Graded on a Curve:
Easy Rider, OST

Today we remember actor Peter Fonda who passed away on Friday, August 16 with a look back at the soundtrack from one of his most iconic roles, Easy Rider.

After seeing Easy Rider for the first time, I wanted nothing more than to take off across America on a chopper with a tear drop gas tank emblazoned with the red, white, and blue, smoke tons of grass and gobble lots of acid, and meet a lunatic ACLU lawyer in a gold football helmet looking to turn on, tune in, and drop out. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, as my first motorcycle ride also turned out to be my last, after losing control of the thing and crashing head-on into our next door neighbor’s barn. And nothing’s changed over the years; the last time I tried to ride a bicycle I decided to smoke a cigarette at the same time, and ended up toppling into some rat-infested shrubbery.

So Captain America I’m not. But I love the movie, which was all about freedom, man, freedom to wear your hair long and get stoned and do whatever the hell you wanted to do without kowtowing to the Man, man. Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Captain America (Peter Fonda) represented the outlaw biker life, which came without the shackles of job, home, and hearth, but carried its own risks; as the ACLU lawyer Hanson (Jack Nicholson) tells Billy and Captain America, their freedom makes the squares “dangerous. Buh, neh! Neh! Neh! Neh! Swamp!”

But the thing I love most about the world’s greatest hippie exploitation film is its soundtrack, the rights to which cost more than the film itself. It includes two great Steppenwolf tunes and one and a half Dylan tunes, both of which were performed by Roger McGuinn, and intersperses dope anthems with dismal songs of doom, in keeping with the movie’s groovier moments and lingering sense—what with homicidal rednecks and pigs everywhere—that things won’t end well for Billy, Captain America, and Hanson. (Spoiler alert! Shit, too late.) And when I talk about the soundtrack I’m not talking about the 2004 Deluxe Edition, but the one you could listen to in your groovy pad with its beaded doorways, day glo ceilings, and black light poster of Three Dog Night (okay, so you were one very unhip hippie; don’t beat yourself up about it).

The soundtrack opens with Steppenwolf’s definitive interpretation of Hoyt Axton’s “The Pusher.” From its opening guitar riffs to the great feedback that follows them the song exudes pure menace. Meanwhile John Kay tosses of great lines like, “You know I’ve seen a lot of people walkin’ round with tombstones in their eyes/But the pusher don’t care if you live or die” before the kickass chorus, which features Kay repeating, “Goddamn the pusher.” He then makes a distinction between the dealer and the pusher, after which the guitarist plays an excellent solo that makes me want to give Steppenwolf more of a listen. It’s followed by Steppenwolf’s iconic biker anthem “Born to be Wild,” which features lots of great guitar riffs, some cool organ, and may or may not make the first ever use of the phrase “heavy metal.” The organ/guitar interlude is sheer adrenalin, and Kay’s vocals are spot on—perfect, deep, and resonant with commitment to the 1% life style.

The Band’s “The Weight” follows, but the Band isn’t performing it. Which is odd, because they perform the version in the movie. Unfortunately contractual obligations kept their version off the soundtrack, so music editor Donn Cambern improvised; he gave the song to an LA band called Smith, and had them cut a version. And it’s surprisingly good; it lacks the great vocal swapping that makes the original so enthralling, but the lead vocalist does a more than able job, the band’s performance is rock solid, and the pianist has done his homework. Indeed, if it weren’t for the sole lead vocalist, you might be excused for confusing this version for the original. “The Weight” is followed by The Byrds’ cover of the King and Goffin’s “Wasn’t Born to Follow.” The harmonies are exquisitely beautiful, as is the melody, and if this isn’t the perfect song to listen to while talking in the beauty of nature I don’t know what is. It features a brief guitar freakout and then the vocals come back in, and songs rarely get more soothing and wistful than this one.

At the other end of the spectrum we have The Holy Modal Rounders’ amusingly annoying, “If You Want to Be a Bird (Bird Song),” which features some of the worst vocals I’ve ever heard. But they’re supposed to be awful, or so I’m assuming, because no one could sound that bad on purpose. Besides, The Rounders weren’t a de facto rock band at all, but a deranged and very stoned folk duo from New York’ Lower East Side, and their quirky sense of humor is demonstrated by the fact that one of their early choices for a name was The Motherfucker Creek Babyrapers. They also have the distinction of being the first humans to use the word “psychedelic” in a song. Next up is that stoner fave “Don’t Bogart Me” by The Fraternity of Man, a band that is little remembered despite the fact that its members included Little Feat’s Richie Hayward and two other members of Lowell George’s The Factory, to say nothing of Mother of Invention Eliot Ingber. A country-flavored tune that comes complete with some tasty pedal-steel guitar and a honky-tonk piano, the song is a humorous take on the reefer hog—you know, the guy who simply refuses to pass the joint.

Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9” is next, and while I’ve never been a big Hendrix fan, there’s no denying the song’s monolithic lead guitar riff, great drumming, and Hendrix’s immortal lines, “If all the hippies cut off their hair/I don’t care, I don’t care.” Unfortunately it’s followed by a free form jam during which Hendrix waves his freak flag, and which is—the jam, I mean—what I never liked about Hendrix, namely that he was too far freaking out for my garage rock tastes and insisted upon playing 6,000 notes where 6 would have sufficed. And I assume it’s him making that long bird torture noise towards the end, which I find totally annoying. Similarly annoying is the Electric Prunes’ “Kyrie Eleison/Mardi Gras (When the Saints),” which sounds to me like a funeral mass for my poor eardrums. The singers make like the Moronic Temple Choir in a stop and start fashion until first one great guitar solo puts paid to the vocals, and then a second one does likewise. Then a voice says, “I never thought of myself as freak, but I love to freak,” to which another voice says, “Let’s go outside,” where they find themselves in New Orleans at the height of Mardi Gras, listening to a rough and tumble take on “When the Saints Come Marching In.” Freaky, man!

Next up Roger McGuinn covers Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” And he does a great job, summoning up the anger of the original if not its dark humor, and it’s followed by the sound of the film’s end, when the rednecks blast Captain America and Billy off their choppers. As for “Ballad of Easy Rider,” Dylan evidently wrote the first verse before passing it onto McGuinn, saying he’d know what to do with it. And McGuinn did, writing a lovely and elegiac song featuring harmonica and acoustic guitar that turns a mighty river into a metaphor for a longing for freedom.

With its bummer of an ending Easy Rider proved to be remarkably prescient of the end of the Age of Aquarius. The film was released in July 1969, less than a month before the Manson Family committed their murders, and less than half a year before the chaos of Altamont. As such, it presaged the victory of violence over peace, love, and understanding. Its makers somehow saw the bloody handwriting on the walls of Sharon Tate’s house, and a bad moon rising, and their message was that the sentence for freedom, real freedom, was death. The ACLU lawyer Hanson knew the score; he could practically smell the gun smoke in the air. You have your good trips and you have your bad trips, and then you have your trips that lead straight to the grave. It’ a bummer, Captain America, but in the doomed year of 1969 that’s just the way things went down.


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