There Is Only One Good Album, and It Was Made by Harry Dean Stanton
The actor, who was recently seen quietly singing a country standard in the new 'Twin Peaks,' has never been more beloved than he is now.
Like pretty much everybody else, I've been obsessed with the new Twin Peaks lately. It's basically nothing like how I imagined it would be, but it feels perfect because it's a chance to watch David Lynch use several million dollars to root around in his subconscious for an hour every week. It's a quirk of the new series that most of the episodes end with indie artists improbably performing at the Bang Bang Bar, but for my money the most touching musical moment of the series was when Carl Rodd, played by Harry Dean Stanton, sits alone in a trailer park, absentmindedly strumming an acoustic guitar and singing the Western standard "Red River Valley."
As Carl, Stanton serves as the rare pure soul among the town's ragged underclass, an angel who saves those who need saving most. At the age of 91, Stanton is enjoying something of a moment –– shortly before Twin Peaks aired, he was honored with the creation of the Harry Dean Stanton Award (it went to him, duh), and right after Peaks ends, Lynch will appear alongside him in the film Lucky, Stanton's first starring role since the 80s. In pop culture, there are figures who exist on the fringes, building up cult-like fanbases simply by being their strange, ornery, and wonderful selves. And sometimes, through circumstances that almost always seem completely arbitrary, those fringe icons find themselves thrust into the spotlight. Despite, or perhaps because, of Stanton's seeming nonchalance about how beloved he is, he's never been more beloved than he is now.
To get to the root of why Harry Dean Stanton is so amazing, all you need to do is watch Partly Fiction, Sophie Huber's 2014 documentary about Stanton's life. It intersperses footage from Stanton's most iconic roles––wayward amnesiac Travis Henderson in Paris, Texas; the cokey mentor in Repo Man; the guy in Alien who gets killed because he's looking for his lost cat––with scenes of Stanton riding around Los Angeles in a car, hanging out on his couch, and drinking at Dan Tana's, an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles that much like Stanton himself is one of the last vestiges of old, weird Hollywood.
"I been doin' this for 50 fuckin' years," he says at the beginning of the film, and by the time it's finished you'll be convinced that there is only one true genius in the world and it's Harry Dean Stanton. "Do you believe we're going around the sun at 17,000 miles an hour? That makes me nervous. 17,000 miles an hour," he mutters to no one in particular at one point in the film, before sucking on his cigarette like he's hanging on for dear life. "There's nothing I can do about it," he concludes, his voice full of fear and wonder in equal measure.
What's notable about Partly Fiction is how indifferent Stanton, who was 88 at the time of filming, seems to be about having a documentary made about him at all. At one point, David Lynch materializes on his couch and raves about coffee before asking Stanton, "How would you describe yourself?" "Nothing. There is no self," Stanton says. "How would you like to be remembered," asks Lynch. "Doesn't matter," he replies. Undeterred, Lynch asks him what his dreams were like when he was a child, to which he responds, "Nightmares."
Stanton is like if Yoda were a chainsmoker, a cryptic loner whose age and experience have given him the wisdom to understand the entire universe is inexplicable. The only times in the film in which he seems completely open and uncomplicated are its frequent musical interludes, which find Stanton singing in his crackling, beautiful tenor, accompanied only by a dude playing acoustic guitar. At one point, he whips out a harmonica and plays it. His hands flutter virtuosically as he modulates the notes, and he blows into it so with a purity that suggests a lifetime of smoking hasn't put a dent into his lungs. When the song concludes, he cracks a grin.
Luckily enough, somebody had the bright idea to release the songs Stanton sung during the filming of Partly Fiction as an album, and obviously, it's incredible. It's half an outsider folk record, half a document of Stanton's own sensibilities, drawing its source material from traditional folk to early rock icons like Roy Orbison and Chuck Berry to outlaw troubadours such as Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. Stanton himself forges continuity between the songs, and not just because he probably hung out with half the people who wrote them. Stanton approaches these songs much in the way he approaches acting: As the film unfurls, it becomes clear that Stanton views himself as a vessel for his characters, allowing himself to be subsumed by a role until his own self and that of the character inform each other equally. Though the tracks might have been written by others, Stanton sings their lyrics as if he's lived them, not unlike the titular character in Borges's "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," who tried to create the mental conditions that would allow him to compose Don Quixote just as Cervantes had written it.
What's crazy, though, is unlike Borges's Pierre Menard—who, fittingly enough, never managed to finish writing his own Don Quixote—Stanton actually pulls it off. Then again, doing so jibes with Harry Dean's overall philosophy. If we're all essentially nothing, as the bard Harry Dean posits, then artists don't create as much as they make manifest the underlying impulses of the universe, and as a result there are no "authors," just people who made stuff before somebody else had the chance to. Obviously, this isn't the only way to think about authorship and creativity, but if I had to guess, Harry Dean Stanton couldn't give two shits if you feel the same way that he does. The only thing that matters is that he operates as if this is true, and as a result, he sings these songs with more passion and feeling than anyone else possibly could. And for a moment, because Harry Dean Stanton is nothing and his songs are nothing and the rest of us are nothing too, these songs become his.
Future Days is a weekly column by Drew Millard. If you agree or disagree with what he writes, feel free to text him at 828-675-8574.
Drew Millard used to work at Noisey, but now he doesn't, so now he has this column. He lives in North Carolina with his dog. Follow him on Twitter.