During the Sixties Taos was a rural hippie Mecca. Communes like New Buffalo, Reality Construction Company and The Hog Farm popped up around this Northern New Mexican town like ‘shrooms in a field of cow pies. In 1969 I spent a few weeks at the Lama Foundation, a commune 20 miles outside Taos, where I lived in a small A-frame and spent most my time reading books and staring off into the endless New Mexico sky. This quiet mountain area was propelled into the national consciousness when Dennis Hopper shot footage in the vicinity of Taos for Easy Rider. It kind of changed things forever. Taos went from being a low key destination to a center for hippie tourism. The locals hated it.
I moved back to Taos in 2002 and lived there for seven years. The legacy of Dennis Hopper and Easy Rider still color the town and what was once seen as an intrusion by a bunch of Hollywood hipsters has now become an honorable part of the town’s history.
Hopper ended up living in Taos for a short time. He bought the historic Mabel Dodge Lujan house and the El Cortez movie theater in 1970. Throughout his life, Hopper would return to Taos. He was made honorary Mayor of the town and is buried in Jesus Nazareno Cemetery, Ranchos de Taos.
It was in Taos that Hopper struggled with his follow-up film to Easy Rider, the misunderstood, flawed, masterpiece The Last Movie. Hopper practically lost his mind (some say he did lose it) while trying to edit the film into a commercially viable product. He spent a year doing so and the end result was both a critical and commercial disaster.
I saw The Last Movie when it was released in 1971. I found it an amazing head film that rivaled Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo for sheer mind-blowing brilliance. But my first viewing was enhanced by some Nepalese finger hash and subsequent small screen viewings of the movie haven’t been quite as psychedelically satisfying.
While Hopper was madly trying to edit The Last Movie, he called upon the help of Jodorowsky and the Chilean brujo went to Taos to offer his insight.
In a 2008 interview with Damien Love, Jodorowsky discussed the Taos experience:
I had showed El Topo privately around the studios, I showed it to Metro Golden Mayer, Universal. And, all the time, the people at the screenings were enthusiastic, but then, when the salesmen came along, they would say, “We don’t know to sell this picture.” And Dennis Hopper was at one of these private shows, and he liked El Topo a lot. And so he invited me to come to Taos. And in Taos, he had four or six editing machines and twelve editors working. At that time, he didn’t know what to with The Last Movie. And I saw the material, I thought it was a fantastic story. And I said, “I can help.” I was there for two days, and in two days I edited the picture. I think I made it very good. I liked it. But when he went to show it to Hollywood, they didn’t want it, because by then he was in conflict with them. Later, I think that Dennis Hopper decided that he couldn’t use my edit, because he needed to do it himself. And so he destroyed what I did, and I don’t know what he did with it later. I never told that to anybody through the years, but I am sure that if, one day, they found my edit, it was fantastic. Because the material was fantastic. I took out everything that was too much like a love story or too much Marxist politics. For me it was one of the greatest pictures I have ever seen. It was so beautiful, so different. I don’t know what it is like now, how it has been edited, the final thing, I don’t know if he conserved anything of mine. But it was a fantastic film. One thing I do remember from back then, though, was how strong the smell of Dennis Hopper’s underarm perspiration was. It was so strong, and one day — he had I think ten women there — and I put everyone in a line in order for them to smell the perfume of Dennis Hopper. Because he never changed his shirt, for days upon days. He smelled very strong. That I remember.
My good friend Bill Whaley, who has been a seminal part of Taos’s art culture since the 1960’s, wrote about his encounters with Hopper around this time in local paper The Horsefly, of which Whaley was the publisher. Here’s Bill’s account of first seeing The Last Movie at a private screening in Taos and a rumination on what Hopper was going through while editing the movie.
If I’m not mistaken, El Topo was first shown at El Cortez Theatre in Rachos de Taos, Dec. 13, 1970. At the time, I managed the theater for Dennis Hopper. Then he was still editing The Last Movie at the Mabel Dodge House. The latter was about four to six hours in length. David or Dennis or perhaps Diana Schwab, David’s secretary phoned me and asked me to arrange for a special screening of a film on Sunday afternoon, which turned out to be El Topo. After watching El Topo, which blew everyone’s mind, we watched the rough version of The Last Movie. That evening, we showed the regularly scheduled feature: Fellini’s Satyricon. My mind was deluged by too many images. I never recovered. Due to its complex themes and brilliant cinematography, I remember thinking that Dennis might turn out to be the next American Fellini if he could edit The Last Movie with some sense of its mimetic qualities. That promise remained unrealized.
In Taos, the real Dennis Hopper appeared to get all mixed up with the artistic conceit or character represented up there on the screen of The Last Movie. Whether due to the demons or stimulants that dominated his psyche, he had committed himself to a course of action that ultimately undermined his project. As Dennis edited The Last Movie he appeared to call on the same techniques of personal emotion that a method actor uses as inspiration, but this time employed to cut the film. Somewhere in the cross over between film and life, Dennis appeared to lose access to the rational faculties and objective reality that are also a necessary part of life and the artistic process–at least in terms of the conventions of story telling and a semblance of acceptable behavior.”
Hopper stories in Taos are legend. He could be a loud-mouthed, gun-toting drunk – he showed up hammered at a city council meeting toting a shotgun – who tried to fuck every flower child that moved (foreshadowing Frank Booth). He could also be a gentle, stoned philosopher who appreciated the deep spiritual aura radiating from the magnificent Sangre de Cristo mountain range that towered over Taos like great stone gods. He hung out with artists and hippies and did his damnedest to support the local culture. But in a small town where locals have trouble accepting outsiders, Hopper may have been too much of shit stirrer, too big of a presence and too batshit crazy, even for the open-air madhouse that is Taos.
Locals claim that Taos Mountain will steal a piece of your soul so that you must stay in order to feel whole or the mountain will ultimately reject you, sending you on your way. With Hopper, the mountain did a little of both. Ultimately, it accepted him…or else one day he’s gonna crawl out of his grave and come raging into town with shotgun barrel blazing.
In L.M. (Kit) Carson’s 1971 documentary The American Dreamer we follow Hopper as he struggles with the film making process, hot tubs with groupies, rambles, pontificates, mindfucks, and gradually goes gloriously mad while wrestling with celluloid and the visions in his ever-expanding brain.
For more of Bill Whaley’s tales of Dennis Hopper in Taos, visit The Horsefly archives.