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My uneasy ride with Dennis Hopper

American Dreamer

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Editor's note: This weekend, The Belcourt pays tribute to the late actor, filmmaker, counterculture icon and longtime cheater of death Dennis Hopper, screening five of his features — including a late-night double bill of The Trip and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (Oct. 15-16) and the film that made Hopper a legend, Easy Rider (Oct. 16-17).

The real event, however, is an unprecedented local double feature Sunday, Oct. 17, of 1971's The Last Movie — Hopper's notorious major-studio follow-up to Easy Rider, a defiantly head-scrambling passion play that all but killed his career — and The American Dreamer, director Lawrence Schiller's scandalous little-seen documentary about the drug orgies and debauched insanity surrounding the star-director at the time.

One man was around to see both first hand: Nashville singer, songwriter and rocker John Buck Wilkin (of Ronny and the Daytonas fame), who contributed to The Last Movie's soundtrack and appears in the film. He penned for the Scene this first-person remembrance.

In 1969, I was working as a rhythm guitar player in the pit band for an off-Broadway musical called Salvation, in the wake of Hair and other hippie spin-offs. I was sleeping on the sofa of the girlfriend of one of the composers. It was a way to save money and enjoy New York at musician's-union scale.

The gig lasted only a few weeks, but it had many side benefits. One was getting to play on the musical's soundtrack LP with my producer friend Nick Venet. The other was being asked one night by the girlfriend if I wanted to go to a party. I said yes.

It was a celebration for the success of the movie Easy Rider, which I had seen a few months earlier. It didn't so much change my life as it verified my beliefs at the time. Yeah, there was a world of freaks out there — and I was definitely one of them.

The party was in a lovely Upper East Side brownstone and was catered by the Hog Farm of Woodstock fame. It was a sweet introduction to hippie royalty, if there was such a thing. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda were there. Jane and her current old man, French film director Roger Vadim, showed up, as well as the Italian directors Visconti and Bertolucci. Also various representatives from the Dylan and Warhol gangs of players and hangers-on.

I met Hopper in Los Angeles about a year later. I was lucky enough to be day-running with Kristofferson, who asked me if I wanted to meet him. Uh, yeah! We went to a modest two-bedroom rental apartment in North Hollywood, forget the street name. I played Dennis a few songs, and he said, "Do you wanna go to Peru with us next week?"

Well, yeah! It was a mixed bunch of cast and crew that rallied together about midnight to catch an APSA Air Lines jet to Cuzco, Peru, where Hopper was all set to film the movie he thought would be his masterpiece. There were about 40 of us, including Peter Fonda in a big shearling coat, since it was winter in South America. Also Michelle Phillips, who would later marry Dennis for a week. Probably some of the people I had previously met at the party the year before and assorted actors, hippies and technicians from Hollywood.

We flew all night, stopping for gas in Mexico City, Guayaquil, Ecuador, then into Lima before changing to a smaller plane for the last leg into Cuzco, which sits at an elevation of 10,000 feet in the Andes Mountains. We stayed in a small European style boutique hotel that served tea and cakes at 4 p.m. every day, but most people headed for the bar and a drink called a Pisco Sour — like a whiskey sour in strength, but distilled from grapes. And then there was the weed and whatever else anyone had brought along in those days before drug dogs, searches and tight security.

The movie set was a 40-minute cab ride outside of Cuzco at an elevation of 12,000 feet. We were taking morning and afternoon siestas to get acclimated to the altitude. It took a few days to get used to that, and we were only there for two weeks.

I was hired as an actor at scale and just wandered around most of the time. All movies are hurry-up-and-wait affairs, even if you have a speaking role, and I didn't. Kris and I played available minstrels and most of the music was done live on location, some of it with us playing in the shots. Everything was done into those portable Nagra tape recorders with those tiny lavalier microphones, but the quality was good. Nothing was added in a studio later.

I would swear Warhol said "15 days of fame" because of the time it took all the critics to get to an art opening and review it — but Dennis gave me my few minutes of his attention and screen time, with cameras and recorders rolling.

Funny thing about show business success is, it's like winning in Vegas — you cash in and they give you free chips to play with, whether you can handle it or not. So many suffer from the Sophomore Slump. Most can't walk away — you just gotta roll again. But Dennis had spent all his life fighting the system to get his way and finally won big with Easy Rider, and maybe he should have rested. He had become a legend and a culture hero and you don't follow that up.

So there we were, way up in the mountains, sitting around playing poker with these big piles of Peruvian currency — the ugly but charming Americans, living the intense paid-for dream that is the production life, short as it may be. It's like a family for a while and then they disperse forever. Dennis was 10 years my elder and we never became real friends. He was what I call a celebrity acquaintance — a name to drop, but one that carries special cachet, like a trump card I could play to authenticate my hipness if I needed to do so.

I went to visit Dennis at his big house in Taos, N.M., where he was holed up doing the editing on his film. Problem was, it was Crazy-ville. Mucho dopa, booze, a constant flow of freaks and hippies. Dennis shot a quarter of a million feet of film, a record at the time, and he was gonna edit it himself. There were telephone wars with Universal Pictures, dinners with LSD around a big table that resembled the Last Supper.

Slow-motion train wreck, but it didn't matter. It was all cool. He bought the tiny local cinema on the main street in town and screened his "director's cut" every night. Once I saw a version that was six hours long. It was a smoke dream, a beautiful travelogue with a plot hidden somewhere, maybe on the cutting-room floor. Eventually the film company took it away from him, cut it themselves, and released it for a total of two weeks.

A funny thing happened on the plane on the way down to Peru. The booze came out, the guitars, then the weed. Seemed natural enough. I had been in Carnegie Hall when it was filled with smoke to hear the Byrds, Burritos, and the Holy Modal Rounders. Anyway, word came down to Peru from Robert Mitchum in Los Angeles through his son Jim, who was in the cast, that the FBI and Interpol were looking for the people who were passing the grass on the plane.

So Dennis called all the men in one at a time to get their stories straight. Seemed a stewardess ("flight attendant" title not yet born) had ratted out the party and they were looking for certain individuals. Sooo, when the movie was over and I was back in Lima chilling out in a hotel and feeling like a very free man, I shaved my beard, trimmed my hair, bought a suit and tie, and rebooked my return flight after a two-week delay at the beach resort of Ancon.

To get to Ancon, you had to take a cab past 50 miles of old-timey slums, like you used to see in some urban centers — shantytowns with smoke, wooden shacks, poverty like India. And then you arrived where the rich people vacationed: high-rise condos, serpentine mosaic walkways, and one little tourist hotel that had good seafood and plenty of oblivious privacy, as I had no Spanish, and was content just to rest, observe.

The flight back to L.A. and the days after were uneventful, looking for that magic, that fun of the film set. You make the rounds, the agents, the bars, the parties, looking for the essence of hip, which you think may have been a dream. I returned to Nashville unscathed.

The Last Movie came and went, Dennis plummeted down to a new reality, leaving Hollywood for Europe, doing small parts, and going through bouts of self-induced drug psychosis. He eventually made it back to the top. We had lunch when I was in L.A. in May 2007 along with a few people from The Last Movie. Dennis grew up, remarried, had children late in life, did retirement fund commercials.

The indestructible man finally succumbed this year, to prostate cancer.

Maybe it's time to write a will.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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