Born to Be Live: ‘Easy Rider’ Gets a Concert/Screening Premiere at Radio City

Roger McGuinn and Steppenwolf's John Kay reprised their famous soundtrack songs, and in some cases extended them while the movie took a time-out.

Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider' Gets a Concert/Screening Premiere in NY
Larry Marano/Shutterstock

In a year full of major 50th anniversary commemorations — from Woodstock to the moon landing — why not one for “Easy Rider,” Dennis Hopper’s hippie-biker flick that was released on July 14, 1969?

That was the idea when a rep for Peter Fonda, who starred in the film as the laid-back Captain America, reached out to New York impresario Peter Shapiro and Live Nation earlier this year about staging an event where the movie would be screened with the soundtrack performed live by some of the legendary musicians who appeared on it.

When Friday night’s “Easy Rider Live” show at Radio City Hall Music in New York was announced in late July, Fonda had not yet passed away from lung cancer. Before his death at age 79 on August 16, Fonda encouraged fans to come, saying, “Enjoy the new print. Sing along with the songs. Laugh with the humor! Remember the spirit! Find the love.”

Fonda was represented by his third wife, Margaret “Parky” DeVogelaere, on stage at the show; Hopper’s widow Victoria was also in attendance. A full house of elder New York hipsters turned out for the event. In the crowd were music industry stalwarts like Elvis Costello, Hal Wilner and Larry “Ratso” Sloman.

“Easy Rider Live” had its work cut out for it. “People want something different,” Shapiro tells Variety. “It’s hard to be different. We never had a full run-through.”

Enlisting 10-time Grammy winner T Bone Burnett as musical director took some of the weight off Shapiro’s shoulders. But it was mostly Shapiro’s program. Fonda had previously reached out to John Kay of Steppenwolf and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds to perform their “Easy Rider” classics during the screening. Shapiro added Peter Stampfel from the Holy Modal Rounders as well as Nicole Atkins, and decided that local African-American musicians led by guitarist Tash Neal would be the night’s house band.

The program lasted two hours, though the movie clocks in at 95 minutes. After the opening cocaine scene where Phil Spector plays the buyer, the band launched into “The Pusher” with Kay singing, “You know, I smoked a lot of grass / Oh Lord, I popped a lot of pills.” The band nailed it as the title credits rolled and then roared into the movie’s signature song, “Born to Be Wild,” as Wyatt and Billy set off on their quixotic journey.

Because the film has no score and long periods of little to no dialog, it’s particularly suited for adding live music as it’s being watched without marring the viewing experience — and for taking a cinematic time-out to let songs play out longer. During “Born to Be Wild,” the movie paused for a few minutes and let the band play before resuming. These little lags gave people time to applaud and then get back to the story unfolding on the big screen.

During the long commune scene, McGuinn performed the Carole King/Gerry Goffin song “Wasn’t Born to Follow” twice; it was sandwiched around Atkins’ worthy rendition of “The Weight,” which was written by Robbie Robertson and first performed by the Band, though the soundtrack version was by the group Smith.

Just before the smoke-out at the campfire, Stampfel came out for “If You Want to Be a Bird (Bird Song),” the humorous Antonio Duren song that was performed by Stampfel’s Holy Modal Rounders on the soundtrack. This was followed by Atkins’ version of the thoroughly appropriate “Don’t Bogart Me” (known colloquially as “Don’t Bogart That Joint”) written by Eliot Ingber and Larry “Stash” Wagner, who led the band Fraternity of Man. Unfortunately they weren’t there to perform their song as Kay and Stampfel were.

Prior to the café scene, during another road montage, Neal and his band, the Getback, launched into an incendiary cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Were 9,” showing the promise of the New York-based guitarist who regularly plays at Shapiro’s Brooklyn Bowl venue. The heavy tune signals the change in the movie’s tone and precedes the killing of George. The happy glow of the bike tour is now weighted with the sadness of violence and leads to Wyatt’s premonition that they too will suffer gruesome deaths.

But first they arrived in New Orleans to the funereal sound of the Electric Prunes’ “Kyrie Elieson,” with Atkins on vocals, followed by the more upbeat march of “When the Saints” performed by three local horn players.

The dazzling acid scene in the cemetery is another that would be copied by many filmmakers, with quick cuts, psychedelic imagery and a general sense of freak-out. All is not well with Wyatt and Billy, as Wyatt makes clear during their last campout when Billy gleefully says, “We’re rich,” and Wyatt delivers his “We blew it” denouement.

As they take their final ride across the Mississippi River, McGuinn returned for the last two songs, Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and his and Dylan’s “The Ballad of Easy Rider,” which plays out as first Billy and then Wyatt are gunned down by rednecks in a pickup truck.

The devastating ending — of course, most of the crowd knew it was coming — was followed by Kay’s encore of “Magic Carpet Ride,” with the idea of lightening the mood.

“We did this for Peter (Fonda),” Kay explained. “Perhaps he’s enjoying that we did follow through and do this.”

The story of “Easy Rider” is a story of Hollywood at the turn of the 1960s. Rebels like Fonda and Hopper were starting to have a say in what kind of movies the industry would turn out. “There were no films about my generation,” Fonda noted. “I knew that this was going to change everything.”

The two actors were part of Roger Corman’s stable along with Jack Nicholson, who nearly stole “Easy Rider” in his supporting role as alcoholic lawyer George Hanson. They appeared in Corman B-movie classics like “The Wild Angels” (1966), “The Trip” (1967) and “Psych-Out” (1968). “Easy Rider” proved to be the peak of the biker movie era. It cost $500,000 to make and earned $60 million at the box office, the third highest gross of 1969.

“Hopper and Fonda were renegades, Hollywood bashers, the Vietcong of Beverly Hills,” Peter Biskind wrote in his 1998 book, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.” “To them, it was vindication, beating Hollywood at its own game, proof that you could get high, express yourself and make money all at the same time.”

Will there be more “Easy Rider Live” performances? “We didn’t have any set plans,” says Shapiro. “We wanted to see how it worked. This could be in other places. We’ll see. But, like in the movie, Radio City was our New Orleans.”