As Nile Southern remembers his father on the eve of the 50th birthday of Easy Rider, the screenplay Terry co-wrote, he finds sharp parallels between 1969’s political landscape and today’s. Terry Southern’s vision of America in Easy Rider still resonates loudly. As he put it in one of his short stories, ‘he see right through ever’thing.’
by Nile Southern
Easy Rider, co-written by my father, novelist Terry Southern, is 50 years old this month. The film ignited an America that was torn, as it still is today, by issues of racism, war, intolerance and a government serving the rich. The film spoke directly to the youth of the day, and in the way it was filmed and edited, replicated the drug experiences (from good to bad) that were transfiguring a society committed to “tuning in and dropping out” as a political act. As my daughters go see it for the first time, I imagine them catching glimpses of their Grand Dad Terry throwing little time-travel smoke-bombs into the proceedings—ones that still speak the truth today—like when the country-lawyer character, George Hanson meets the two long-hairs in jail:
Billy: Listen, do you think you can help us get outta here with no sweat?
George: Well, I imagine that I can if you haven’t killed anybody—at least, nobody white.
While Terry never met my daughters (he died before they were born) they would have inspired him to remain a relevant cultural button-pusher. As a writer of book and film, Terry always prized young audiences, once telling writer Maggie Paley in The Paris Review:
The important thing is to keep in touch with the youth of whatever culture you’re in. When you lose them, you can forget it. When they’re no longer surprised or astonished or engaged by what you say, the ball game is over. If they find it repulsive, or outlandish and disgusting, that’s all right, or if they love it that’s all right, but if they just shrug it off, it’s time to retire.
I don’t recall when I first saw Easy Rider, but I remember the aromas. Dennis Hopper had brought my father some Indian ‘blanket-vests’ from New Mexico, and they smelled of yak. Hopper had also left the buckskin shirt he wore as ‘Billy’ during filming—most visible in the scene (and poster) where he gives us the finger, just before Hopper gets shot by the grinning, shotgun-wielding redneck who does him in. It later occurred to me: Why did Hopper, director of the film, literally give Terry the shirt off his back?
Terry Southern’s history on Easy Rider is complicated—as it is on most of his collaborations, including Candy (the novel co-written with Mason Hoffenberg) and Dr. Strangelove (written with Stanley Kubrick and Peter George)—both were projects where exactly ‘who wrote what’ became contested. And no one appreciated the nuances of that kind of complexity—the ins-and-outs, ups-and-downs of working with friends—better than Terry’s collaborators: Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. Both men were greatly indebted to Terry not only for lending his name to the film—at the time, his was the most bankable name attached to the project—but for his uncredited producing efforts on the film, which included providing his New York office space, typist, libations, casting suggestions (including Rip Torn as George Hanson), and most of all his agreement to do the script at about a 95% (non-Guild approved) reduction from the top-dollar writing fee he commanded back then.
In lieu of the three-way profit-share they had originally agreed upon, Hopper and Fonda individually came to my father after filming, literally bearing gifts: Dennis came loaded with pungent vests and ponchos from Taos that stank-up our closets for the next few years. Peter thoughtfully gave Terry his French Beaulieu Super-8 camera, as Terry had mentioned he wanted to make some films with me, perhaps to make up for lost time. I was only eight years old when Easy Rider came out, and Terry had been in and out of my life right through my childhood: ‘he’d been out creating the ‘60s!’ is how I later rationalized his absences and prodigal returns—the Sgt Pepper’s album (on which he appears wearing sunglasses) being the prima-facie testament of how it was all worth it.
A perennial ‘cultural creative,’ Terry had gravitated towards the bleeding-edges of politics, art and culture’s intermingling, where new projects emerged like chrysalis butterflies. His best friends were painters, poets and musicians. Before Easy Rider, Terry had achieved notoriety (and respect) in ‘quality lit-ville’, as he facetiously called the New York publishing world, but he was most excited about the possibilities of film. As he told Newsweek in the mid-60s: “Attacking smugness is the novelist’s and moviemaker’s most important function.”
The two projects that had defined his sensibility most appeared on the scene in 1964. In January: Dr. Strangelove appeared, a searingly hilarious and sophisticated take on the military-industrial complex; and in April, Candy became an instant best-seller that controversially combined pornography and comedy in a modern-day parody of Voltaire. For many of Terry’s friends in the cultural trenches, including William Styron, Nelson Algren and Lenny Bruce, it was as if in one four-month period, Terry had invented both political and sexual satire in two different media, and had irreparably rattled American values of decency and decorum in arts, letters and culture in the process. The phenomenon would later prompt Victor Bockris to declare, “in 1965, Terry Southern was the most famous writer in America.”
While Terry had navigated the “quality-lit game” surprisingly well in the ‘50s, as his Hollywood gravy-train started rolling in the mid-60s, all bets were off. Terry left his family, stopped reading contracts and turned his back on books—convinced (by the films of Antonioni and his experience with Stanley Kubrick) that cinema was the most effective way to communicate with an audience. Suddenly he had no time to create original stories—he became a script doctor, brought in on projects that were in production and flat-lining. “Black Jack” John Calley, head of Columbia Pictures, was, like directors Norman Jewison and Tony Richardson, out to shake things up, and they found the satirist who was ready to not only carry their water, but unload it in buckets-full, straight into the audience’s face.
The phenomenon would later prompt Victor Bockris to declare, “in 1965, Terry Southern was the most famous writer in America.”
He was “the cool guy,” as director Richard Linklater commented recently, brought in to “punch it up, and make it hip.” He was let loose, Charlie Parker-style, on a slew of ‘60s projects—all based on novels needing a dose of relevance, including: The Collector, The Loved One, The Cincinnati Kid, Barbarella and End of the Road. As he began working for Hopper/Fonda for weekly scale (apparently Terry was the only one paid a salary), he was biting the studio hands that had fed him for so many years. It’s certainly one of the possible reasons why after Easy Rider’s grand success, Terry never worked again.
And while Easy Rider would seem to have been the first of the “we’re all in this together” kind of hippie experiment of a movie, because of one of the most blunderous bits of contract marginalia—and Terry (and his agent) not looking after his interests—he ended up earning but a few thousand dollars on the film for all his efforts. Ironically, records show Terry had claim to a percentage of Easy Rider’s soundtrack album—which still sells far-and-wide today—but alas, he never saw a smidgen of that, nor of the film’s merchandizing, to which he also enjoys a claim. Perhaps action figures or a Broadway show are still in the cards!
In Easy Rider’s original 158-page screenplay (which can be found in Terry’s archive at the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection of English and American Literature), Terry’s stylistic flourishes and production notes are all over the carbon-page manuscript, including a few literary ones designed to encourage Hopper to cinematically ‘groove’, as in a morning Coffee Shop sequence: “Note: The scene is a systematic involvement in sound and movement. It could bring to mind T.S. Elliot’s ‘I measured out my life in coffee spoons.’” Other TS grace-notes are on the verge of self-parody, such as when Billy says to the brothel Girls “Why don’t you just go on ahead there while I talk to my, uh friend here—[bitterly, to Wyatt) Wyatt… if that is your name!”
In the film’s startling ending, the redneck pulls up alongside the biker pointing his shotgun and menacingly laughs “when you gonna git a haircut?!” Although the gun discharges accidentally, it is clearly the Deep South’s hatred of ‘the Other’, and branding hippies as “commies” that leads to Billy and Wyatt’s doom. When the Crackers come back to finish them off, Terry writes that “the scene should be played in such a way that we assume they are going back to help them.” Terry wanted an even more surprisingly brutal ending—where there is no humanity offered, only irredeemability. To drive the point home, he annotated on the script that “both barrels” of the shotgun were to be fired point blank—for one final wipeout.
Terry’s most significant contribution to the film was his invention of the George Hanson character. Originally written for Terry’s best friend, actor Rip Torn [note: R.I.P. Rip!], Torn was appearing in a Jack Gelber play at the time (Terry’s other best friend) and could not commit to the film’s schedule. Nicholson stepped in, and his pitch-perfect, inspired inhabitation of Terry’s character launched his career.
Contrary to much of what has been said about the Nicholson character, Terry always maintained that he modeled it after the country-lawyer in Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust: Gavin Stevens. As critics have commented since the film’s release, Easy Rider “finds it legs” when George enters the story. The heart of the film opens around the campfire scene, when the three pass a joint and talk about Life. The truth-telling tone, and ‘plain-speaking’ Southern Gothic quality in the dialogue was also informed by Terry’s 1967 story “Red Dirt Marijuana” (published in Evergreen), in which the young white boy, Hal, and the family’s black farmhand riff on life and pot:
Hal: How come it’s against the law if it’s so all-fired good?
CK: Well, now, I use to study ‘bout that myself… It ain’t because it make young boys like you sick, I tell you that much!
Hal: Well, what the heck is it then?
CK: I tell you what it is… it’s ‘cause a man see too much when he git high, that’s what. He see right through ever’thing…. You understan’ what I say?
Hal: What the heck are you talkin’ about C.K.?
CK: Well, maybe you too young to know what I talkin’ ‘bout–but I tell you they’s a lotta trickin’ an’ lyin’ go on in the world… they’s a lotta ole bull-crap go on in the world… well, a man git high, he see right through all them tricks an’ lies, an’ all that ole bull-crap. They see right through there into the truth of it!
Hal: Truth of what?
Compare that with the campfire scene dialogue:
George: You know, this used to be a helluva good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.
Billy: Huh. Man, everybody got chicken, that’s what happened, man. Hey, we can’t even get into like, uh, second-rate hotel, I mean, a second-rate motel. You dig? They think we’re gonna cut their throat or something, man. They’re scared, man.
George: Oh, they’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent to ’em.
Billy: Hey man. All we represent to them, man, is somebody needs a haircut.
George: Oh no. What you represent to them is freedom.
Billy: What the hell’s wrong with freedom, man? That’s what it’s all about.
George: Oh yeah, that’s right, that’s what it’s all about, all right. But talkin’ about it and bein’ it— that’s two different things. I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace.
While Terry was on-set in May of 1968 for the New Orleans shoot, by August, he was on the front-lines of social change. Along with William Burroughs and Jean Genet, Terry covered the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago for Esquire. The event drew scores of people of draftable age from across the country, and (as Abbie Hoffman advised) “anyone who smokes pot.” The hippies, Yippies and black solidarity movements were unified to protest against the Vietnam War, and show the world that young Americans would not accept a pro-war Democratic candidate for President. “Yippies had a two-point program,” as David Spaner has written, “turn straights into freaks [and] turn freaks into revolutionaries.” The protesters’ heads were bashed-in nightly during Mayor Daley’s police riots—the shocking brutality a mosaic of smoke and hatred captured on nightly television news. Terry called it a glimpse of “democracy-in-action, Machiavelli/Gestapo-style,” and from that moment on he wore his long hair and a sported peace symbols.
It wasn’t just youth-culture he adopted—it was Beat and jive talk, as he’d picked up in Greenwich Village and in the jazz clubs of New York and Paris. He never stopped using ‘hep cat talk’ like “you dig?”, “man!” and “groovy.” These phrases recur throughout Easy Rider script, and though the argot may seem anachronistic, Terry was one of the few white people who could pull it off, another one being Terry’s ‘iron-in-the-soul’ comrade: Lenny Bruce.
In Easy Rider, “doing your own thing,” is a state of mind, and no one captures the spirit better than when a transcendant Fonda, whose eyes seem to sanctify in splendor and positivism everything he sees, says “I’m getting my thing together.” The performance is pitch-perfect, as is Hopper’s madcap (“I’m from New York!”) antithesis: he as the high-strung Billy is constantly worried, complaining and freaked out. “Doing my thing” echoes the Existential modes that most shaped Terry in 1950s Europe, where one’s actions and ‘works’ (as opposed to words) were all that ultimately counted. So pervasive was the meme, that even Barbarella’s marketing slogan was “see Barbarella do her thing!”
Terry turned the cliché on its head in End of the Road, when Dr. D, played by James Earl Jones explains to Stacey Keach’s character that his patients at the Farm for Psychic Remobilization were all “doing their thing”—including the assassin with fake sniper’s rifle, and the couples practicing ‘free love’ (and bestiality!) on the hospital lawn—healing themselves in the process, through “mythotherapy”. It’s still a radical notion that many of Terry’s later (unfilmed) scripts explore: the idea of addressing society’s ills by allowing those predisposed to violence and aberration to act out their impulses in a controlled environment.
The producers and directors who hired Terry throughout his film career (including Fonda and Hopper) knew what they wanted from him: a caustic, uncompromising vision that took no prisoners. Terry’s films each have devastating finales: Strangelove ends with Man’s foolish destruction of the world and all its inhabitants; The Cincinnati Kid with the gambler’s total personal and professional ruin (plus it’s raining); End of the Road ends with the death of the only female character from a botched abortion with the men unceremoniously dumping her into a lake. The Loved One ends with space-burial, in a salute to American self-aggrandizement. Easy Rider’s ending was so powerful in the context of 1969, it inspired audience-members to jump out of their seats and shout “NO!” at the screen when the idealist-dreamers are blown away. It was a cinematic implosion of the ‘60s idealism—a dark perspective on the turbulent era that in many ways began with Dr. Strangelove.
‘But weren’t hippies cool?’ I can see young people asking now; ‘Why would people want to kill them?’ Like today, the culture-wars were running hot, reeling from the assassinations of 1968, the FBI’s surveillance and infiltration of the Civil Rights/Peace movements, and the long-running lie of the “de-escalation” of the Vietnam War. Cultural divisions played out in ways not unlike the stark polarities in Charlottesville and espoused by President Trump. Today, strength in numbers defines affiliations and media-garnering potential, but in 1969, one could still make a difference and make a statement—as an individual, by, for instance, wearing long hair, and, as I did, marching with ‘Peace Now’ and ‘Freak Out!’ buttons bedecked on ponchos, jeans and vests.
I wonder what young people today will make of the bike-riding travelogue scenes of road-tripping through America, and whether they’ll notice how the impoverished black sharecropper neighborhoods captured in the Deep South of 1968 look horrifyingly like many of today’s cities in Illinois, Iowa and the abandoned Rust Belt.
When my father collapsed on his way to teach screenwriting at Columbia University at age 71, I flew back from Boulder, Colo., to be with him. During the two days of his intensive care, he came around, fully conscious and engaging with his humorous riffing (“what we need now is nurse and derrick”)—convinced that all he needed was to somehow get out of there. After his death, his longtime partner, Gail Gerber, gave me his jacket, and in his breast pocket was a scrap of yellow foolscap. Terry had begun writing about Easy Rider in anticipation of the BBC interview that, unfortunately, never happened. The handwritten note said:
[It’s] the story of the disintegration of an entire culture (the American culture in the 1960s) through alienation and despair—a culture so ravaged by hatred and paranoia that like birds of prey or a flock of barnyard chickens they are compelled to destroy their own kind if the least difference or trace of indissimilarity is discerned in any one of them.
The story reaches its grotesque inevitable conclusion when the two gentle and free-spirited protagonists are blown away for no better reason than a Newt Gingrich-type objection to their long hair.
Terry’s condemnation of Gingrich, the leader of the Republican Party at the time, stands in stark contrast to Dennis Hopper’s staunch endorsement of the Republicans and support of the Gulf War during the Bush years. Terry believed in a pacifist government in service of the people, not corporations, and in a satirical piece for In These Times, described the party’s henchmen: Sam Nunn, Bob Dole, Phil Graham, Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms as the “Proud as Punch Nitwits”:
Their regard for government suggests nothing so much as the reaction of Pleistocene Man when confronted with that first stone scoop of fire: scuttling crabwise away from it, grimacing crazily, eyes agog, arms akimbo, fending it off in grotesque squeals and grunts of animal panic.
Easy Rider still speaks to those who believe, as Ringo puts it succinctly today, in “PEACE AND LOVE”, and who aspire to not only reject the rat race, but to address climate chaos and what Terry used to call the “boss weirdness and monstro corruption” in our government. Easy Rider also addresses in lyrical fashion the divide we’re seeing today between the old-guard and youthful idealists; as in the schism unfolding within the Democratic Party where the newest, youngest and most diverse members of Congress stand behind a Green New Deal, rejecting any old-school ‘party boss’ preservation of the status-quo.
While Terry became known as the ‘dark knight’ of screenwriters, he used to quip, “so long as you have a toe-tapping song at the end—you can go as dark as you want.” Easy Rider ends with 20 seconds of deafening silence, followed by the strains of Roger McGuinn performing Dylan’s “Ballad of Easy Rider”—written for the film:
The river flows, it flows to the sea
Wherever that river goes that’s where I want to be
Flow river flow, let your waters wash down
Take me from this road to some other town.