Rolling Stone October 15, 1970

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 to herself:

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?" insists Monte.

Laurie mutters something, and the sound man complains, "That's too soft, Monte, I'm not getting it."

"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 line is.-"

"The first line is, 'Is it like this all across Oklahoma?"' corrects the script girl.

"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 Flame.

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 need.

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 movie?"

* * *

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?" he asks.
"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 ground.
"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 the jukebox
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
sad one
one more time*

"Full rehearsal right now," says Walter.
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, let's quit."

"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 experience."

* * *

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 movies
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. Probably me.
"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 phone:

Southern California is as blue 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 here tomorrow?"

I need your golden gated city like
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 the jukebox
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."