Summer of Sanitized Sugar-coated Nostalgia
by Sam Richardson
Note: This was written in 2009. Hopper is gone, now, but Taos still continues to struggle with its identity as it tries to reinvent itself during troubled times. Looking back, those confused, ambiguous days (or daze) of the sixties now seem manageable and fun.

Taos’ “Summer of Love” promotion, now in its third month, has kicked up a little sand around the village. The event has drawn record crowds to the Harwood Museum where actor/artist Dennis Hopper curated a show of contemporary art, which tripled attendance, according to the museum director. It has generated interest in art criticism and has been controversial as well.

Hopper, a one-time Taos resident, the actor who played so many roles considered to be close to the man himself—Billy in “Easy Rider,” Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet,” the photojournalist in “Apocalypse Now”—returned to Taos to a hero’s welcome for the opening of the “Summer” and later for a panel discussion chaired by art critic Dave Hickey.

The sixties bad boy who lived here after the filming of “Easy Rider” once owned the Mabel Dodge Lujan House, operated an art gallery and, during the post-Easy Rider period, filmed a debauched documentary called “The American Dreamer.” The doc, which had no plot, was sort of a cinema verité run and shoot thing that showed a lot of skin and people smoking dope. Alas, it has been lost.

Some say Hopper wasn’t that popular in Taos at the time of his residency and that he said unkind things about the place when he left. One local argues that Hopper gave drugs and liquor to Indians and Chicanos, then complained they hung around like leaches. Others enjoyed the hooch and hemp and say a good time was had by all. There doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut picture of Hopper the Taoseño.

The actual “Summer of Love,” or should we say the first “Summer of Love,” was arguably 1967 when an estimated 10,000 people converged on San Francisco to jump into a melting pot of music, psychoactive drugs, sexual freedom, creative expression and politics. Others associate “THE Summer” with 1969, the year of Woodstock. Taos’ “Summer” is loosely connected to the forty-year anniversary of the filming of “Easy Rider” ('69), one small part of which was shot here.

Novelist John Nichols (“Milagro Beanfield War”), writing in Horsefly, a Taos monthly, said, “’Easy Rider’ was released in 1969. It was so not about love that I don’t understand its connection with this year of ‘The Summer of Love’ in Taos, except maybe as an elaborate gonzo joke. There’s nothing sentimental to me about smoking dope, scoring hard drugs, or getting blown away off your motorcycle by redneck bubbas. In this country, the violence always rules. But, why pick such an ugly icon to fawn over?”

Sixties Taoseños remember that Chicanos and hippies didn’t get along in ’69, the Taos Pueblo was fighting the U.S. Government over Blue Lake, there were bullet holes in store windows, and, somewhere in the mix, Dennis Hopper and his West Coast entourage were getting high, living low and shooting kinky film—but getting ready to bail on the whole scene because they’d worn it thin. Summer of Love.

All wine under the bridge, now. Hopper like many children of the sixties changed over the years. In 2000 and 2004, he contributed money to the Republican National Committee toward the election of George W. Bush. That fact alone would make him unpopular in present-day Taos, the Obámanos Bush-bashing capitol of the Southwest. But, said Hopper, he voted Democrat in the last election because he didn’t like Sarah Palin, the GOP’s nominee for Veep. Locals either didn’t know about his Republican connection or forgave the prodigal.

Three of the show’s artists—Larry Bell, Ron Cooper and Dean Stockwell—live in Taos. Their work, as well as Hopper’s own, is considered contemporary. Taos is known as more of a Southwest art kind of market but Hopper et al were, for the most part, applauded by the community in spite of their abstract artistic leanings and the debate about how much “love” there was here in the summer of ’69.

The August 1st panel discussion at the Harwood, moderated by art critic Dave Hickey, was a sellout with overflow seating where a second roomful of people watched live on a video hookup—testimony to the interest the “Summer of Love” generated. Admission was $20 per person.

Summer of Love? Summer of Hate? Call it "Summer of Sanitized Sugar-coated Nostalgia," a summer we've cleaned up in reminiscence, something a generation of venerable hippies and artists can kick around and argue about if they like but a time they can all point to and say, “I was there in the sixties, man. And we had fun. If we could only remember what we did.”

One Man’s Music

The Life and Times of Texas Songwriter Vince Bell
by Vince Bell
University of North Texas Press

Review by Sam Richardson

“One Man’s Music” is the story of an extraordinary odyssey that took Santa Fe musician and songwriter Vince Bell from the romantic life of coffee house troubadour to the moment of his death in a grinding, blindside car crash, then back to life by the grace of skilled EMTs and ER doctors.

The book is four stories in one. It begins and ends with the author’s folksy descriptions of guitars which he personifies and describes with the love and respect reserved for old dogs and watermelon wine. It is also an adventure tale of a songwriter/singer and his travels from coffee houses to beer joints and bars and, in one sequence, to a Baptist women’s school. It is a love story about how Bell met and married his wife, Sarah, who walked through difficult times with him as he recovered from the tragedy that altered his life forever. And it is the story of how Bell fought back and reinvented himself after the accident.

After the wreck, when Bell woke up from a month-long coma, he found himself in the middle of a horror movie. In rehab and barely able to function, it was like he was the central character in the film but, due to a severe brain injury, had trouble remembering what had happened in the first 32 years of the picture.

As he put his life back together, the author found he’d been T-boned at 70mph by a drunk driver in Austin, Texas and had sustained brain damage, a ruptured liver, a paralyzed vocal chord and a shattered right arm – his pickin’ arm. At first, he had trouble remembering why he was wheel chair and bed-ridden, in considerable pain at the slightest movement and, at times, who he was. It would be some time before he could remember what had gone before in his life and he still doesn’t remember the exact moment of the collision that sent him to hell with a return ticket.

Vince Bell is not only a songwriter but is comfortable on the printed page. In his world and in his book, guitars and all their idiosyncrasies have a life of their own: “The guitar you owned and played was a symbol of your vision,” he says. “It bestowed a kind of identity ... You strapped them on proudly, imposingly, daringly on your hip like a large caliber revolver.”

With his guitar riding shotgun, he describes playing dates in roadhouses and coffee houses as a solo, gigging in places like the basement of a Baptist woman’s college in West Texas, at clubs in Houston’s hip Montrose area and as part of multiple venues with marquee players like Lyle Lovett and Nancy Griffith.

On being an opening act he writes, “It was always a challenge to show up before the big seven-piece band that was the main bill and duke it out with a front row filled with impatient entertainment shoppers. Nothing between me and that brain trust but six strings and a wooden box. Now that’s swingin’ without a net.”

The thrust of “One Man’s Music” describes one man’s courageous fight to restore and reinvent himself after the collision that left him impaired. His is the heroes’ journey, much as mythologist Joseph Campbell might have described it: Bell wakes up in the belly of the beast caught between his old world and his old self and a new world, a dark unknown chasm that he must throw himself into. “I could tell that even from the strange and unfamiliar depths from which I was gloomily peering (that) it would take the best of my thoughts, the bravest of my intentions, plus tedious years of toil just to relearn how to do the simple things.”

In this book, Bell throws prudence to the wind as he documents hospital reports, details of psychiatric exams, bouts with health care professionals – many of whom didn’t understand what they were dealing with in his case – and the love and care of family and friends who walked parallel to the singer as he found his way back. It would be two years after the crash before he could play in public again and ten before he recorded an album.

“This is not a book about tragedy,” Bell says. “This is a book about getting up off the mat.” After the wreck, he ran the gauntlet of hospitals, therapists and counseling and eventually got on track with what he calls his “Music School.”

Music School was Bell working every day on his own. It was Vince writing lyrics one line at time, reconstructing licks one chord at a time and it was Vince developing his own techniques like what he calls his black book and his black bag to help organize and remember.

Things to do and things done went into the black book. Things needed for each day’s chores, from guitar picks to tooth paste, went into the black bag. At an agonizingly slow pace he moved forward.

When he got back on his feet in Austin, he moved to L.A., then to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands – a musician’s adventure tale in itself – back to L.A., then to the Bay area where he reconnected with Sarah Wrightson who he’d known in his former life and who became the love of his life and, later, his wife.

As he began to write again, Nancy Griffith recorded his song “Woman of the Phoenix.” Then Vince and Sarah flew to New York where he sang on a date Nancy played at Carnegie Hall.

“On the plane home,” Bell wrote, “I couldn’t help thinking that someone with a partially paralyzed vocal cord sang at Carnegie Hall.”

Vince premiered a one-man show this year, also called “One Man’s Music,” where he tells and sings his story.

“One Man’s Music” is a worthy read not only for music fans who love descriptions of the songster’s life but as an inspirational story of diligence and recovery in the face of apparently insurmountable odds. This book will no doubt find its way into the hands of counselors and accident victims who can use it as a template for hope.

“Vince Bell, as far as I know, is the only writer who has read his own obituary,” wrote music legend T. Bone Burnett.

“The dead level best thing I ever did in music was to find somebody to share it with,” says Bell at the beginning of his book. Vince and Sarah live in Santa Fe, today, where he bases his nation-wide tours, writes, performs and stages home concerts.

On October 28, Vince Bell will do his one-man show at St. Francis Auditorium at The New Mexico Museum of Art, 107 West Palace Avenue in Santa Fe.

Interesting panel discussion at the Harwood, Saturday night, Aug. 1, 2009. Art critic Dave Hickey hosted. Dennis Hopper, Ron Cooper, Larry Bell and Ronald Davis, a group of venerable hippie artists and an actor, sat four abreast on the panel and held court for an hour and a half. The event was a sellout with overflow seating downstairs where a second roomful of people watched live on a video hookup. Twenty-dolla cover. Yowza! But worth it.

Dave Hickey: Taos is a spiritual place but not easy. It
strips away your narcissism.

This isn’t a town where a bachelor artist moves to have fun.

Taos is in the vanguard of globalization: People can live anywhere and do their work (As long as they don’t have to make a living from the Taos economy, he could have added).

Being an artist is a terrible gift.

A workable arrangement with your neighbors, here, is they don’t shoot your dog.

Hopper told a story about how he found Taos. He and a friend were looking for a location and, hopefully, a commune for "Easy Rider" and came to a fork in the road south of Los Alamos. One led to Santa Fe, one led to Taos. "Santa Fe is an art colony," his friend said. “I don’t want to go to an ‘art colony,’” said Hopper so they came to Taos where a man from the Pueblo greeted him on the square and said, "The mountain is smiling on you." He then led Hopper to New Buffalo.

Larry Bell: In Taos I was free of my distractions (He had a studio in Venice Beach, California and still travels back and forth.)

I built a studio with no windows so I wouldn’t be distracted by the mountain.
My status as an artist in this economy is about the same as a migrant fruit picker.

Ron Cooper: The majority of the galleries here (in Taos) are souvenir shops.

Ronald Davis on people controlling other people's minds: I can't control my own mind, much less will anybody else control it.

Taos take what it wants from you and shoots out the rest.

I was fortunate enough to be an actor. I could have never supported myself as an artist.

May 2009

Hopper at the Harwood
A review
By Sam Richardson

“Hopper at the Harwood, LA to Taos: 40 years of Friendship” takes the viewer through an assortment of styles and media in no fixed order.

Dennis Hopper’s giant black and white paintings “After the Fall” and “Election” are at least six-foot-by-ten works done in water-based primer on vinyl. In a video shot the day of the opening, Hopper refers to them as “billboards.” From “Fall” a woman’s face stares back through graffiti and clutter. “Election” is more ambiguous, silhouetting a black man’s head behind typography that spells out parts of words, only parts.

Perhaps Hopper’s best piece is “X-Xerox” an abstract canvas separated into two sections of muted earthy color with a slashing “X” embossed in thick paint off to one side.

Ron Davis’ large constructs, made of shaped expanded PVC, molded fiberglass and wood are angular, hard-edged, colorful. “Hinged Diamond Duet” is two precisely constructed interlocking diamonds in brilliant color. But “Backup,” a huge piece of fiberglass done in fading colors, looks like the spaceship from the movie “Close Encounters” after it might have sat on the junk heap for a few years. It is a huge heavy blob of colored plastic ... suspended.

Robert Dean Stockwell who, like Hopper, is best known as an actor, placed sculpture and collage in the show. His collages are intriguing and bring dozens of photographic images together in interesting compositions. All three collages contain imagery of physical or emotional violence. “Mussolini’s Office,” with a number of images of flag draped coffins, is the most interesting of the three.

Stockwell's two sculptures, both made with hundreds of dice glued together – one in the shape of a cross – look like something made from a kit bought off the shelf at Hobby Lobby.

Ken Price shows several small drawings in pen and colored ink but his two big works, both of which incorporate the words “Mexican Art” in them, are his best. With brash, clashing, primary colors in angular shapes they say what they say – “Mexican art”– loudly.

Larry Bell’s large works “WBAD 7” and LMSHFEK XI” are done with mirrors, silicone monoxide and coated glass among the materials. They are at least four-feet-by-four, are hard-edged and clean and are done in black and white. For people who may have only seen Bell’s stick figure sculpture and wonder what the fascination with his work is, these pieces demonstrate another facet of his talent – the mastery of technology in the service of art. Or is it the other way around?

Of the six artists in the show, Ron Cooper, displaying old works and new, covers the most ground in terms of style and technique. One piece is a ten-foot-long tube of plexiglass. Another is a lamppost. His most recent works, which combine modern industrial technology and ancient imagery, are big corrugated metal panels, enameled with dozens of Mexican product labels. Over the labels are painted Mayan heads in bright colors.

If the labels had been painted on huge stone Mayan heads in the Yucatan, they would be called graffiti. This way, the Mayan heads over the labels are possibly ... (pause for effect) ... "metaphors of transformation," to use a phrase from Cooper’s LinkedIn blog which says, “Cooper’s body of work represents the artist’s ongoing concern with the metaphors of transformation which allows the spectator to ‘turn the mind on to itself and its emotions.’”

Either way, the idea of transformation comes across.

Hopper and friend’s show is a visual page turner. It keeps the viewer moving through the spaces, anticipating and evaluating. And as is the case with all diverse and well-curated shows the viewer must "turn his mind on to itself" ... and decide.

“Hopper at the Harwood, LA to Taos: 40 years of Friendship,” at the Harwood in Taos through September 20.

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