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Monday, October 23, 2017

He's going the Distance: An Interview with Harry Perry

Credit:
Photo: Hugh Hamilton

It was sometime in 1996 and I was having coffee back home in Australia, with a friend who had just returned from a trip to Los Angeles. As we flipped through what would now almost be considered retro her photo album, I came across a shot of a tall, striking-looking man dressed in a white robe, wearing a white turban, broad smile and an electric guitar. "Who's that?:, I inquired. "Oh, this famous, street performer guy on the Venice Beach boardwalk," she said. For years afterward, I would come across photos of him in the photo albums of friends as far away as London, Tokyo, Stockholm and Paris, until one day in 2001 when I finally got to take one of my own.

Harry Perry is perhaps the most enduring and high-profile street performer in the world. On a pair of in-line skates (quads in his earlier days), Harry has worked the Venice Beach boardwalk since 1974. He has earned a cherished reputation among the good folk of Southern California, and cuts an unforgettable image in his trademark attire of a white robe, white turban and big smile, playing his red and white electric guitar. He has his own Wikipedia entry, there is a statue of his likeness installed at Disneyland in Anaheim and he appears in countless wall murals around the city. Harry has a several page bio on IMDB (having made myriad cameo and acting appearances in such noted films as, "White Men Can't Jump" and "Point of No Return". He has composed tracks for film and T.V. and has released several albums as "the Harry Perry Band," in which he continues to perform at venues around Los Angeles.

On yet another perfectly blue, sunny, SoCal, Sunday morning, I was presented with the opportunity to interview Harry Perry in his natural habit, the Venice Oceanfront Walk. It was here that I would find out a little bit about the man beneath the turban.

Our rendezvous point was the beach basketball courts, where I sat watching some extra tall, young men, dripping in sweat, absorbed in the task of shooting hoops. The boardwalk was just beginning to come alive, the shimmering, gold mime already in place, perfectly still. Roller doors recently opened, owners arranging their wares in a rainbow of tourist's souvenir displays. The funnel cake oil was popping, people were jogging, the beach cruisers were already competing with pesky pedestrians for room on the bike path and a homeless man, still wrapped in his blanket, was writing something in his journal. Another day in Venice was gearing up and somewhere on 18th St, Harry Perry would be attaching a mini-amplifier to his utility belt.

Harry Perry! Hi, I'm...

No verbal response, just smiling and riffing. There is more smiling and riffing for several minutes as he traverses my path on his in-line skates. The photographer who has accompanied me is moving around us, photographing Harry for several minutes before Harry finally speaks.

"Ah yes, yes. Please ask your questions. It's Sunday and so it's a busy time."

I hear rumors that you are seen jogging a lot and have an amazing physique. When I made first contact with you for this interview, you mentioned you had to do marathon training. Tell me about marathon running.

Originally I just danced and did ballet and yoga for a long time.

You were a ballerina?

In high school, I was like a track star. But that was a long time ago.

Fantastic!

About a certain time in life, maybe around my late 30s, my body was, my knees were falling apart. My neck and shoulders were sort of like, falling apart. So one of my girlfriends told me I should try and run a marathon. And so I did. I just ran my first marathon. I just ran it. And then I started training for it after that.

So how often do you train now?

Every day. I ran today already. I try to put in 20 miles a day.

Locals see you running with your turban on. Doesn't that set you off balance?

No. It's the opposite. I have a lot of hair. I have more hair than you. It's more comfortable not to have that hair everywhere, otherwise you're sweating and running and trying to breathe. It's way more organized (this way).

How long is your hair?

He frees a hand and indicates a few inches below his right hip bone.

So now I know about the marathon running.

(Launches into heavy riffing) yeah, after I run you know I feel some days I have a lot of patience. It puts me in a place where I'm a lot slower. So when people say things, I don't feel like reacting. It's a kind of yoga/ meditation.

Yes, running is absolutely like that, especially long distance.

Some days I'm really tired and business people (potential customers on the boardwalk) just walk up to me anytime and sometimes I'm just not in a good mood, because I'm fatigued. So it's hard to do business with someone sometimes when you're really fatigued, and they expect you to smile and be happy and you don't even know if it's them or if they're coming. Because this is like an open place where anyone can just come to you and you don't know who your'e talking to.

How long have you been practicing yoga and what kind?

Kundalini yoga.

A middle aged man with a soda - or a beer, I'm not sure - in a hand held cooler has wandered up to us and is lingering beside us interjecting.

Man: James! James! Is that you James?

As I continue to speak to Harry, I hear the photographer address the newcomer.

Photographer: No uhm, that's Harry Perry.

Harry turns to the sound of his name and the newcomer extends a hand to Harry.

Stranger: I was just going to say, Hi. I used to live down there (pointing north along the boardwalk), the place where the guy is climbing up the wall. Here's a couple of bucks for your self.

Harry: (Holding up a Harry Perry memorabilia t-shirt), buy the t-shirt!

Stranger: I'm not buying any t-shirts right now. Hey didn't you end up on that gong show once? On TV?

Harry: I refuse to ever go on any gong show.

Stranger: Oh the young kid went on it right, with all the instruments?!

Harry: To go on a show and do a performance is one thing, but I don't need to go on any gong show or star searches or anything.

Stranger: That was funny back then!

Harry: I know it's funny, but I can do lots of other things.

Stranger: So your'e still down here?

Harry: Yeah! It's a great place to be. (Motioning out across the water), look at this weather and everyone out on the boardwalk and on the beach.

Stranger: Okay, well, take care.

Harry: Thanks. Take care.

Speaking of shows, I did an IMDB search on you and you've got a four page bio.

(Frowning), a what? What is that
IMDB, it's a resource that you look up for a ....

What's IMDB?

The photographer who accompanied me interjects.

Photographer: Internet Movie Data Base.

Harry: Oh huh.

Yeah, it's a database you can look up for anyone that has done anything on television or film and you've got pages. You've appeared in a lot of stuff both cameo and acting. You've got a lot of stuff on there.

That's because I have agents trying to sell me. I'm not just me. I'm this commodity, this property.

So this look you've created for yourself, this persona, has it been the same for you since you debuted on the boardwalk back in 1973?

1974.

'74? So is this the same look since '74?

No, I had a top hat and I used to just walk. I didn't get skates until '76.

Okay, so when did you go in-line?

I used to play a Les Paul then.

While being interviewed, Harry is continuing to do business. His eyes dart around, determined not to miss a possible sale. I don't persist with missed questions, certain that I will not win out over the burgeoning crowd.

That's what I was going to ask next.

This guitar didn't come until the 80's.

Have you kept this one specifically for the boardwalk since you got it?

Yeah. Originally I kept it for on stage, but after I fell on it a few times, it became my street guitar.

Do you have a big guitar collection? I've listened to your music and you're a great guitar player.

I don't know what big is, but I have a guitar collection. I've seen people with BIG guitar collections (launches into heavy riffing).

So why here? What brought you to the Venice boardwalk?

It's L.A. and you know what, look at this?! This is January!

But are you from L.A.?

Shakes his head.

Where did you come from?

Detroit. There are lots of stories here. There's no way I could tell you all these stories in such little time.

Okay, but Detroit is your place of origin?

Well, that's where I went to high school and that's where I was in "Hair."

You were in "Hair?"

Yeah, with Meatloaf and David Lanz and some other people. You know, some other people, but you'd know Meatloaf. He was cast the same time I was.

And then when did you move to L.A.? What year?

Right around that time about '73/ '74. And it was a friend of mine's idea, Craig. We were playing up in Hollywood on Hollywood Boulevard and he said, "Let's take the bus down to Venice."

So you jumped on a bus down to Venice"

Yeah, didn't have a car then. But that's another story. It's a long story, just that first day in Venice. It was with Craig. But Craig was an alcoholic, so I started coming down by myself. And that's how I started all this. I can do this every day. Other people can only do it once in a while.

I came here and I fell in love with Venice. Did you fall in love with it when you first came? Is that what happened? You would have seen a lot of changes.

It wasn't like this before. It was really different. There were no police. A cop car came by once in a great while. They had no station down here. Hell's Angels used to hang out; they'd hang out where that big building is down on Breeze, in the parking lot. It was the Hell's Angel's parking lot. And I went by there. Every day, I'd d go by there and I'd get barraged by beer cans and beer bottles.

From the Hell's Angels?

Yeah, the Hell's Angels, they smashed glass everywhere. They'd taunt me, "Come on Jimi Hendrix!" And I didn't have skates then. No skates until '76.

A cyclist with bike and dressed in a riding uniform comes up behind Harry.

Cyclist: Hi, excuse me. I always see you running in the morning, down there by the Palisades.

Harry: Yeah, yeah, I've seen you.

Cyclist: I'm Mike.

Harry: You gonna run in the marathon?

Mike: Yeah, I am. You ran in it the last couple of years. What’s your name again?

Harry: Harry Perry.

Mike: Okay, cool!

Harry: Buy one of these (holding up a Harry Perry t-shirt).

Mike: I would, but no money, I'm just riding today. But I always see you, because you run in the morning before it gets too crazy huh?

Harry: Yeah, usually about three hours or so.

Mike: (Addressing me), he's a wild man! He runs a lot, really a lot.

V: Twenty miles a day!

Mike: (Shaking his head in mock disbelief), I'll see you out there man.

So Harry, you are obviously dedicated to health and fitness. I've listened to your music and you're a good guitarist whose brand of psychedelic, transcendental rock seems to indicate to me that you have a curious, seeking spirit and an expansive, spiritual and intellectual outlook. Am I right?

Yes, non-smoking vegetarian. (A long pause), I wouldn't say that I am, seeking. I just live a lifestyle that, my lifestyle is based on, how do you play guitar all day, every day, with a place to live, food to eat and health insurance?

I guess that is the question of many artists.

Yeah, so then the next question is how do you get to stage with your band? And same thing, do it as many days a week as you can, and end up with a place to live for you and the band, food to eat and health insurance, cars to drive. You know, equipment and repairs and and so, that's why, this (indicating himself and his attire) is the beginning of the answer to those questions. Booking people are nasty people. It's a good thing when you can get an agent so you never have to talk to them. But agents aren't always your agents because they only work when you are going to make them a lot of money. And in the music business, you aren't always going to make them a lot of money. I've been doing this for three decades. I've had agents where they want to be exclusive, agents where they're making a lot of money. As soon as you're off the radio, the deal is over.

They're done with you.

Yeah, so you have to like, solve all these questions. But for you as an artist, your life has to continue. You have to continue what you do. (Indicating himself and the environment around him), this is one of the answers to those questions.

And you have been instrumental, I read, in the landmark, Californian case that allows buskers and street artists the right to be able to perform and sell their own works in the public domain and...

Yes, out of desperation. You know, you have to be able to survive? The police aren't going to just let you do that. There might be a lot of police, who will but there are going to be some who aren't and they;e going to make it their particular; every time they see you, they're going to be after you. I was just lucky this attorney happened to be standing near me one day, when these cops were really unreasonable, and he decided to take the case.

What year was that?

Oh I can't remember.

80s?

Yeah, a long time ago. I've been here a long time. It's been ten years or maybe more than that. I think it was '95 when the city was finally decided.

For you to win that for all artists is phenomenal. That's substantial.

But the fight goes on. Bureaucrats are paid to be bureaucrats, you know? So it's never over. That's the sad part of it. They started up this whole thing again. They've made all new laws.

Yes, I have been reading about that.

So it's not over. Now I am an outlaw in my own turf. Again you know, as much as it's legal, I'm not going to stand in one numbered spot?! Enter a lottery to get that one numbered spot and stand there all day playing.

Absolutely not! Part of this persona that you'e developed for yourself, is that you are roving. It's your act!

(Nodding aggressively), thank you! Yes, thank you. But I am now an outlaw. I'm not following the rules.

And so what next? What for the future with the band and all your artistic endeavors?

I formed my own record label with my own distribution. And the big thing now is how to tour the entire country you know, and use this distribution putting records everywhere and getting sales everywhere?

Fantastic! Good luck with that. Well thank you Harry. I know you have business to do now, so I;ll let you go. But one, last question that I'm sure every local wants to know. When does the turban come off?

That's a multilevel question. I'm, I'mm not a person who follows rules. I do things because they give meaning to me, because it gives me good feeling. I use the turban because it gives me a good feeling. You know, I can believe in anything and nothing. I can practice any religion and no religion. I can practice all kinds of yoga and martial arts or none. I can run marathons or I can skate a marathon. I can play my guitar or I can play bass or drums. It's part of my lifestyle.

A young skater looking kid, about twelve or thirteen - rolls up on his bicycle.

Boy: Hey, Harry! Hi! Can I give you a present? (Opening his wallet he pulls out a plectrum and, extending his hand, offers it to Harry) can I give you a pick?

Harry: (Glancing at it, holds out his pick to show the boy), I only use nylon.

Boy: I have your poster and your autograph.

Harry: You should buy one of my t-shirts.

Boy: It's on my wall.

Harry: Well, you could wear this one.

What appears to be the boy's Father rolls up on his bicycle also.

Dad: Oh hey, it's Harry Perry! Right on Harry Perry!

Boy: Yeah! Hey you're famous around here!

Dad: Oh yeah, around here he is you betcha!

Boy: (Pointing to the t-shirt in Harry's hand), is it free?

Harry: No, it's twenty bucks. (Laughing), borrow money!

Boy: I have your poster and autograph.

Harry: Cool!

Boy: And you know that skater, Rodney Mullen?

Harry: Yeah, of course.

Boy: There' this video of you and him and it's so cool. I love it!

Harry: (Nodding), right on!

Boy: Okay, well, nice to meet you.

It is here that I take leave of this multi-faceted, multi-talented Venice Beach icon.

What is it about any vibrant community anywhere in the world, all throughout history that has drawn poets, writers, painters and musicians - all manner of bohemian souls - to it? When it involves a city as opposed to a natural retreat, geography often accounts for less than you'd think. It's the scene. It's the almost palpable sense of creativity and inspiration in the air. And the scene exists because of the individual characters, some transient, some who stay forever, who are the life-blood of these epicenters of the arts. Venice has its fair share of characters, but one will go down in Venice folklore as, "the Face of Harry Perry is that man."



Photograph by Hugh Hamilton: www.hughhamilton.com.au
Further info on Harry Perry: www.harryperry.com



About the Writer

V is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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6 comments on He's going the Distance: An Interview with Harry Perry

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By Steven Lane on January 09, 2007 at 01:37 am
Great article on a great character. He visited the Ventura Promenade a couple of years ago, "Tee Shirts" in hand. Harry has a very smart daughter up that way, she had just won a major spelling bee and he was there to see her get an award. Same Harry.
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By Umbrae on January 09, 2007 at 01:48 am
Great interview. He's an old friend of my mother's. Ah, the old days of Venice. We were one of the last natives standing, now scattered out into the nebula. Uh, anyway. Great interview.
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By MoraUman on January 18, 2007 at 10:24 pm
Course we have all met this guy, great inspiration, nice article. -Mora Uman
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By M.J. Hamada on September 25, 2007 at 12:29 pm
Goooooood one! You know, just yesterday I was thinking of going down to Venice and interviewing this chap. You beat me to the punch.
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By TonyBerkman on August 19, 2010 at 04:34 pm

Really enjoyed reading this interview into the life and times of Harry Perry. So close up. Thanks.

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By Credo on September 19, 2013 at 03:08 pm

Genuinely a wholesome article, giving such insight into the entertainer Harry Perry. Your interview offers a greater interest than most interviews of this caliber. Usually interviews are so antiseptic, like a reporter reporting simple facts without the intimacy of life.

Good job....

:)Credo

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