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.)