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
I remember you Even more painful, where and when You told me when it was over That you'd find me again So you searched all the hostels Inhabiting lonely men I was killed by your mouth You were killed by my pen I told you I liked chocolates So you bought me a cigar You have a cruel talent For pushing me too far I remember walking miles While you passed me in your car The same one I'd bought you When you became my star Now the years are conspiring To drive me insane Along with some of my friends Who only deal in pain So let me spell it out To you nice and plain My dance is slowly fading And it failed to bring you rain I'll soon be gone like Jesus To never come again You nailed me to your cross And made me watch you with other men They all hurt and manhandled you And I shed tears for my precious friend But you stood with them and mocked me I should've known how it would end (c) Frank Howson 2019
If I should die tonight What would I say? I'm glad you came along And chose to stay And thank you for the love Shown to an orphan gone astray If I should die tonight That's what I'd say If I should cry tonight Don't turn away You've been my ray of sunshine Come what may You helped me through the storm Through all the nights that followed day If I should cry tonight Don't turn away You see me When others don't You're the one who tries When others won't In the temple of truth I was humbled and confessed If this be love Then I've been blessed If I should die tonight What have I learnt From all the battles fought And bridges burnt? I bore a heavy load Through all those dreams that wouldn't cease If I should die tonight God grant me peace (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 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.
“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
There used to be stars
Before we pulled them down
We used to have leaders
Who were mentally sound
There used to be a gift
From up above
We didn’t know what it was
So we called it love
There used to be care
For our fellow man
When friends were in trouble
We’d try and lend a hand
It’s now considered weak
And out of date
So we look the other way
And we call it fate
The older we get
The more we forget what we’ve been taught
By all the friends we squandered
And all the dreams we bought
We toss and we turn
We live and dont learn
Stumbling in the dark
And shooting from the lip
Until we wake to find
It all comes to zip
There used to be Dreams
That got us through the night
Some called us lucky
Until we missed our flight
And we’d lost every girl
By the final reel
Too old to try again
And too scared to feel
(C) Frank Howson 2019
We tried to live a simple life in a complex world. Surrounded by all the dangers, temptations, frustrations and good intentions gone south. We had a simple love, in that sweet naive time before the reptilians took over and the war designed to have no end began.
All I knew was that I loved you, and you loved me. Nothing much else mattered. And if the world we knew came to an end, I’d love you in the next too.
Your beautiful face and inner joy were the only drugs I needed to keep going. You made me smile. You made me dance. You made me hope for more when I’d given up hoping.
Each day we’d plow the fields, sowing for the harvest that would keep us full during the winter months.
Life was good and the people we knew were fun. Until they weren’t anymore. But they weren’t as lucky as us and life made them bitter.
Sometimes I’d whisper your name in a reverential prayer when my road narrowed and the nights became too dark to see ahead.
Some people became envious of our joy and sought to steal it, foolishly thinking they could replicate the recipe, but they burnt the base.
They burnt us too.
These days I don’t punish myself by thinking of love, and have accepted my life of solitude. Sometimes we have to sacrifice joy to obtain wisdom. Sometimes I long to be a happy fool again. For there is a penalty in knowing too much.
My wisdom has told me that angels must leave. They weren’t meant to be chained to this mortal earth, or to us flawed humans. And so, it is as it should be. Fly on, my darling, fly on. It was all my fault, dreaming that I could keep you.
But perhaps our time will come. Again. And I’ll not awaken my wisdom, and instead, pretend I don’t know the ending.
And so on. And so on.
(C) Frank Howson 2019