Listening closely, entertaining a variety of interpretations as possibilities running simultaneously beside one another, I wander, first among the hallways of David Bowie’s “Memory of a Free Festival,” already a bit distant and nostalgic, the gathering recalled in past tense: “It was…It was…It was.”
Bowie’s lyrical persona sings from Milton territory — trying to reconstitute hope amid summer’s end, paradise lost. By song’s end, distant festival-goers join voices in a chorus of reconciliation, animated by the sentiment, “The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party.” Afterwards, I re-watch Easy Rider, noting the semantic riches of the film’s opening shot of a trompe l’oeil mural of pre-Conquest Mexico on the side of a pit-stop called La Contenta Bar in Taos, New Mexico. The scene depicts US-Mexican relations in terms of the black-market capitalist exchange-relation of the drug deal. The Captain and Billy are just small-timers, their counterculture a mere cargo cult, the film notes in the next scene, where the two men crouch defensively as the planes of the global techno-capitalist superpower fly overhead. Look at Peter Fonda loading his bike’s American flag embroidered fuel tank with rolls of dollars as Steppenwolf sings “The Pusher.” He and Hopper walk like natives of the space age among desert farmhouse ruins. They seem as alien to these landscapes as their motorbikes — products of a different stage of development. The bikes make the horses of white settler-colonialist ranchers skittish. The Captain pays respect by complimenting the ranchers on their “spread.” “You do your own thing on your own time: you should be proud.” Hippies appear here as mere nouveau riche speculators eyeing potential property on the frontier. The montage sequence that accompanies “The Weight” is an ode to the magic of the deserts of the American Southwest. Passing a joint back and forth with a paisley-bandana’d hitchhiker, Captain and Billy learn of the disrespectful nature of their colonial heritage. After soaking it in, the Captain asks the others if they’ve ever wished they were someone else. The same theme reemerges later in the film. After smoking his first joint around a campfire on the way to Mardi Gras, Jack Nicholson’s character George Hanson comes alive with far-out tales of aliens from a more advanced civilization living among Americans since 1946. Both he and the Bowie of “Memory of a Free Festival” refer to these figures as “Venusians.” By the end of the film, though, I’m left wondering: Are Captain and Billy victims of a Faustian bargain, as J.D. Markel argues, following the path of Dante’s Inferno?