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
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 Anymore It's what we appear to do So, perhaps we have finally accepted The truth 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
Let us kneel and say our prayers That something hears our call We think too deep And we see nothing at all Rome wasn't built in a day But I bet it took an hour to fall Let us not weary in our cause Until we right the wrong A place is not a home Until you feel you belong A country isn't great Until it looks after its own To value true friendship You must walk many miles alone Let us not rush to condemn Until we know what's real Let us try a little kindness Until the broken hearts heal Let us not worship false gods Like money or power For we will see their futility In our final hour And when we face the truth May we hold our heads up high And know we did our best And that the seeds of those deeds won't die And that the judgement we're given Can't be argued or repealed For the best of us did not rest Until the broken hearts healed (c) Frank Howson 2019 Photograph by Frank Howson 2019 Mui Wo.
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.
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 His finest Misreported by many Cost him more than money And years 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 To realise 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 And mocked And fall 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 And statisticians 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 With us Can you imagine? Few can 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? Going once Going twice Sold 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.
(c) Frank Howson 2019
“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