Peter Coyote on Easy Rider

Most memoirs by actors of some renown I find very dull, with their only anima the nimbus of fame that surrounds people involved in mildly amusing, if not dull, episodes. Peter Coyote’s Sleeping Where I Fall is a happy double exception, an interesting memoir by an actor and an unsentimental fresh look at a decade of hallucinogenic blur and napalm death. Coyote does not write of this period as if it were a roll of icons, or a series of exhibits in a museum, but his own journey through vivid, youthful life. His work in independent theater and independent communities of that strange time are given in details, rather than as manifestations of a larger thesis of the era, be it sentimental picturesque or toxic underworld. Each fascinating person is given their space, with no celebrity given exceptional status – someone will need to stay at someone’s house to give birth, and maybe the houseowner will be Janis Joplin. It is a memorable portrait in part because it does not attempt to be the exceptional, definitive, or all-encompassing look, but simply the memories of a man who often had an exceptional view of the rarer landscapes of an upset world, whose quakes still ripple, above and below the surface of our own ideological patchworld quilt, where sex and drugs are finally becoming an entirely private matter, while workers, like those at the very site where you might buy Coyote’s book, are treated like scum, cattle, dirt.

A good, quotable section is his view on a landmark film of the time, an insightful perspective of countercultural man on countercultural product. The Mime Troupe were an experimental theater group Coyote was involved in, while Dennis and Peter are the obvious suspects:

Despite good feelings for Dennis, Easy Rider remains a sore point with me. Peter and Dennis had seen and been excited by the Mime Troupe and suggested that I write and direct a scene with the company for inclusion in the film. I was excited by this prospect and pleased because it could funnel a little cash into the pockets of my fellow performers, who were still subsisting on a five-dollars-a-show salary.

Several months later, they called with an offer: twenty dollars a week and a place on Fonda’s couch for me, but nothing for my friends – “because this is a real low-budget thing, we’re doing it because we believe in it” (as if we did not behave that way daily). I wrote them off angrily as spoiled brats and refused to play. Even in the realm of low-budget independent films and even in 1968, twenty dollars a week was a beggar’s wage.

The finished film added insult to injury when the two protagonists visit a commune in the Southwest where sincere and drab hippies, the kind of nutless townfolk John Wayne might have protected in a corny western, are given the full Hollywood spin as “good people,” as if they were Franciscan monks who just happened to smoke dope and dress funny. The community entertains itself by watching a clutch of dodos clump through a mindless commedia-type stage play announced by a crudely lettered sign as “Gorilla Theater” – an obvious travesty of the Mime Troupe’s guerilla theater and a backhanded slap at the communards, who are less hip than the individualistic, wandering biker heroes.

This was an inaccurate, smug, and insulting reflection of the life my friends and I were creating out of hard labor, with minimal assets and comforts. It was galling to see our style and our intentions misunderstood and misrepresented to the vast cinematic audience. What elicited my enduring scorn, however, was the film’s ending, where the two “free spirits” are blown off their motorcycles by rednecks in a pickup truck. This ending was more than infuriating and dishonest; it was counterpropaganda that suggested that the cost of living free in America was death – so if you don’t want to die, boys and girls, stay home and be audiences; real adventures are for charismatic, handsome people like Hollywood actors. But in fact, people were living “free” all over the United States at that time, dealing with the tough issues of subsistence, making peace with their neighbors, and developing appropriate spiritual and community practices while this sorry-ass subtext was being promulgated by guys who were queasy about leaving their safe haunts in their own hometown! This was the status quo in hip drag, and I was disgusted with it. I did not see Dennis Hopper for many years after that. When I did, we had both been resurrected as actors and men, and the joy of seeing him healthy and well (and the clusters of memories we share) wiped away all my bitter associations as if they had been fog.

Years have gone by since that film made a fortune and introduced America to national treasure Jack Nicholson. Peter, Dennis, and I have grown and changed, and I have no desire to chain anyone to an identity they’ve since transcended. However, that slow-motion cinematic death still burns in my mind as a betrayal of the sensibilities it capitalized on. Far fewer people will read these words than have seen that film, I am sure, but at least I’ve marked my objections, and I can drop that chip from an overloaded shoulder, leaving it in the road behind me with those crushed bikes, sprawled actors, and fake blood.

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