The word success is almost impossible to define, as it means something different to just about everyone. It’s much too large than a single word can contain, because it’s a concept. A floating concept that bends and morphs and matures as we do. What we think it means at the beginning of our journey, may be vastly different to what it means at the end. It’s a dream that, once it’s seemingly fulfilled, may be considered a burden. A curse. A prison cell. A nightmare.
Perhaps it’s God’s sneakiest joke on us all. Giving us what we think we want, in order to find out first hand how hollow it ultimately becomes.
McCartney hit it on the head, simplifying it to “Can’t Buy Me Love.” A record we could dance to, even if the concept was way beyond our comprehension at the time. Perhaps Paul was starting to understand how restrictive a “successful” life can be.
One of the Ten Commandments states that “Thou Shalt Not Worship False Gods.”I have interpreted that to include money = success. For I’ve seen first hand people worship it at the expense of their family, friends, colleagues, ethics, talent and own life.Their “concept” of success was so delusional it eventually devalued every thing of true value in their life.
I was once privileged to have had a song of mine selected for inclusion on the Ferrets’ second album “Fame At Any Price.” I loved that album title then, as I love it now. It was prophetically apt for a band that self-combusted shortly after its release. Perhaps from the pressure of having to follow-up a Number One single and a Gold debut album “Dreams of a Love,” which incidentally also featured a song of mine entitled “Killing Ourselves.” A lyric about the friends of mine who were falling in action during the Melbourne heroin epidemic of the Seventies. That song proved prophetic for the band too.
It’s one thing to crave success. It’s another to have the stomach for it. People take drugs like heroin to numb themselves to the world around them. Isn’t it bizarre that when many performers finally break through and achieve the success they’ve craved, they reach out to self-medicate themselves to…what? The pain of it? The disappointment that the concept of success was so much more thrilling than the reality? Or is it their fear that they, mere mortals, are suddenly treated like gods, and know they can’t sustain this facade for long without publicly falling? False prophets for a false society.
It says a lot about our society that Elvis Presley, the most famous and desired man in the world, died of loneliness. Photographs of him towards the end show a man who is dull-eyed, self-medicated to the point of not knowing where he is, and clearly not having a good time. He even mocks himself in his final heartbreaking performances as if all his dignity is gone. Pity the man who inherits the world, but loses his soul?
We are fed the “Dream” to keep us productive, and striving day to night to achieve our goal, so we can be happy. But, what if, as Judy found out, there’s nothing at the end of the rainbow except burnt-out, broken, despairing suckers?
I always thought the rainbow ended on the corners of Hollywood Boulevard and Western. It almost did for me one night, but that’s another story. And there are millions of stories in the naked city.
My father worked his guts out from 6am until 5pm every day in a thankless job that paid him nowhere near his worth. Then he’d come home and drink. Do you blame him? I sure as hell didn’t. He dreamed of reaching retirement age and getting a big payout. He didn’t make it. In one of the final lines in Arthur Miller’s cathartic play Death of a Salesman, “…No one dast blame this man…He just had the wrong dreams. All wrong.”
How much of our lives are wasted chasing the wrong dreams? “When I get a nice new car I’ll be happy!”…”When I get married I’ll be happy!”…”When I get a nice house I’ll be happy!”…”When I have a child I’ll be happy!”…”When I get divorced I’ll be happy!”… “When I can retire and live as I want I’ll be happy!” etc., etc. The truth is, we’re not happy to begin with. One thing I’ve learnt from my own experience is that money and success won’t make you happy. In fact, they will just amplify the painful reality that you aren’t.In order to enjoy money and success, you must be happy within yourself before you obtain them. Otherwise they are weights around your neck that’ll drag you down to the bottom of the ocean.
Bob Dylan once said that “a successful man is someone who gets up in the morning and goes to bed each night and in between does exactly what he wants.” So, there you have it. Real success is freedom. The freedom to be who you are, and do what you want to do.
I’ve always admired people who are good at what they do. That’s probably a working class respect I inherited from my parents who much admired skilled tradespeople.
America used to have a healthy competitive pride whereby whatever job you had, people wanted to be the best at it. Whether it was driving a cab, being a shoeshine boy, a bellboy, a clerk, a hot dog vendor, etc.
I’ve seen waiters in Los Angeles, old guys who had made a career of it, and they were perfection personified. It was riveting to observe their attention to detail, manners, diplomacy, professionalism, and so on. The top guys made a fortune in tips and deserved every dime. But more than the money, they prided themselves on being the best. Some, were legends. I was in awe of them and paid them great respect.
So, what is success? Is it determined by money? Or by your ability? Or what others think of you? Or how loved you are by your family? Or how many people know your name? Or how many of your peers respect you? Or how fulfilled you are within yourself?
Because, if we don’t know the answer to that, it means most of us have been striving for something that is so elusive, it is even beyond us. And, if we don’t know what we’re seeking, how can we expect to find it? Or ever be content?
I like to walk a lot and, when I do, observe people. You could say it’s part of my job. And in my journeys into the outside world, I have from time to time passed many happy people. The happy family man. The happy young girl walking hand-in-hand with her love. The happy little boy who puts his protective arm around his younger sister and smiles at her. The happy busker who has a captive audience and a hat full of money. The happy taxi driver who loves to chat with his passengers and treat each as a new friend. And so on. To me, all these types are successful people. In the truest sense of the word. They are happy within themselves and thus radiate happiness outward. They have not been shackled by expectations. Either of our own making, or of others.
I have also seen and met some of the wealthiest, most powerful and famous people in the world whilst I lived in L.A, and quite a few were utterly miserable, and made everyone in their presence feel the same.
In the some of the final lines of the classic movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” it is stated, “No man is a failure who has friends.”
I believe that. I have some very true, loyal friends. Their rock solid friendship make me feel successful, happy and content for having found them. No matter what I do professionally, or don’t do, or they do or don’t, we have achieved something rare, precious and beautiful. Something real.
I looked into the man’s face. It was etched with suffering. He had no doubt fallen many times in his battles with Life. It looked to me like the greatest pain had not come due to the falls, but from the effort required to rise, and rise again. I also observed the deep laugh lines that’d gathered around each eye resembling a spider’s web. Yes, this man had lived life to the full. He had triumphed many times and learnt nothing from it. That’s because the recipe for success changes frequently. No. It was from his failures he’d learnt everything. And the reason for them had been simple – he’d gone against his instinct.
He’d survived many things in his life. Wars, plagues, floods, marriages, injury, slander, lawsuits, success, failure, gambling, death threats, betrayals, great wealth, poverty, love, broken hearts, rejection, addiction, vicious dogs, adultery, asthma, poisoning, tightrope walking, gangsters, drive-by shooters, merchant bankers, and long debates with actors. As such, these days, it was difficult to get him excited much, or fearful at all.
He’d beaten his demons, and was proud of it. But it’d been some of his friends who’d done him the most damage. They’d posed as friends but were really opportunistic spiritual vampires, sucking off his life force in order to live through him. And when they’d been found out and cut like a cancer out of his life, they had flayed about like dying sharks biting at his reputation with lies, exaggerations and groundless accusations. Most of what they accused him of were acts they’d done. The fact that they were so blatantly hypocritical was what hurt most of all. And from then on, he’d rationed his loyalty to those who’d proved theirs to him.
Now, he spent much of his time looking for things he hadn’t found. It made him as expectant as Jungle Jim on a safari.
He’d once stopped a cab and gotten out to wander through a desolate, ravaged field that beheld the remains of what’d once been a theatre. The taxi driver was bewildered as to what his frantic passenger was looking for. Whatever had been here was long gone, he thought, as his meter ticked away. But his forlorn travelling companion was searching for something only he could see. His youth.
Sometimes, late at night, he wished he was dead. But there was a safety net in knowing God never granted his wishes. This knowledge scared him with the recurring nightmare that he may live forever. And that’d be his punishment for having lived too well for a few years at the peak of his success, when he was too young and too busy to have enjoyed it. He’d once had immense power and never abused it. He’d also held the key to many vulnerable hearts and never used it. The facts, as opposed to the gossip, would show that his integrity was never bought. So God took these opportunities away and seduced someone else with them.
In exchange, the man in question, was given a rented studio apartment and enough food to get by. He was also granted the solitude to reflect on the follies of life, and write about them with a rich appreciation of God’s sense of humour.
He’d figured out the secret to God – He is passive. Having granted us free will he sits back and watches what we do with it. If you wanted action, you had to consult his competitive estranged brother, Satan. But that loan shark had interest rates that’d severely cripple your life, and could never be repaid due to the compounding penalties given only passing mention in the very small print.
And if you accepted that deal, you’d end up worse than alone.
The man who sat in front of me, felt many things.But he’d given up feeling what didn’t matter anymore. He told himself that he had enough heart left for one more great love. But she’d have to be an extraordinary woman, and he now suspected that such a perfect match only existed in dreams. Or delusions. He wasn’t sure what the correct word was anymore. All he knew was that God loved to tease him with possibilities that went nowhere that only foolish younger men or, those older bodies on the brink of madness, pursued.
He laughed out loud at how younger women now delighted in taunting him. They took so much but gave very little in return. They knew the art of getting away Scott free, and would only be able to get away with it a few more years before they too ended up alone. It was all about the promise and how much could be taken in the shadow of that. While one could. He knew all their tricks now and that rendered the game too predictable to hold his attention long. They hadn’t known him in his prime, nor would they’ve had the opportunity to. But these were different times. There were very few who could see past surface layers to find true love. Soul to soul.
How much do you have to hurt before you feel nothing anymore?
How much do you have to love before it means nothing anymore?
This man hasn’t aged from living. He’d aged from giving. And now all those who’d taken from him could celebrate the fact that there was nothing left.
They’d conquered something that felt important to them, but they couldn’t analyse what it was, or why they’d felt such compulsion to deplete it.
After all, they were good people, weren’t they? I mean, they wouldn’t hurt a fly.
The man now, each day, felt his spirit leaving his body and wondered what kind of life his shell would have. He thought, perhaps, he might be more socially accepted in this zombie-like state.
But who knew such things? And who the hell would even think about it? Other than a man with too much time on his hands, who’d stopped momentarily at the crossroads.
That was when I realised I’d been observing myself and the extraction had been successful.
As long as there’s hope
We can still see the light
It’s shinin’ there
In the darkest of night
As long as there’s hope
As long as there’s hope
We’ll be fine
As long as there’s love
We got nothin’ to fear
In the drivin’ rain
Our road will be clear
As long as there’s love
As long as there’s love
We’ll get there
Life’s always tempting you
One thing or another
Betraying your friend
Your sister or brother
But don’t you dare
No, don’t you dare
What do we have
If not ourself?
And the will to care?
As long as there’s life
I will not feel alone
These times are tough
When you’re all on your own
But you’ve got hope
And as long as there’s hope
You’re not alone….
Don't stop me from having some fun
Fun is in such short supply these days
When I was a child nothing made sense
And the school system shut me out
I was too busy dealing with things at home
To be expected to think during classes
All the lessons I needed to learn were there
Within my family
And I soon excelled at observation
And the devastating power of words
Achieving an A every year
My senses heightened to love
And other dangers
So I befriended broken people
Some were too broken and betrayed me
So they could claim credit for breaking me some more
But others bloomed when they received the loyalty
Of a friend
And I was nothing if not loyal
For loyalty has been my greatest gift
And my deepest flaw
It has undone me many times
In the light of day
The most important thing we can learn
Is that we know very little
We can send men to explore the outer realms of space
And yet so much of us is unchartered
If the moon landing was faked
It is probably the most revealing comment one
can make about human beings
God would smile at our arrogance
Attempting to create on such a grand scale for ants
It seems, to me, that it's not what we do that counts
It's what we appear to do
So, perhaps we have finally accepted
That we are just B grade actors
On a huge soundstage created by the Almighty
And each day we rise to go through the motions
And play our roles as convincingly as possible
For the amusement of God
You see, the poor bastard is so bored
Living in the great darkness he shares with Satan
Where there is no time
And not even the relief of commercial breaks
In my opinion that would make sense
Of the nothingness
And we'd at last know who we are
And where we are
Like the Joker
One has to go insane to see
the insanity of the truth
(c) Frank Howson 2019
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.
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
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?
It is Sunday. A sweltering day in St. Kilda. I am seated under a shaded canopy in pink paradise – “Good Love” on Acland Street. I’m chatting over tea and banana bread with the imitable Frank Howson – Screenwriter, Producer, Theatre Director, Film Director, Artist, Performer, Poet and list goes on. I first met Frank way back in 2007 in a fleeting hallway passing during his rehearsals for the short play “The Replacement Son” he was directing for Short and Sweet. I recognised his name.
Frank’s colourful life has had more dips and turns than Luna Park’s Scenic Railway – so my chat with him was highly energetic and elaborate to say the least. I suggested that we visit one of his old haunts, his childhood home in the adjourning street – 51 Fawkner Street – to trigger some memories. So as we strolled down the street, accompanied by our ever reliable photographer, our conversation back to those years and onwards. “When I was a small boy, I began to dream. These dreams weren’t like normal ones in my sleep, these were my awake hours. Some of these dreams were bigger than me,” he said, adding, “And a few would turn out to be so big they would eventually run me down. In some of them I was Davy Crockett, and others Peter Pan, Robin Hood and Zorro. All you had to do was find a park bench, close your eyes and lift your head until you felt the warm rays of the sun, and let your mind go off to exotic locations. I dreamed that I was bigger than my dad in height, temperament and wealth, and I lived to achieve all that only to discover how meaningless it all was.”
As our photographer snapped photos of Frank in front of the house, I was thinking to myself, “I wonder how he is really feeling about being here again?” He didn’t give much away, but a smile and no revealing emotions except for a few tales of yesteryear, “Living in Fawkner Street back then, the neighbours were just ordinary battlers, sly grog salesmen, gangsters,” he remembered. In that street Public Enemy Number 1 – nicknamed The Beast (Norm Bradshaw) for good reason lived there when he was not on the run. “Next door to us lived the Aussie equivalent to Bonnie Parker, the gangster’s moll, pretty (but deadly) Dulcie Markham (known as “The Angel of Death” reported The Truth). One bullet came through our wall,” said Frank with delight. But to be expected Pretty Dulcie got a bullet right in the thigh. “There’s bloody blood everywhere, Bastards!” She spurted to The Truth reporter. Apparently another altercation left Pretty Dulcie with a broken leg and her hoodlum ex-boxer boyfriend Gavin Walsh was shot dead during the six o’clock swill at the Barkly Hotel.
Henry (Jack) Howson, Frank’s dad, was in charge of the O’Donnell Gardens for thirty or so years and was promoted to overseer of the entire St. Kilda Foreshore not long before his death. His tiny office was under the biggest dip in Luna Park’s Scenic Railway. His mum, Pearl, worked across the road “in the best lolly shop in the world” – Candy Corner. Young Frank spent his years hiding in the O’Donnell Garden’s Sherwood Forest, climbing trees to attack Santa Ana’s soldiers at the Alamo, and re-enacting every John Wayne movie. At the sweet age of seven he started his life in show business as a singer, tap dancer and actor. His first public appearance was at the St. Kilda Town Hall performing a rendition of “Give My Regards To Broadway.”
“When I was at school I just couldn’t concentrate on anything. I was hopeless.” His introduction to books was by his old Irish grandmother who would sit him on her sturdy lap and read aloud “Noddy in Toyland.” Later, the first book he actually managed to finish all by himself was ironically “Little Women” then came, of course, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, The Secret Seven and then graduated to Biggles. In his later teens it was “The Great Gatsby,” Dickens, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Huxley, Wilde and many others. After leaving Christian Brothers College in 1967 his first job was office boy at Radio 3UZ. Soon he was promoted to panel operator and worked on “Radio Auditions,” Johnny McMahon’s extraordinarily long-lived talent show in which participants were awarded up to three “gongs” – if it rained and there weren’t enough acts for the program, Frank was called upon to perform under made-up names. When he was invited to perform on a TV talent show pilot by (the late) Jimmy Hannan and told to come up with a mad act he became known as “Magical Frank” – a singing and tap dancing magician who’s tricks all went wrong. Eventually he acquired a record deal and produced and performed on his first Top 40 hit “Seventeen Ain’t Young.” This was followed by other singles “This Night” and “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter.”
Before turning twenty-one, Frank had already appeared in over twenty-one major productions. Two highlights during this prolific period were notable Australian productions of “Oliver” in 1966 at Her Majesty’s Theatre with a young John Diedrich, Toni Lamond and the (late) Terry McDermott; then the legendary original production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Palais Theatre with Marcia Hines, Robin Ramsay, Reg Livermore, Stevie Wright, John Paul Young and (the late) Jon English.
Standing around, we talked a little about his film career. The photographer kept snapping away with me avoiding getting in the way. Apparently, during its heyday, Boulevard Films was one of Australia’s most successful film production companies. Numerous people became resentful of the company’s success and worked against it unfortunately. Left to its own devices, the company became undone by the relentless pressure and enormous responsibility to keep bettering the last film and raising the bar amidst disappearing money. In 1997, after a very prolonged falling out with his business partner, Frank dissolved the company in order to extricate himself from the situation.
The company’s films included; “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” which starred John Waters and Kim Gyngell and was nominated for 7 AFI Awards including “Best Film” and won 2 – Waters for Best Actor, and Gyngell for Best Supporting Actor. Others films followed, including the AFI nominated “Heaven Tonight” that was Guy Pearce’s debut as a movie actor and sold to the giant American Broadcasting Corporation; the AFI nominated “What The Moon Saw” which became the first Australian film sold to Miramax; “Hunting” screenplay and direction by Frank and starring American actor John Savage, Kerry Armstrong (nominated for an AFI as Best Actress, and Guy Pearce, sold to Paramount Pictures; “Beyond My Reach” starring David Roberts, American actress Terri Garber (whom Howson would later marry), and Alan Fletcher, sold to Warners; and “Flynn” starring Guy Pearce, Claudia Karvan, internationally acclaimed stage & movie actor Steven Berkoff, and John Brumpton in his first screen role. The film depicted the early life of Errol Flynn, and was directed and co-written by Howson. In 1989, he was awarded the Producer of the Year Award from Film Victoria, and since then has received several Hall of Fame awards and Lifetime Achievement Awards at numerous international film festivals.
Frank relocated to Los Angeles where there the experience he received working with and for such talents as Martin Landau, Mark Rydell, Helen Mirren, Sharon Stone, Amy Ephron, Arthur Hiller, Michael Richards, William Friedkin, Ryan O’Neal, Eric Idle, Joe Eszterhas, Jackie Chan, Patricia Clarkson, Heath Ledger, Jacqueline Bissett, Whoopi Goldberg, Sylvester Stallone, Bernard Fowler, and many others elevated him to a whole new level. He was commissioned to write several screenplays, and script doctor some script written by others. His beloved screenplay on the tragic life of the Australian boxer Les Darcy entitled “Winter In America” was put on hold by Heath Ledger for three years as he desperately wanted to play the lead. It has not, to this time, been made, but was described by the Age as “the best unproduced screenplay in Australia.” Between 1998 and 2001, Frank served on the board of the L. A branch of the Starlight Children’s Foundation.
Returning home to St. Kilda after nine years of a self-imposed exile from his homeland he arrived back to no job offers, a tattered reputation, and found no opportunities whatsoever at his feet. So, he began again.
Ever restless Frank began writing his own songs which were ultimately performed and/or recorded by Little River Band. Richie Havens, Eric Idle, Stephen Cummings, Marc Jordan. Bernard Fowler, Judith Durham, Keith Potger, Andre Rieu and many others. In September 2005, Frank was approached by a producer to direct the Melbourne premiere of Caryl Churchill’s play “A Number” at fortyfivedownstairs and received the best reviews of his career. He was back. Shortly after, he ghost wrote Rhonda Burchmore’s best selling memoir, “Legs 11” and then Rhonda toured with her hit one woman show “Cry Me A River – The World of Julie London” that was specially written for her by Frank. He then wrote and directed two sell-out seasons of “Genesis To Broadway” at Chapel Off Chapel, and was asked to direct the two music videos to celebrate The Seekers 50th. Anniversary. One of the clips opened their show on their international farewell tour and was screened at their Royal Albert Hall performances. And this isn’t even a quarter of his astounding creative accomplishments. So, there were so many questions I wanted to ask, so I did:
Q) Why do you do the work that you do, Frank?
A) “Because it’s the only thing I ever wanted to do, and the only thing it seems I was any good at. It can be a very hard, very lonely life. But if there is a higher power it is no doubt purposely conceived to be that way. Almost like God removes all happy distractions from our life so that we are forced to save the very best of us for the page, or the stage. Or as Dylan said, “Blood On The Tracks.” Looking back on Fawkner Street, I think all that young boy ever wanted was to have a happy family where no one fought and had terrible degrading arguments, and have a nice little house, and be friends with all the neighbours and know that he was safe and that tomorrow would be just like today. And to wake and find that the woman he loved still loved him. But none of that was to be. Well, not in any lasting sense. So he just keeps writing and occasionally directing and hoping that somehow that will get him home. Wherever that is.”
Q) Which people inspired you to work in showbiz?
A) “The biggest and most influence on me getting into showbiz was the movie “Yankee Doodle Dandy” starring James Cagney. I was only seven, but that movie showed me a whole new world to the one I was born into. My dad was the loveliest man in the world – up to ten drinks! After that he would wander the house looking for something to blame. I guess, for the emptiness within himself. So, there were most nights some horrible ego destroying verbal abuse that effected and infected those of us who lived at 51 Fawkner Street. When I saw “Yankee Doodle Dandy” its influence on me was profound. I saw that you can invent a new world through creativity. The movie’s depiction of showbiz was, of course, highly romanticised but very intoxicating to a boy from St. Kilda whose whole world at that time was Fawkner Street, the O’Donnell Gardens, Luna Park and the occasional trip to the city with my mum to patiently watch her shop at Myer. That movie told me there was a place for those who didn’t fit in. The camaraderie, the risk taking, the loyalty of a long business partnership between two men where the only contract had been a handshake, the opening nights of triumph. Yep, it hooked me on its bullshit and although it wasn’t all champers I have lived to experience some amazing things, and people. At a cost. Along that hard long and winding road of showbiz I have seen the very best and the very worst of human nature. And thus it gave me much to write about.”
Q) What happened after “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”?
A) “After that, I made so many films, it almost killed me. You know the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for?” Well, my business partner and I had spent five years trying to get into the film industry and knocked on every door there was and got most of them slammed in our faces. The industry at that time didn’t want any new blood competing with them. It was virtually a closed shop with the same old guys getting all the grants and making the same old types of Australian movie. But Peter and I were the two most determined bastards and finally by sheer youthful energy, determination and perseverance we gate crashed the party and they hated us for it. After “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” there was “What The Moon Saw,” “Heaven Tonight,” “Hunting,” “Beyond My Reach,” “Flynn,” “The Final Stage,” “A Slow Night At The Kuwaiti Cafe,” “The Intruder,” “Crime Time,” “Blue Roses,” “Guy Pearce – The Music Videos,” “The Making of Heaven Tonight,” “The Making of Hunting,” “The Making of Flynn,” and “A Thin Life.” Five of those films were made in virtually a year. When the stage & screenwriter Patrick Edgeworth read about my schedule he told his wife, “That man will either be dead or insane within a year.” I’m still here, so I guess I’m the latter.”
Q) Do you think you might have been a casualty of the tall poppy syndrome, Frank?
A) “I think there was a great love of our films by the Australian public but the fat cats in the industry and their associates, especially in Sydney, influenced or pressured local critics to be so much harsher on our films than any other homemade films (and let’s face it, some of these other films by approved producers who were in the clique were appalling but received good reviews.) When I returned home from living in Los Angeles for 9 years, I was out somewhere and a young filmmaker came up to me and told me how much he’d been influenced by my movies and believed there had been a government conspiracy to destroy Boulevard Films. I laughed as I’d never thought in those terms, but after considering the question, I answered that, “I don’t think there was an official focussed conspiracy to destroy us. But the industry did nothing to help us. Perhaps that was the conspiracy.” And if so, they should hang their heads in shame. These films I made were all sold to Miramax, Paramount, Warners, Disney, etc., at a time when you couldn’t give Australian films away on the international market. Some of those films also played at every major film festival in the world, except Melbourne. Everywhere except the place where they was made. They also garnered rave reviews overseas and awards, but were savaged by most local reviewers. When one of them received a scathing review in The Australian, I wrote to the critic Evan Williams and asked him why there were so many inaccuracies and misquotes of dialogue in his review, to which he replied, and I still have the letter, that he’d been unwell that day at the press screening so had to leave 10 minutes into the film but asked a colleague some days later how it ended. Based upon that he wrote a horrible review that no doubt turned potential customers away from a local film that went on to be lauded and praised overseas. Alan Finney of Village Roadshow also stated to witnesses that he hated all my films. This was before the first five were even finished and no one had seen them yet. So, he had a negative opinion sight unseen. But those idiots are all gone now and their power diminished to nothing and yet my films continue to be re-released on DVD worldwide. So I guess I win. I sometimes think I get more respect in L.A or London than I do in my own country. David Mann of 3AW asked me recently if I’d been honoured by my country yet. Again, I laughed. No. Just bloodied, humiliated, spat on and shunned. They even came at me with a trumped up charge that because a film of mine had changed from the original synopsis to the final cut that it was somehow a different movie and I’d somehow done something illegal. It was like a Franz Kafka absurdist nightmare I had to live through and the pressure of defending myself against this insanity took a huge emotional toll on my last marriage and ruined it. I had to try and explain to public servants that Art is an ever evolving process. I also named over 1000 Hollywood films that started as one thing and ended up quite different from the original concept. This is the same government that were later happy to steal my original idea and concept of “G’Day L.A” which went on to become the most successful promotion in the history of Australia. The “Honourable” John Olsen, the then Australian Consulate in Los Angeles, whom I presented my idea to, later received the highest award the Australian Government can bestow on one of its citizens for this superb idea of “his.” But you know something? It’s made me all the tougher. And that’s why I’m still here. They have, in fact, empowered me.”
Q) What do you think have been some of the negatives in your work?
A) “Probably revealing too much of myself in it. It’s amazing but even though you come up with what you think is a piece of fiction from your mind, you look back later and realise it was in some ways autobiographical, sometimes in a symbolised way, but there it was. And there it is. I can look at some of these films now and tell you exactly what I was going through at the time. They are almost like a diary to me. The spookiest thing is that some proved to be a premonition of what was to come. But apart from that, my work has supplied me no negatives, in fact it has been my friend, my family, my saviour, and my way out of the darkness and confusion. It has been the various people my work has attracted into my life that has on occasion been a severe negative. Perhaps because they were attracted by the wrong thing. The idea of a quick buck, rape what they couldn’t understand, and depart leaving others to clean up the mess. Light attracts darkness unfortunately.”
Q) What’s been the positives in your work?
A) “Finding myself. Realising I was at last good at something and could relax all those inner fears that I was the idiot my school teachers thought I was. Because I was a ‘change of life’ baby I was a big surprise to everyone, my mum considered me a miracle and that everything I did was genius. On the other hand my sisters were so angered by my intrusion into their lives they didn’t speak to my mother and father for a year! As there was a twelve year gap between me and my youngest sister, and I was the only boy, the chill and resentment still continues to this day and will never end. So, in effect, I was given a good grounding to become level-headed about myself. Everything I did my sisters considered crap, and everything I did my mother thought was genius. The genius thing was a very heavy burden for a young boy from St. Kilda to carry on his shoulders. Looking back now I realised I strived so hard to live up to her exulted view of me and not let her down, that I denied myself a normal youth. It’s interesting to note that when my mother died, so did a lot of my ambition. I guess in my mind I had no one to impress anymore. So I relaxed and went about becoming a human being.”
Q) Whats been your favourite achievements up to this point?
A) “The only reason I became a producer, a job I in fact hate doing, was to protect the integrity of my work. I’d had a very bad experience, or introduction to movie making, with a film called “Backstage” starring the late American singer Laura Branigan. I co-wrote the script with Jonathan Hardy and it was sold to a large production company. They tampered with my original vision so much that I walked off the movie before a single frame was shot. I was embarrassed to have any part of it. Hardy sold out and compromised but not me. My instincts were right and it was, in my opinion, one of the worst films ever made. Becoming a producer wasn’t some lust for power by me, I just wanted to ensure that anything that had my name on it contained some resemblance to what I had written. The latest thing I have written, the big budget theatre musical “Dream Lover” which tells the Bobby Darin story and starred David Campbell, I think is my proudest moment. Simon Phillips, the director, and I worked so closely and so well on two workshops and then an intense rehearsal period that it became the dream working relationship we always hope for. We’d only had to see something being acted out and we’d exchange a look and I’d know what he was thinking and visa versa. And of course the topping on the cake is that the people responded. We were a smash in Sydney and then broke the all-time historic attendance record at the State Theatre in Melbourne. It had taken years of frustration waiting for the production to happen, but when Darin’s son, Dodd, flew into Sydney with his wife to see it, he walked up to me afterwards, with tears in his eyes, to hug me and said, “You got every detail right. All my life I’ve wanted a legacy for my father and you’ve written it.” And I replied, “What you’ve just said to me was worth the whole 9 years.”
Q) What are you currently working on?
A) “After “Dream Lover” I took 12 months off to travel and not think about anything. And it’s hard for me to not think about things and new ideas, but I did. I shut it off. And just roamed around and took in new experiences. I also didn’t want to make the mistake that many do after a huge hit by quickly cashing in with a new show. I wanted to make sure that whatever I did next was as high a standard as “Dream Lover” had been. So, now I’m back at it full steam and I have another theatrical work ready. This one is even more emotionally moving. It’s about those last, very sad and revealing years in the life of Elvis Presley. It is a piece of pure theatre. Not one of those lookalike, soundalike shows. This script goes deep, way deep, into Elvis’ soul. We have already had one workshop on it and The Seekers’ Bruce Woodley attended and afterward said to me, “I teared up about six times and for the first time I felt I really knew him.” Aleks Vass, owner of The Alex Theatre, was there and publicly stated that what he saw was “musical theatre genius.” I loved Elvis so much that I have really worked hard to get it right and cut to the very heart, soul and mind of the man in those final confusing years. I think it will be a very cathartic night in the theatre for all those who loved him and it will explain a lot about what happened.”
Q) If you couldn’t do this anymore, what career path do you think you would have followed, Frank?
A) “Well I’ve had two very successful art exhibitions at Fad Gallery over the past two years, and I must admit that painting seems to relax my restless mind. I find peace and comfort in it. I guess I’d be a painter. The only two school subjects I was any good at was English and Art. So there you have it. If it wasn’t for those two things I’d be fucked. Of course I would love to do another film, but even given my stellar track record, no one asks me, so I guess I’m still blacklisted from that old brigade closed shop. And they’re the reason the Australian film industry has been woeful for so long, because those old power brokers never encouraged new blood. They never encouraged anything other than more money into their bank accounts and now live in mansions in Tuscany. In a perfect world though, I guess I’d have a very happy life writing a book a year and having a couple of art exhibitions of my paintings and sketches. I wouldn’t have to deal with business partners who take care of the business so well there’s no money left, financiers, horrendous deadlines, producers and actors asking me, “What does this mean?””
Q) Tell me a funny story or joke that involves your work or life?
A) “I remember when I was seventeen and I’d recorded a single called “Seventeen Ain’t Young” and the record company (without asking my permission) credited me on the label as Frankie Howson. I don’t remember anyone before then ever calling me “Frankie” but there you have it. Anyway, a few months had passed since that record slipped out of the charts and I was on a tram one day, when a girl walked up to me and asked. “Didn’t you used to be Frankie Howson?” That’s how tough this life in showbiz can be. A few months can go by and you’re a has been. Yes. I used to be Frankie Howson.”
Undoubtedly, Frank Howson is one of St. Kilda’s most precious icons. He is blessed that creativity has been his life. His lifelong and prolific contribution to the arts and our entertainment is simply phenomenal. The fact that he and his work has been underrated, undervalued, belittled and ignored is also phenomenal. It is truly shameful, truly disgraceful and most of all – embarrassing. When I thanked Frank for his time and bid him farewell he certainly left me with an indelible Mark. On the journey home I thought to myself, this man’s dazzling talent is only outshone by his humanity and accomplishment. Thank heavens, we have him.
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