By Delores Hanney
He’s practically the living logo of our town, the rolling symbol of Venice eccentricity known far and wide. Rambling about northward and south, strumming his tunes flush with abundant distortion and wrapped around his particular form of poetry, he’s been a boardwalk fixture here since 1974.
Just a few years earlier – at the age of nineteen – Harry Perry was part of the Detroit cast of the quintessential sixties stage musical, Hair. Before and after this he was the leader and moving spirit of a local cover band. He became part of the stream of Motown music makers migrating to Southern California’s salubrious sunshine. Once arrived, it was his pal Antonio “Tony” Newton, of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles fame, who suggested Perry take himself off to Ocean Front Walk and “just go play.”
Music, that is.
His act, as it were, evolved. A friend named Alice hatched the notion that put him on skates and bought his first pair. From roller skates he matriculated to rollerblades then to LandRollers, those puppies with two large wheels slightly inclined. His original Les Paul guitar was amplified by the juice of six Radio Shack rechargeable AA batteries but when another friend engineered and wired him up with a power pack fast charger he said he felt like Iron Man coming into his power, able now to wheel about intrepidly transmitting his electrified sounds with scarcely a concern for broadcast capacity.
In a turban and the robe of a holy man, when he first fell onto my radar I just assumed Perry was all tricked out in his own personal version of street performer drag. But I was wrong! He’s the real deal. An actual Sikh. For many years till the yogi’s death, he was a student of Yogi Bhajan who brought Kundalini yoga to the west in 1968 and inspired multitudes to live in their excellence.
This suited Perry right down to his toes. He’s the offspring of very well educated parents whose idea of a good time was debating all manner of issues all night with a bevy of brainy friends. It grounded him in a mind-exercising practice that instilled the confidence, the creativity and the wits to fashion a lifeway in harmony with his bliss. Hallmarks of living said bliss include never having to ask for a job, no one to fire him and the maintainment of full control of his brand, down to producing his own recordings.
On an ordinary day, he’s to be found at Gold’s gym by 4:00 or 5:00 a.m., doing stretches, working weights in anticipation of a ten to twenty mile run, depending on the day’s agenda. This, along with yoga, fuels the high-octane needs to sustain the physical and psychic peak demanded by his public personahood. Most days, especially in summer, running segues into long hours at the beach riding the vibes of Ocean Front Walk. Making his music. Making the rent. Afterwards he might scoot off to a park or some other venue to set up his massive array of musical equipment and put on a concert in his Kama Kosmic Krusader guise. “Kama Sutra with a guitar,” he calls it.
In the 1990s a certain flowering of quirkiness-diluting gentrification commenced in Venice supported by the drive to squish its more exotic nature. L.A. Municipal Code Section 42.15 disallowed hawking, peddling or vending stuff on the Venice Beach boardwalk, an obstacle to Perry’s sale of his records, T-shirts and what have you. The named plaintiff in an oppositional class action suit based on the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression, commerce and congregation, Perry fought back and prevailed upon appeal. The Los Angeles City Council simply roared into action again with more specific codified restrictions acutely curtailing boardwalk performance. Twenty years later the battle over First Amendment rights still roils on, though Perry himself is seldom hassled.
His status as an icon means You Tube is full of him. His image is blithely bandied about on postcards and murals. There’s a statue of him at the California Adventure theme park. He had cameo roles in movies such as Fletch, White Men Can’t Jump and The Gift, television’s CSI too, serving as a signifying element to establish authenticity of place. Incredibly he appeared in TV commercials for Primo Milk in New Zealand, of all places. Tourists from there are always antsy pantsy to make his acquaintance upon visiting here.
As the unofficial front man in the street entertainer tradition that’s been operational in elevating Venice to its position as a SoCal tourist draw surpassed solely by Disneyland, Harry Perry is a legend in his time.