UNEASY RIDER

“All they wanted was to be free, and that’s the way it turned out to be…”   The Ballad of Easy Rider.

I was recently saddened to wake to the news that Peter Fonda had died. At my age it has become a regular occurrence, almost daily, to hear about a dear friend, acquaintance, associate, or a boyhood hero checking out of this world.

When I lived in Los Angeles for nine years I was very fortunate to have met a large number of actors, musicians and directors that’d inspired me during my formative years. Some of them became friends, others I’d see around here or there and we’d give a nod and a smile. They were mostly nice people dealing with their own pressures, families, problems and all those things we too juggle. Just on a much bigger scale. The few I encountered that were mean or monsters were the pretenders. The ones who’d seized a spotlight or some power through bluff, marketing or manipulation.

The bigger the talent, the nicer the person is what I found. Mostly.

Which brings me back to Peter Fonda. I only met him once. It was in one of my favourite books stores, Book Soup, on Sunset Boulevard, and I was browsing the latest releases when Peter came in with some people and they began setting up a table for him to do some book signings for his autobiography, “Don’t Tell Dad.” The title referring to his father, the legendary actor Henry Fonda, who was described by his children as being strict, uncommunicative, and unaffectionate. He never told them, ever, that he loved them. One of those closed men from an era when it was deemed unmanly to show your feelings. Perhaps this explains why both Peter and his sister Jane became rebels. Pushing the boundaries, striving to achieve and seeking approval from others. Running wild in Hollywood.

Peter had nothing in common with his father other than looks. I chatted with him that day and he was a genuinely nice, kind, loving individual. Before the crowd arrived he even signed a complimentary copy of his book for me. He was a hippie, spiritually, until the end.

Carving out a film career had been difficult for Peter. When he started out he had to stand in the very large overpowering shadow of his father. Remembered not for his work, but for being Henry Fonda’s son. Then later, he would be referred to as Jane Fonda’s brother. It must’ve been a creatively lonely and humbling existence for him. In fact, in most of his early films he looks stilted and uncomfortable, devoid of any identity of his own.  If the trick to great acting is total relaxation, he was a long way from it.

Not making much of an impression in movies such as “Tammy and the Doctor” “The Young Lovers” and other forgettable fluffy fare, the offers dried up as he sat on the sidelines watching his father continue to shine in major movies, and his sisterJane soar in one film after another. It must’ve hurt Peter to have been thought of as the “loser” of the family, but perhaps those forces also shaped him as the gentle, unassuming, empathetic, kind man he became. He knew, in his own way, what it was like to suffer. To be ignored. Or dismissed.

Like many outsiders of the big slick Hollywood machine, Peter stumbled into the conveyor-belt Roger Corman “B” grade movie productions churned out for drive-in market. These exploitation films had budgets less than what real movies spent on catering. Some of them were shot in two days! And those that worked on them, usually had two or more jobs to perform. But Peter joined an illustrious company of other young, eager outsiders who couldn’t get a break in mainstream movies either. People like Jack Nicholson, Francis Coppola, Robert DeNiro, Bruce Dern, etc.

The brilliant thing about the Corman movies was that you learnt on the job, from experience, seeing yourself on the big screen and seeing what worked and what didn’t. You can now observe in these mostly crappy movies how Fonda and Nicholson go from stilted, self-conscious actors to guys who  become so comfortable in front of a camera, their true self shines through and magic is born. We see this in Fonda’s performances in “The Wild Angels,” and the LSD fuelled “The Trip.”

And so it was, with a small budget film called “Easy Rider” (directed by Dennis Hopper and starring Peter, who also co-wrote the script and co-produced it) that Peter Fonda became a huge international star in his own right, and a cultural icon to a whole generation of baby boomers. His character Captain America oozed quiet confidence and the cool factor in abundance. The way he moved, how he dressed, the manner in which he spoke, had us boys all trying to emulate him. He became our martyred hero who, like us, was so lost, confused and despairing about the world, that we dropped out of the ranks of what was expected of us.

One of the last lines his character utters in the film, just before his date with destiny is, “We blew it.” He doesn’t elaborate. It is a beautiful, sad, famously enigmatic line that in a way is a eulogy to a lost generation.

Although Peter went on and starred in many movies and won Golden Globe awards and nominations for Oscars, it is his character in “Easy Rider” that still haunts us. That cool, disenchanted, silent-type loner, searching for the meaning of life on the coolest looking motorcycle we ever saw.

The advertising by-line to the movie “Two men went looking for America, and couldn’t find it anywhere,” best sums it up.

Peter screened the final cut of the movie to Bob Dylan hoping that the famous troubadour would give permission for his recordings to be used for the movie’s soundtrack. But Dylan was so angered by the movie’s tragic ending, he said he’d only give his songs to the movie if the final scene was reshot and the bikers won. But Peter explained that the two leading characters had to be martyred. That’s what happened at that time, at that place, in America. Young people couldn’t beat the system.

So Bob took a piece of paper and scribbled these lines on it, “The river flows to the sea. Wherever that river flows that’s where I want to be. Flow river flow, let your waters wash down, take me from this road, to some other town…” He handed it to Peter and said, “Give it to Roger McGuinn to finish. He’ll know what to do with it.”

And do he did. Roger added the lines, “All they wanted was to be free, and that’s the way it turned out to be.” And “The Ballad of Easy Rider” was born. Dylan declined a credit as he’d given the lyrics to Peter, and the film, as a gift.

Peter Fonda was born to be wild. He is now free from the chains and restrictions of this earthly world. Free to ride the wind. To be a part of that beautiful dawn. To be as still and wise as the trees. And to flow with that river to the sea.

Farewell, dear Peter. Take it easy.

(C) Frank Howson 2019

THIS GREY PLACE

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

(C) Frank Howson

Photograph by Frank Howson.

THE MISTS OF DAWN

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

(C) Frank Howson 2019

EXCEPT YOU LOVE ME

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

(C) Frank Howson 2019

MY LONELY ROOM

In my lonely room
I conquer the world
In my dreams that failed
And paled to the loss of a girl
Here I shed my tears
Over bitter wasted years
That led me to this crowded place
Filled with memories and fears
I never dreamed my life would lead
To this lonely room
Since you cut me I bleed
In this lonely room

(C) Frank Howson. 2019

WHERE, IN THE WORLD

We live in a world where voicing the truth can have you socially banished.
Where children from the time they can walk are taught to not trust grownups. Then we grow up to not trust anybody.
Where Satanists teach the word of God.
Where marriage is for a few years at best and then you have the house to yourself.
Where an allegation can end your career.
Where originality will get you remembered after you die of hunger.
Where friendship is seen as an “investment”.
Where it’s okay to lie about everything and invent your own realty. This was once called “delusional” but now it’s called “faking it till you make it”. Make what?
Where giants are brought down by dwarves.
Where the mainstream media no longer has any credibility.
Where music is disposable and no one cares who wrote it, produced it or played on it.
Where the majority of movies are based on comic books.
Where integrity is seen as old fashioned.
Where you can steal someone else’s idea and not only call it good business but be able to look at yourself in the mirror without flinching.
Where to win at any cost is admirable.
Where a text message may offend unless you post LOL after it.
Where we know everything about ourselves and zip about others.
Where justice is not blind it is biased.
Where if your political candidate loses you must hate, riot, rally and unsettle things so that the winner can’t do their job. In the old days this was called being a sore loser after the majority of the people (which is democracy) have spoken.
Where our heroes are edited out of history because they were flawed in some way that doesn’t sit comfy with our current PC beliefs. Even Jesus lost his temper and took to moneylenders with a whip. Proving nothing other than he was human.
Where wars are invented for profits or to take the heat and attention off homeland scandals.
Where the past is never learned from because it is not respected.
Where people gleefully buy the lies that will bring about their own demise.
Politicians reach out to the poor in their election campaigns but cynically know they won’t resolve their situation as to do so would lose them their voter base. Keep the needy needing.
Where TV reality shows teach the young that if you lie, deceive, backstab, and play everyone against each other, you will win.
Where people fear the existence of a God because they fear being judged.
Where sex is mistaken for intimacy.

(C) Frank Howson. 2019

SPEECH DELIVERED AT LONDON FILM FESTIVAL OPENING

I am very honoured to be here.

“What The Moon Saw” was the second movie that my production company Boulevard Films produced. Since then we have made another five films, all of very different genres. Yet “What The Moon Saw” is the one that seems to have taken on a life of its own.

Earlier this year this film was selected and shown in competition at the Berlin Film Festival where it was such a hit it came to the attention of Miramax who acquired all rights for North America and the U.K. It is the first Australian film ever sold to Miramax.

One of the most exciting experiences, after watching the Berlin Wall come down, was watching the movie with an East Berlin audience comprising of mostly children. It was the first film from the Western world they had seen and none of us knew what to expect. And yet, the enthusiastic audience reacted to the very same things that a Western audience responded go. The same laughter and the same tears. Well, except for when Mrs. Melrose accuses the playwright of being a Communist. I think they thought she was praising him.

The film transcends normal language barriers because it speaks in that most universal language of all – the language of the heart.

Young Steven Wilson lives inside all of us. He’s that child we left behind somewhere in our race to bigger things. Occasionally he resurfaces only to be told (by a grown-up) not to be so “childish”, or “You’re having too much fun”; driven away, by those who’ve lost their sense of joy and the appreciation of simplicity, with slogans like “Time is money”, “Act your age” and, the cruelest jab of all, “Grow up!”

At the beginning of the film young Steven is farewelled by his mum and dad as he leaves his small country town to get on a bus to go to the big city for the first time and spend a week with his Grandma. It is a long winding journey along the coast road as he looks out the window at wonders he has not seen before. And for us, the audience, it is a look at the magic of innocence.

I miss Steven Wilson. I miss his unique point of view. The way the world is so simple to him. Things are either good or bad – black or white – sunny or cloudy – and a grown-up’s word is taken literally. He couldn’t survive in the confusing contradictory greys in which we adults have to exist – so we drive him away. Back home to that other country. That simpler slower world where people do the right thing regardless of the cost. And dreams, not regrets, get you to sleep at night.

Thank you for making me feel so welcome. And my work so appreciated.

You’ve given me some warm memories to take back with me on my long bus ride home.

London 1990.

(C) Frank Howson 2019