Harry Dean Stanton

Partly Fiction

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In Tom Huber's film, Harry Dean Stanton: Crossing Mulholland, the subject says: "... I had to decide if I wanted to be a singer or an actor. I was always singing. I thought if I could be an actor, I could do all of it." Though Partly Fiction, his debut album, appears when he is a spry 88, Stanton has done plenty of singing and harmonica playing in his career. This is the soundtrack to director Sophie Huber's film of the same name. It features conversations with the actor, friends, and colleagues. Much time is spent in Stanton's living room as he sings and plays, covering vintage country and rock & roll songs with Jamie James (Kingbees) on acoustic guitar -- they have a musical partnership dating from the '80s. The music here is rough, threadbare, immediate. His voice sounds like Jack Kerouac's in "Old Angel Midnight": world-weary, timeless, never frail, with the wisdom, tragedy, and magic of the ages in its grain. Stanton's delivery is tentative in the opening verses of Roy Orbison's "Blue Bayou," but his apprehension vanishes by the refrain. His wavering pitch seeks the meaning in the lyrics underneath its metaphors. His between-song banter is priceless. When he introduces Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talking," he asks jokingly, "Do I have any lines? How about silence? Straight ahead." Then his gaze turns inward; he's singing for himself. In the spirited version of Chuck Berry's "The Promised Land," Stanton simultaneously reveals the composer's poetic genius, and that the America portrayed in it is almost a Homerian myth turned back on itself. In "She Thinks I Still Care," his airy baritone makes the tune a conversation piece. His protagonist unsuccessfully attempts to convince himself -- and the guy on the next barstool -- of his conviction. His readings of "Tennessee Whiskey," Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night," Willie Nelson's "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," Paul Kennerley's "All My Rewards," and the reprise of "Cancion Mixteca" (a traditional song from the soundtrack to Paris, Texas) are all weathered, beautiful romances delivered without sentimentality. He introduces the latter by speaking the translated lyrics before singing it in Spanish. Stanton closes with "Danny Boy." After explaining its origins, he sings it midtempo, from a place of such depth, it's plain that the words and melody are ingrained in his heart. He gets out of the way and lets them move through his voice. Partly Fiction is as revealing as the film in offering a partial portrait of the man. Musically, Stanton's belief in song as the direct communication of some kind of truth on its own terms, is born out in this ragged but indispensable document. As for what took him so long to record this, to paraphrase Ray Wylie Hubbard, he probably didn't want to peak too soon.

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