40 Years Out: “Easy Rider”
“You know, this used to be a helluva good country. I don’t understand what went wrong with it.” – Jack Nicholson, in Easy Rider
While we’re celebrating events of 1969 this year, it would be a shame to forget the movie Easy Rider. Perhaps the most famous road movie of all time, it was a touchstone of the era and a landmark in American moviemaking. You should know the story: two rebels hit the road to discover America as it was in the late 1960s. They encounter everything from happy hippies in a country commune to angry rednecks in a Louisiana diner.
The movie broke new ground in its primitive production techniques, after the French New Wave (Truffaut) and in its then-innovative use of already recorded rock songs on the soundtrack. Even though many of the people who worked on the movie, including stars Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper (who also directed) and Jack Nicholson, are still alive and working, much about the movie’s production has passed into mythology so it’s tough to pick out the truth among the tall tales.
We know this much: the soundtrack forever tied Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” with motorcycle riding, the movie made Jack Nicholson a star and Easy Rider created the independent film industry. Stephen Stills was asked by Hopper to write a song for the movie – he wrote “Find The Cost Of Freedom,” but it wasn’t used. It later became the flip side of “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Bob Dylan was also asked to write a song, but he didn’t want to. Instead, he dashed off a few lines and asked to have them delivered to Roger McGuinn, who then wrote and performed “Ballad of Easy Rider” heard over the closing credits.
Easy Rider reflected the disillusionment and cynicism that grew out of the end of the 1960s. It pulled back the curtain on America’s myth of freedom and suggested that greed, prejudice and violence are the result when we forget the best of ourselves. It also provided later generations a clear window to the era, a window unshaded by revisionism and hippie-daze nostalgia.
Easy Rider actually came out in July 1969 and was a hit in its time. They’re releasing a 40th anniversary DVD this month with all kinds of extras, and surely the film will be run on cable TV someplace. If you never have seen it, you owe it to yourself.
Three songs that appeared in the movie did not show up on the official soundtrack: “The Weight,” by the Band, “Flash, Bam, Pow” by Electric Flag and “Let’s Turkey Trot” by Little Eva. A cover version of “The Weight” actually appeared on the soundtrack album, and we include the other two here.
Sound Bite: Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider
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