My first meeting with Harry was for a feature Time magazine did on him some years ago. I was impressed that I was put in touch with Harry, not a publicist, manager or assistant and we made the arrangements over the phone for him to arrive the at 11:30 the following Saturday at my studio after he took care of some other business. I told him that we would only need a few hours to satisfy Time’s needs and his sole request was that we not hire a groomer. From the relaxed tone of our conversation I realized that this was not likely to be a punctual shoot so by 10am we were set-up and ready to go just in case he arrived early.
At noon I was still confident that Harry would appear at any moment. At 2pm I started to get concerned. By 4pm I was confident that this shoot wasn’t going to happen. At 5 pm I decided to call Harry before I pulled the plug. Harry answered on the first ring. Before I could suggest that perhaps he had forgotten about the shoot he wanted to make sure that I wasn’t calling to postpone. Confused, I just continued to listen until I realized that he was right on schedule for showing up at 11:30…at night. This was my induction into Harry’s world where everything makes perfect sense…if you are the unique life-form that is Harry Dean Stanton.
The whole crew went to Little Tokyo for dinner as we braced for what was to become a late night. At about midnight Harry showed up straight from the premiere of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ with a small entourage which included his friend and fellow musician Dave Stewart of the Eurthymics. After we shot the job for Time we relit the set and photographed the whole group as they played traditional Spanish music with Harry on vocals. We carried on until even the most understanding of neighbor’s made us aware of the time. It turned out to be a great session and I made some relationships that I value to this day.
The following week I was shooting portraits of prominent music producers for a Solid State Logic campaign and found myself at Dave Stewart’s studio in Encino, The Chapel, photographing him working with SSL’s new console. As I was wrapping-up Harry stopped by and what started as lunch by Dave’s pool spiraled into a late evening of free-form entertainment that would repeat itself many times. By the time I left I was already on-board to work with Dave on a project he was filming that featured Harry, I believe the working title was Squink but couldn’t swear to it. During this period I spent a lot of time at Dave’s house which served a sort of clubhouse where people from every walk of entertainment would just come and go, you never knew whom you might encounter from the very famous to the obscure, Dave attracted fascinating personalities and was always a willing and gracious host. It was Dave that first introduced me to Tom Petty. The image on the back of Tom’s Full Moon Fever album was shot during the making of Squink.
During the project I got to know Harry pretty well and we shared some pretty insane experiences….suffice it to say that somewhere in the California desert is a second story hotel room that has had every inch of it’s walls and ceiling (including the bathroom, counters, toilet, etc.) meticulously painted bright green for reasons none of us can adequately explain.
When Dave’s project had wrapped filming Harry called and invited me to his home to share some of the images I had made during that production. Harry lived off of Mullholland in a modest home. I knocked on the door and was greeted by Harry wearing a pink bathrobe and black socks. He invited me to sit across from him in the living room where he was watching the evening news on a screen obstructed by his pants hanging off the top of the television where they had been discarded while Harry ate beans from a can and half a cantaloupe. Sensing there was something odd about this picture he paused, looked down at the can of beans in his hand, shifted his focus to his disgarded pants and then back to me. He focused his attention on the cantaloupe, you could see the wheels turning. After a moment, Harry showed the good manners expected of a southern gentleman and offered me the can of beans. Classic. It all made sense to me as I could relate to his condition, after all, that hotel room didn’t paint itself.
Before he formed The Harry Dean Stanton Orchestra which served as monday night’s house band at The Mint on Pico in West L.A. and occasionally played at the now defunct Jack’s Sugar Shack in Hollywood, I was invited to attend his solo performance in the back room of McCabe’s Guitar Shop in West L.A. McCabe’s is a tiny room with folding chairs but It was packed with a pretty impressive crowd of veteran musicians and actors. Before Harry’s set, what appeared to be an incredibly intoxicated homeless man in a wheelchair was rolled onto the stage shouting obscenities. After telling us about his van ride to the show from Arizona which included stories of evading police, shop-lifting, masturbating and bar-hopping he proceeded to play guitar with the aid of a fork he had strapped to his right hand since apparently he didn’t have the full use of those fingers. That night I was introduced to and became a huge fan of Vic Chesnutt. Vic was such a lovable character, a unique talent that seemed to almost dare you to find him charismatic. His performance knocked me out – he wasn’t easy to follow. Harry took to the stage and impressed the industry crowd with the sensitivity that he brought to his vocals and guitar as he performed a solo set of mostly traditional folk and Spanish songs and shared some amazing stories.
To try to encapsulate the career and talents of Harry Dean Stanton would be impossible as it has spanned nearly nine decades and he continues to create compelling art and give notable performances. The documentary, Partly Fiction, shows just how elusive that task can be as it shines light on the complexity, genius and matter-of-fact wit that Harry embodies. I was pleased that they included some of my images in telling his story.