29.3 C
Melbourne
Monday, June 27, 2022

HANGING WITH HARRY DEAN STANTON

Date:

Share:

Back in 1990 I was the co-promoter of Harry Dean Stanton’s only Australian tour. This is a piece I wrote for Follow Me magazine in September of that year. I haven’t attempted to update or change it as on a re-reading I think it stands up as a capsule of that time.
“There were no people around. Just us and the dinosaurs.” Harry Dean Stanton is standing in his room at Sydney’s Victoria Towers, his residence on and off for the two weeks of his Australian tour in May, drinking a luke-warm cup of coffee and flicking through Sam Shepard’s Motel Chronicles, a collection of poems, short fiction and monologues that were the inspiration for the script of Paris, Texas, the film that made Harry Dean an international cult figure.
Dinosaurs appeal to Harry Dean. The night before he’d been at a barbecue thrown for him and his band, The Repo Men. It was towards the end of his first-ever full-scale tour as a musician and he was admiring the collection of plastic dinosaurs lined up along the arm of his chair by the daughter of one of the hosts. “Kids are really into dinosaurs aren’t they,” he drawls slowly to no one in particular. “It’s good, they’re better than guns. I guess they’re going back to their roots,” he says returning to his plate of barbecued prawns which he likes because “they don’t taste fishy”.
During the 16 days Harry Dean was in Australia I had the chance to get to know the supposed ‘coolest man on the planet’ pretty well. I was, after all, one of the two promoters of his tour, and the person who’d convinced him, after months of weekly phone calls to his home in Los Angeles, to make the trip. Harry Dean had been worried about the weather and if it’d be too cold. He’d been worried about whether people would come and see him play. He’d been worried about whether his band was together or not. One night he rang me at 4 am in the morning, his time, to tell me that he’d finally found a drummer that suited the band’s style.
Of course people turned out to see him play. Some loved it, others were disappointed but above all, and possibly unfortunately, they paid their money not to see Harry Dean Stanton, the musician, but to be in the presence of Harry Dean Stanton, the cult figure extraordinaire. Most came because they’d seen Paris, Texas and Repo Man, and some of the younger brigade because they knew him as the father figure with Molly Ringwood in Pretty In Pink. One person even waited outside the first show to get him to sign an Alien book.
“We’re trying to work out what part Harry Dean played in Alien,” Clive Robertson says during his introduction of Harry Dean.
“We’ve decided he must have been the alien, the blob that emerged from Sigourney Weaver’s chest. Can you imagine emerging from Sigourney Weaver’s chest?”
Harry Dean thinks that’s amusing. After all, except for Paris, Texas, he’s usually been the character in films that you remember seeing but can’t remember who or what he was. The audiences who turned out to see Harry Dean in Australia weren’t film buffs though. They were hip pop culture buffs —and Harry Dean is about as hip as pop culture gets these days.
They were there to take a look at this living legend, “The Dean Of Cool’, as one paper described him. Scenes at the shows were like minor Beatlemania. Chants of ‘Harry, Harry, Harry’ throughout the shows and hordes of people clambering for autographs afterwards.
Michael Hutchence paid, introduced himself backstage and suggested Harry Dean join his group of friends later in the night at the Freezer nightclub. Nicole Kidman turned up for a show by Harry Dean’s guitarist, Jimmy Intveld, at a small inner-city pub in Sydney, and fashion figure Jenny Kee did everything she could to get Harry Dean to visit her place in the Blue Mountains. The world’s resident hipster just attracts those sorts of people.
Harry Dean (he also answers to Harry) turns 64 in the middle of the year (“but tell everyone I’m 39”) and has been acting for more than three decades. Halliwell’s Film Companion selectively lists his credits as: Dragon Wells Massacre (1957), How The West Was Won (1962), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Cisco Pike (1972), Dillinger (1973), Cockfighter (1971), Farewell My Lovely (1975), The Missouri Breaks (1976), Alien (1979), The Rose (1979), Wise Blood (1980), Private Benjamin (1980), One From The Heart (1982), Christine (1983), Fool For Love (1986), etc.
There are two movies completed but as yet unreleased in Australia.
“If it’s intelligent and has something to say and is nourishing to people in general,” is about all he’ll say about his reasons for accepting a film role. In fact, getting Harry Dean to talk about his film career is just marginally more difficult than getting him to talk about music — or anything else for that matter except philosophy. He’s far from what you’d describe as an expansive interview subject. It’s only from passing observations that you gain any insight into the cinematic side of his life.
Being interviewed by Clive Robertson (who he described as the best interviewer he’d encountered in his entire career) Harry Dean admits to having only watched Paris, Texas three or four times, always with tears in his eyes, explaining that for him the film was very autobiographical.
Harry Dean doesn’t have much time for most scripts he reads these days. He vows that he’s never going to work with any first time directors again and finds himself re-writing or ad-libbing his way through most scripts, “except Sam’s (Shepard) words, you don’t mess with them.”
In person Harry Dean is a quiet, unassuming figure. He’s shorter than I expected and was so unobtrusive upon his arrival in Sydney that initially I didn’t recognise him.
Very much a night person, Harry Dean rarely goes to sleep before sunrise. “If I get five hours tonight that’ll do me for the next three days,” said the man who retired to dance clubs and late night bars virtually every night of the tour.
And for a man who has apparently spent much of his life in bars and has described them as more religious places than churches, Harry Dean doesn’t appear to drink a lot.
“Give me one of those beers that makes me cry,” he smiles one night in the hotel bar. It’s his roundabout way of asking for a Victoria Bitter. Otherwise there’s the occasional shot of tequila. Only one one night did he appear to over indulge. That was after the second to last show when, driving back to the hotel, he was leaning out of the van window yeah-hawing at the early morning hordes in the Cross. Regardless, he unpacked his guitar, headed off to the Site nightclub, acquired a group of new found best friends, went to a party, and ended up staying awake till daybreak.
“You don’t deal with the problem, you deal with the source,” he tells me one night whilst explaining his ideas about religion, war, and the state of the universe.
“It’s like alcoholism. They call alcohol a disease. That’s bullshit. It’s what makes you drink that’s the problem. Why do you want to drink, that’s the problem. That’s the source. The fact is that they’re making millions and billions of dollars on liquor. I don’t want to outlaw it. I think it’s great in moderation but (laughs) how many moderates do you have? Most people are moderate drinkers, fortunately.
“I’m not a total cynic. I’m not bitter, or a voice of doom. It’s all part of the natural flow of the big bang.”
So is there any hope. for civilisation? “Who knows, it doesn’t matter,” he says.
This is Harry Dean the Zen Buddhist and Taoist follower speaking. He’s deeply involved with the philosophies of the American Zen Buddhist Allan Watts, along with Krishnamurti, a number of Chinese thinkers, and the writings of Wilheim Reich.
“It just makes a lot more sense, and it’s a lot more of a life-positive religion than the western world religions, and the middle Eastern religions,” he explains.
Harry Dean, who travels with a large dictionary in his suitcase, is also currently enarmoured with the politics and ideas of Gorbachev and was reading his book Perestroika whilst on tour. “He’s challenging the whole planet,” he says. “The guy is the first world leader. He states very clearly that he wants to stop the nuclear arms race, to stop war and save the planet. The guy’s either a liar. . . but his actions speak louder than words.”
 A few minutes after expounding these thoughts Harry Dean is sitting on an armchair with five-year-old Coby, the owner of the dinosaurs, tuning her pint-sized guitar and strumming a few chords for her. Then she’s on his back as he piggie-backs her around the living room. It’s the same man who spends a few hours on the morning of his arrival wandering around Kings Cross in the rain trying-to find a hat that doesn’t have Sydney or Australia emblazoned on the front. For the majority of his tour Harry Dean went unrecognised walking the streets, or at bars, the theory being that because every second person in the Cross has that down and out, weathered Harry Dean look he didn’t stand out.
However at shows it was a different story. On a Good Morning Australia inter-view Kern-Ann Kennerley had asked him about his sex appeal.
“Well, I guess I’ve got a certain animal magnetism,” Harry Dean laughs.
“Well you obviously didn’t bring it with you,” she replies, hopefully, giving the benefit of the doubt, attempting to be amusing. Animal magnetism it certainly was after dark and after shows, with women well under half his age falling all over him both backstage and at clubs.
“Why have you never been married,” Mike Gibson asks him during an interview in the hotel bar. “Oh, just lucky I guess,” replies a smiling Harry Dean.
During that interview he reveals that there he is the father of a child, born out of wedlock and appears to have an affinity with young kids. Asked to sign a photo for a two-month-old boy whose father has named him, you guessed it, Harry Dean, he seems genuinely touched before scribbling, ‘Don’t join anything’ on a poster for Harry Dean Carter. “That’ll probably screw up his whole life,” he chuckles.
Essentially it’s hard to work Harry Dean out. He’s absent minded, pre-occupied with being a musician, and maybe just a little bit out there, existing on some other cerebral planet. “Harry, you weren’t born in 1990,” I tell him when I notice that’s the year of birth he’s put down on his departure form at the airport.
“Who knows,” he laughs as he changes it to 1926.
Certainly Harry Dean has that mythical presence, both on and off stage. But at the same time he’s so frightfully ordinary and into being a musician that it’s hard to reconcile the man worried about what time the sound check is, whether his guitar is in the van, and the chords to a particular song with the image on the screen in so many memorable movie appearances.
Probably my favourite memory of the whole tour came at the barbecue. As Harry Dean’s departing he turns to Coby and say’s “I love you Coby.”

“I love you too Harry Dean,” replies a young voice. •