The dawn of CDs and the return of Mr. Bates—My Adventures in Underscore, part 11.
It's 1987 and I still didn’t know any other soundtrack fans. We had a boom box in the art department where I worked, and I mostly deferred to the mix of modern rock, country and smooth jazz that my co-workers favored. Once in a while I’d put on the classical station, and no one wanted to be the boor who changed that channel. But eventually I screwed up the courage to pop an old cassette of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad into the stereo. Instantly, one of the production artists looked up, and I braced myself for the usual question, “What are we listening to?” Which was the polite way of saying “Can we please put on something else?”
But Tita surprised me, asking “Is that Bernard Herrmann?” I nearly fell out of my chair. She was a fine artist type working a day job at the magazine. How did she know the name of my favorite composer? “That sounds like the stuff that guy plays on the radio.” THAT GUY? WHAT GUY? I wondered. “You know, on KFJC, the college station. Saturday mornings.” I didn’t know. She continued. “Yeah, he has a funny name for his show on Saturday mornings.” Do tell. “You know, the guy from Psycho?” Did she mean Anthony Perkins? Could he be a DJ now?
“No, it’s Robert. And the show… It’s umm, The Norman Bates Memorial Soundtrack Show. That’s it!”
You could have knocked me backwards down a flight of stairs. Soundtracks on the radio? Three hours a week? That was unprecedented. Occasionally, I was thrilled to hear a snatch of movie music on KKHI, usually accompanied by verbal harrumphing and posturing by the hosts like Keith Lockhart and Scott Beach, who felt they needed to make excuses why pretenders such as Steiner or Waxman deserved to be heard adjacent to Debussy or Hadyn. As if they weren’t all working from the same traditions, anyway.
But now, I wasn’t so alone. My tastes were validated, to a degree. Somewhere, I had a friend in underscore. I set my sights that next Saturday to tune in for a morning with Norman Bates. But of course, you know what gets in the way when you’re making other plans? Specifically, the life of our little family living in a two-bedroom, second-floor walkup in Daly City. After a full week of work and school, the basic chores like laundry, house cleaning and food shopping awaited.
Not that I would let that stop me. I marched over to the stereo and turned the fat silver dial to 89.7 FM, only to be met with a burst of roaring static. Crouching before the amber dial, I rubbed my fingers to improve their grip, and squinted at the lighted tuner on our little component system. A few millimeters in either direction yielded a tantalizing hint of a signal. Was that music? It sounds like a sad trumpet and accordion—definitely not rock and roll. Impossible to tell for sure. The fuzzy bass sound slipped from my grasp like steam through my fingers. After five minutes of frustration, I surrendered to the day ahead.
Most Saturdays, I went scavenging for food bargains like a proper hunter-gatherer. Since my workweek included 10 hours of commuting, I would take this opportunity to spend the morning with the boys and give their mom a break. Mike and James would pile into the backseat of our rusty brown Corolla and tell me all about what I’d missed. Given my influence, they knew their soundtracks, and we’d warble-mangle Star Wars themes like a trio of Swingle Singers rejects. Driving into San Francisco was a game, pretending we were flying the Millennium Falcon, ducking under pillared underpasses (“Watch out! Imperial Walkers!”) or hopping over speed bumps to enjoy a moment of weightlessness—all to the strains of the Indy March.
We’d start at the Alemany Farmer’s Market and buy a tray of fresh eggs or a big bag of that new kind of apples with the Japanese name (we couldn’t find “fujis” in the supermarket yet.) Then over to Cesar Chavez (I keep wanting to call it Army Street) to the Boudin bulk bakery for a giant plastic bag of sourdough rolls for a couple of bucks. Then maybe the Grocery Outlet for some Dutch custard in milk cartons or marked-down breakfast cereal in French language packaging. All the while, I’d be furiously tuning into KFJC, catching snatches of music through a wash of static. Sometimes I’d hear something familiar like The Avengers, and other times I’d struggle to catch a name check—otherwise I would never have recognized The Day of the Locust or For a Few Dollars More through the fuzz.
Radio and TV signals in the Bay Area are a notoriously fickle thing, especially pre-digital, and just as we have innumerable micro-climates, there are also infinitely variable pockets of clear reception. I found myself wishing for a little more time at a red light or a longer stretch of driving atop a hill where the signal happened to be strong. Robert Emmett, the host, would introduce his selections with an understanding of the music’s impact—not just its sonic virtues, but cultural context as well. He wouldn’t play the intro from 77 Sunset Strip without mentioning Ed “Kooky” Burns and his Brillcream do. Or how Hawaiian Eye and Bourbon Street Beat were blatant knockoffs of the same show, with soundalike themes.
Holy smokes, this guy’s a brother from another mother. Wish I could meet him someday, but the radio station was a world away, in Los Gatos, and I was busy earning a living and raising a family. The good news was, I had a little pocket money again, and with it, I could procure a fresh source of underscore.
I couldn’t get carried away, but as chief breadwinner I deserved a treat now and then. Our family was still operating at a deficit and I couldn’t justify too much in the way of soundtrack purchases. Those new compact discs seemed to be really catching on. I couldn’t justify buying all my old albums all over again on a shiny little disc, even though the sound was supposed to be SO. MUCH. BETTER. But I was excited to consider a few new acquisitions. The first albums I ever bought on this format were about as different as could be. But that’s me, I like a little of everything. As soon as I had a spare $35, I made a pilgrimage to Bay and Columbus Street to visit the familiar temple of music with the friendly yellow and red sign.
It took an hour to decide. Sorting through the soundtracks at Tower Records had gotten a little noisier than the soft flip, flap, flup, of LPs. The new cardboard “longboxes” were like stilts to keep six-inch square CDs visible in bins intended for 12” records. These new, heavier packages hit harder and made a sharper tip, tap, tup sound—the new percussion track in my life. Tip, tap: A recording of The Adventures of Robin Hood by the unpronounceable Varujian Kojian & The Utah Symphony Orchestra. Michael and James will dig this one—they were adorable in their Merry Men costumes. Tap, tup: one just for Dad—Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love—more over-the-top vocals and extravagant Fairlight orchestration, decades before she’d become a soundtrack sensation.
I soon became hooked on the format—the jewel cases were impervious to our cat’s claws, for one thing. No more shredded sleeves! And remarkably, a few discs found their way into the used bins. Some folks were not enamored of the cold, digital audio. I grabbed a Round-Up of Western music by Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops. Great stuff, but the first time I heard the gimmicky gunshot sound effects my ears were ringing for a week. %$#@! digital audio!
In short order, I splurged on a Discman to listen to music in the car, but wearing headphones while driving was a no-no. Fortunately, I discovered the Recoton cassette adapter, which plugged into the headphone jack. At the end of the wire was a device that looked like an ordinary tape cassette. But when this cassette was inserted into the car stereo, wire dangling from the dashboard to Discman, the music from the CD would play, like magic. And just like that, I jury-rigged the best sound system ever. For 30-40 minutes, I could listen to music uninterrupted, as loud as my eardrums could tolerate, and arbitrarily change lanes for effect with every power chord or crescendo. I especially liked driving to The Living Daylights (James Bond with a fresh backbeat and two Chrissy Hynde songs!).
But I kept returning to that guy on the radio. With the help of an FM antennae stretched over our living room wall, I got to hear more and more of the show, when life permitted. I was intrigued by his eclectic mix, including “Soundtracks, showtunes, television themes… all the music you’ve come to trust over the course of several generations…” That was a quote from a Bob and Ray routine, just one more reason to think I had a friend in the soundtrack business. He liked everything, not just Herrmann, without judgment, without scorn. The pool of soundtrack fans was too small to trash talk. “Sit back, Relax! And enjoy the best music you ever saw.”
It’s a funny thing about radio, it feels so intimate when a voice seems to be talking only to you. Especially someone speaking so specifically about something that you love, and can’t really share with anyone else. I’d spent my whole life explaining and apologizing for the music I preferred. What should have been a source of joy sometimes felt like an embarrassing vice. But not on TNBMSS. Every week, Rob would play the “The game we all know and love so well… the Television Mystery Theme of the Week” where listeners were invited to call in and “Identify a good, a bad, or just flat-out ugly television theme. Something you’ve heard, something you’ve heard about… something you’ve ever only heard here.”
I listened intently, but it was usually easy to guess, as someone who listened to what he watched from an early age. The thrill was that someone else was listening too. This week it was Mike Post’s sweet and spare piano theme for Hill Street Blues. I wondered where he’d gotten that on record. While folks were calling in, he played something new to me—a beautiful, sweeping piece of Americana writing by a composer with a very European name: Hugo Friedhofer. I didn’t catch the title, but I had my goosebump moment, and decided that I needed to know what sounded so warm and uplifting.
I had the phone number from the Mystery segment—maybe someone at the station could tell me what it was. So I punched in the keys on our green corded phone, and I waited for a long time. But then that familiar basso voice answered “KFJC. This is Robert.” Really? The DJ answers his own phone? I stammered through my introduction, first-time caller, long-time listener, blah-blah-blah. He thanked me for listening, and excitedly told me about the record. I’d heard of the movie but never saw it.
“Great film, shot by Gregg Toland from Citizen Kane. Hang on a sec.”
He took a moment to load a pre-recorded cartridge and return to the phone. I could tell he was a friendly guy. I could hear him smiling on the other end of the line. “I just have a minute, but I’m excited about this album. It’s a re-recording, and the LP is out of print, but they just put it out again on CD.” I struggled to keep up with all this new information: re-recordings? You mean not all soundtracks come straight from the movie? Reissued on an obscure Australian label? Could get it from Tower or The Wherehouse? Robert offered another source.
“I’m sure you can find it there. That’s where I get a lot of stuff. Do you know it?”
No I didn’t. But my ears were buzzing after we hung up. The fandango from North By Northwest was blaring over the speakers, as Mickey’s hands assumed the hostage position, and another edition of The Norman Bates Memorial Soundtrack Show came to a close. I pulled out the yellow pages and scanned the listings for record stores. 1488 Vallejo Street, that’s just off of Polk. I go there all the time, how could I have missed it…?
I punched in the new number and someone picks up right away. “Hello, this is Intrada.” I took a breath and asked if they had a copy of The Best Years of Our Lives…
“LP or CD? We have both.”
I didn't know it, but this was my first step into a larger world...
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Robert Emmett still hosts The Norman Bates Memorial Soundtrack Show on Saturday morning at 89.7 FM. You can listen live in the Bay Area, or stream shows from the station archive here: