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

WHO SAW HIM LAST?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are the friends he helped instead of helping himself?

This is his favourite song that he played every night.

This is the movie he said changed his life.

These are the books he loved now all packed away.

Who saw him last?

(C) Frank Howson 2019

THE BRIGHTEST LIGHT

Where do you find someone
Who’ll give you their heart?
And won’t take it back
Just to tear you apart
Someone who is
Everything she seems
A dream you wake to
When you wake from dreams
I’ve been searching so long
And learned to live alone
You kinda park your life
In a holding zone
But I believe one day
If you keep on giving
You’ll stumble in the dark
And find your reason for living
For it’s a contradiction
That in the darkest night
We see in the faraway distance
The brightest light

(G) Frank Howson

THE MISTS OF DAWN

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

(C) Frank Howson 2019

THE YOUNG BOY CALLED ME OLD MAN

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

(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