6/1/10

Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper
I was broke and answered an ad off Craigslist looking for bartenders at an art gallery, The Ace Gallery. I must have still had a car at that time, because driving to the gallery to drop off a printed resume was part of this memory, and in recollection, getting over to Wilshire and LaBrea was no big deal. Something like four months later they called and asked me to bartend at an opening the next evening. Foul tempered, desperate but not interested, I said, 'Which show?' They said, 'It's a Dennis Hopper retrospective'. I said, 'Sure - what time?'
I was asked to set up a bar, inside what could have doubled for a big coat room in the fairly gigantic Ace Gallery. Beer, wine, some champagne, soda, water. No mixed drinks. Which was good, because I would have needed a book for that.
When I got there, Dennis Hopper was already in the gallery, a distant figure in the next room, walking with a journalist from hot Brit rag The Guardian, taking the writer on a tour, their heels breaking on the stone floor in the still brightly lit art cavern. The two were checking out DH's billboard size expansions of pics from his William Blake-caliber youth. Giant scale blow-ups of photos, alongside superhuge, Ruscha-flat painted versions of his more famous shots and some other, heretofore unseen-by-me experimental stuff that had 1960's L.A. cred written all over it.
'That one I, you know, took a shot of at...' DH drawled as I ripped open clear plastic bulk covering those little water bottles galleries have. A red curtain, a heavy one, hung closed next to me, but I could still hear them. The awed but neutral Brit made phonetic utterances of interest and pleasure at the huge surfaces before him. Lots of familiar images: Dennis was everywhere. He got it all, in supreme black and white. Jane Fonda with her hair blowing in beach wind, posing with a bow and arrow, in a bikini. Martin Luther King - a subject not here presented in this Land Of The Giants-scale show as some NPR-authorized cryo-deacon, but instead for what MLK really is: a subversive artist of some renown. There was a colossal reproduction of that shot of the quiffed early biker and his mama that was used on The Smiths' 73rd Greatest Hits compilation.
'And here's where I'll be judged the most tonight: the bar'. The curtain was whipped back and there they were, and I froze there, like a thief who was putting things in order instead of taking them. 'Hi!' DH said. It was the two of them, the skinny Brit, and DH, movie star in scale, small, jazzed out: cool jazz, so chill.
I didn't have a panic attack. It was a cinema attack. Before me at that moment was a snowy owl Frank Booth with a goatee, the somehow simian psychopath of 'Apocalypse Now', Feck, the blank Byron of the '50's, peripheral in 'Cool Hand Luke', yes, dammit, 'Easy Rider'...the all-American artist-maniac, forty years of gale force madness.
I said 'hi' back, but remained floored. Plus, I had shit to do. The joint was going to be packed.
Some server troops showed up. It got dark and Dennis returned with his slim, glam wife, the two soon the center of an instantaneous living wave of all ages manifesting itself in the blink of an eye. Classy older ladies with swirled white hair, the aforementioned Ed Ruscha, slinky chicks, lucky rockers, the Viggo, Talisa Soto and husband, others more. Soto is known for pulling off a worthy portrayal of Vampirella, enjoying a home forever in the movie cosmos right here:



Yeah, the list went on. It got hot. Real hot. We rationed the beverages after the champagne and wine ran out. The old ladies were handed cups of cold beer as first priority, passed through the curtain, to provide some moisture, since the water and soda were gone, too. As the party surged and roared, we proletariat art workers were also forced to drink sips of beer for moisture.
I handled the tasks at hand like a pro as always, but my imagination wandered away. Like Woody Allen's Zelig, Dennis Hopper traveled through many different social realms, meeting many different people. Dennis Hopper knew Marjorie Cameron. Seriously, Marjorie Cameron, the former Mrs. Jack Parsons, the still-mysterious Wormwood witch of Hollywood legend, who met Dennis Hopper on his first or second film, Curtis Harrington's 'Night Tide', in which Cameron played a Greek-speaking priestess of a downright vulvar oceanic order (shot in Venice Beach):



At the end of the night, the gallery owner asked me to come back the next afternoon. Dennis Hopper would be providing a tour for a small group of patrons of the gallery, and they would need a bartender. I showed up and set up a bar by myself in the middle of the gallery, but nobody wanted anything. My presence was unaddressed and therefore ghostly. I watched as Dennis Hopper walked a group of maybe four old ladies - each appearing as if beamed in from a more innocent, starched decade - through the gallery, humbly sharing anecdotes about the time and place of the photos, how he came to meet various artists, polite tales of his weird journey. The ladies' attentions seemed to drift off; after a while, it seemed as though they weren't really listening. I couldn't believe it. A private tour with Dennis Hopper, and they were fading. I didn't care what I was supposed to be doing there, and tuned in to the history lesson instead.
After that job, I saw Dennis Hopper one last time, from the audience of the last time 'Night Tide' director Harrington appeared alive in public (he died a few days later), at The Egyptian Theater on Hollywood in 2007, where 'Night Tide' was shown as part of some festival, introduced by Dennis Hopper. After the screening, I got into it, waving my arm around in the back rows during Q+A, angling to pepper the talk with the subject of Cameron and Parsons, but it didn't happen. The blonde accompanying me was entertained by my sticky passions for Los Angeles mysticism; it was pretty funny.
Harrington actually gasped for breath from his seat on the stage a few times, fighting to stay alive, so close to death was he that I recall the audience itself gasping once or twice along with him. Throughout, standing next to the dying Harrington, Dennis Hopper was avuncular, Zen, a total star.