It’s still hard to reconcile that we live in a world which no longer hosts Harry Dean Stanton, one of the coolest men who ever lived. Stanton, who died in 2017 at the age of 91, was perhaps the essence of the Hollywood school who came of age in the late sixties, as described in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders: Raging Bulls. After serving in the Pacific in the Second World War, Stanton drifted into acting appearing in several TV shows in the fifties and early sixties before graduating into movies. He never achieved the stardom accorded to his buddy, Jack Nicholson, but his hangdog persona adorned several great films including Cool Hand Luke and Wise Blood while he even had a major part in Alien. It was in 1984 that Paris, Texas propelled him into the frontline while the same year saw him play what is our favourite character of his, the repo man Bud in, of course, Repo Man.
Dotted throughout his film career was Stanton’s love of music, in particular that of the American southwest. He sang four songs in Cool Hand Luke and gave a heartrending rendition of Canción Mixteca in Paris Texas along with a singing performance in the revived Twin Peaks. He sang live with Dylan and Art Garfunkel and liked nothing better than to hang out with his pals in bars and get up to sing some songs. However, aside from an album of songs lifted from the documentary, Partly Fiction, we really haven’t heard a true Harry Dean Stanton album.
Well, October 1993 rectifies that as it offers a set of songs recorded with a proper (and properly shitkicking band) which consists of Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (ex Steely Dan & Doobie Bros), Slim Jim Phantom (The Stray Cats), Tony Sales (Iggy Pop & David Bowie) along with Stanton’s long time musical compadre, Jamie James (The Kingbees). There are four studio recordings and five recorded live at L.A.’s legendary Troubadour Club. OK, it’s essentially a covers album but Stanton can sing, his voice a fine tenor not a million miles removed from that of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, while he’s skilful on harmonica. The band are tight in the studio and on stage with Baxter’s pedal steel in particular sounding oh so sweet.
They kick things off somewhat tentatively with Dylan’s I’ll be Your Baby Tonight which is fairly hurried in relation to the original and never really finds its comfort zone but they grab Chuck Berry’s Promised Land by the neck and shake it wide awake with a raucous road pounding performance, the guitars grinding and switching gears with some flair. Changing tack, they take on William Bell’s You Don’t Miss Your Water, famously covered by The Byrds on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, and they give it a wonderful arrangement with swathes of acoustic guitar, sweet pedal steel and excellent harmonies. The studio songs end with another wonderful arrangement, this time of the Cooder/Hiatt/Dickinson classic, Across The Borderline, here clothed in an authentic border cantina sound which oozes with lost romance. Stanton sings wonderfully here, slipping into Spanish tongue towards the end.
In contrast, the live set is quite rowdy as they barrel into another Berry number, You Never Can Tell to kick things off. Baxter’s squirreling pedal steel fuels the song while Stanton’s harp and James’ lead guitar scrap away at each other. It’s joyous and you can tell that the band are having a ball. They glide nicely through Spanish Harlem before James takes lead vocals on an old Sun Records song, Miss Froggie (by Warren Smith) allowing Stanton to concentrate on his harp skills. Although it’s missing Stanton’s voice, it’s fair enough to say that here they whip up a storm, sounding like The Blasters. Stanton’s back at the helm for a grand run through of Bright Lights Big City, a song which one imagines they can’t really add much to and they don’t, but again their sense of joy, along with Stanton’s blues harp, makes for a great listen. To close, Stanton plays to the crowd with an animated solo delivery of Canción Mixteca which is somewhat removed from the sorrowful version on Paris, Texas but is delivered with gusto. The audience lap it up, it’s great fun to listen to and ends a fitting tribute to this departed icon.
And, just because we can, here’s one of our favourite memories of Harry Dean Stanton as he plays a raddled MC introducing Ry Cooder’s band to an empty bar. As Sean Penn described him, Stanton was “the gentlest, kindest, most ornery and philosophical old bastard any of us ever knew.”