You must have noticed his eyes, with their slightly mournful, softened edges. And his beard, which looks like a bristling, black-and-grey hedgehog. Or at least the slogan in giant white letters, spelling out a simple “Hopper Lives.” It would be a wonderful poster if it weren't an ad.
Dennis Hopper's face is showing up all over town as part of an advertising campaign for a Hopper-inspired clothes collection by skater brand Vans. The Easy Rider star, artist and counterculture icon signed a deal with the clothing company a year or two before his death to work on a clothing and shoe collaboration. His daughter Marine Hopper, along with the Hopper Foundation, helped to finish the line, which was still in its early design stages when her father passed away on May 29, 2010.
Now, we've got this poster: a Vans-meets-Urban-Outfitters corporate concoction of cool. The slogan's an obvious rip-off of one of the most iconic early graffiti phrases: Bird Lives, coined by jazz poet Ted Joans (who also wrote the brilliant “Jazz Is My Religion“) after Charlie Parker passed away in 1955. You could walk around New York and see “Bird Lives!” scribbled on subway walls or scratched into windows. The phrase was a cry for keeping the struggle for innovation and change alive — creatively, socially and politically — in the spirit of Bird and jazz.
Changing that equation for Hopper works. He definitely embodies a special L.A. energy, and we're seeing more and more evidence of his influence as his name crops up in events surrounding Pacific Standard Time, the pan-institutional celebration of the L.A. art scene. Hopper was integral to 1960's L.A.: he was affiliated with the Ferus gallery — the linchpin of the arts scene — and took pictures of artists, stars, social activists, and the streets of L.A. He's quintessential to the city in a way that Charlie Parker was to New York.
But then, there's the feeling that the poster is too glossy, too shiny, too manufactured — and just when you've been taken in by it, you notice the little Vans logo, lingering down in the corner. Looking at it gives me the same tortured, ambivalent feeling I get when Starbucks is selling a CD that I've liked for years. On the one hand, it's a great act of curation, and I'm (sort of) happy that many (less enlightened) people will begin to discover some music that's worthwhile. On the other hand, the fact that Starbucks is selling it in all their stores, nationwide, totally devalues whatever aura the music had.
The magic of the “Bird Lives!” graffiti was that it was illicit, underground, and subject to erasure and disappearance. We're very much stuck staring at “Hopper Lives” until the line makes its debut at UO this fall (and as much as I hate to say it, the clothes look pretty good).
I still think, though, that any ad that gets you thinking about 1960s L.A., Hopper's art, and Charlie Parker can't thoroughly be dismissed as another nail in the coffin of counterculture. Give the ad men some credit, and then go back to listening to music that will never make it to a Sbux near you.
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