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A Penetrating Interview with Dennis Hopper

A contentious chat in the desert with a counterculture icon.

Dennis Hopper

Noel Brooks/Penske Media/REX/Shutterstock

On April Fool’s morning Eddie stood blinking in a group of people in the Albuquerque airport. He looked neater than the rest, his hair was styled and razor cut, his clothes were L.A. sharp. He was paunchy and puffy, eyes blood-shot, hung over. He’d been up late the night before and had had to catch the 7:45 AM flight from L.A. to New Mexico. He didn’t wait for a car to Taos, a hundred and twenty miles away, but rented an airplane and pilot to take him there. He took two people from the group with him.

The air was turbulent, the ride was bumpy, which didn’t help his hangover any. The small plane made its way over the New Mexico mesa, in sight of the Rio Grande, between mountain ranges. Eddie made this trip often, but this time was different. Today, several other people were making the trip too, like the two people in the back seat of the plane, strangers most of them, journalists and photographers, representatives of the underground press. They were all being flown down by Universal Studios to see a movie that had just been made about Dennis Hopper, The American Dreamer. Universal Studios were Eddie’s employers. They hired him to look after Dennis, to make sure that he stayed out of trouble and was hard at work editing his new film, The Last Movie. He’d been at it for almost a year, and the executives were getting impatient. Eddie was Dennis’ Universal bodyguard.

Eddie was met in Taos by Diane. Dennis’ secretary. She told him news of the house, who had gone away and who had come to stay for a while. “I can’t stand that broad,” he said about one new girl. Everyone at the house was still sleep-ing, she told him. They had dropped the day before and stayed up all night watch-ing Bruce Conner movies in the edit-ing room. Things were all set for the press party, though. Hors d’oeuvres had been ordered and would be delivered late r. Diane asked Eddie how long he could stay this time.

“All weekend, sweetheart,” he said. “I’ve got a bag full of real organic mescaline. Man, it’s really beautiful stuff. I’m going to stay blasted till Sunday.”

Eddie and Diane went on up to Dennis’ house after leaving their passengers at the Taos Inn where rooms had been arranged for them. Eddie told them he’d see them later. The two press people found that the rooms were knotty pine, cold, dark and funky. They had round adobe fireplaces with stacks of wood beside them. The two, the Photographer and the Interviewer, were greeted in the dining room by Steve the publicity man from L.A. and his secretary, and Marty the distributor from New York. “Have whatever you want to eat,” they were told. “Just sign the check and it’ll be taken care of.”

Also in the dining room was Larry Schiller, one of the makers of the movie the fuss was being made about. He sat massively at a table, leaning heavily on one arm as he ate his lunch, chewing with his mouth open, his oily black hair gleaming in the sunlight. He beamed like a new father, and quickly gave the impression that this affair was his baby. Kit Carson, his partner in making the film, had not yet arrived.

After a while more press people showed up, arriving from New York, Boston, Dallas, L.A., and San Francisco, the cream of the underground press, Larry called them. As numbers increased so did enthusiasm for the coming event. The group was to go to Dennis Hopper’s house.

Dennis, however, was still in bed when they got there, so the group contented itself with talking to itself, drinking cocktails served by a dapper barman, eating hors d’oeuvres and exploring Dennis’ house.

New Mexico seemed a magic and spaced out land. It was hard to believe that there were actual highways that connected it to the rest of the world. Dennis Hopper managed to find a way, though, from Hollywood to Taos while he was on the road with Easy Rider. And it was there in the land of Chicanos and communes, mountain magic, shitkickers and freaked out Penitente Indians who still crucified people, that Dennis Hop-per had settled. He’d traded in his chopper for some horses that grazed in his backyard, Sunset Strip for New Mexico’s Route 10.

The house he lived in sat on land three feet from the Taos Indian reservation. It was an adobe structure, a large house where his friends and employees lived, and a smaller house where he lived. There was also a music house, an open ramada stocked with all kinds of percussion instruments for people to bang on. Inside the house was some of the original furniture’ from when Frieda Dodge, its builder, had lived there. D. H. Lawrence had lived there with her. The journalists sat in chairs around a table where Lawrence once sat.

Art was everywhere in the house. A lot of Bruce Conner collages and posters quoting Andy Warhol hung on the walls. “I like to be bored,” said one, and “I never read, I just look at pictures.” In the dining room was sculpture by Dennis himself. It was a white plastic box, around eight feet long that had an aluminum shaft sticking out of it and two huge silver balls. It was called “the perpetual erection machine.” D. H. Lawrence must have stirred in his grave, which was nearby.

Kit Carson finally arrived. He wore black — a black hat, a black coat, pants, everything. The women of the house were glad to see him. One of the journalists, Susan from New York, said about him, “Kit’s groovy, but he has a cleft chin, and people with cleft chins get hung up thinking they have some great destiny to fulfill.”

The press was getting drunker and restless. Conversation about what a drag these prepackaged junkets were was get-ting duller. The news spread fast when Dennis Hopper awoke and was to be found in the editing room. People went to meet him. Dennis looked good in his beard and Levi ensemble — jacket, pants and shirt — and his genuine alligator cowboy boots. Around his neck he wore a necklace of human bone in-laid with turquoise and on his jacket a button which read “Save the American Movie.” He smoked Marlboros a§ his intense blue eyes darted around the room. His brother David steed next to him, a rounder version of Dennis also dressed in blue denim from head to toe, as was Michael Goodwin, a writer and a fan of Hopper’s who was hard by his other side where he did his best to remain throughout the day. Dennis was surrounded and he stayed surrounded. A man with earphones, tape recorder and microphone was already talking to him. The Interviewer who had been on the plane with Eddie made arrangements with Dennis to talk to him later on, after the planned activities were over.

At five o’clock the group headed to town to see The American Dreamer. Dennis owned the only movie theater in Taos. Hello Dolly and other Hollywood movies he brought to town were well attended, but when Dennis ran a Bergman festival, no one showed.

The American Dreamer turned out to be a sort of far out documentary about Dennis Hopper. It was an hour and a half of Dennis stroking first one side, then the other side of his beard, fondling his guns and his women, while he philosophized about life.

“Very often success makes its own kind of prison…A group of people can fuck you over, man, and a group of people can help you. I’m not talking about anything but just basic reality logic. I’ve been fucked over righteously, you’ve been fucked over righteously, everybody in the room at one time or another has been fucked over righteously, by an individual or by a group, or both. I can’t do a scene like this [the scene was a “sensitivity encounter” he conducted with 18 teeny-boppers in his bedroom] without giving my philosophy of life and why I think that we all bathe together and we all have group scenes together. We all work as a group so we can get it together; because the individual is dead. That’s my philosophy and I don’t want to impose it on anyone…I believe in love and hate. You either love someone or you hate them.”

While he philosophized on literature: “I don’t believe in reading. I don’t care about reading. It means nothing to me. I believe that by using your eyes and ears you’ll find everything that there is and you don’t have to read about it.”

And while he philosophized on sex. “I’d rather give head to a beautiful woman than fuck her, really…I’m concerned about a woman coming. I think that’s very important. I don’t think most men are into trying to make a woman come. It’s awfully frustrating…I’m just another chick, I’m a lesbian chick…Well, finally now it’s all come out to be that the woman has all these tremendous mystiques a man doesn’t have…Like, I think everyone wants the virgin and wants the whore, but I’m just hoping that someday I will find a virgin-whore who can be my image. I don’t think I’m going to change . Myself and the two girls in the bath-tub also seemed very natural to me. Even though a lot of people would prob-ably think that’s very decadent because of the sexual things we got into. But I had the feeling that I should let it all hang out because I do have sex and I do enjoy group sex with, ah…with, ah…women.”

And on nudity: “I think that we could drop our clothes as little children and trample on them and be a lot closer to…to the truth of life. Not so embarrassed and not so many right-wrongs, good or bads, but to be more open. That we can love…ah, more than one person, that we don’t have to make that person our possession…Wanna look at my ass, group? OK, group, here’s my ass…ass, to the world.”

Moviegoers who go to see The American Dreamer when it is released this month will get to see Dennis Hopper’s ass four different times. The movie won’t be distributed to theaters, but will be shown instead on college campuses across the nation at a cheap price. Everyone involved felt that there was a great audience there that had yet to be supplied and tapped. The response to this new distribution idea, they said, will indicate if there’s enough of an audience on campus to support its own film makers. By the time the movie ended everyone had sobered up again. Dennis, Kit and Larry sat on the stage while members of the press gathered around to ask questions about the film. Kit explained his original intention of making a first person documentary where instead of treating the subject like an animal in a zoo, attempts would be made to penetrate the animal.

People asked why Dennis had allowed himself to be penetrated. “The new generation doesn’t know anything about me,” he said, “except for what they saw in Easy Rider. Society loves to put bubbles up there and pop them, and I resent it. I’d rather expose myself myself. I’m really tired of Hollywood images —the big virile star who’s really a homo-sexual, the goody-two-shoes who fucks everybody in dark bedrooms at parties. I wanted to be vulnerable because I thought it would be something different. But I don’t sleep with cameras, so this film is not the real Dennis Hopper.”

What did Dennis really want from life? “I’d like to be allowed to make movies,” he answered. “And I’d like to have some groovy old ladies.”

Someone asked Larry what he thought reaction to the movie would be. He said that people might be expecting some different Dennis Hopper to be revealed. They might not want to get into experiencing this movie. “Maybe,” he said, “we should tell people when we advertise that this movie is a different kind of experience and that they should be open to it.” “Why should they?” snapped Dennis.

After that everyone filed out of the theater and piled into seven cars. They drove in a caravan through the New Mexico night, north to a restaurant where there would be more drinking and dinner and all the French wine they could guzzle. Larry Schiller drank plain coca cola cocktails, however, and talked about his exciting life as one of America’s top photojournalists. Larry was the man who brought the world Susan Atkins’ story first, and Jack Ruby’s confession. His photos had appeared on the covers of Life, Look, Newsweek, Paris Match, to name a few. But he had pitched it all for the motion picture camera. His wife was divorcing him partly because he had risked all security to produce and direct movies, and partly because of his close association with Charles Manson, who fascinated Larry. Larry had a reputation for being ruthless, but at dinner he seemed like an honest and sincere guy.

“Murder and prostitution excite me,” he said. “Let’s face it. The desire of all photographers is to photograph murder with a knife instead of a gun, preferably. That’s what makes covering wars so exciting.”

He told about the time he covered the story of the artificial kidneys for Life magazine. There was a limited sup-ply of money for artificial kidneys, and hundreds of applications by people who would die without one. He interviewed those who were refused and therefore condemned to die. He said it had tremendous impact on him and changed his life. He also told of a recent experience of going to a children’s art class. “The kids were being given film and cameras instead of crayons and paper. I thought how different my life would have been if I’d had the advantage those kids have. It brought tears to my eyes.”

Dinner lasted for hours and by the time Dennis and his earful left for home, everyone was loaded. There were six people in his green Chevy Blazer—Dennis; some girl; Michael Goodwin; Art Kunkin and Brian Kirby, editors of the L.A. Free Press; and the Interviewer. Art and Brian had asked the Interviewer earlier if they could join in on the inter-view with Dennis, and had been told they could not.

Dennis drove back on a dirt road through the Indian Reservation. He said he didn’t think the sound of his car would disturb the people sleeping along the way too much. He wanted to show his passengers the nation’s oldest apartment house, a five story adobe pueblo. It was a high ride back. Dope and wine were passed around the car, country music played loud on the cassette recorder.

When they got back to the house Dennis turned on the perpetual erection ma-chine. The silver shaft moved up and down, the white plastic box flashed yellow. He and Steve-the-publicity-man’s secretary talked briefly with each other.

“It’s sort of uptight,” she said. “You’ll have to ask him.”

“I understand,” said Dennis. “I’ll take care of it.”

He was very drunk and stoned, but he’d do the interview anyway, he said. He and the Interviewer searched for a place to plug in the tape recorder and finally found one in the the living room, the room in the house least used. Cunkin and Brian asked Dennis if they could sit in, even though they had been asked to stay away. “Could they? Come on, let them,” Dennis said to the Interviewer. “Really, it’s cool, We have known each other for 15 years. We have not hung out together, necessarily, or any of that but we have been, like friends. You know?”

Art and Brian, Dennis and the Interviewer sat down. And then Michael Goodwin joined the group, of course. “And him,” said Dennis about Michael. “You know like he’s the worst reporter that you have ever met. Do you know him? Boy, are you lucky. You’re lucky you haven’t known him personally. He wrote the best thing that was written about Easy Rider, and definitely the best thing about the Last Movie. He’s a good cat. I think it will be a nice session if you want to get a session going.”

“I never wrote much about Easy Rider,” said Michael, settling back, enjoying the attention. “I saw it, you know, and I ride a bike and I love the bike riding parts. They were the truest of any movie about what it feels like to go cross country on a bike. ‘Cause I’ve ridden around three times cross country on a bike. And I really loved the music, and in fact, I really enjoyed the movie. But I never felt that I could write any-thing important about it. I just dashed off what I dashed off.”

Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper (right) with Peter Fonda in a scene from Easy Rider.

“We’re going to get into it,” said Dennis, swilling down some beer. “We’re going to do a Mother Goose Parade.”

“We’re not going to do shit unless we get an ashtray,” said Michael, who jumped up to fetch one.

“You get an ashtray and we’ll blow it,” said Dennis, laughing as if he’d said something funny. Everyone laughed with him. “First a tape recorder then an ash-tray. What we need is a roach clip.”

The Interviewer asked about the cop-per bracelet he wore. He studied it with glazed eyes for a while and then spoke, enunciating his words as carefully as he could. “It’s for Vietnam. It says Captain John Hardy Junior 10-12-67. He’s a Vietnam prisoner. You’re supposed to wear it until he gets out of prison. And it’s also supposedly good for arthritis and all sorts of remedies and everything. But until the US declares a war in Vietnam, until like this man is released, I can’t take this off. And like the copper in this copper area here, which has the highest ion count up of any in this hemisphere, second only to Tibet, and if you drilled through the Earth right now you’d reach Tibet, it’s like the brains of the Earth. But the copper is causing an overreaction and it’s pulling the poi-son out of me. I could live to be a hundred and…a hundred and…well, I could live to be about 35 if I lived two more months.”

“I’m looking for somebody who’s around 5000 years old,” said Art Conklin.

“Whoa,” said Dennis. “I fucked one the other day, but I can’t remember her name. Far out.” And he laughed a drunk-en laugh. Michael returned with an ash-tray and sat down. “Where did we get this?” Dennis said, picking up the ashtray. “This is a Campbell Chicken Noodle Soup can.”

“If it’s good enough for Warhol it’s good enough for me,” said Michael.

“What I want to know is, is this Warhol’s or is this Campbell’s?” said Dennis laughing at the ashtray. “It’s Campbell’s,” he decided.

“It isn’t that easy at all because it’s Warhol’s. He just took a photograph and then silk-screened it,” Michael said.

“No he didn’t. In the beginning—I have one of them—he hand painted them. The idea of silk-screening them was very important because he was re-producing a photographic image in any color since he wanted to use a commercial artist’s technique. He was develop-ing a new technique and saying, like, we can function. And that is our return to reality out of that abstract expressionism. A return to reality was the TV commercial, was the Campbell Soup can, was the Coca Cola bottle, was Elizabeth Taylor, was Marilyn Monroe, was like whatever. So in that area we returned to a reality that pin-pointed our problem.”

“What problem?” asked the Interviewer. The question surprised him. He puzzled over it a minute.

“Our problem and our success,” replied Dennis. “Our success being our problem – . ,”

“I’m listening,” coaxed Art Conlin.

“Our problem being our failure. Our failure being our success. Our success …” “Are you trying to say,” put in Michael, “that nothing succeeds like failure, and failure is no success at all?” “No,” said Dennis, “I’m just saying I, I, I, I, I, I, I.”

“I might have been right the first time,” said Kuntlin to the Interviewer. “You aren’t going to get the interview.”

“You might have been left the first time. But you were right the second time,” laughed Dennis, repeating the sentences to himself and chuckling.

“There are people who are five thousand years old,” said Cunklin. “Are they alive?” asked Michael.

“Rights” said Cunklin.

“Wrong,” said Dennis. He laughed.

“Where do they live?” asked Michael.

“In the mountain,” giggled Dennis. “No. Tell him Art. Where do they live? I’m with you. Go on. Go on. Tell him.”

“No,” said Krunkin. “I’ll reveal the secret some other time.”

Dennis’ brother David walked through the room on his way out the door.

“That’s my brother David. And his babysitter Vicky and his wife Charlotte.”

“Hey, that’s great. Two chicks,” said Michael. “Only two? or are there others in the car?”

“Even if you can’t get your fantasies together for yourself,” observed Dennis, “your brother can get it together for you. I mean for him. Two chicks. I mean ladies…ah women, girls, whatever the term is. I’ll get it. I’ve got it marked down somewhere. Like I remember when they called them niggers and they resented it and wanted us to call them Negroes. And now they want to be called blacks. I knew then things were happening. So whatever you want girls, guys, women, chicks. I love you. But I get so confused.”

David left and Eddie from Universal came in and sat down. He had made good his promise and was blasted. “Creak, creak.” said Dennis because Eddie’s footsteps made the floor creak. “Here he comes. Striped pants.”

“Anyone like a little scotch? Dennis, you want a little scotch,” asked Eddie, offering his glass.

“No. I don’t drink.” said Dennis, taking a sip of beer. “That’s white man’s poison. Give me some of that peyote you have there.”

“You’re the only one that’s not on tonight,” said Eddie.

“I’m not on,” Michael piped in.

Eddie noticed the microphone lying on the floor. “Oh. It’s one of those,” he said.

“This is the greatest thrill you’ve ever had Eddie. What this is,” explained Dennis, “this is an electronic, like you know, Donovan talked about a yellow banana, the electrical banana and so forth. Well, this is a black headed silver thing, which when introduced into a scene can penetrate it. Now, I would like to say that the very vibration off this…Eddie handed Dennis a plastic bag full of powder, telling him to take some. “What is this? A cactus? People really take this? I mean, I’m drinking Coors. Remember Adolph. God Bless. Here’s to Adolph Coors.” He took a swig of beer. “My brother David is a true perversionist. He denies himself things to receive benefits.”

“All the moralists are perverts,” added Eddie.

“Yeah, well here’s to Warhol Campbell,” toasted Dennis as he took another drink of Coors. “To be a moralist you have to be a pervert,” said Eddie. “Which brings us back to Warhol,” said Michael. “Warhol’s greatest contribution was…”

“Was his name,” snapped Dennis. “War Hole.”

“Was that he gave us all these tools,” continued Michael, “and nobody’s using them except for making junk advertising ads.”

“Oh my God, well, thank you,” said Dennis when he realized Michael was waiting for a reply. “I certainly appreciate this.”

“What?” said Michael.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t listen to what you were saying,” said Dennis, snickering. “I heard Warhol and I went off on a trip. Now how big does this Hole have to be? I mean this War?”

“It depends how you spell it,” Michael said.

“Oh,” said Dennis. “I think I’ll change my name to Hop Her.”

“How do you spell that?” asked Michael.

“It doesn’t matter,” Dennis sighed.

“H-e-r, H-u-r, it could make a difference,” said Michael.

Kit Carson walked in. Steve the pub-licity man, who had joined the group earlier, said, “Ah, the man himself.”

“Howdy,” said Kit.

“Kit, sit down,” said Dennis. “Have a little peyote, it’ll be good for your soul. Last time you were here, I remember you took acid.” Kit took a pinch of peyote. “Hold it. Don’t get crazed,” said Dennis as he took the bag from Kit and helped himself to some of the brown powder. He tried to keep talking but the peyote had taken over his mouth. He washed it down with a bit of Coors, like a psychedelic fraternity man. “Can I tell you something?” he said when he was able to talk again. He was now considering the carpet. “Now this is very strange for all you readers out there. But dig this. Here we go. Is that balls and a cock on the rug? Or what? I mean, let’s track this down. And this one and this one.” He traced the pattern of the rug with his finger. “What is going on here? What is this? Readers, we’ll never be able to explain this, but they’re all exposed here. See what they’ve done. They have exposed themselves.” He grabbed the microphone. “They’re trying to drug me. Help. Panthers, Black Panthers, listening to me, listen brothers, help me. Put me under house arrest or something. Because this is ridiculous. I mean these people are trying to drug me.”

“We’re all going to get addicted,” said Eddie. “Come on. Take some more.”

“Hey Dennis,” said Michael, “I saw this movie and in the movie they do an interview with the guy who owns the Zig Zag cigarette plant…”

“Come on Dennis, you’ve got to take some more,” Eddie insisted.

“He’s from Philadelphia,” laughed Dennis into the microphone. “His name is Eddie. He’s giving me peyote. I don’t know what to do. I’m trying to take it. He doesn’t have a gun but I’m afraid of him. Well, his name’s Eddie. I’m not really afraid of him, brothers. He’s crazy. But so are you and so am I. We’re really afraid of Jim Mitchum and his father Bob. They’re close friends of John Wayne.”‘

“If John Wayne ever finds out about this,” said Michael, “our asses are cooked.” “Are you kidding?” said Eddie, the Universal bodyguard, “I own him.”

“Well, if I ever see him landing in a government helicopter, I’m going to think I’m in Iwo Jima and we lost the war and I’m going to kill the son of a bitch,” said Dennis. “What the hell. He’s superman.”

“I’m telling you I own him.”

“I wonder what he’s worth,” said Michael.

“He’s worth one destroyer, I figure,” said Dennis. “Man, if we hit him, we take his destroyer and his helicopter, we got the war won. Don’t you love it? We hit Wayne at Newport Beach, man. Semi-automatics, which are legal, goddammit. We hit him.”

He chuckled and drank more beer. “Kit, say something to our audience, our readers, because we’ve been, like, you know, literally rapping.” Kit handed him the joint he’d just lit. “Well, I don’t smoke myself, but I’ll certainly pass it to my friends.” He giggled, and took a drag on it. “In parentheses it will say, ‘And he sucks grass into his lungs quietly within silence.’ Now we can cross out some of these things, so we make this coherent. Like it could be for example, ‘He sucks it into his lungs viciously.'”

“How about, ‘He sucks it into his lungs and holds onto the joint while he talks about it?'” said Michael Goodwin.

“‘He called it Joint,'” said Dennis, “‘And didn’t treat it properly.’ Or ‘didn’t pass it within reason.’ I would rather have another toke.” He sucked grass into his lungs viciously. He was really stoned.

“Did you do what you had to do?” Eddie asked Dennis.

“Did I do what I had to do, Eddie?” “Yes did you do what you had to do.” “I don’t have to pee and I don’t have to shit. I ate today, I drank enough, I smoked. What do I have to do?”

Eddie pointed at Steve the publicity man and gave Dennis a conspiratorial wink.

Dennis finally realized what Eddie was talking about. “You’re terrific, Eddie,” Dennis laughed. “No, not yet. I didn’t take care of it yet. But that’s terrific Eddie, thank you for reminding me. Would you like to do it for me?”

“Nope.”

“Well OK. Watch how cool this is,” Dennis said to the group. Everyone laughed with him, unaware of the con-spiracy. “Hey man…” he started to tell Steve, but he broke up with laughter. “I can’t get it together. I’d love to, but I can’t get together.” He tried again to control his laughter and blurted out. “But anyway, Steve, would you leave your secretary with me tonight? Of course, this is unreasonable. But if you would…”

“Well, yeah, I’ll leave her here,” answered Steve the publicity man, trying to be cool, “if I forget her.”

“You see?” laughed Dennis. “I told you, Eddie.”

“Where did she go, anyway?” asked Steve.

“To get her clothes from the car,” said Dennis, and he and Eddie broke into raucous laughter.

“Oh, that was terrible,” said Eddie, laughing so hard he had tears in his eyes. No one else in the group was laugh-ing anymore except those two. Everyone just sat watching and waiting. Finally Dennis stopped laughing too and started to consider Eddie.

“Can I tell you something, Eddie?” Dennis asked. Eddie nodded. “You’re common trash, Eddie. Common trash super pig.”

“Right, Dennis,” said Eddie, not laughing now.

“I can certainly understand your point of view,” laughed Dennis. Eddie laughed too. “But you can be used, Eddie.”

“Scotch and water,” shouted Eddie pushing his glass at Dennis. “Have some scotch and water.”

This story originally appeared in the May 13, 1971 issue of Rolling Stone

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