A Long Time Ago, In a City Far, by the Bay
Updated: Jul 17
When SF turned Sci-Fi - My Adventures in Underscore part 8
In March of 1977, I was sitting in a New Jersey theater with a few college pals, waiting to see something very unusual: a new animated fantasy film that was not released by Walt Disney. It was enjoyable enough, a jokey mashup of Tolkien, Heavy Metal and Terrytoons—but the most memorable part of that screening was the trailer for an upcoming sci-fi film. In fact, it was too much for me to comprehend in a single sitting—so I made everyone remain in their seats for 20 minutes after the show in order to see the trailer one more time. It promised “A boy, a girl… and a universe” and was set to a chilly, repeating string pulse, like a skipping Vivaldi record. That music, combined with the raw, unmixed sound effects of characters clomping on plywood sets felt like a remnant of ’70s sci-fi. But the visuals promised something new: more aliens, spaceships and laser beams than I’d seen in the past decade. A coming attraction, indeed.
When that movie opened on May 25th, I took note that the soundtrack was composed by the guy who wrote Jaws. At that point I wasn’t too aware of his work, even though I’d been listening to it for over a decade in various places (I might have remembered The Poseidon Adventure, for example, but I don’t think I’d made the full Irwin Allen connection. Much less tallied his credits with Hitchcock and Altman). Based on the initial trailer, I was completely unprepared for the sound of Star Wars. Apparently, someone had been listening to the RCA classic soundtrack series! It didn’t just look like an old-fashioned western or war movie, it sounded a lot like one as well. I recognized a lot of cues that sounded like the oldies that I’d been listening to, using the full orchestra to maximum effect. Even the general public noticed! This movie was a new and exciting experience for all of us.
So much so that there were soon two-count ‘em-two! vinyl discs available. That soundtrack album was a cultural sensation, collected in a gatefold LP, like The White Album, or Tommy. Much bigger than Jaws in volume and impact. I was excited to hold this treasure, not just because the music was so thrilling in the movie, but because regular moviegoers were buying the music too. Was this a new hope for soundtrack fans like me? Would we get some respect? I played that 74 minutes worth of music endlessly from June to August, seeking new inspiration as much as old thrills, as I cobbled together my latest home-made film extravaganza. Even when the silly knockoffs of John Williams’ music appeared and got airplay, I simply assumed that the world was changing for the better.
My life was certainly changing. That summer I moved to San Francisco to start film school, which turned out to be quite different than I’d expected. Talk about strange new worlds—the Bay Area still carried more than a whiff of the Summer of Love a decade later, with tie-dyed clothing, crunchy granola and clouds of pot smoke everywhere. There were comic book stores, record shops and funky coffee houses galore, and I took great pleasure in prowling through all of them. When I wasn’t playing house with my college girlfriend Leslie, that is, who had moved to California with me.
One of my happiest discoveries was a gigantic music store, the size of a supermarket, at the corner of Bay and Broadway. Its cheerful yellow and red sign was visible for blocks in all directions, drawing me into the corner parking lot. I was greeted by billboard-sized reproductions of rock and roll covers—which were actually hand-painted by a local artist and rotated monthly. Entering the store, I immediately felt the kinesthetic rush of the cavernous space. Long aisles, brightly lit and lined with thousands of LPs, awaiting my careful inspection. This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The soundtrack section was bigger than most of the record departments that I haunted back home.
More remarkably, the music on offer wasn’t simply the latest and greatest, but a seemingly endless array of LPs from the past as well as the present. There was even a small section labeled “imports”—something I’d never seen before. Records from other countries? Clearly, I was going to need a bigger wallet. My monthly stipend for living expenses was pretty modest, so it was a stretch to spend anything on “non-essentials”. After an hour of diving deeply thru the offerings, I proudly walked up to the counter with three LPs: Something new called MacArthur, which I bought strictly on the name my favorite composer (who had done pretty well with another movie about a famous general). And two blind buys from the extensive back catalog: Spartacus (because Kubrick films always have great soundtracks) and The Great Escape (which I hadn’t seen but had great cover artwork.)
As I waited patiently in the long line for checkout, I devoured the liner notes and artwork in anticipation of getting home to play my new acquisitions. I’d never bought three albums from movies that I had never seen (or barely remembered), but the combination of packaging and promise buoyed my mood. Until it was my turn at the register. In what would become a ritual at Tower Records, the clerk at checkout snorted at my choices. He held up one and said “There’s no songs on this, y’know. Just classical stuff.” Managing an awkward smile, I nodded and stammered “I know,” handing over my twelve dollars. I wondered if he thought I was an idiot. I was disappointed that even here, at this grand temple of music, soundtrack fans got no respect.
That did not deter me from regular patronage for the next three decades. But I needed to find ways to feed my collection without starving myself, which led me into the world of used records. A new LP, especially at Tower, would cost $2.99. But if I was lucky enough to find something that I wanted at Pigs on Ice on Polk, Streetlight on 24th or Green Apple on Clement, well, I could buy two albums and have enough for an “It’s It!” ice cream cookie on the ride home. I spent many afternoons cruising neighborhoods seeking out bargains and finding unexpected treasures. A staple for many years was Rooks and Becords, which I discovered during my first week in the city and was imprinted on me like a baby duck seeing its mother for the first time.
Bracketed by the Royal Theater and the more upscale Gramophone shop, R+B had a better-than-average soundtrack section for reasons that were not immediately apparent to me. I did not realize that Polk Street was a predominately gay neighborhood, nor did I appreciate how the local culture dictated the stock within. But I soon came to appreciate that I wasn’t in NJ anymore, as I stood shoulder to shoulder with many friends of Dorothy: Tweedy older fellows in bow ties and suspenders; younger, leather-clad guys with loud voices and louder cologne; legions of “Castro Clones” in matching jeans, t-shirts and backpocket handkerchiefs, peppered with the eye-popping new sights of a rather burly guy in tiger print mini dress or coupled women in matching flannel. It was all new to me, and I tried not to stare—but I made no judgments—whether we were listening to Sondheim or Schifrin, Streisand or Steiner, I felt strangely welcome. Like Luke Skywalker visiting the bar at Mos Eisley—and nobody snickered at my purchases.
These scattered moments in the record aisle were a relief from a day-to-day that grew more stressful and strange. My life in San Fran was becoming more Sci-Fi. By the end of the semester, we discovered that Leslie was pregnant, and our life was going to change again. I remember another trailer, full of mystery and dread, as air traffic controllers helplessly watch an impending collision between an airliner and an unidentified flying object. I sat in the theater contemplating the unidentified objects in my life—we were going to have twins—and when the crashing chord filled the speakers, I felt the hands of fate take hold. Get used to it, kid. You’re gonna be a father. Close Encounters Of Another Kind, indeed.
The next few months were a blur, as we made plans, switched gears, and eventually delivered our two baby boys. Leslie took Michael and James back East while I stayed in the city to finish the next semester and find a new place for us to live. I had more time on my hands but even less money or opportunity to enjoy it. I filled many off-hours working as a freelance animator, and looked forward to a couple of big sci-fi films that Christmas season. Over the holidays, we lined up for the feel-good movie of the year. From the moment that the big letter “S” filled the screen and the trumpets heralded the arrival of our hero, I forgot my looming responsibilities. Williams came to the rescue again, with a deeply thematic and un-ironic soundtrack that not only triumphed over the silly villains and uneven special effects, but gave me hope and strength. I could believe that a man could fly, and that maybe, a boy could be a father.
The four of us returned to California, taking up residence in less-glamorous and much-foggier Daly City. With another year of school ahead of me, I was a stay-at-home dad while my now-wife took a job to help support us. Sleep deprivation and surrealism colored my mood, and the next movie that I got to see didn’t help matters much. My feelings of alienation were exacerbated by the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, set in a very chilly, off-kilter San Francisco, and scored with a nerve-jangling avant-garde jazz score that I made the mistake of buying before seeing the film. It wasn’t easy listening nor soothing—but sometimes I’d clamp on the headphones and drown out my own frustrations with the warble and clang of A-World-Even-More-Effed-Up-Than-My-Own. The town, and my life, were contracting.
And then, things got a little better. I was off for the summer and feeling a little hopeful about our prospects. The magical date of May 25th came along again, bringing another outer-space opus that promised to be equally spectacular. This was a time when we’d wait six months to a year for the Next. Big. Movie. with very little advance information. And generally, the anticipation paid off with cheers and applause. So as a treat, I got in line with 1000 other fans at the Northpoint Theater on Friday morning, blinking in the bright, hot sun for an hour and-a-half. By the time we were seated, the smell of popcorn and perspiration permeated the air. The familiar fanfare of the Fox logo was greeted with cheers (hey, Star Wars started this way!) and then the theater grew dark and quiet. An ominous drone made our skin tingle, with jittery flute and fluttering strings for uneasy measure. Vertical bars appeared on the screen, eventually spelling out the word A L I E N.
This was not a feel-good flick. It was the culmination of the seventies’ cinema of dystopia, a cynical view of the universe and humanity, that jumped out at us at the end of the decade just when we thought it was safe to go back to the movies. Ridley Scott amped-up his monster-in-the-spaceship story with a new level of filmmaking intensity and an incredible, one-of-a-kind soundtrack from Jerry Goldsmith. Whirling woodwinds and strange percussion kept us on the edge of our seats—which we jumped out of every 20 minutes or so. As harrowing as the film was, the unearthly sound of this orchestra sucked me back again and again. This was the kind of strange sound I expected from Jerry—melodic and dissonant at the same time—and I burrowed deep into that music all that summer, as if I were pressing the bruise that my life had become.
The fallout from George Lucas’ blockbuster was having an effect. There were more sci-fi flicks to see, with more thrills and spectacle than ever before. I snuck out between classes to catch The Fury in one of the seedy theaters downtown, and wondered why Williams’ music sounded so much like Herrmann’s all of a sudden (oh, Brian!) Time After Time followed, sounding more familiar and old-fashioned, but I wasn’t really aware of who Miklós Rózsa was (I'd missed the RCA Spellbound album, and was never interested in Ben-Hur). But here we were, chasing Jack the Ripper through familiar SF neighborhoods, and H.G. Wells even got his money out of the same bank I did, so the lavish score took on a special luster. Then, for the second time in a decade, poor John Barry suffered by his association with a disappointing fantasy. The Black Hole sucked everything, including his lush score, into oblivion as far as I was concerned. It was becoming a big deal to for me to get out to the movies, and I wanted every one to be worth the expense.
Finally, the main event of 1979 had arrived. As a die-hard Trekkie who had attended a half-dozen early conventions and even interviewed William Shatner himself, Star Trek - The Motion Picture promised to be the culmination of a decade’s passion. I bought the souvenir program along with my Junior Mints in the lobby, and saw a picture of Goldsmith for the first time as I rode the cramped escalator to the second floor. The audience at the funky Regency II (a converted ballroom with a big screen) was buzzing with excitement, and even the bare-bones main titles drew applause with each familiar name. The audience was so rowdy I could barely hear the new march and frankly, I wasn’t too sure about it. What was wrong with the questing theme of the original series that we knew and loved?
Things improved immeasurably once the Klingons arrived, with a barbaric sound that reminded me of the Rasuli’s charge in The Wind and the Lion. I always thought of those intergalactic goons as “space pirates” anyway, so I dug the vibe. But then the speakers rumbled with a strange metallic rattle that struck me as odd, like an electric bass crossed with an air horn. I was suspicious—hadn’t we heard something similar in that el cheapo disaster flick Meteor last month? Something is definitely off.
We all leapt to our feet at the sight of Starfleet Headquarters in a futuristic San Francisco—we were the chosen ones!—and the bright flourish of the new Trek theme began to grow on me as Captain Kirk made his entrance. But the epic introduction to the good ship Enterprise began to wear my patience. I was starting to feel like the utterly unique voice of the guy who wrote Alien and Planet of the Apes was being homogenized, to sound more like a knock off of that OTHER successful space opera from two years earlier. First, Johnny doing Bennie, now Jerry doing Johnny? What gives?! Despite the spectacular sum of its parts, I was disappointed with the whole of the movie. Including the score.
I walked out into the chill night air, feeling let down. The low-hanging mist wet my cheeks and fogged my glasses. The long-awaited revival of my cherished TV show was a bust, and my mood soured. Something else was going on with me. I felt more than a twinge when the lights came up. At twenty-two years of age, struggling to finish college and worried how I would support my wife and kids, the end title haunted me.
“The Human Adventure Is Only Beginning.” If this is the beginning, where would it end?
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