Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Singing for the Love of Singing: Harry Dean Stanton's Partly Fiction

Director David Lynch and Harry Dean Stanton.

Harry Dean Stanton? He’s that actor right? (Yes, over 200 movies.) And now they’ve made a documentary about him. It’s called Partly Fiction because Kris Kristofferson wrote this lyric, and maybe it’s about Stanton. It certainly seems to describe him:

He's a poet, he's a picker
He's a prophet, he's a pusher
He's a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he's stoned
He's a walkin' contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction,
Takin' ev'ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home.

I watched the trailer for the film, and when asked by David Lynch how he would describe himself, Stanton replies, “As nothing. There is no self.” Lynch presses, “How would you like to be remembered?” and Stanton says, “Doesn’t matter.” Throughout the trailer, and I assume the rest of the film, Harry Dean Stanton maintains the same attitude. He does the least possible in his films and perhaps in his life. I saw him on a TV special one time, I think it might have been a tribute to Jack Nicholson, and he sang with Art Garfunkel. I remember the event, vaguely, but I recall no specifics. Just that I watched it. I remembered it, but not well. I think Stanton would be pleased.

Perhaps Sam Shepard got it right when he wrote the screenplay for Stanton’s lead role in the film Paris, Texas (1984).

(the first page of Sam Shepard’s script for Paris, Texas.)


A fissured, empty, almost lunar landscape—seen from a bird’s-eye view. The camera hovers over it. In the distance, a lone man appears; he is crossing this desert.

A hawk lands on a boulder.

The man stops, looks at the bird.
Then he drinks the last drops of water from a large plastic bottle. He is wearing a cheap Mexican suit, a red baseball cap, and sandals with bandages wrapped around them. His clothes are covered with dust and soaked with sweat. He has been walking for a long time.

This is Travis.

Travis throws away the empty plastic bottle, and continues on his way across the bleak, hot plains that lie before him.

Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas.

Stanton is the man, in the red baseball cap, a cheap Mexican suit, and sandals with bandages wrapped around them. He is covered with dust, soaked in sweat, but he keeps walking. He is now 87 years old. He has kept walking for a long time. And now he has released his first LP, Partly Fiction (Omnivore Recordings, 2014). Oh, it’s available on CD, and mp3s too, but it really suits the LP format. Closeup photo of HDS peering from the dark, on 12 inches of heavy cardboard. Open the sleeve and there are a few other black and white pictures, but not a lot of text. Just enough to tell you that Don Was plays bass on a couple songs, and Jamey James plays guitar. Take the record out and it’s on a beautiful slab of orange vinyl. If you want to know who wrote the songs, you need to read the label. But read it later, first slap this thing on the turntable and listen.

There’s a little bit of chatter, after all, it’s a soundtrack album. It belongs with the film of the same name directed by Sophie Huber. The chatter is crucial to an appreciation of the album. Stanton says, “I don’t have to do a performance.” It’s not a question, but a statement. The tape rolls, and Jamey James begins an easy strum and then Stanton starts to sing. His timing is a bit off, his phrasing unique, his voice aged but true. This is a document of a moment in time, not what we usually think of as an album. And yet it’s honest, raw, even primitive as true to the song as Roy Orbison’s version. So when the next song comes along, and it’s a rendition of “Everybody’s Talkin’” you wonder if he’s toying with us. Taking on Orbison, Nilsson…what’s he doing? David Lynch writes in the brief liner note that “Everybody’s Talkin’” is his favourite song, and Stanton’s version brings him to tears. Harry Dean introduces it as “a heroin song.” He reaches for a falsetto, and hits it right on. He hits the meaning too.

This is the sound of a couple of guys in a living room singing and playing. Now you look at the photos again and notice that they are all pictures of Stanton’s house, probably all around the room where James and Stanton sang these songs. James is a long-time friend, who has played guitar in a couple of Stanton’s bands. Harry Dean likes to put together a band (The Harry Dean Stanton Band) and play Mexican songs in local watering holes. The next track is one of those Mexican songs, “Cancion Mixteca” which he sang in Paris, Texas. James was a founding member of The Kingbees, a Canadian retro-rock band from the ‘80s, but his guitar playing here is little more than strumming. He tosses in the odd harmony, and Harry Dean blows some harmonica. It’s harmonica that leads off his version of “When I Get My Reward” and the harmony is sweet.

Harry Dean talks between each track, maintaining the illusion of the documentary, but the truth is, by now we’re waiting to hear what he’ll cover next. It’s Chuck Berry! “Promised Land”! He misses a cue in this one, but Jamey waits for him, and you almost believe he did it on purpose…perhaps it’s to catch his breath since he does it again. Do these songs refer to movies? After all…wasn’t he the gay hitchhiker trying to get to the promised land in Two-Lane Blacktop? He sang gospel songs with Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, he even played the apostle Paul in The Last Temptation of Christ, but I’m not sure which of the selections echoes back to that one! Maybe it’s “He’ll Have To Go.”

Harry Dean Stanton with director Sophie Huber.

When he sings Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” you believe he might actually need help! In 1996, he was at home when burglars broke in. They stole some electronic gear, and his Lexus, and pistol-whipped him in the process. When he does “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain,” he claims the song back from Willie Nelson. His phrasing is just as unique but there’s an additional sadness to his voice that enables the listener to picture those tears running down the crags in Harry Dean’s cheeks, especially when his voice cracks on the last line.

The album concludes with a trio of sad songs. “Tennessee Whiskey,” “Hands On the Wheel” and “Danny Boy” simply put the cap on the whole project. The performances are not performances, they are simply the reflection of a life in music, singing for the love of singing. Song selection? Favourites. Songs he loves and remembers. Some he doesn’t remember completely and he admits, “there’s some mistakes in there…but leave ‘em in.” Director Sophie Huber replies, “It doesn’t matter,” echoing Stanton’s own philosophy.

Is this an album for everybody? No, probably not. When I was listening to it the first time, someone yelled, “What is THAT?” But the more I listen to it the more I appreciate it. It’s like every night when I get home from work, and sit down with my guitar, open a songbook and sing a few old songs, it makes me feel good. Harry Dean Stanton’s voice may be homely and lived in, but it’s not worn out. He can carry a tune, and he can certainly share an emotion. This “walking contradiction may be partly fiction, but it’s also partly truth.” Don’t forget that.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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