Bar chords

Harry Dean Stanton sings--but then, he always has

Answering the door of his Los Angeles home on Mulholland Drive, perched between the Valley and the sky, Harry Dean Stanton appears as he has for decades--a bit ragged but surprisingly sturdy, stubble on a wilting chin, rumpled clothes over a thin frame. His hair, which lies back on his head, is young-man dark; and his eyes, whether at half-mast or full-stare, always seem to be looking for something...else. Harry Dean Stanton--America's preeminent character actor of the 1980s and a longtime soldier on Hollywood's second line--does not say much, and his handshake is like air. He can't be bothered, maybe because he doesn't have to be.

His home--this sanctuary that was spoiled last year when Stanton was pistol-whipped and robbed by two thugs who later pleaded no contest to felony charges--is simple enough, populated mostly by old photos of Stanton with Hollywood friends and anonymous pals. Boxes of Marlboros and Camels sit on a table, kept together in a simple basket. A black-and-white monitor keeps vigilant guard over the driveway.

Perched in the corner of Stanton's den are a couple of microphone stands and amps, and a guitar case lies nearby, in front of the fireplace. A book of Bob Dylan lyrics lies open on the table in front of the couch, and next to it is a boxed set of old blues songs. Faxed lyrics of a few other songs are scattered on the table--like scripts before a veteran actor, they are words Stanton might learn before his upcoming gig at Jack's Sugar Shack or some lowdown L.A. bar.

Stanton, you must understand, is not merely an aging actor with the modicum of fame afforded veterans. He is also a musician--a man with knowledge enough, talent enough, and passion enough to wear the title with the same rumpled ease with which he walks through life. Stanton has, for more than a decade, been a quiet part of Los Angeles' music community--more than another actor killing time between roles, less than someone taken seriously outside the cult of fans who wait for his monthly gigs at Jack's.

"I'm a talented singer," he will tell you, "and I don't think I can put on a bad show. I don't take it as a dilettante or as therapy. I'm serious." One need only listen to his haunting, piercing performance of the traditional Mexican ballad "Cancion Mixteca" on the Paris, Texas soundtrack to know he's not bullshitting. With Ry Cooder and David Lindley providing the quiet cantina atmosphere, Stanton crawls inside the song until Spanish seems to be his natural language; he doesn't affect the accent as much as wear it.

With his trusty guitarist Jamie James--himself a veteran of L.A.'s club scene and the ex-frontman for the Kingbees--by his side these days, Stanton doesn't really put on a show; shows, after all, have beginnings and ends, and Stanton is a man forever stuck in the middle. Stanton, the singer and would-be guitarist, is more like an old friend playing his favorite songs for you at 3 a.m.: His sets tend to wander from Gershwin standards to tattered old country songs to Mexican folk ballads. His voice isn't beautiful, but seductive in its weariness--the man sings "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" as though he wrote it yesterday.

At Jack's last month, Stanton and his band ran through--well, wobbled through, anyway, the whiskey reaching down to his knees--a set that could only be called American. It included "It Had to Be You," "House of Blue Lights," "Spanish Harlem," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," and "Choo-Choo Ch'Boogie," with a little Chuck Berry thrown in to hold the rickety shack together; there was a Mexican birthday song thrown in for a friend, some rockabilly gitar provided by the versatile James (the man's like Bondo on-stage, plugging in the holes when Stanton stops to light a smoke or dance with a pretty girl), a little bit of everything you've ever heard till it added up at the end of the night to a whole lot of something you'd never forget. It might not be flawless, but when it was all over, you were sure Stanton doesn't do this for the money, for the acclaim, or for grins. He does it because he always has.

"God, I don't even know when I started doin' it," he says, his voice somewhere between a forced whisper and a lazy growl. "In high school, we had a barbershop quartet, and I'd sing. When I started with a band, I can't remember. Different combinations, here and there. I don't know. It's just fulfilling--the sound of it, gettin' a good groove going. It's invigorating. It's just like any other performing art--you don't have to have a reason."

For about 14 years, Stanton says, he has been performing around L.A.--with different musicians, some friends and some accidental bandmates, and at different venues. In 1990, he and the Call's Michael Been embarked on a mini tour across the country; shortly after that, Stanton started performing with James. The guitarist recalls that they met when Stanton showed up at one of James' gigs at the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach; they met during a break, then Stanton sat in for a rendition of Marty Robbins' "El Paso." "Harry sang an extra verse I didn't even know existed," James says, explaining that when he did indeed consult the sheet music to find a mystery verse Robbins never recorded, "Harry won my respect right there."

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