It was 1969, and Peter Fonda needed a song for the soundtrack of his new movie Easy Rider.
The man he approached was Bob Dylan. A virtual recluse at this point, Dylan was interested enough to watch the film. Fonda asked him what he thought.
Dylan told him he didn’t like it, it had a bad ending. It wasn’t his type of film. Then he picked up a napkin and a pen and wrote a few lines:
“the river flows, it flows to the sea
wherever that river flows
that’s where I want to be, flow river flow.”
“Take that to McGuinn and he’ll fix it for you,” said Dylan.
As it happened, Peter Fonda had based the two central characters of Easy Rider — Billy, played by Dennis Hopper, and Captain America, the role he would inhabit — on Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, both founding members of The Byrds.
In the hands of McGuinn the song became The Ballad of Easy Rider. With its sense of sad resignation, it would be the perfect counterpoint for a movie that would blow America’s mind and change the way soundtracks were used in movies.
The Byrds – Ballad of Easy Rider
It says much about Peter Fonda that he could call on Dylan and The Byrds to answer his artistic call, but these were the circles he moved in.
By the time he came to make his masterpiece, he’d already been the inspiration for one of The Beatles’ greatest songs, She Said She Said, after John Lennon heard Fonda utter the line “I know what it’s like to be dead”.
What is perhaps more telling about Fonda is that he could persuade experienced film-makers to back him in making a movie about two bikers who get rich doing a cocaine deal, heading off across America looking for who knows what.
In so many ways though, Peter Fonda was the crucial link between the old straight America, old-style cinema, and a new style of film-making that swung around independent directors and script writers, willing to tell the world what was really going on in the bedrooms and streets of the nation.
Talking about the new film style being created, Fonda’s co-conspirator Dennis Hopper put it this way: “Nobody had ever seen themselves portrayed in a movie. At every love-in across the country people were smoking grass and dropping LSD, while audiences were still watching Doris Day and Rock Hudson”.
It’s easy to understand how Peter Fonda had credibility in Hollywood. What’s harder to understand is how he morphed from the son of film royalty to a counter-cultural revolutionary. In part, the answer to that lies in his father Henry, a famed actor but an emotionally absent parent.
Writing about his childhood, Peter Fonda recalled his father’s remoteness and his refusal to listen to anything his son had to say. This, he said, fuelled his own rebellion.
“It was a desire to be heard. A father who was not communicative at all. I became quite angry … and I learned it wasn’t me. I was Henry Fonda’s son. I had no idea who he was; I didn’t want to be identified that way. I was demanding to be heard on my own grounds.”
For much of the sixties he divided his time as an actor doing passable movies and playing roles in television shows like The Naked City and Wagon Train.
Inevitably though, as the decade progressed he found himself running with a crowd who had begun to feel the strictures of the Hollywood studio system were far too tight, its films fundamentally out of touch or simply exploitative.
In 1966 he made a crucial decision — taking the lead role in Roger Corman’s movie The Wild Angels. It was a B-grade film, but it launched the idea of the biker movie, and it was bankable.
A year later, along with Susan Strasberg, Bruce Dern and Dennis Hopper, he would star in another Corman film called The Trip. Written by Jack Nicholson, it was a movie that really did attempt to show the consequences of taking LSD — for better and for worse.
None of this, though, quite prepared the world for his next project, initially called The Loners — a low-budget film, shot on location using 16-millimetre cameras, that chronicled the journey of two outsiders riding motorcycles across America.
It was a project that nearly didn’t happen more than once. At one point American International Pictures threatened to replace director Dennis Hopper if he fell behind in his shooting schedule. Fortunately producer Bert Schneider stepped in, bringing Columbia Pictures with him, along with complete artistic control.
When the movie arrived in the cinemas reviews were mixed. Some dismissed it as lightweight crap, and amateur film-making. The Hollywood Reporter critic though had this to say: “It’s very likely the clearest and most disturbing representation of the estrangement of America youth to be brought to the screen”.
Crucially, the audience liked it too, opening the doors for a series of independent movies directed by young film-makers, including Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show and Two Lane Blacktop.
In the years that followed Peter Fonda would make other movies, including The Hired Hand and Ulee’s Gold, which won him an Academy Award nomination for acting.
There’s little doubt though that Easy Rider is the movie that Peter Fonda is remembered for, and for good reason.
(WARNING: Contains images of drug use): Easy Rider’s opening scene
Some 50 years on, there are those that see it as a curious film; a kind of period piece. For others it’s the story that matters, a story that has crucial relevance today. Forget the bikes and the hippies and see it instead as an allegory of America. Two guys doing a questionable business deal, using it to fund their search for experience and meaning only to find the deal they did took them on a road leading nowhere.
In so many ways it challenges everything that America rests on.
Towards the end of the film Peter Fonda’s character looks back on their journey and says simply: “We blew it”.
Asked about this just before his death, the actor said the line of script was intended for all generations, then added this pointed comment.
“Go look out the window and tell me we haven’t blown it.”
Mark Bannerman is a freelance journalist.