The second selection in the stack of albums my mom gave me with my first grown-up record player was this slice of counterculture pressed to vinyl…
…the soundtrack to the 1969 road flick Easy Rider.
The film’s tagline read “A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere…” Actually, it was two men — the laconically cool Wyatt (a.k.a. “Captain America,” a.k.a. Peter Fonda) and the high-strung Billy (a.k.a “King Koopa,” a.k.a. Dennis Hopper). The pair decide to take the profits from a drug deal and go on a grand tour that takes them from the southwestern desert to a bad trip in a New Orleans graveyard to their violent murder by rednecks in the Florida panhandle.
It was a product of an era, one that also gave us Altamont, the Manson Family, and the inscapable realization that the fruits of Summer of Love had rotted on the vine. That sense of defeatism — that the utopian quest for self-realization had crashed up against some harsh realities — was not only reflected in the events depicted the film, but in its pedigree. It was a “countercultural touchstone” distributed by Columbia Pictures and produced by the folks behind The Monkees, a bid for “artistic credibility” drawn from two genres (biker and drug scene) that had previously been consigned to the exploitation circuit ghetto.
While it features some beautiful cinematography from László Kovács, watching the film gives me the same uncomfortable twinges that I get from reading my parents’ high school attempts at poetry.
The film’s soundtrack is a thoroughly mixed bag. On one hand, it cemented the rock side of my teenage fascination with 1960s music with some excellent selections from The Band, Jimi Hendrix, and Roger McGuinn (with and without the Byrds).
In fact, it’s where my enduring love of the Byrds’ brand of jangly folk-rock began.
On the other hand, it also includes some painful howlers of forced flower child whimsy that could convince even the most open-minded soul into the anti-legalization camp.
On a related note, Easy Rider was the catalyst for transforming Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” from a pretty nifty hard rock jam into a banal popcult reference ready for commercial repurposing.
Harsh? Sure, but it’s a harshness born of an adolescent affection soured by adult experiences. Just one more bit of proof that the bastards do always win in the end.
Not So Fun Fact: My mom died from a drunken fall down the stairs not too long after she gave me the Easy Rider soundtrack. Each year on the anniversary of her death, I give this track a spin or three…
…though I’ve manually edited the sound effects at the end out of my digital copy.