So Long, Easy Rider

R.I.P. Peter Fonda

Get your motor runnin’, head out on the highway … ” So growls John Kay, vocalist for the rock band Steppenwolf, in one of the opening songs from the movie Easy Rider, which Peter Fonda, who died last week, co-wrote. Although Fonda’s career spanned 50-plus years, he will perhaps be remembered—rightly so—for this piece of cinema which debuted in 1969, a seminal year for all things cultural in America.

Easy Rider bore little resemblance to the light-hearted and laugh-filled buddy/road movies that preceded it. No, this road trip opened us up to America’s “heart of darkness” and, like a laser beam, focused national attention on the disintegration of culture that was occurring—and highlighting what was still to come. As the two “bad boy” main characters glide and roar across the badlands of this country in their two-wheeled chariots, they encounter various characters and fellow travelers. From the wastelands of Los Angeles, where a drug deal is struck; to the high deserts of New Mexico, where a generation seeks alternative ways of living; to New Orleans, Mardi Gras and acid-tripping; to the South, where bigotry and violence are on display; we watch our screen heroes attempt to make sense—while continually inhabiting altered states of consciousness—of the forces pressing in around them.

Fonda was an actor and an auteur. This movie alone is sufficient to bring ongoing applause and accolades, for breaking new ground in personal filmmaking through a strong narrative and the use of improvisation beyond the script. Include a powerful soundtrack, yet another revolutionary device, and you have a film that is both a historical document of the times and still amazingly relevant today. It’s a small, independent film that tells an epic tale.

E.G. Singer lives in Santa Rosa. We welcome your contribution. To have your topical essay of 350 words considered for publication, write [email protected].

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