Tuesday, January 31, 2006

What Saturday Feels Like When You're Nine

There are times when I get hit so hard with the Weepy Wistfuls that I just want to shut myself in a room and blub till dinnertime. No doubt it's advancing age and general decrepitude working on me, watching my kids grow up and my jawline crumble. Nothing tickles the old Crippling Nostalgia Ganglion more than looking back over your shoulder and noticing Old Scratch has gained a couple of inches since last year.

When I get like this, and I need a good, long wallow in les Temps Perdu, I take a tray of madeleines and a tall glass of bathos-and-soda -- easy on the ice -- turn the lights down low, and put John Barry's "Midnight Cowboy" on the Victrola, extra loud.

Listen along with me, won't you? (Pops a new window.)

Barry enjoyed a vogue in the late Nineties -- you know, back when Irony wasn't Dead Yet. But the hepcats and -kittens with the skinny ties, martinis and the Rat Pack pretensions went more for Barry's more snazzy, finger-popping James Bond work. You don't hear "Midnight Cowboy" sampled on too many techno dance tracks, at any rate.

Geoffrey O'Brien, writing about the then-current fad for Burt Bacharach in 1999 in The New York Review of Books, made this memorably trenchant observation about Irony in Music (I'd link you to the whole wonderful article, but I had to pay $3 for the privilege of dredging this graf out of the Archives!):
Irony quickly becomes a dead issue: finally you are left alone with your ears. Either you get pleasure from listening to Martin Denny or the Hollyridge Strings, or you don't; the only variations are on the order of how much pleasure, repeated how many times. Irony meets its double, banality, as the alienated contemplation of schmaltz merges with the unrepentant enjoyment of it; or doesn't quite merge, the mind clinging to a detachment in which unironic enjoyment is almost successfully simulated.
I know just what Geoffrey means, here, it clangs like the clearest bell in this PoMo-soaked breast, but there isn't even the merest hint of a doubt in my mind: My reaction to this piece of music is so real, so visceral, so immediate, that the problem of "simulated enjoyment" never even remotely suggests itself.

I love this composition utterly Unironically.

When was the last time you heard Movie Music? When I was a sprout, it was completely ubiquitous. "Moon River." "Che Sera, Sera." "Lara's Theme" from Doctor Zhivago. "The Godfather." "Suicide is Painless." "The Sound of Music." "Born Free." "The Look of Love," from Casino Royale. "Never on Sunday." "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." A major studio release was simply not made unless some hummable, radio-friendly, but ultimately adult -- what was then considered commercial -- piece of music could be identified with it. Poking around in preparing this post, I do find orchestral theme music associated with contemporary flicks, but can you hum a single bar of anything from, say, A Beautiful Mind? A hundred clams say you can't. There they all are. Say hi.

As a piece of sound-sculpture, it couldn't be more rudimentary. Structurally, it's simpler than most folk songs. One phrase, a C major - Bb major chord progression (I-flat VII) begins the piece. It's perhaps the single most characteristic Sixties chord change, capable of evoking San Francisco in 1967 faster than a hit of Owsley's finest. The Youngbloods' "Get Together," It's a Beautiful Day's "White Bird," The Turtles' "Happy Together," The Mamas and the Papas' "Monday, Monday," The Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday," among many other characteristic lite-psychedelic pieces, all employ it prominently. (Interestingly, in that list, the progression is, with the exception of the Turtles' tune, employed in the verse rather than the chorus. Food for thought.) It's a dying-away-and-reviving movement, alternatively melancholy and hopeful.

Then the preliminaries are over, the tonal stage is set and the chromatic harmonica begins its plaintive exposition. We switch from a two-chord oscillation to a progression of five: The original C-B flat is followed by A flat major - F minor - G major. The obsessive repetition of this progression, it needs to be pointed out, is essentially a rock move. In orchestral music prior to 1969, cyclical repetition like this was Not Done among mainstream composers. Many avant-garde composers played with it -- certainly Philip Glass was already a force -- but its employment here was influenced not so much by minimalism as by the liberating expressive effect of obsessive repetition in songs like the Kinks' "You Really Got Me." Slow that tune way, way down, give Dave Davies' riff to the violins, and you've got "Midnight Cowboy."

What's really interesting about the second iteration of the main melody, using the full strings now instead of the harmonica, is that the swelling crescendos and punctuating horn figures nearly completely drown out the repetitive arpeggios that have been so prominent thus far. At this point it becomes plain that we're listening to a true piece of Movie Music, but the premise has been so masterfully established that the amplification of the schmaltzy strings over the arpeggios simply means the the listener keeps humming the now-only-implicit "riff." He's set it off in our heads, and we keep humming it even when we can no longer hear it.

Closing my eyes and listening, I can hear so many things... In that harmonica, those French horns, those cellos, I remember what Saturday feels like when you're nine; the precise emotional flavor of the first snow of the winter, in November of 1967; lying on my back on grass and staring at clouds for hours on a hot day in the summer of 1971 when the concept of Infinity was setting off frightening thoughts in my head; my quaking terror of the Marine guard at the US Embassy in Helsinki in his dress blues as he knelt kindly to shake my five-year-old hand; when I saw real mountains for the first time in 1972; staring at the Atlantic Ocean from 50,000 feet in an airliner; the mouthwatering promise of the smell of garlic and onions sautéeing.

The inevitability of all of that coming to an end.

All this, just by making some air molecules wiggle. That's what I call art!

(What, did you want State of the Union Outrage? Fuck that... I wrote this instead of watching that pinhead. My liver's healthier than yours, I guarantee it.)


Anonymous said...

When was the last time you heard Movie Music?

We run in different movie circles I'm sure, but man, I do love me some Klaus Badet (enough to watch both 'The Time Machine' AND 'Equilibrium'), and Georges Delerue, enough to go trying to find the Joe vs. The Volcano clips someone pulled from the movie itself.

The theme from 'Dances with Wolves' always makes me tear up, and man, I'm probably not supposed to like the score from 'Gladiator' now that it's been copied a thousand times over but... wow. Yeah. Also loved his score for "Black Hawk Down."

'Apollo 11' isn't bad either.

The score from 'Vanity Fair' is surprisingly adept, and choose any three Danny Elfman scores (as long as one of those is 'Black Beauty).

Still, the king of the ball is Thomas Newman. The score from 'American Beauty' or 'Unstrung Heroes' wrecks me, every time. Such an original sound. His brother's not half bad either.

Sorry to clutter up your comments section with drivel, but there are some really fantastic composers out there, doing great stuff in the now.

Hell, video games too. You said you played Myst, right? The 'Exile' soundtrack is really nice. Not to mention nearly every Final Fantasy score.


Anonymous said...

cd said..

Wow, I've always thought it was "Que Sera Sera".

But my favorite movie music is from 'Reds' and 'The Big Chill'.

Oh, I liked 'Parent Trap' too..."Let's Get Togetha"... and the bit more recent, 'That Thing You Do'.

Que Sera Sera.

beyond passionate said...

Oh man, don't get me started. Movie soundtrack records were a MAJOR influence on me when a was a kid, and still are. Some of my early memories are of listening to "Around the World in 80 Days" and imagining my own stories playing out in my head. The music of course reflected all the changes in geography and action of the actual movie story, so there was plenty of variance to inform my own "movie". What a great way to develop your imagination as a kid.

Later, "Lawrence of Arabia, "The Yellow Rolls Royce" (stop snickering), and of course "2001: A Space Oddessy" and "A Clockwork Orange". And many more unmentioned. John Williams has done some great stuff, as has James Horner ("Searching for Bobby Fisher"). "Death in Venice" is fantastic. If you wanna go back a bit Hanns Eisler did some powerful stuff in the 30-40s, if you can overlook his politics.

Anyway, true soundtrack music is a wonderfully narrative offspring of the tone poem works of people like R. Strauss ("Ein Heldenleben", "Don Juan", etc.), plus Debussey, Ravel, and other impressionists.

Jingster, I can always count on you to steer this crackerbarrel conversation in just the right direction every time, as if I had done it myself. You sure we weren't separated at birth?

fgfdsg said...

I guess I'll show my lack of maturity and somewhat dubious taste by saying I first heard this piece of music on the Faith No More 'Angel Dust' album, but in my own defense I wasn't born when 'Midnight Cowboy' came out, and it was unavailable in Australia for years.

To bring back the childhood sensations you've brought up for me personally? New wave singles from '79-'81, when music was great and energetic and 7 inch records were cheap.

Things like "Oliver's Army" by Elvis Costello, "Dreaming" by Blondie, "Babooshka" by Kate Bush, "Stop the Calvary" by Jona Lewie, "Come On Eileen" by Dexy's Midnight Runners, "Video Killed The Radio Star" by the Buggles.

If I'd written 'Spiral' it would have had handclapping and farfisa organ.

Highlander said...

MILLER'S CROSSING is one of my favorite movies, and its recurring theme one of my favorite pieces of soundtrack to hum at odd times during the day.

GLORY also has a lovely soundtrack to it.

And I'll risk o-FEN-ding by noting that I've always thought John Hughes was a much better record producer than he was a director. The soundtrack to PRETTY IN PINK is one of my most played albums ever.

Why do we all, inevitably, have to work in a Proust reference whenever we talk about childhood memories? Are we all that pretentious? Or just all that smitten with Colin Wilson's prose? (Well, as to the last, I certainly am.)

roxtar said...

You can't discuss Movie Music without mentioning Elmer Bernstein.

The Magnificent Seven, The Ten Commandments, To Kill A Mockingbird, Animal House, Airplane, The Man With The Golden Arm, Thoroughly Modern Millie (won an Oscar) and the list goes on and on.

Morricone's "Spaghetti Western" stuff deserves a shout-out, too.

And then there's Mancini. I wasn't 9, I was 16, but to this day, when I hear the theme from Love Story, I can smell my then-girlfriend's "Love's Baby Soft" fragrance. (It's not exactly Temps Perdu, but then, I'm not exactly Proust. Nothing wrong with my recherche, though.)

John Gray said...

Always enjoy your writing, but this piece motivated me to comment, especially that last paragraph -- not least because I actually did listen in. Nicely done.

Hillbilly Dem said...

Nice piece. It brought back some fond memories. Midnight Cowboy. Great score indeed.I suppose the lack of cinema scores and the death of AM radio are intertwined. As a DJ reminded this 50 year old hillbilly last week, your average AM radio station might play Jefferson Airplane, followed by Dean Martin, followed by Wilson Pickett, and then taken to the commercial break by The 1910 Fruitgum Company. No 'format'... just freestylin'.
Those, at least for me, were the days. I'm glad I'm not 20 years old today. I can't imagine 30 years from now kicking back and getting whistful listening to Wu Tang Clan's "Shame On A Nigga". But that's just me.

Kevin Wolf said...

Once again, great post, neddie.

We're in the exact same age group. I remember all those same movie tunes.

Plus, my mother liked the "Midnight Cowboy Theme" and played the record all the time. I know it by heart and have that same empty Saturday afternoon feeling when I hear it. Once it came out on CD I bought it.

I've been a lover of movie music for a long time and will gladly spend an afternoon listening to any CDs of work by Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith, or Henry Mancini. "Baby Elephant Walk" is an early music memory of mine. (Check out his theme for The Party sometime.)

The Viscount LaCarte said...

Just an awesome post Ned. I can hear "Everybody's Talkin' at Me" in the distance.

Danny Elfman - every one of his sound tracks sounds like The Simpson's to me.

Man I am so OD'd on the 21s century and the 'tics of the oil men, and being just a year or two older than you I am right there with you and the wistful nostalgia you have so eloquently documented here.

Happend to me with the them from Romeo and Juliet just recently and I had some of the same thoughts...

Keep up the great posts Ned.

kgnuxl - the circumstances of KG's death...

Matt said...

Morricone's "Spaghetti Western" stuff deserves a shout-out, too.

oh yeah. Just watched "The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly" again recently...great stuff.

Other recent favorite riffs, though not connected to childhood memories, are those on Ry Cooder's Paris, Texas soundtrack and Neil Young's Dead Man soundtrack.

As for the SOTU, I watched it in a bar full of raving liberals (during the weekly Drinking Liberally get-together). And yet no one had the balls to join me when, soaked with Philly Yards Lager, I loudly started a "BULLSHIT! BULLSHIT! BULLSHIT!" chant. I heard a someone tell me to shut up, and the waitress told me that this is why they don't like to show political things on the teevee.

I'd like to think I created my own populist, stadium-influenced SOTU soundtrack last night. Too bad it bombed.

XTCfan said...

Thanks, Ned. You reminded me to add that movie to my Netflix queue, since my wife hasn't seen it.

My parents were show-tune nuts, so I grew up listening to lots of Rogers and Hartmerstein, Gershwin, Lerner and Lowe, etc., as well as Sinatra's swingin' good albums from the early '60s, and even the soundtrack for Hair. Add to that all the Beatles/Stones/Psych albums that my brother and sister were buying as they were released, and you wind up with the writers and songs that send me back to the daze of my youth...

I'm glad I wasn't the only one who didn't watch last night. Either I would have had to do what Matt did (and that would have kept the kids up), or seeth quietly until I died from an aneurism. I watched the Science Channel instead. At least I can get some truth there.


TRH said...

Thanks for that bite of the madeleine, and the vague whiff of orange pop.

Ronzoni Rigatoni said...

"Weepy Wistfuls" Jeebus, man, you hit me right inna gut. Gonna get me summa trh's orange pop now.

The Millionaire Playboy said...

I will always deeply respect tribute the "the Barry", John that is...

blue girl said...

Oh, Jeddie -- what a beautiful, wonderful post. And I know exactly the feeling you describe -- being nine, pondering, yearning...except I wasn't in Helinksi -- I was in Reston, VA -- 1973 -- a latchkey kid who grew up too fast -- calling the local VA hospital after school trying to volunteer as a candy striper...

You are such a wonderful writer. And thanks for the music link. I'm going to keep playing it as I set up Quark documents today. It will make it bearable.

Just a little *pjywbjy* thinking Katharine Ross was beautiful as "Raindrops are falling on your head" played.

blue girl said...

*My* head...


*Your* head to probably...

Anonymous said...

If you dont think of kelly LeBrock when you hear "lady in red" you're crazy. Half the 80's movies come "chock-full" of movie-song associations...and Point out ANYONE born ANYWHERE in modern society that cant hum a Star Wars theme.
just a thought....loved the article though.

John Ferguson said...

What a gorgeous hunk of prose!

Ben said...

I was always tickled by how Harry Nilsson quotes "Theme from Midnight Cowboy" at the end of "Cowboy" on "Nilsson sings Newman." I guess Toots Thielemans must live in New York City. Say, that guy deserves credit for being able to play the chromatic harmonica without sounding like Stevie Wonder. Not that sounding like Stevie Wonder is a bad thing.

Naredo - the town whose streets I was shot on when I had a cold.