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POP : Harry Dean Stanton Finds Harmony in Singing, Acting

March 25, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

Reached by phone at 1:30 in the afternoon last Sunday, Harry Dean Stanton sounded as if he were at death's door. Not bad considering that, called an hour earlier, he'd sounded like that door had been slammed in his face a few times.

He was a tad groggy and hoarse as a result of spending the previous night singing, which he'll do again Saturday, this time at the Heritage Brewing Co. in Dana Point.

After the first couple of questions, the veteran actor began sounding like his usual self, speaking with the weary intensity he brought to his 1984 breakthrough roles in "Repo Man" and Wim Wender's "Paris, Texas."

For the past five years the born-weathered actor has been moonlighting as a singer, performing in a number of engaging musical settings. He made his first forays in a folk-ish context backed by Bob Dylan vet Steven Soles on guitar and Linda Ronstadt cohort Kenny Edwards on bass. Since then he has toured with singer Michael Been and other members of the Call (Stanton met Been when both were in Morocco in the cast of Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ"), as well as with Billy Swan and James Intveld.

Most recently he has performed with the Kingbees (with whom he appears Saturday) and a new band, Cheap Date, in which he shares vocals with the Kingbees' Jamie James, backed by drummer Slim Jim Phantom, bassist Tony Sales and pedal steel guitarist Jeff (Skunk) Baxter.

Stanton said he sang long before he was an actor, starting in school choirs and barbershop quartets. Later he performed Mexican ballads on his own and at parties. He was encouraged to take his voice public by Ry Cooder when the guitarist/film composer was recording the "Paris, Texas" soundtrack.

"I can't stress too much how much Ry Cooder was an influence on me," Stanton said. "Having one of the most respected musicians around like my singing really gave me the confidence to do it."

He wound up singing a song on the soundtrack and eventually felt tempted to sing in public. "And then I just found myself doing it. People kept asking me, 'When are you singing again?' so I kept doing it. It was that simple," he said.

He realizes it's not always his singing that draws a crowd.

"People know you as an actor, and labels are so comfortable for people. That syndrome is always hard to get past. People in audiences still go 'Repo Maaaan!' Give me a break. I'm singing now. It can be frustrating, but that's just part of the human conditioning of labels, if you want to get philosophical about it," he said, foggily.

He thinks he's finally getting accepted for his voice. "A lot of people now are starting to tell me what a good singer and harmonica player I am and accepting me as a singer. I know there are other actors out there singing who haven't fared as well as I have, from what I've been able to observe.

"I've definitely gotten better and more confident. I can understand why it takes some people a long time to really be a singer. You have to find out, 'Why am I singing? What am I doing this for?' I do it because I enjoy it, and philosophically, music is a catalyst. It's a refining agent," he said.

Stanton agrees that a four-minute song can sometimes convey as much as a two-hour film.

"There's something very universal and profound about music. I think no matter what language, it transcends all the divisive elements in a society. There's something magical about it in a way. It's charming, hypnotic."

Stanton's screen work goes back several decades, beginning with the Gregory Peck-produced "Pork Chop Hill" in 1959. Though relegated to supporting roles in everything from the "Combat!" TV series to the first "Alien" film, he usually elevated the proceedings with deeply etched, all-too-human characterizations. He's not particularly surprised that it took him 25 years to get his shot at larger recognition.

"I've instinctively avoided a lot of roles. Plus, I'm not a 'mainstream' actor. That's pretty obvious, I think. I didn't want to get caught up in that. When 'Paris, Texas' and 'Repo Man' came up, I had been evolving toward that style of acting, playing myself as much as possible. Those are two of my favorite films," he said.

He most recently was in an HBO movie, "Hostages," and will return to the cable network in the John Frankenheimer-directed "The Line of Fire" about the Attica prison riots.

He finds a different satisfaction in singing on stage than he gets in front of the camera, though he says he can't describe it. He can say what that satisfaction isn't , though; Stanton isn't one of those film actors who turn to stage work for the immediacy a live audience brings.

"People always talk about 'getting back to the boards,' with a live audience. You've got a live audience when you're acting in front of a camera too, and ultimately a much huger audience. So it's always immediate to me," he said.

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