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The eye (and ear) of Dennis Hopper

EASYRIDER-SPTI-14.tifWhat I remember about hearing “The Weight” for the first time in 1968 was how timeless it sounded, how completely beyond all normal ideas of pop-music chronology. Although it was only just over four and a half minutes long, it somehow appeared to occupy a much more extended time-frame: longer, in a strange but true way, than the extended jams that were all the rage in the parallel universe of blues-rock and psychedelia. And in terms of style, it sounded as though the Band might have begun playing it in the previous century, and could very well continue into the next one.

Taking its place in The Lost Album, an exhibition of Dennis Hopper’s photographs currently on show at the Royal Academy in London, it becomes literally timeless. Hopper’s 400 black and white images — original prints on board, uniform in their modest size, with the tonal warmth and small marks of age that make looking at them like listening to vinyl — are divided between several large rooms, and in the middle comes a change of pace: the spectator stands on what amounts to a balcony, looking across a space on a lower floor at a projection of scenes from Hopper’s Easy Rider on the opposite wall. The accompanying music, configured in an endless loop, is Jaime Robbie Robertson’s masterpiece, seamlessly repeating without end, at least until the exhibition closes.

The song can stand it. You hear it first in the distance, and you want to get closer. When you’ve watched the film montage a couple of times, you move on — and although the music recedes, it won’t go away. To begin with, you wonder why the curator didn’t add a few more songs featured on the Easy Rider soundtrack. Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher”, perhaps, or the Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born to Follow”. But it’s a clever way of encouraging you to stay long enough to absorb what the exhibition wants you to see, while discouraging you from taking root. (On a second visit, I noticed that the volume had been turned down.)

Hopper was at his best as a photographer when making portraits of artists and art-world people in the early ’60s: there is something assured and definitive about the beautifully composed studies of Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and others. His pictures from civil rights demonstrations lack the dynamism other photohgraphers brought to the same subject, or that of his own images from the celebrated Sunset Strip riots of 1967. His abstract images, too, are unexceptional, but there are some nice photographs of hippies in Los Angeles and San Francisco, of Hell’s Angels, of bull fights in Mexico, and of bands: the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane. And it’s always nice to hear “The Weight” again, and again, and again.

* Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album is at the Royal Academy, Burlington Gardens, London W1 until October 19. Easy Rider and The Last Movie are regularly screened in full as part of the exhibition.


9 Comments Post a comment
  1. John Harvey #

    Richard : I have a Hopper photograph showing the words BAD HEART fading into the brickwork of a wall, which I bought at an exhibition at the old Midland Group in Nottingham way back. It’s on the wall in front of my desk as I write.


    July 8, 2014
    • What an excellent purchase that was, John — and prescient, too, although I doubt that you bought it for investment reasons, as people tend to do nowadays…

      July 8, 2014
  2. Kevin Cheeseman #

    The soundtrack to Easy Rider was one of the first LPs I bought (I would have been 14 or 15yrs old) and it was actually key in introducing me to various bands. On the LP, The Weight is covered by some band called Smith, for some contractual reason, I guess. It took me longer than it should to discover The Band, therefore, but that was just paradise deferred.
    I trust they use the real thing in the Hopper exhibition.

    July 8, 2014
    • It was indeed a contractual thing. I guess Albert Grossman wouldn’t agree to the terms for the soundtrack album, although the original was used in the film itself. And it’s the original they’re playing in the gallery.

      July 8, 2014
  3. John Pidgeon #

    I’ve been trying to buy or at the very least view The Last Movie to no avail for years. I saw it when it came out, but then it disappeared. Rights issues? I recall it was as fascinating as it was flawed, but long overdue a second look.

    July 8, 2014
  4. I long ago came to the conclusion that The Band were really all born about 75 years earlier than any of their contemporaries and somehow suspended in time until they reached their mid-twenties and came out of hibernation to make Big Pink. They didn’t just sound like that but looked like it too. So many times in the last eight years I’ve been in my local pub on a Friday night and the band, duo or bloke with a guitar has pulled into Nazareth, feelin’ about half past dead.

    July 9, 2014
    • John Pidgeon #

      I was at Mevagissey Fish Festival a couple of Sundays ago, when my old pal Willie Wilson, once of Quiver, sang that very line with his band.

      July 10, 2014
  5. Rumour has it there are several versions of The Last Movie extant, so no guarantees you might see the same version I did. I saw it in the late 80s and highly recommend it to anyone who wants an experience like nothing else in a cinema. There are at least 3 different films fighting to be seen. A scene will end and the next scene is from a completely different story, with new characters mixed with some of the ones from before. Its like Hopper got bored with the story he was telling and just started a new one. Some scenes make no sense whatsoever; others are fantastic in visual framing, ideas, and acting. The location is at such a high altitude the sky is dark blue and the colours heightened (it looks beautiful) – I wonder if the lack of oxygen contributed to the craziness, on top of the prodigious amount of drugs consumed. It’s a very well made film, though out of and off its head. And it is not boring.

    July 10, 2014
  6. I enjoyed the civil rights movement photos more than the portraits, personally. He certainly was great at composition though, with portraits, landscapes and group shots. And I agree, hearing The Weight over and over again in the background was great. Never got tiring – how many songs could you hear that many times and still say that about?

    July 21, 2014

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