SoundTreks | Easy Rider
Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider is, as has been recently observed in the pages of Crave, one of the seminal American films. When it came out in 1969, the Hippie era was pretty much declared to be at an end, and the previous generation’s notions of peace, love, and understanding had given way to cynicism, drugged-out stupor, overwrought appetites without a cause, and war. Easy Rider captured how sad, horrifying, and just downright awful the country had become. The promise of Kerouac didn’t pan out, and now it was just a matter of drifting, selling drugs, and trying to figure out what the heck what going on.
The soundtrack to Easy Rider was just as popular and just as important as the movie, and its free-wheeling songs about marijuana, love, and being wild became the theme tunes of a crumbling generation. But we have to wonder: do these songs stand merely as a time capsule, or do they still have the power to move a modern audience? SoundTreks has listened to the soundtrack, and we shall determine.
Track 1. “The Pusher” – Steppenwolf
Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher” kicks the record off on an appropriately drugged-out note, and encapsulates the movie pretty perfectly. Not only does it have the perfect done – dissonant, scary, psychedelic, droning, and most certainly not a celebration of drugs – but the lyrics more or less define what was going on in drug culture at the time. Additionally, the song reveals what happens when you take your casual drug habits too far. This is what happens when a casual hobby becomes a compulsive need. The pusher is a monster. The pusher don’t care if you live or if you die. Drugs aren’t about being “free” anymore. They have become the opposite. They are a prison.
Track 2. “Born to Be Wild” – Steppenwolf
A party anthem to end all party anthems, “Born to Be Wild” is still bold, energetic, and awesome. It has also, in the ensuing years, become cliche, safe, and expected. Heck, I think it was featured in The NeverEnding Story III. This is how a rebel rock evolves: It starts out as bold and rebellious, a declarative statement against the staid morals of the previous generation. Then it falls out of the public eye in place of newer, more rebellious music. Eventually, the teens who used it as a rebel anthem grow up, and begin listening to it as a form of nostalgia. “Born to Be Wild,” then, turned into the opposite of what it once was. It’s now comfort food.
It’s hard to look past the nostalgia on this one. I’d be interested in hearing what a modern teen thinks of it upon hearing it for the first time.
Track 3. “The Weight” – Smith
A cover of the version by The Band, Smith’s version is – however heretical this may be – better. It seems more soulful, and is free of the nostalgic de-fanging mentioned above. Smith’s version allows the listener to understand the messages of Christian compassion being sung about. I never really appreciated the theology of this song until this revisitation. There is ambivalence in the song to be sure, and that ambivalence marks Easy Rider. There is gentleness in the world, but the Devil needs to come along.
Track 4. “Wasn’t Born to Follow” – The Byrds
This soundtrack record seems to be trading off between earnest songs about being free, and ironic songs about how the quest for freedom ends in ambivalence. This track by The Byrds is of the former variety. It’s unabashedly rebellious, encouraging the listener to go out into the world, to climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, etc. etc. And, in the lyrics, they sing about how logic is to be damned, and how death under the cascading waters is preferable to the alternative. It’s a pretty great song. But I wonder if it’s immune to cynicism.
Track 5. “If You Want to Be a Bird (Bird Song)” – The Holy Modal Rounders
This song is way obnoxious, but then I think that’s the point. The Holy Modal Rounders were more a novelty band than anything, having previous written the immortal breast anthem “Boobs a Lot.” When it comes to disillusionment and depression following the deal of idealism, we can at least take comfort in the fact that humor will live on. Indeed, when it comes to disillusionment, one can always fall back on the notion that we shouldn’t have been taking this all that seriously to begin with.
Track 6. “Don’t Bogart Me” – Fraternity of Man
Another novelty song that sounds like it was written while high, Fraternity of Man’s “Don’t Bogart Me” may be, like “Born to Be Wild” the single declarative anthem of a subculture, this time of stoners. Pass that joint along, friend. This is a song about smoking weed, of course, but doesn’t have any sort of party man underpinnings. It’s just about slowing down and sharing your drugs. I’ll take this over The Toyes’ “Smoke Two Joints,” actually. You know, if there is a great song about marijuana.
Track 7. “If 6 Was 9” – The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Who doesn’t love Jimi Hendrix? Hendrix is often credited as one of the best guitarists of all time, and while that’s debatable (Steve Vai fans would have something to add), one can see that Hendrix’ particular sound has yet to be matched, reproduced, or imitated convincingly. This is another earnest song about rebellion, keeping to yourself, and doing your own thing.
Thinking about it, it seems that Millennials share a common ethos with the Hippies. They share the same sense of unending optimism, all intended to be derived from a personal sense of freedom. Heck, weed is gradually becoming wholly and nationally legal these days, so even the drug culture has been folded into the Millennials’ mainstream. The next question: Is this Hippie idealism something that all young people of all the ensuing generations share, or is there really a cultural parallel between Hippies and Millennials?
Track 8. “Kyrie Eleison/Mardis Gras (When the Saints)” – The Electric Prunes
This feels like the soundtrack is dissipating. Easy Rider is about the breakdown of idealism, so we need something downright psychedelic to remind us. I find this sort of music difficult to listen to. It makes me break out in a sweat. I have seen innumerable films from the 1960s to feature zonked-out, half-naked teens gyrating wildly to psychedelic rock as if they have reached a new plane of consciousness through a combination of drugs and music. I would understand if it were a quiet, meditative form of music. This sort of thing is just abrasive.
Track 9. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” – Roger McGuinn
A cover, of course, of the Bob Dylan song. The penultimate track on the record is an elegy. I’ll just quote:
Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their marks
Made everything from toy guns that sparks
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much
Is really sacred.
Track 10. “Ballad of Easy Rider” – Roger McGuinn
And it makes sense that we should end with a ballad. Had we ended on “Born to Be Wild,” it could only be ironic. If you know the film, you know that it has a rather tragic ending and that it’s most certainly not a celebration any longer. By the end of the film, the main characters have lost all hope and have no reason to rebel any longer. Their drug habits have turned dark, their need for sex has become desperate and ugly. This ballad has hopeful lyrics about flowing in your own personal direction, but I can’t help but sense another elegiac quality at work.
Which is Better: The Soundtrack or the Movie?
This soundtrack may be one of the more powerful of all soundtrack records that stands as both a document of what attitudes were like in 1969, but also what it feels like to transition from youthful freedom into post-youth imprisonment. Rebellion can only take you so far, and this soundtrack explores the pros and cons of that in soulful, dissonant, fun, amazing music.
Indeed, it may be the perfect compliment to the movie. The soundtrack and the movie, then, are equally good. I am personally of Generation Y (which is most certainly nestled in between Generation X and Millennials), so I have no personal nostalgia for this time. I can, however, appreciate the glories of this music. I imagine that younger people would be able to as well.
Easy Rider is sadder than this record, but I would recommend that you consume both. Freedom – that ill-defined notion – will always be on the mind of a young person. This soundtrack captures that.
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.