The eye (and ear) of Dennis Hopper
What 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.