The underheralded SoCal folk-rock drug drama Cisco Pike screens at the Walter Reade tonight; it’ll be followed by a live set from country rock’s D. Charles Speer and the Helix, and then an afterparty with open bar.
In Cisco Pike (1972), former Janis Joplin paramour and songwriter (“Me and Bobby McGee”) Kris Kristofferson, in his first starring role, plays an unemployed L.A. rocker who enjoyed his fifteen minutes in the 60s but whose uncompromisingly laid-back sound is now deemed too experimental for FM radio. Or that’s what director Bill L. Norton’s script calls for, anyway. To these ears, the four Kristofferson originals on the soundtrack—maudlin acoustic guitar numbers, reminiscent of the Leonard Cohen songs used a year earlier in McCabe & Mrs. Miller—would have been right at home on the airwaves in 1972. Indeed, what’s supposedly an anti-commercial style sounds a lot like the countrified folk rock of Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Tom Waits, and the Eagles, local acts that had all recently signed to Asylum Records, David Geffen’s new label for just this sort of SoCal thing.
Exploitation films are usually, by definition, clueless about their subjects, but in the case of Cisco Pike, a laughable effort by Columbia Pictures to cash in on the sex, drugs, and rock and roll generation, I’m not sure it matters.
Because beneath the promise of countercultural voyeurism, Cisco Pike is a highly entertaining genre picture about an ex-con who tries to go straight only to get pulled back in. Cisco has a five-year sentence hanging over his head for marijuana dealing, and the crooked narc who arrested him twice already (Gene Hackman) has just offered to change his testimony for a favor. Hackman’s cop, in one of the film’s many outrageous plot contrivances, needs money to meet a margin call (“you wouldn’t understand”) and he wants Cisco to move the 100 kilos of Mexican grass he’s just stolen from the least scary-looking drug trafficker ever to hit the big screen (Chuy Franco). If Cisco doesn’t agree, Hackman and his Popeye Doyle moustache will arrest him all over again.
The middle hour of the film concerns Kristofferson’s reluctant return to dealing, as well as his unsuccessful attempts to hide this fact from Karen Black, his tirelessly patient, yoga-practising “old lady.” As our hero pours through his little black address book and works the payphones (in some nicely assembled montages) everywhere he goes, people are more interested in his drugs than in the demo tapes he’s also carrying. Kristofferson is magnetic in these scenes. He plays the character as a luckless but unflappable hippie, a Tramp for the Age of Aquarius, a Dude abiding. “I saw you guys at the Forum in what was it, ’68?,” asks one A&R exec (Allan Arbus, ex-husband of Diane) who’s trying to lowball Cisco on the price. “Shrine, ‘67,” Kristofferson corrects him.
The film also features appearances by Warhol associate Viva—who invites Cisco into a briefly glimpsed Beverly Hills threesome with actress Joy Bang (yep)—and Harry Dean Stanton, billed here as “H.D.” and playing a bandmate and friend with a doomed heroin habit. More than these folks, though, and more than the eponymous singer himself, Southern California is Cisco Pike’s main character. From the shabby chic Venice canals, with their graffiti-covered bridges and the ruins of Pacific Ocean Park visible in the distance, to the historic stage at the Troubadour and the late-night automats that no longer exist downtown, Norton captures the authentic vibe of a city still reeling from the Tate-LaBianca murders, the Sylmar earthquake, and the general post-60s hangover afflicting the entire nation. Dig it, man.