Storming the Gates: My Gonzo Misadventures in Dennis HopperLand

It was hot and dusty in the high desert of Taos, N.M. The scraggly cemetery with old crosses looked like the set of a spaghetti western. Mourners included biker dudes and their chicks, outlaws in bolo ties, Val Kilmer in a cream-colored Stetson, and Jack Nicholson in moccasins. It was June 3, 2010. Dennis Hopper was about to be buried.

I was coasting on about three hours of bad sleep. The evening before I'd taken last flight to Albuquerque out of New York, where I'd gotten the idea of writing a book about Dennis Hopper after realizing the awe-taking breadth of his story. I saw Dennis as a real-life Don Quixote chasing his strange and twisted American dream. Beside me was the recently deceased's literary agent, Jim, who'd been trying in vain to get his client to do a book since the '80s -- first as his editor at St. Martin's, then brokering multiple seven-figure deals for Dennis' big tell-all. Only Dennis never could commit anything to the page.

So, I was starting from scratch, boldly charging forth on my own book, my big ticket into HopperLand... Jim had promised me that getting into Dennis's funeral would be a piece of cake.

Things got off to a gonzo start. From the airport, we took a crazy three-hour drive in a blue Hyundai rental up alongside the Rio Grande with the radio blaring rock, the windows rolled down, and Jim smoking like a chimney the entire way. We changed into black attire in the car in the parking lot of the famous San Francisco de Assisi Mission church in Ranchos de Taos.

We didn't have much luck at the gates. This Spanish adobe fortress could easily withstand an onslaught of the natives, let alone two New York lit characters in rumpled sport coats. The chunky publicist-type, velvet-rope girl running the show told us in no short order we would NOT be admitted entry into the funeral. HopperLand was on red alert given the high-profile tabloid divorce drama surrounding his death. As I could see by eyeballing the clipboard (in the midst of my being denied entry), Hopper's widow was on the top of the DO NOT LET INTO THE CHURCH list.

About an hour later, jacked up on tall glasses of lemonade at the rustic nearby cantina, I found myself back in the blue Hyundai driving smack in the middle of the ragtag funeral procession, lost in the midst of the black SUVs, pickup trucks and customized choppers. Jim was hanging his cigarette out of the window, directing me from the passenger's seat to keep on rolling.

Hanging back respectfully in the pack of mourners in the cemetery, I thought we were in the clear, but an official representative of HopperLand sent over a leathery looking fellow from the High Desert Protective Service. I thought I recognized him as one of the bad guys from Miami Vice. He offered to escort us out, which, in my mind, pretty much took care of any question about whether my book would be "authorized," or not. My publisher was still holding onto some vague, misguided impression that it might be.

Three years and a publisher later, I'm glad to say that Hopper: A Journey into the American Dream is finally hitting the shelves. In my time storming the gates of HopperLand, I spent three months living in the hippy enclave of Taos, where Dennis spent much of his drug-addled time in the 1970s living in exile from Hollywood ("Oh, you were at the funeral? Wasn't it beautiful?...")

I hunted down Hopper cronies far and wide on mountaintops and in craggy nooks in alien-looking lands an hour outside of cell-reception. I snuck into the fabulous party at MOCA for Hopper's art retrospective, curated by Julian Schnabel, wearing a purple pajama top. My journalist wife gamely offered to don a disguise (a straw hat bought at the Gap), and infiltrate Hopper's memorial at the Santa Monica Carousel, where the main topic seemed to be how good of a golfer Dennis was. (I've discovered otherwise, but his golf buddy Joe Pesci is supposed to be amazing.)

Luckily, the outlaw spirit is alive and well with the bad boys of HopperLand, where the real story lies. Hopper's best friend, Dean Stockwell, who starred with him in Blue Velvet, let me watch golf with him while parsing out memories of when he, and Hopper, went off the deep end in Mexico.

"He went off the edge. You're aware of that, right?" asked Stockwell.

David Lynch told me how Hopper is Frank Booth, and how important Dennis's Kansas childhood was (weird Americana). Robert Duvall took a break from set in Utopia, Texas, to give me the 411. John Lurie beamed in from parts unknown to let me know about his fishing trip in Thailand with a Diet Coke-swilling, post-rehab Hopper. Ice-T gave me the heads up, brilliantly, of how Hopper's jabbering Apocalypse Now rant was, to him, like rap. The enigmatic Out of the Blue actress Linda Manz told me over a melting watermelon vodka popsicle in the Palmdale desert how Hopper and her kept it real. Hopper's Easy Rider companion, Peter Fonda, laid it out for me while playing air guitar to "Hotel California" over a three-hour tequila sit-down at the Beverly Wilshire. He came clean about how he was thrown out of Hopper's funeral.

I felt in rarified company at last.


Postscript: For the record whether the book is authorized or not, I've never bothered to ask. How can you expect to honestly write about a Hollywood rebel if you ask for official permission?

You can follow Tom Folsom at @tomfolsomauthor and on Facebook. His book "Hopper: A Journey into the American Dream" (HarperCollins/It Books) is out in stores.