial one. Still, I could live with that far better than the
alternative, for I'd seen first hand what damage living a lie does to
people.

Who knows what my mother could've achieved if she'd been born into
different circumstances. Her great love was the movies. Spencer Tracy, Bing
Crosby, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Fred Astaire, Ronald Coleman, Katherine
Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman were among her favourites. Later she became a big
fan of Peter O'Toole and thought that the acting between him and Richard
Burton in "Beckett" was the greatest she'd ever seen on the big screen.

My mum quoted Hollywood stories like some people quote Shakespeare or Bob
Dylan. Somehow she's found some morality stories about Tinsel Town. One of
which was about dear ol' Cary Grant who'd married the Woolworth's heiress 
Barbara Hutton, and how everyone at the time had thought he'd only married
her for her money. Yet, when they divorced, Cary took not a cent. What a
guy. That morality story has cost me a small fortune. I too, as a result, 
have never walked away from a marriage with anything other than the clothes
I'd been wearing. Somewhere Cary and mum are smiling. As for me, I've spent
years crying. 

She had an amazing instinct about people. Not sure if one is born with this 
ability, or earns it from meeting too many horribles along the way. Anyway, I'd 
bring a young school friend home and after they'd left she'd say, "He's 
(or she's) not for you." That really pissed me off as I thought she was far
too judgmental. But what pissed me off most was the fact that she was always
right. In fact, I've missed her judgements for far too many years. 

She was so protective of me. I'd been a change of life baby and in her eyes I 
was a precious gift from God. Of course I tried to rebel against this
rather restrictive image at every opportunity, but her love to me was always
unconditionally. When my much older sisters heard my mother's good news about
my impending entrance into this world they, in their usual graciousness,
refused to speak to my mother for 12 months. In many ways, I became the love
of my mother's life. All her unrequited dreams were wrapped up in me. It 
became a heavy burden for a young boy but on reflection I guess it pushed
me to strive harder so as not to let her down. This resulted in my mother
thinking everything I did was right, and my sisters believing everything I
did was wrong. It got me used to mixed reviews. And I also learnt early that
if people resent you it doesn't matter if you walk on water they're going
to be unimpressed. Or pretend that they missed it. And you can't fight that
or you'll become as mentally ill as the swallow people. 

Every day she'd get on the tram to the city and wander around all the floors
of the Myer Department Store shopping for the latest bargains. I shared those
journeys with her many, many times. She was on first name basis with all the 
sales staff of that vast shopping complex. If she didn't have the money she'd
put some item on higher purchase and pay it off (sometimes over years it seemed). 
Or, she'd have them deliver it "cash on delivery." If they delivered during
a poor week we'd have to be as quiet as mice as the very patient Myer delivery man knocked
at our door. It was quite an adventure. The policy was that they'd attempt
delivery three times before they'd give up. If this happened, we'd go into the city
and order the very same thing to be delivered hoping that by luck the knock
would come at the door on a more prosperous day. My mother was a first-hand
example of perseverance and hope.

She had a smile for everyone and loved a chat. A trip with her to the corner
shops and back could take all day, as she'd stop and chat to each person
she encountered. It used to frustrate the hell out of me as I'd hear the
same stories 43 times in succession!

When she died, her dear friend Kathy Jansen described my mother's voice as 
"the sound of joy." And so it was. I never once caught her being maudlin,
sorry for herself or depressed. To her, each say was a new adventure. Along
Along the way, she beat cancer and overcame heart problems - probably by
her positive disposition - and it was only a freak silly accident in the
house and a bump to the head that caused a blood clot, that signaled her
exit from this world. 

Her stroke cruelly took away her ability to speak. To my mother, this was her 
lifeblood. Every day I'd visit her she'd clench my hand with all her might,
look me in the eyes, and through sheer force of will force out three words,
"What's...the...use?"

I had no answer for her. We'd never lied to each other. 

It didn't take long until she'd willed herself to death. 

Years later when I was living in Los Angeles and having my own voice
problems caused by intense stress, my longtime friend John Capek
suggested that I go to an energy healer he knew on Laurel Canyon. I
took his advice and did so. During my first session, the energy guru
asked me to tell him a potted history of my life. I did so as best as I
could to which he replied, "Oh my God, what a hard life you've had!" 
I was momentarily shocked as I'd never thought of it that way. Not in those
terms. After all, I had no other life to compare it to. It was what it 
was. In fact, I'd felt that I'd many things to be grateful for. But when
I thought more deeply about it, given his statement, the tears started to 
flow uncontrollably from my eyes in spite of myself. As though my body was
releasing the intense pain I'd suppressed since childhood in order to
just keep going. It was quite a cathartic experience. He then said, 
"Oh, and your mother is still with you. She doesn't realise she'd dead. 
She loved you so much she can't let go. You need to tell her to go away."

It was one of the hardest things I've had to do. The fact that her great 
love for me had transcended death was so touching and yet I had to reject
her in order to breathe and begin to restore my own life. I have weathered
many great losses and loves in my life, and this was another loss I'd dealt
with. To everything there is a lesson, and I've learnt the art of icing my
heart to certain things. To quote a line from my film "Remembering Nigel,"
..."It's alright to love something, but you are damned if you love that 
thing too much."

And I'll be damned if I wasn't right. 

I've never been one of those men who looked down upon women or devalued
their opinions or didn't see them as an equal, and that's no doubt because
my mother was a very positive example to me. She was smart, wise, funny, 
instinctively sharp, kind, true, strong and open-hearted to all other
open hearts. It's true that when some people die the world is diminished
in some way. And so it was for me and all those who knew Pearl Howson.
Not a day goes by...


(c) Frank Howson 2019














A SOLDIER OF MANY CAMPAIGNS

I am a soldier of many campaigns. I have fought wars on foreign shores 
and at home, against many foes, and against myself. I bear many scars 
invisible to the eye. Never having been decorated by my country you
won't find me in the history books. I have fallen by the wayside time
and time again while others soaked up the glory. Politicians have me
in their blindspot and I refuse to bribe them with dinners, girls, boys,
drugs or money. In short, I've been honourably Olsen'd. 

It's winter in my car now. Like me it refuses to start. She, the woman in 
the passenger seat, could've at least stayed and given me some warmth. But
why change? You know, the clock is wrong and has communist tendencies. The
gear stick on the other hand has been behaving like a dictator. And my
hand is refusing to have sex with me. It says it's bored. Well how does it 
think I feel? Why does every living thing have to get bored?

It's dark tonight and so cold I'm afraid to fall asleep lest I not wake
again. My leg has gone to sleep but that's typical, as it's never done
anything I wanted it to. This may explain something to those of you who've 
sometimes seen me walking along normally and then suddenly, spasmodically, 
gone into the splits. It's a little embarrassing but usually garners quite 
a bit of applause. Being an old pro I graciously accept it (I was taught 
to never waste applause), and take a bow so that people think it was 
intentional, and worthy of their response. This does place some added
daily pressure upon me. 

But I must say, all in all, that it would be a shame to not awaken to 
another day of dread and boredom. I'd wonder who won the football? Or 
did every team lose? Just as an aside, has there ever been a war that 
was declared a draw? And who decides? Is there a judging panel of experts 
on the hill?

When I was a boy my first love was Hayley Mills.I must've seen that
fucking Pollyanna movie 46 times. Not because I was into the story of 
Pollyanna, but I was very much into Hayley. Well, as much as you could
be from the stalls. As the years went by and I grew some hard earned sense
I realised our love was doomed before it could even begin. She was a film 
star princess and I was just a boy from St.Kilda who'd never been anywhere 
except to the local movie house. It was a painful realisation but there you
have it. 

Still, if she spoke to me today I'd turn into that awkward shy boy. Funny
how that is, huh?

I have to stop putting my heart into everything I write as I feel there's
not much of it left. But should you ever miss me, I'll be right here.


(c) Frank Howson 2019


THE PERSON-IN-QUESTION

The Jewish are very smart. They tend to be suspicious of new people until they prove themselves.

Me, probably due to Irish blood on my mother’s side, I treat everyone as family until they prove different.  The upside of this is you have a lot of wonderful people in your circle. The downside is, when one, or two, or three of them betray your trust, or work against you out of meanness, it is a devastating jolt to your heart. I end this year with a very weary heart, so weary it murmurs.

This is a result of befriending a man who had very few friends. In fact, most people went out of their way to tell me how much they disliked him. This was mainly due to his own self-destructiveness, opportunism, or snobbery, depending on his mood or his snap judgement of someone. He rarely made an effort, choosing to act aloof, or just plainly not acknowledge others at all.  I remember once him coming to Hong Kong with me, and clearly annoyed by the fact that I had/and have a strong group of dear friends here. Most of them he ignored. And when asked a question by a sociable/polite person, he’d assassinate the budding conversation with a blunt “Yes” or “No” answer. Sometimes just a grunt if he thought you were beneath him. This didn’t win him any friends. So, his loneliness is some weird self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, I remember going out to one of the islands and meeting a long-time friend for lunch and my fellow travelling companion didn’t utter one word throughout the whole lunch. Even when he was asked something. It was so embarrassing it made one’s teeth ache. So much for common courtesy.

When he was propelling people away from himself at a terrifying rate, I asked him what his problem was. At first, he blamed the humidity! Then when that didn’t wash, he went for the sympathy vote, claiming he was very shy. My in-built shit-detector went off because I’ve seen this man when he meets someone with huge wealth or a person who could be helpful to him. Or a celebrity. Bingo! Suddenly he has a personality and would attempt to talk their ears off, mainly about himself and what a genius he is and how he can do anything brilliantly, etc., etc., etc.  Well, everything that is, except make an effort to converse with normal people. At one New Year’s Eve Party held at a huge mansion, the person in question was so impressed he cornered the wealthy host and talked and talked and talked about himself and how marvellous he was at everything until the normally polite host had to tell him that he had a party to run and quickly exited.

This walking contradiction gets even weirder considering this person-in-question had come from very humble roots and was staunchly left-wing, supported the Democrat, etc., etc., etc., and yet, was too much of a snob to start up, or keep going, or add to a conversation with anyone he thought was beneath him. I don’t object to anyone’s politics, but I do object to hypocrisy. People who passionately believe in a cause, and who don’t just talk the talk, but walk the walk, I have much time for. Even if I disagree with certain political agendas they support. But hypocrites, nope, count me out.

One day I realised that this person-in-question had some huge internal, psychological, social contradictions. I came to the conclusion he hated himself and was ashamed of his family background. Hence in recent years he’s become a wine and food snob. I would always undo this façade when he’d hold court criticising someone’s wine, by saying, “Y’know, I knew this guy when he used to drink warm beer.”

And it was true.

Somebody I know, a very spiritual person, explained to me that certain people, like the person-in-question, are cling-ons. They don’t actually have a life. They live through you. There’s a great scene in the brilliant movie, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” in which Jesse looks at Ford one day and says, “You don’t want to be like me, do you? You actually want to be me.” A chilling moment. I had another weird moment when the person-in-question berated me for going to a Bob Dylan concert and not taking him! I calmly tried to reply with some logic like, “But you don’t like Bob Dylan. In fact, you’ve ridiculed him for years. And I took a female companion. One who likes Bob Dylan. You…arrr…have a wife? If you wanted to see the concert so much why didn’t you buy two tickets and take her?” I’m still waiting for an answer. Because there is none. It is mental. Dark. Bizarre, and seriously creepy. But I do tend to attract these people. Perhaps because I’m one of the few who has ever given them my time and concern.

Since distancing myself from this person-in-question, he obviously can’t own up to why I have done that. So, the oldest trick in the book, albeit very cliched to anyone with a thinking brain, is he now tells people invented stories about me and accuses me of everything he does. Yawn. Someone with as many things to be ashamed of as he possesses, should be very careful. As that Jewish prophet once said, “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.”

I came from a working-class background and my formative years were spent in, at that time, one of the toughest streets in St. Kilda. But unlike my ex-friend, I’m not ashamed of it, nor do I pretend to be something I’m not. I’m actually proud of where I came from and the experiences, both good and bad, that helped shape me into the person I am, as they were invaluable. I also have the greatest respect for battlers, people like my mum and dad who struggled on very little and yet made their kids feel that we were rich. We were rich, in so many ways. Both my parents were unique. Originals. Characters. The type of which we don’t see much of today. But they were genuine. Big-hearted. Told it like it was. And didn’t try to be anything but themselves. Perhaps that’s why they were both so well loved by everyone they met.

I miss them. I think the world misses what they possessed. At the end of the day, that’s what you’re remembered for.

 

© Frank Howson 2019

 

Photograph by Frank Howson.

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

LONESOME ENDS WITH ME

We sleep in the dark
And wake to a stark
New day
We never learn
We wait our turn
Then forget what to say
When someone nags
We pack our bags
And flee
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
But
With that having been said…

We give what it takes
And make our mistakes
And cry
We walk alone
And turn to stone
I love you but you lie
I walk the beach
And sometimes teach
For free
That one and one
Can come undone
And lonesome ends with me

(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

EXCEPT YOU LOVE ME

I’ve been holding out
Thinking you’d let go
But your shadow tails me
To faraway parts of my heart
I’ve stopped waiting for our Messiah’s return
And watch the football
And all the moves you make
In your quest to break me with jealousy
Trouble is I don’t get jealous
But it’s cool
I ain’t complainin’
The crops look good
And it’s rainin’
Nothing to fear
Unless it floods
I watched another cowboy movie
But it came out all wrong
The good guys got away with murder
Then the credits rolled and they played a song
And I got to wondering
Just who the savages were
History is rewritten by liars
Then exaggerated by Hollywood hacks
And given awards
For burying the facts
Me? I don’t know nothin’
Except you love me

(C) Frank Howson 2019