‘Easy Rider’: A music blogger’s short tribute to Peter Fonda (1940-2019)

(August 17, 2019).  Legendary actor Peter Fonda died Friday of respiratory failure in Los Angeles.  He was 79.

The actor will be forever remembered for roles he played in films from the 1960s, 70s, 80s and beyond.  Whether by writing, producing or acting, Fonda’s contributions to the motion picture industry are immeasurable.

Peter Fonda (1940-2019), pictured on the soundtrack to his classic 1969 film, Easy Rider.

Fonda was also known for his family lineage of actors.  His father (and middle namesake) Henry was an Academy Award-winning actor, as was his sister, Jane, who won two Oscars in the 1970s.  His daughter Bridgette acted in films as well.

Peter, however, was a multi-talented anomaly who was nominated not only for his acting (for Ulee’s Gold In 1997), but for a screenplay he co-wrote in the 1960s, one that has been considered a classic nearly ever since.

It was at the age of 29 that he co-wrote, produced and starred in the film that was arguably his life’s crowning achievement, Easy Rider, a movie about a set of drug-influenced hippies who trek across America in a music-filled, motorcycle ride through some of the country’s greatest landscapes while encountering some of its ugliest bigotry.

Fonda, whose counter-cultural character was named Wyatt (aka Captain America), starred alongside Dennis Hopper (the long-haired Billy), with the two later joined by Jack Nicholson’s lawyer character, George.  Co-written by Fonda, Hopper and Terry Southern, the film was a hit that earned $40 million at the box office (remember, this was 1969).

As important to the movie as the storyline was the soundtrack – a rock music masterpiece ironically released 50 years ago this month (August 1, 1969).  Many of the song selections were reportedly overseen by Fonda, who had developed a unique, late-1960s liaison with some of music’s elite (like the Beatles, as legend has it).  Easy Rider thus featured contributions by some of the biggest names at the time.

On the soundtrack were contemporary acts like Steppenwolf (the perfectly picked “Born To Be Wild” and “The Pusher”) and The Fraternity of Man (the country-tinged “Don’t Bogart That Joint”), plus future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Jimi Hendrix (“If 6 was 9”) and the Byrds (“Wasn’t Born To Follow”).  Also making songwriting contributions were activist Bob Dylan and the legendary team of Carole King/Gerry Goffin.

But the Easy Rider album was as much a story of the failed attempts at securing artists and original songs as it was about the countercultural movement it embraced.

In Dylan’s case, one of his songs, 1965’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” was re-recorded for the film by The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, after Fonda couldn’t secure the licensing rights for the Dylan original.  Dylan also played into another song on the soundtrack, its titular tune “Ballad of Easy Rider,” the only original tune from the album that was released as a single.

Dylan was given a co-writer credit on “Ballad,” although he reportedly tried, after seeing a screening of the film, to denounce his role in the song’s creation, which ironically came about as a result of Fonda’s failed recruitment efforts to get Dylan to directly contribute.  Dylan referred Fonda to McGuinn, who wound up writing and recording “Ballad.”

Another classic tune Fonda tried to secure for the film was “The Weight” by The Band.  Actually, their original was used in the film but could not be included in the soundtrack, due again to failed licensing attempts.  

As a result, a suitable alternative was found in a Los Angeles blues-rock band known simply as Smith.  Their version was the third song on the ten-track album.

Notable among the ten tunes was Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9,” the bluesy-turned-unstructured jam session of a song that epitomized the countercultural hippy theme that Fonda and Co. were trying to capture for the movie.  It famously ended with Hendrix playing freestyle flute during the outro, although the instrument of choice has been debated over the years. 

The ten songs on the Easy Rider Soundtrack, with The Band’s original “The Weight” included.

Collectively, all these songs played as a musical accompaniment to the main characters’ weed-induced ride through the southwestern U.S. while they “searched for America.”  The songs, which were particularly ballad-heavy, told their story nearly as poignantly as the screenplay did.

In a year full of great soundtracks, like Midnight Cowboy, Hair (released the previous year, but charting well into 1969), True Grit, Romeo and Juliet, Funny Girl and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Easy Rider proved to be a great year-end capper.  The album first reached the top ten in December 1969, and bounced in and out of the top ten well into 1970, peaking at No. 6 that May (a rebound no-doubt induced by the film’s Oscar nominations).

But what was more impressive was the company the Easy Rider album kept in the top ten.

Just look at this impressive list of Billboard’s top-ten albums early in Easy Rider’s chart run (week ending December 20, 1969):

1Abbey RoadBeatles 
2Led Zeppelin IILed Zeppelin 
3Live in Las VegasTom Jones 
4Green River Creedence Clearwater Revival 
5Let It BleedThe Rolling Stones 
6Puzzle People The Temptations 
7Santana Santana 
8Blood, Sweat & TearsBlood, Sweat & Tears
9Crosby, Stills & NashCrosby, Stills & Nash
10Easy RiderMovie Soundtrack 

The competition didn’t get much tougher than that for any album, let alone a hodgepodge soundtrack of songs from a variety of artists curated by a Hollywood actor like Fonda.

That was a testimony to his keen musical insight, one not often talked about when discussing the man who often existed in the shadows of his arguably more famous sister and father.

But neither of them could lay claim to a film like Easy Rider, a classic work whose soundtrack was as essential to the film as the script itself.

Fonda had a hand in both, and this blog remembers him and his classic on the day after his passing. 

R.I.P. Peter Fonda (February 23, 1940 – August 16, 2019).

DJRob

Heavyweight Billboard chart with Easy Rider in the top ten.

DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.

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