John Hawkes’ father, Pete, was an extremely bright and rugged fellow who grew up outside of Alexandria, Minnesota, now a town of about 14,000, two car-hours northwest of Minneapolis. At the age of 15, Pete left the small apartment where he’d lived on his own since he was 12 for the University of Minnesota, where he studied, wrestled and boxed before joining the Navy and touring as a semiprofessional boxer for several years. Then Pete returned to Alexandria to marry and raise wheat, corn, cattle, hogs and humans.
(Photo by Kevin Scanlon)
The youngest of these humans, John, grew up there in the bucolic Alexandria countryside, and was a year deep in college at nearby St. Cloud State when he was stricken by severe wanderlust after accidentally watching Harold & Maude, hearing his first Tom Waits and reading Kerouac’s On the Road. So young John Hawkes followed his older brother down to Austin, Texas, and soon got involved in the burgeoning arts scene.
“Strong, strong people up there, man,” Hawkes says of his Minnesota days. “Nowadays, it’s different, but growing up there, if you weren’t prepared for it, you’d perish. Blizzards used to be phenomenal back there. Every year, you’d hear stories about a farmer going out to milk his cows and not finding his way back to the house. They’d find him in the yard the next day, frozen.”
It’s about 72 degrees Fahrenheit and pleasantly overcast as Hawkes and I talk at an outdoor café.
“I wanted to go somewhere,” Hawkes continues. “And I couldn’t afford to go to Europe. Texas seemed like the closest foreign country to me. And a buddy of mine who I’d grown up with, he hopped in the van with me, kind of last-minute, and we cruised down there. He still lives there, has a wife and kids; my brother lives there, has a wife and kids; and I live here without a wife and kids. Everybody gets along well.”
Soon Hawkes was playing in an Austin band called Meat Joy, which toured and put out a record, and he started acting in some local stage productions. One of these, Greater Tuna, also went on tour, stopping off for a prominent run at L.A.’s Westwood (now Geffen) Playhouse. On the strength of his local Tuna, Hawkes signed with a theatrical agent and soon moved to L.A., where, like all of us, he became increasingly rich, famous and emotionally fulfilled by doing only the things he loved, and eventually died — in, say, 2059 — a very happy, very old man.
Prior to his pleasant and timely death, you might have appreciated Hawkes’ soulful, Chaplin-eyed portrayals of Sol Star in Deadwood, Richard Swersey in Me and You and Everyone We Know, Mike “Bugsy” Moran in The Perfect Storm, or some of his other 50 or so film and/or televised characters. If not, you might have caught him portraying himself in the local country-style roots-rock band King Straggler, where Hawkes shares songwriting chores with pals Rodney Eastman and Brentley Gore.
Here’s an excerpt from one of the band’s Hawkes-penned songs, “Rebel”:
“Everybody’s hip, everybody’s hip, everybody’s hip. The whole country’s copped an attitude from sea to sneering sea . . . But I’m a rebel. I mean I’m trying to be. Because I believe the most daring, outlandish, revolutionary thing you can do in 21st-century America is to treat everybody — people you know, people you don’t know — with dignity and kindness…”
In the early Austin days, Hawkes took some time off and went hitchhiking. He had lots of adventures — some of them pretty scary — and found comfort in the road.
“Hitchhiking was such a pure form of existence,” he says. “You’d wake up in the morning, and you’d have no idea what your day was going to be. And that’s something I’ve never been able to shake. I loved that.
“Touring in a band is the closest thing that I’ve ever gotten to that again. You wake up in the morning and start driving. You don’t know what your day’s going to be at all. You know you’re going to play that night somewhere that you’ve never seen or been to. I love that gypsy kind of freedom.”