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

A JOYFUL WOMAN

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 and  the 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. 

And so on. And so on. 

 

(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

THIS GREY PLACE

I died a week ago
About the time you left me
But no one has seemed to notice
I’ve been haunting some familiar bars
Speaking to strangers without getting an answer
I guess they’re dead too
There’s a lot of this going around
I think it’s called Limbo
The waiting room
Before we can move on
I’ve heard we are stuck here
Until we can make sense of it all
The room of the lost
I guess heaven is reserved for the winners
So that won’t be such a change
From what I’m used to
I don’t know what I did
Or didn’t do
To lose you
I hope I work it out soon
Because I can’t move on
You see?
Without some closure
Me, the one who vowed to love you
Forever
May be here a very long time
In this place where nothing grows
But remorse
This grey place
I kept my vow to you
Didn’t I?
And now there’s all hell to pay
What room are you in?

(C) Frank Howson

Photograph by Frank Howson.

WHO SAW HIM LAST?

These were the shoes he wore. Notice the soles are thin. He’d walked many miles in these trying to get ahead.

This was his favourite jacket. He felt wealthy when he wore it. Even though it had holes in the pockets.

This is the shirt he called his lucky one. He always wore it to important meetings and although nothing ever came of them he felt this shirt would bring him luck. Someday.

These were his favourite pants – he’d been married in them. Twice.

This was the hat he wore everyday. It shielded his head from the rain and the wind and the sun. And if he pulled the brim down, from everyone.

This is the map he lost just before he lost his way.

These are the tears he cried when he had nowhere to go.

This is the heart you broke and you didn’t even know.

These are your letters he kept when he believed in you.

This is the photo of his mother who thought he was precious.

Where are the friends he helped instead of helping himself?

This is his favourite song that he played every night.

This is the movie he said changed his life.

These are the books he loved now all packed away.

Who saw him last?

(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

THE MISTS OF DAWN

Down here on this barren battleground
We have been issued no orders
We don’t even know who we are fighting anymore
Yesterday the fog was so thick
We mistakenly shot our own leader
And laid him to rest ‘neath a tree
Perhaps we should withdraw
Which is not a surrender
We mustn’t surrender
For there is too much to lose
But we’ve forgotten what
Send word back
That we have not thrown down our weapons
But we need back up
And supplies
It seems we have gone weeks without sleep
As we sit in the dark every night
Waiting for the enemy to attack
But they never come
This is a very sophisticated strategy
That we have not been briefed on
For our leader is dead
And his family have not received word
For they will only grieve
And too many tears have been shed
Too many hearts broken
Too many roads taken
Too many widows haunting us
In the mists of dawn
But we are holding our position
And ready for action
Eager to do him proud
To fight to the last man
We have burnt our white flags
So we wouldn’t be tempted
Our enemy has a lot to answer for
We just haven’t been informed of what
But we’ve been told to hate them
I wonder if they’re scared like us?
I wonder if they sleep?
I wonder if they just want to go home
Like we do?
I wonder if they’re still there?
Perhaps the war is over
I wonder who won?

(C) Frank Howson 2019