Connecting the Little Black Dots
Updated: Jan 21
Making room for music and family - My Adventures in Underscore, part 14
The early ’90s was a new beginning for me in a lot of ways. Most obvious was my marital status: Leslie and I split the year before, after thirteen years of marriage and three children (or two “litters” depending on how you count the twins.) I spent the next year grappling with being a bachelor and a dad, neither identity being one I was especially comfortable with.
As a result, weekends came to feel especially long and empty—especially this one at the end of 1992. I pick up a free Bay Guardian from the corner dispenser and scan the arthouse listings: the Lumiere, Red Vic, Bridge. I spot something interesting at the Gateway, a shoebox of a theatre in the shadow of the Transamerica tower. Never been there before.
Bad Lieutenant is hardly holiday fare, but it appeals to my failed Catholicism and East Coast cynicism. I straddled both coasts with alternating optimism and skepticism. Anyway, compared to Harvey Keitel in the eponymous role of a drug-addicted, self-destructive cop whose life is spiraling to oblivion, my life looked pretty good by comparison. Right now, this is my idea of a feel-good movie. Happy F*cking 1993.
There have been some positive developments over the past year. I was recruited for a “real job” at a corporate computer magazine, which meant more challenging work, better pay—and a longer commute. Our do-it-yourself divorce is moving very slowly, but I’ve settled into a workable visitation schedule. And I’ve stopped looking for a girlfriend—I need to get my act together first. That leaves me a little time and money to pursue my chief hobbies: watching movies and collecting soundtracks.
Music has been my lifelong companion. As long as I can remember, I’ve carried a tune in my head. Sometimes what I hear are ear worms that linger for days, to dance alongside some lingering guilt or encourage some new obsession. Sometimes snatches of a song will pop in for a visit, especially when I’m excited or surprised. Often it’s something I learned from Looney Tunes—so I keep it to myself. “Singin’ In the Bathtub…” isn’t exactly on the top 40. Neither is any of the movie music that I love so dearly, which makes me feel self-conscious, and stay closed-mouth.
I spend solo weekends searching the record stores for bargains, starting with The Wherehouse in Colma to see what’s new, then making the loop from Streetlight Records on 24th to Green Apple on Clement or Pigs On Ice on Polk. Having so many stores is a curse and a blessing. I might be excited to find a battered copy of Red Heat by James Horner, but then need to skip over another three used copies of Baraka or Chariots of Fire. You know, trendy soundtracks bought and forgotten by civilians.
A highlight of this period is rediscovering composers that I hadn’t paid much attention to before. As famous as Elmer Bernstein may be, I didn’t have a personal connection with his big hits of the ’60s like To Kill A Mockingbird or The Magnificent Seven. (The music in westerns is about the only thing I find interesting about the genre.) Scorsese’s Cape Fear was thrilling, not only because of the bravura filmmaking, but because Bernstein reworked Herrmann’s original score for the remake. I was really floored by the addition of unused music from Torn Curtain—I mean, can you do that? I guess so, he did. But the one-two punch of Amazing Grace and Chuck and The Grifters really bumped him up in my estimation. The former might be a familiar reworking of his tropes, but the latter had a fresh hook, a chiming pulse that sounded contemporary and catchy. And the movie was good, too.
Likewise, I really only knew Ennio Morricone as the guy responsible for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and other spaghetti westerns. So when I tried Frantic, Sahara and In the Line of Fire, on the heels of The Untouchables, I was enchanted. Maybe not his best-regarded work, but they were the entry points to his cool cerebral approach and deeply melodic, endless variations on a theme. And this new guy, Carter Burwell—It looks like he did all the Coen Bros. flicks. So why does Doc Hollywood sound so different (and fun?)
I finally had the copious free time (every other weekend) to start connecting the dots in my hobby. But except for a couple of old issues of CinemaScore magazine and the occasional article in Cinefantastique or Film Comment, I didn’t have many sources for soundtrack information. Except on the shelves of record stores and eventually, in my own collection. I bought a wooden cabinet with slots for 96 albums—a little ambitious since I could only fill it halfway, but a guy needs goals, right?
My favorite, and most informative record store, was a little joint on Nob Hill. It didn’t hurt that it was 100% devoted to soundtracks, grouping albums by composer rather than film title. I spent a number of afternoons schooling myself in the history of soundtracks, reading the backs of CDs in the short aisles of Intrada. It was certainly unique for being a record label as well as a store, the shelves stocked with a couple dozen albums of their own making, among hundreds of other releases. It was unusual in other ways, as well.
The proprietor, whose name I still didn’t know, tended to hold court with a small group of friends/fans/customers, whom I would observe from across the room. He had an easy manner, and his voice would frequently bubble with excitement as he described a favorite movie scene in intricate detail, shot after shot—or analyzed the idiosyncrasies of its instrumentation. I didn’t feel comfortable inserting myself into the group, as they seemed a pretty tight bunch. But from time to time, he would cue up a track from his latest project to demonstrate a point. Today it was Son of the Morning Star—another western, but I'll probably buy it. It sounds like Ralph Vaughn Williams with Native American percussion.
This was the first time I’d participate in a particular aspect of music collecting. I assume it goes on in other genres as well like classical and jazz, but it seemed odd regardless. The guys in the room ranged from late teens to middle age, short, tall, stout, bushy and balding. After a brief introduction, they would fall silent to listen to several minutes of instrumental music. The proprietor might give a nod to point out the tacit horns or raise his hands to feign conducting during an energetic bar. But five grown men would stand, rapt, without speaking a word, until the music came to a stop. Even then, heads would continue to bob along, until someone dared to break the silence.
Unlike drinking buddies at a bar or sports fans at a game, this quiet, reverential gathering is something else. I wonder if there’s a strong streak of introversion among soundtrack fans? Or is it respect for this hall of music worship? I want to ask questions, but again, it doesn’t feel like my place. I settle for sharing the company of like-minded fans, but I wish for a little more interaction than I get from the friendly clerk at the counter. As much pleasure as my hobby brings to my ears, it does little for my loneliness.
At home, I console myself with my new CDs, unwrapping them one at a time to peruse the notes while standing between the speakers of that tiny boom box. As usual, I get a few sore fingernails from opening tightly shrink-wrapped jewel cases. Who designs these things, anyway? I’m glad to have a more portable music collection, and the sound is so much better without the scratches and pops of vinyl, but the packaging is a bitch. Well, maybe not so bad—I’ve gotten my share of paper cuts opening LP sleeves as well.
My weekly routine quickly becomes stale. Commute to Redwood City five days a week, dinner and homework with the kids every Wednesday, sleepovers every other weekend. Predictable, but I’m wrung out. It becomes a joke that I pass out Thursday nights watching Murphy Brown at 8:00. I like the show but I like to sleep more.
In late spring, my life gets a shake up. I come home one evening to find my studio apartment looking brighter and feeling chillier than usual. I don’t remember leaving the window blinds pushed to one side. I certainly didn’t leave the sliding door to the patio open. Scanning my meager furnishings, I notice that the TV is missing. And my boom box. And all the CDs that were stacked alongside it. I rush out the back door, imagining that I’d catch the culprits with their ill-gotten goods. There’s nothing but a few scattered leaves rustling behind the apartment. My eyes widen and I dash back inside and throw open the closet.
There, propped up against the back wall, is the wooden CD shelf with my soundtrack collection intact. Just where I left it. I may have lost a couple dozen pop albums (goodbye, Lady Miss Kier and Mr. Costello) but those precious 62 score albums are safe and sound. I wonder if the guys who broke in would have been interested in those, anyway? I don’t want to find out.
Rather than replace my television, I resolve to go to the movies once or twice a week—and keep a journal. I’m too tired to watch TV anyway, and I can’t wait to see the kid’s faces when I tell them we have to do something besides stare at the tube. I manage to find a cheap sound system at St. Vincent dePaul’s on Folsom and I break it in with a new-to-me copy of Alien3. (That’s a hard core score.) As a bonus, I can tune in to KFJC-FM better than ever, and enjoy Saturday mornings with The Norman Bates Memorial Soundtrack Show again.
Here's where I connect a few more dots: The show’s host broadcast a six-hour tribute to a composer whom I didn’t really know. Over the course of the program, filled with interviews and generous music samples, I became a fan. Christopher Young had been writing music for film since 1984, and was a supremely talented guy who was a fan himself. He emulated the greats for sure, but had the chops to grow beyond those influences and create his own distinctive sound. I’d never heard any composer discuss his work before, and thru the magic of radio, his voice and his music got lodged deeply in my brain. He was “one of us.”
And here’s the kicker—many of his scores were released by my other soundtrack “friends” at Intrada. Chris felt like a local boy, and I raced out to add a few of his titles to my collection. He hadn’t yet graduated to the big leagues, but Hellraiser, Invaders From Mars and The Vagrant all became hits in my household.
I was finding a new balance. Weekly sessions with a personal counselor laid the foundation. I became convinced that “doing my work” was a worthwhile investment. It certainly began to pay off with the kids. Mike and Jim were 14 years old and impatient sharing time with their 4-year old sister. I split their visits to accommodate them, and had more fun as a result. Little Jessica was a shy but playful girl who favored pink and purple fashions and her daddy’s attention. And I was happy to give it: Unlike her rambunctious brothers, she was content to draw, read, play games—and willing to ride along if a record stop was in order.
Today we made a pilgrimage: Tower Records opened a second outpost in The Good Guys! (a home audio store) at Stonestown Galleria, much closer and more convenient than driving across town to North Beach. Lifting Jessi squarely onto my shoulders, we gently galloped into the store. I could only count on her to be distracted by the “horsey” ride for a few minutes, so I quickly scanned the new releases atop the shelves. Among the usual movie poster art was something quite out-of-the-ordinary: a pencil-sketch collage of ducks, rabbits, and skunks. Dots! I see Dots before my eyes!
The Carl Stalling Project was a groundbreaking release from my beloved Looney Tunes. But instead of the usual snippets of music drowned out by dialogue and sound effects, this was a scholarly, respectful collection of music on its own terms. We got to hear the titular maestro tune up the orchestra for a performance of “Puddy Tat Twouble.” Songs were organized by theme, style or time period. 24 pages of liner notes full of details and analysis I never dreamed existed. 78 minutes of “Powerhouse” music that I knew in my bones but had never heard apart from a picture. I didn't realize it then, but a new era was dawning.
Of course I’d have to wait a little longer to discover all of this. I barely had time to check out before my daughter began to fuss, at which time we made a beeline for the local playground. That was okay—I was becoming a little more comfortable with my parental duties. We’d soon be enjoying a little “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals” with our takeout. And I’d connect a few more dots.
* * *
If you enjoyed this post, and know someone else who would, I'd be grateful if you pass it along! Or sign in and leave a comment, below. Thanks for reading.