“Dreaming was as easy as believing it was never gonna end.”
--Kris Kristofferson from the song, “Leaving Her Was Easier.”
The music scene in the 1960s saw a lot of stars break out and just as many break down. The lucky ones were the one-hit wonders that just faded away, slipping into nostalgia and collecting royalties, as the next inevitable big thing came along. Many more were casualties of alcoholism, drugs, madness, guns, and the law. The 1972 drama, Cisco Pike, starring Kris Kristofferson as the eponymous Cisco, explores the idea of a once upon a time rock star living through the aftermath, dreaming only of a comeback.
You see, Cisco’s been busted twice for dealing and now that he’s set up in a small apartment in Venice Beach with his yogi girlfriend, Sue (the ubiquitous rock and roll cinema muse Karen Black), he just wants someone in the record business to appreciate his new recordings. Right away, we know Cisco is hard up— when we meet him, he’s walking into a music store intent on pawning an acoustic guitar autographed by Dylan, Cash, and other legends. The storeowner (poet Roscoe Lee Browne) is more interested in some “coke from Cuzco” than the guitar.
Gene Hackman’s Officer Leo Holland, a weird and wired-up policeman with a jogging penchant, has busted Cisco twice. Officer Holland has lately uncovered a Mexican pot ring, scoring a mother lode of marijuana and rather than report it to his precinct, desires Cisco’s help in unloading it for him. Cisco is naturally suspicious that this might be some kind of set-up but his nemesis seems “honestly crooked.” Holland needs ten grand pretty bad— bad enough that he’s promised Cisco he can keep whatever superfluous profits remain. Only problem, he needs the money by Monday, less than 72 hours away, or it’s big trouble.
Let's Make a Deal
Much of the film is Cisco journeying through Los Angeles in this hourglass timeframe, hooking up with characters in back streets and bars, recording studios and venues, in an altogether eccentric cityscape like something out of a lost world: dealers named Buffalo in pimp fashions eating at a local diner, Hare Krishnas dancing in front of the Troubadour, and Beverly Hills millionaires buying ten kilos of grass in their tennis wardrobes. Though these characters are holding on to the good times blazed by the sixties comet-- hip with the fashions and the lingo-- they're not nineteen anymore and the fast life is beating them down.
This is no more apparent than when Cisco’s old bandmate shows up unexpectedly. Jesse (Harry Dean Stanton) hasn’t slept in three days— he’s a meth addict, completely oblivious to the tension between Cisco and Sue (caused by the former’s return to dealing). Once he’s got his high going, Jesse babbles manically about getting the band back together: “Hey, listen, this time we save our money, man. No more color TVs or Hollywood sports cars. We take our time, get it tight and then slip it in there slick as shit, man!” It’s a junkie’s ramble, a dream of second chances, a receding future put off by one more hit. Cisco’s no dummy: he knows that as things stand, it will never be like it was.
‘Who’s to say you’ve thrown it away for a song?’ sings Kristofferson over the enveloping personal disasters. The song, “The Pilgrim- Chapter 33,” is more famous for Cybil Shepherd’s Betsy describing to Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle his strange personality in Taxi Driver: “He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher… partly truth and partly fiction… a walking contradiction.” But the language ably fits Kristofferson’s character. Who is Cisco Pike? Is he a musician who deals or a dealer who plays music? Cisco carries his product in his guitar case, further confusing the identity issue. When he meets Merna (Warhol superstar Viva) and she pins him as a dealer, he sighs, “I used to be a teenage idol.” Cisco may sign to a new label but he’ll never be a teen idol again. “You wouldn’t believe it, Lynn,” Merna tells her young groupie friend. “Things were insane then.” It’s only 1972, but already the 1960s are a long time ago, as happens when a personal narrative veers terribly off track.
Hackman’s corrupt policeman, explaining his problems, says, “You do things and then you wonder why you’re doing things:” a conundrum transcending humanity, from the dealer to the cop. How you handle yourself once you’ve figured this out determines whether you are a fatalist or not. But change is not easy, even for the beautiful and the brave. In some films you have to go through hell to get there.