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."

Like most Hollywood veterans--those who arrived in the '50s, lived it up during the '60s and '70s, then toned it down come the '80s and '90s--Stanton's affiliation with the rock culture goes back decades. He dropped Owsley acid at the Monterey Pop Festival with the Beatles' and Byrds' press agent, Derek Taylor; he had a bit part in the 1972 film Cisco Pike, in which he played Kris Kristofferson's manic, drug-crazed former bandmate, and he and Kristofferson also made Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid together the next year. Stanton can also be seen with Bette Midler in 1979's The Rose, with James Taylor in 1971's Two-Lane Blacktop, and in 1978's tripped-up and tripped-out Renaldo and Clara making out with Joan Baez, for whom he traded Bob Dylan a horse. Stanton was on the fringes so long, it was inevitable he'd leap into the fray himself.

Stanton was born July 14, 1926, in West Irvine, Kentucky; he recalls a childhood spent listening to Jimmie Rodgers, the most famous of country music's yodelers. "His songs were black blues, actually, which he picked up working on the railroad," Stanton says, providing his variation on history. "He was really the first recording artist--I mean, the first one who really sold. It just occurred to me a lot of his lyrics and his whole approach--aside from the yodeling--was very strongly black and a mixture of black and white styles. I wasn't aware of that as a kid, and neither were the country people who listened to it." He laughs. "They probably would have been pissed off, especially the Southern racists, when they realized he was singing black music."

Stanton himself didn't much care for country as a kid. He was a self-proclaimed snob, he admits, especially after he became "educated" (he attended the University of Kentucky); he wanted nothing more than to wash the hometown dust from his clothes. He sang in his high school barbershop quartet, performed in the glee club, and when he joined the Navy to serve in World War II, he also sang in the military choir. He sang Brahms and disavowed the rural music of his youth. He didn't even pick up a guitar until the 1960s--after he moved to Hollywood, appeared in episodes of Gunsmoke and Combat, and started showing up in such films as The Proud Rebel, How the West Was Won, and Michael Curtiz's version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And even now, he doesn't know why he bought a guitar--only that he did.

He considered pursuing a career in music. But he wound up at the Pasadena Playhouse in the years after the war, hot after a career in Hollywood. He figured if he wanted to sing somewhere down the road, it wouldn't be so hard to do--as an actor.

"I figured if I was an actor, I could do it all," he explains, lighting up another smoke. "It was a pretty obvious choice. I wanted to be in films. I was never addicted to or married to the stage--the theater--although I started out on stage and can do theater. But it takes too much time, and also you get a bigger audience as an actor. I did a Gunsmoke and a bunch of those things in the '60s, and when you do one Gunsmoke, well, at that time 60 million people saw it. You do plays for two or three lifetimes, you don't get that many people....

"These days, I've got people interested in me makin' records--I just haven't done anything about it. I'd like to do a couple of songs instead of going for an album. Just two songs as a single or something. Do they still do that?"

Stanton, who prefers performing his favorite old songs to writing his own new ones, hasn't often been asked to sing in films; he can be heard briefly in Cool Hand Luke, and he explains that he and James wrote a song they performed during a party sequence from last year's pitiable Down Periscope, but the scene was excised from the movie. He says he does have a singing role in the new Steven Seagal film, and he'll be joined by the likes of country singer Mark Collie, Delta Dawn author Alex Harvey, and his old buddy Kristofferson. "Seagal's made a departure," Stanton says with a knowing smile, "mixing his action genre films with a bunch of old musicians."

Stanton's film resume now reads like that of any hard-working actor who has spent most of a lifetime on Hollywood soil. It's pockmarked with its share of undeniable masterworks (Alien; Straight Time; Repo Man; Paris, Texas; and a bit part in The Godfather, Part II), noble misfires (The Missouri Breaks, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Fool for Love), and regrettable detritus (Young Doctors in Love, Dream a Little Dream, Down Periscope, and many more). This year alone, he will appear not only in Seagal's film, but alongside Sean Penn and John Travolta in Nick Cassavetes' She's De Lovely. Yet Stanton has always been overpowering even when walking through the shit; he remains, as Roger Ebert once wrote of his performance in Paris, Texas, "the most forlorn and angry of all great American character actors."

Even were he a lousy singer, he would be hard to dismiss; even were he a lousy guitar player, he would be hard to ignore. Standing on a tiny nightclub stage within the drab tropical decadence of Jack's Sugar Shack, Stanton seems at one with the decay. He's not just a big-screen actor shrunk to size, not just another celebrity sighting, not just a famous man marking time. He's just--just!--a singer fronting a bar band at Hollywood and Vine, the perfect tour guide to lead you around the corner to where the world starts...and where it seems to dead-end.

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