Rolling Stone October 15, 1970
BY MICHAEL GOODWIN
TUCUMCARI -- Under the hot New
Mexico desert afternoon sun. James Taylor stands on the shoulder
of State Highway 101, shaving with a portable electric razor.
He shares the roadside with a mean-looking, primer-gray '55 Chevy.
The car has wide racing tires and a race-modified engine which
is too big for the hood.
Also on the shoulder are Laurie
Bird, leaning on the hood of the Chevy and looking wasted, and
Dennis Wilson, poking around at the engine and looking Southern
California competent. Motion picture technicians scurry around
setting up microphones and loading a 35mm Arriflex camera, modified
for Techniscope (a relatively inexpensive process which ends
up being Cinemascope) and soundproofed (the technical term is
"blimped") for shooting sound.
Two-Lane Blacktop: a film about
road racers and their women, cross-country adventure, the Great
God Speed. An instant classic in the honored tradition of all
those driving movies, trips from somewhere to somewhere else,
which can represent any metaphysical journey you like. Easy Rider
was a movie like that, or at least it tried to be. Two-Lane Blacktop
will probably strike closer to the root of the genre, the two-lane
blacktop road that Chuck Berry knew, that Junior Walker sang
"Roadrunner" about. You know that road, don't you?
But the movie evades the genre
at the same time it embraces it, because James Taylor as the
driver and Dennis Wilson as the mechanic are rock musicians (in
real life) and longhairs, which puts things in a somewhat different
light. Neither James, 22, nor Dennis, 25, has ever acted in a
film before. Neither has Laurie, a 17-year-old high school graduate
who plays the girl they pick up somewhere in Arizona. The only
professional actor in the lot is Warren Oates -- but he's an
actor and a half. Oates who plays their symbolic adversary, GTO
is a thoroughgoing craftsman who has done a lot of TV, is one
of director Sam Peckinpah's regulars, and co-starred in The Shooting,
a western made by Monte Hellman.
Who's Monte Hellman? First off,
he's the director of Two-Lane Blacktop, but in 1965 he made a
pair of highly personal westerns starring Jack Nicholson -- Ride
In The Whirlwind and The Shooting -- that are already underground
classics. They have never been released in the United States
-- apparently, they were too heavy for the distributors in 1965.
But they were recently shown in Paris, and that's when things
began to get interesting. They were tremendously successful,
both in terms of critical reception and popular enthusiasm. Lines
ran around the block wherever they were shown, and the French
critics hailed Hellman as an American director of major importance.
As indeed he is.
Times have changed since 1965.
The producers have begun to realize that there is something called
"the youth market"-- film freaks who want more than
another remake of Tammy And The Bachelor, and now it seems that
the westerns may yet get distribution. In the meantime, Hellman
has been fronted $900,000 by Universal Pictures to make another
movie -- his first in five years.
The plot works this way: There
are these two street racers with a customized Chevy, who keep
it together by driving quarter-mile drag races on city streets
for bets of one or two hundred dollars. Sociologists call it
a sub-culture. Anyway, our two racers pick up a young girl hitchhiker
and drive off down the highway, looking for unsuspecting locals
to challenge their beat-up short, and occasionally crossing swords
with a GTO driven by an aging playboy with strange eyes.
In a small gas station in New
Mexico, the Chevy guys and GTO challenge each other to a cross-country
race to Washington, D.C., for "pink slips" -- the title
to the loser's car. They set off toward the East, but pretty
soon they're doing a number together -- helping each other with
repairs, exchanging advice, and even switching cars occasionally.
As they grow aware of their mutual interdependence, the race
becomes no more than a framework within which the other thing
can work itself out. Finally, somewhere near Memphis, the race
is abandoned -- nobody really cares about it any more. Finis.
Meanwhile, back on that hot desert
road, everybody is waiting to start the day's shooting. This
is a union production and there is a big crew -- it takes a while
to get everything cooking. Two-way radios crackle messages up
and down the road: "Drop everything and get a tank of drinking
water up here! We've got thirsty actors!" "OK, Walter,
it's gonna take a few minutes to get it loaded, but we're working
on it." James Taylor finishes shaving, and sings a line
or two from "Mean Mr. Mustard" to the desert:
He sleeps in the park
Shaves in the dark
Trying to save lightbulbs
Laurie, who looks like she has
just gotten out of the hospital for some undiagnosed high fever
(she has), picks up the song. She sings softly, privately, really
Sleeps in a hole in the road
Saving up to buy some clothes
He's a dirty old man
Such a dirty old man
His Sister Pam
Works in a shop
She never stops
She's a go-getter ...
The scene is about ready to be
shot: James and Laurie sit on the road shouIder while Dennis
opens the hood of the Chevy and looks inside. Cameras and sound
equipment surround the area.
"You know," says Laurie,
"this is just how I imagined this movie would be. All I
knew about it before I read the script was that it was about
some people who drive cross-country, and sometimes their car
breaks down and they fix it. And that's just what's happening"
"It's exactly as I envisioned
it," agrees James.
"Let's try some dialogue,"
says director Hellman, who is standing with the sound man. "How
are you going to talk to each other?"
"We are talking to each
other," says Laurie.
"OK," laughs James,
and says, "Steve Stills got busted."
"Oh, no," says Laurie.
"Was it for cocaine?"
"Well, they found some cocaine."
"HOW about some dialogue?"
Laurie mutters something, and
the sound man complains, "That's too soft, Monte, I'm not
"All she said was that she
wanted some orange juice," says James.
"I know the lines,"
says Laurie. -The first line is, 'I wish we were back in Santa
Fe.' The second line is, 'San Francisco is groovy.' The third
"The first line is, 'Is
it like this all across Oklahoma?"' corrects the script
"OK, OK," says Laurie.
They shoot the scene -- ten times
and finally Monte is satisfied. "Print it," he says,
and the crew starts breaking down the set-up.
Hellman is a demanding filmmaker.
James told us later that ten takes was far from extraordinary:
"Hell, we did sixteen on a scene shot in Santa Fe."
This is in great contrast to a director like Dennis Hopper, who
tends to let things happen as they will in front of the camera,
trading control for spontaneity.
Steve, the locations manager,
says, 'The hard part of directing a film isn't getting what you
want -- it's knowing what you want." Hellman knows exactly
what he wants, and usually bangs in until he gets it.
Dinner back at the motel with
James, Laurie, Steve and his lady Lynn, Beverly (publicity lady),
Jay ("technical advisor' -- the cat who keeps the cars running
-- 20-years-old and one of the most successful drivers in drag
racing), a few others. Ile film company tends to segregate a
little, the split being a matter of age, length of hair, and
state of consciousness more than anything else. The old trip.
For the straighter members of the crew, evenings that aren't
spent shooting are for television in the motel room, movie rap,
or an endless poker game. For the others there is James, music,
and the usual state-of-the-universe rap. With the exception of
Beverly, the dinner group is the state-of-the-universe hard core.
We speak about James' experiences
with Apple (which are not among his fondest memories), and the
conversation drifts predictably to John Lennon, Bob Dylan and
the problems attendant on being a superstar. Laurie's eyes grow,
distant, and she smiles a private smile. "I'll have my day,"
she says. She is kidding. About 85 percent.
After dinner she sits outside
on the grass with us, listening to rock on a cassette tape recorder
and watching the sun go down. She has been keeping a diary-a
mixed media collage with annotations in different colored inksand
she lets us read some of it:
Beginning of her story. She
is now sitting in a coffee shop drinking her tea downward when
it begins to bother her head . . . that this is the beginning
'Of her first Summer out of high school (although she has been
on her own for two years) and she hasn't any plans of what to
do. It's important to find some kind of beginnings of amusements,
so now is the time to bring herself into Summer happily! Now
that she has broached this odd predicament, she has to find an
answer right away.
... People intimidate small
children silent it's so pompous. It's a bad game. She Loves Piss
In Boots. With a silent shout, this Libra reaches out. My profundity
is not very impressive today.
At 6 AM the next day, we set
out for the UTE Gas Station, a beautiful, funky little place
two miles out of town. This is where the race begins, and the
sequence that will be shot here is one of the most important
in the film. It will take two full 12-hour days, to shoot the
scene-ten minutes of film in the finished picture.
Monte choreographs the first
part of the complicated sequence as the sun, just clear of the
horizon, slides higher in the sky. It's a beautiful, clear New
Mexico morning. Dennis Wilson is hanging around looking approachable,
and I have to go up and tell him how much I've dug the Beach
Boys over the years. He seems genuinely surprised and pleased.
"It was a lot of fun making that music," he says. "We
never used to rehearse-we'd just go in and have a party."
I ask about Brian's health food
store, and Dennis says, "He quit-it wasn't creative enough
for him." But mostly, Dennis wants to talk about a band
he is managing (or handling, or something) an African group called
The musical score for the film
is going to be lots of wonderful old road-rock songs Re "Maybelline."
and I suggest to Dennis that they are missing a bet by not including
the Beach Boys' roadracing classic, "Shut Down." Dennis
gets a pissed-off look on his face. "They're using all existing
music," he says, "which bores the shit out of me. They
ought to use something with a Moog, something you can get into."
Finally the scene is ready for
the camera, but there are problems. There are these two old Indians,
see, who are supposed to provide local color by sitting, silent
and inscrutable, in front of the gas station, and the problem
is that they refuse to be silent and inscrutable; they prefer
to make a running commentary in their own language on the goings
on around them.
"Quiet!" Yells Walter,
the production manager, after they spoil the first take. They
understand no English, however, and keep on rapping. Ten takes
later, with Monte satisfied, the Indians are still at it. Somewhere
in the interim it has been decided that a little Indian rap might
add to the scene's verisimilitude, and anyway nobody has figured
out a way to get through to them.
The crew breaks for lunch, and
the Indians cut out -- silently and inscrutably -- down the road.
Walter notices that they are gone. "Get those Indians!"
he yells, and an assistant jumps into a car and drives off after
them. He intercepts them a good way down the road, opens the
car door, and they climb obediently inside.
The Indian Question is still
on Walter's mind. "How are we gonna make sure that they
wear the same clothes tomorrow?" he asks. "We can't
tell them -they won't understand."
"Let's buy them new shirts
and hats and keep the ones they're wearing now," suggests
someone. It sounds like a good idea, and he heads into town to
buy the stuff. But when he returns, the Indians aren't going
for it-they like the clothes they are wearing, don't begin to
understand what kind of madness the white-eyes are trying to
put on them, and are generally unhappy with the whole scene.
Finally they are browbeaten into accepting ten dollars, and the
afternoon shooting gets underway.
Monte sets up the camera for
another angle, and shoots the same scene again. This is called
"covering" a sequence-getting different angles of the
same action. Here, too, Hellman's approach is classical., Covering
a sequence means that there can be little improvisation, because
the action has to match from one shot to the next, but it also
means that when the film is edited there will be many options
open to the editor. Since Hellman is a union editor and cuts
his own films ("I'm a better editor than a director,"
he said that evening), he knows just what kind of shots he will
The Indians grow unhappier by
the minute, and the older one is observed muttering mysteriously
and making gestures at the sky. Sure enough it clouds over, and
pretty soon heavy rain and roiling dust clouds have suspended
shooting. The Indians seem pleased, but the rest of us crowd
into the station and wait for it to blow over. James, Jay, and
a few others sing truck driving songs to pass the time: "I
pulled in a road house in Texas/A place called Hamburger Inn
. . ."
After a while the weather breaks,
the sun comes out hot and heavy as ever, and shooting goes on
until nearly 7 PM.
That evening, with Monte and
his lovely lady Jacqueline joining the hard core for dinner,
a mysterious exchange goes down. "Are you going to pick
up Joni tonight?" Jackie asks James.
"Yeah, at three in the morning."
"Do you think it will be easier with her here?"
"Well," says James, "at least I won't be going
crazy nights as well as days' "
Monte talks about movies: "I
like surface polish," he says, "like in Hitchcock's
North By Northwest. From the first frame, you know that nothing
has been left undone, and no cent has been left unspent. But
I'm not talking about perfection, exactly-who would want a perfect
* * *
There is another 6 AM call the
next day-back at the UTE station. In a big grassy field, while
the camera is being set up, Dennis tries to do wheelies on a
kid's mini-bike. "Will it do wheelies going into second?"
"Sure," says the kid.
"Dennis Wilson, on set!" yells Walter, but Dennis is
halfway across the field on the bike. He revs the engine, kicks
it into second, and gets the front wheel about an inch off the
"Dennis Wilson on set! Right now!"
"In a minute," says Dennis, and tries again. No luck.
"Are you sure this thing will do it?" he asks.
"Sure," says the kid.
After a while Dennis gives up, and the day's shooting begins.
But now James is missing. He is discovered sitting on the tailgate
of the station wagon, playing guitar and working on a new song:
Hey mister that's me up an
It's me who's singin' this song
And I cry every time you slip in I one more dime.
And let the boy sing the
one more time*
"Full rehearsal right now,"
James keeps on playing. "Right now!" insists Walter,
land James nods, but he plays another couple of choruses before
he puts down the guitar.
This morning is more of the same
endless retakes until Monte likes what he sees, moves the camera,
and shoots it again from another angle. Joni Mitchell arrives,
and floats around the set in a beautiful, long woolen dress,
an island of calm. James and Joni trade glances now and then,
but he is too busy to talk. After a while she takes a guitar
and drifts to the far edge of a field of tall, green grass, sits
gazing out over the Rock Island tracks, and sends thin guitar
music floating back through the air. You can only hear the guitar
when the wind is blowing right.
After lunch, Dennis gets onto
the mini-bike again, determined to get at least one good wheelie
out of it. He roars across the field, kicks it into second, pulls
back hard . . . and finds himself running after the bike which
has reared out from under him. Delighted, he tries again. Ten
or fifteen minutes later, reluctantly, he parks it in the garage
and walks over to the camera for the afternoon's work.
* * *
The next day, Sunday, was scheduled
as a holiday, so Saturday night was a party. The hard core ended
up in James' motel room, partaking of the usual refreshments
while some fairly amazing music came down. Joni played dulcimer,
James played guitar, and the rest of us contributed the best
harmonies we could manage on a batch of songs which ranged from
old Lambert, Hendricks and Ross goodies (we got all the way through
"Twisted" with hardly a missed word) to "Mr. Tambourine
Man," James' incredible version of "The Hunter,"
and Joni's "For Free.,' Then, out of nowhere, it was "Circle
Game," and we let Joni and James sing it by themselves,
for each other, but for us too. I cried through most of it, because
it was about as beautiful as a song can get and still be in the
same room with you. It was one of those magic nights.
At two in the morning we noticed
that it was two in the morning, and it was over.
* * *
But it wasn't over, because Sunday
afternoon it moved out to the pool and kept right on happening.
Joni knitted a sweater while James played his guitar, Dean Stanton
(an actor) played his, and the music rolled on into the afternoon.
I had wanted to do a taped interview with James, and we tried
it for a while, but it didn't work. We had been rapping for a
couple of days, and at this point the tape recorder was just
getting in the way. After a couple of minutes I said, "Hey,
this is really hard. Unless you've got something heavy to say,
"No, I can't think of anything
else I want to say," said James, as relieved as I was. "Except
that I do dig doing a movie." He grinned. "It's a growing
* * *
That night there was a champagne
birthday party for Beverly in the production office-a two-room
motel suite. James and Joni played for a while, their usual repertoire,
until James shot a glance at Laurie, who was sitting in the comer,
and began to sing:
They're gonna put me in the
They're gonna make a big star out of me
I'll play the part of a man who's sad and lonely
And all I have to do is act naturally
Laurie smiled and sang along,
her eyes locked with James' until the song was finished. Hardly
anyone noticed that private code messages were being exchanged,
but later that night Laurie said, "I love it when James
sings that song-l can jump right in and sing along, 'cause that's
my song too."
Presently, most of the crew left
to look at the latest rushes, and we looked around the suddenly
empty room. The only ones left were James, Joni, Laurie, Dean,
a newly-arrived reporter from Show, Jerry and me.
"Well, we're down to the hard core," said Dean.
"You know, it really is the hard core," said someone.
"Right on," said James. "Is there any more champagne
I went over to the ice bucket and looked. "Shit, man, they
left us half a bottle!"
"Quick, lock the door," said Joni, and we locked the
door and shared out the wine. James sang "Carolina,"
and he and Joni were just starting "Circle Game" again
when there was a loud banging at the door. It was Walter.
"I didn't know it was a private party," he joked. "Go
ahead, I've just got to make a few phone calls."
James started into "Hey Mister," as Walter dialed the
Southern California is as
I can be
And I can be as blue as
the deep blue sea*
Walter: "Yes, you'll need
a 4:30 flight from Amarillo, and that gets here . . . uh . .
. well, you'll have to get an earlier flight. No. we tried to
get the man, but we couldn't get anybody, so . . . can you be
I need your golden gated city
a hole in the head
Like a hole in the head I'm free*
"No, I can't get you any
closer than Amarillo by plane. We'll have to work by bus and
. . . yes, if you can pay for it we'll reimburse you when you
get here. We're in Tucumcari, on Route 66. Now, if there's any
trouble . . ."
Hey mister that's me up on
It's me who's singin this song
And I cry every time you slip in
one more dime
And let the boy sing the sad one
one more time*
*Excerpts from "Hey Mister
That's Me," 0 1970 by James Taylor.
FILMOGRAPHY OF MONTE HELLMAN:
The Beast From Haunted Cave (1959); Back Door To Hell (1964);
Flight To Fury (1964); Ride in The Whirlwind (1965); The Shooting
(1965); Two-Lane Blacktop (1970). Also, short sections of the
following films, dates and directors unknown: Creature From the
Haunted Sea, The Last Woman On Earth, Ski Troop Attack, "and
a good portion of The Terror."