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Film

Hear Me Out: Harry Dean Stanton was the archetype outsider artist

He stands in the crooked desert looking like an anthropomorphised cactus. A daft cap perched on his affable head. And then this creature makes its way through the sands with the same age-old wander of a tumbleweed that has been blowing for indeterminate aeons with an unknown mission all of its own. This Paris, Texas vignette is the way that Harry Dean Stanton is fondly remembered—some barely human entity wandering in from God knows where for God knows what, but always endearing and alluring with a sense of timeless mystery and an air of crooked mirth. 

This was not your typical movie star. And when his album Partly Fiction arrived in 2014, it was clear that he wasn’t your typical musician either. Once more, the album sported the sound of something that had blown in from afar. The weathered journey had rendered it dogeared and crooked. It sounded ugly at first, some dogrel-hollering that had lost the concept of keys and rhythm. However, in due time, the music settled in like the pesky neighbourhood cat that you can’t quite shoo from your garden until the moment you think, ‘There’s something about his music y’know’. 

However, at this stage, it is pertinent to consider the humble dive-bar musician who has learnt all the chords to ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’ and kept their vocal pipes nice and clean in the hopes that their stylings might be recognised by a big wig. And it’s important to consider the handsome Hollywood hopeful holed up in a hotel room reading all the manuals on conventional acting techniques and preparing for their desert wandering role by dehydrating and exposing themselves to dangerous levels of UV until they look like a prune—a prune destined to be pipped to the Paris, Texas position by a star who seems have read the casting call in the classifieds while perched on a bar stool a matter of moments ago. 

This phenomenon has frustrated a million hopefuls. In the Coen brothers film The Man Who Wasn’t There, there is a scene whereby a pretentious French piano instructor dismissively explains, in roundabout terms, ‘I don’t know what it is, but she hasn’t got it’. On the surface, this mystic je ne sais quoi of artistry may well seem like the sort of elitist tripe that has allowed trashcans to sell for millions at the Museum of Modern Art, but I’ll be damned if there isn’t more than a grain of truth to it.

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Usually, that missing mystery that separates the great from the merely competent gets put down to soul or some sort of star quality. But in the case of Stanton, it is obfuscated further still. His is a charisma that even trumps the usual necessary levels of competency—it’s the sort that would have the French piano teacher proclaiming, ‘I don’t what it is, but he hasn’t got it, he’s got something else entirely’. This is the potion of the Outsider artist. 

You see, there once existed a band called The Shaggs who Frank Zappa championed as “better than The Beatles”. In truth, they sound more like the lobotomised Beatles. And that’s hardly surprising—they had no interest in music, had hardly heard any conventional pop, and couldn’t play it, but their father was told by a palm reader that they would be stars so he tasked them with coming up with rock ‘n’ roll without ever having heard it.

Naturally, the result is a mess, but it’s a mess that their baffled, bemused and beleaguered producer finally said, after years of wondering what the hell he had been part of, “A lot people have tried to reproduce anything even coming close to what The Shaggs did, but it seems like nobody can do it because nobody can do it.” 

The same can be said of Stanton. His ungainly ways in music and movies are inimitable. Not in the wow of Al Pacino’s controlled bravura, not in the multitude of emotions all at once that Francis McDormand can tackle you with, but in some mystery way that can only be summed up as charm. The term Outsider art is one that is often fought about, but the beauty of it helps explain what we mean by it: The notion that there is a story beyond what you see or hear. Lingering in the long shadow of Stanton’s stroll onto our screens and the imperfections of his acting thereafter, or his shambolic music studio takes, is the sense of a story.

It gives the impression that Stanton, for some mad reason, would’ve been wandering through the Texan desert that day anyway even if there wasn’t a camera present, and that he planned to croak his way through classic folk anthems on his porch, there just happened to be recording equipment present. He is naturalistic and humanised in this sense, but he is definitely an outsider, a one-man demimonde with a tale to tell, and unusual means of telling it, but he’s travelled a long way so he’s going to try anyway no matter how odious it might seem to our mainstream ears at first… and it’ll only be partly fiction.

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