Dark Days Are Made of This
Updated: Jan 6
MTV, Nuclear Winter, and a New Hope — My Adventures in Underscore, part 10
The grey water was cooling, and my toes were beginning to poke above the surface, as soap scum and bubbles circled the drain. The stopper in our apartment tub was a poor fit and the bathwater had been slowly leaking for the past twenty minutes. I took the cold washcloth off my face and sat up. The rattle of the built-in ceiling fan had become just so much white noise, which I ignored in favor of the buzz between my ears. It was January 1984, an ominous year that had loomed in the world’s collective imagination for three and a half decades. Big Brother might not be watching me, but I couldn’t feel much worse if he was.
It was late, and I was having trouble adjusting to my odd work schedule: graveyard shift from 11pm to 7am. Even on my days off, I was out of sync with everyone else, sleeping in and staying up late. I wandered out to the living room, and turned to the cable box for some low-commitment, high-return TV viewing. A stunning woman with a flaming red crewcut is belting out “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” and the video is arresting, by turns bombastic and minimalist, electric violin mixing with throaty contralto. Her robot-dominatrix-karaoke act is compelling. This song is like something from the future. I wonder if we'll still be here in 30 years.
At 27, I felt like I was sleepwalking to middle age, working a meaningless job and struggling with my wife Leslie to meet our little boys’ special needs. Worse, the political climate was oppressive, and the world seemed to be teetering on the brink. Despite his vast popularity, Reagan was not my president, and he seemed to be playing cowboys and Indians with H-bombs. There was no lack of apocalyptic movies to feed my anxiety: Red Dawn, Threads, Testament, Special Bulletin, World War III and The Day After—I couldn’t look away from them. I was addicted to the churn in my gut whenever the klaxon horns blared, the pilots raced to their bombers—and the civilians clutched their loved ones for the last time.
Cheery, I know. But there was nothing like a good end-of-the-world flick to make my life feel less bad. Sometimes I got lucky and there was a soundtrack I could hum along with—which happened with WarGames. Despite the serious title, this odd mix of Ferris Bueller hijinks and Dr. Strangelovian dread was a crowd pleaser with a muscular score by Arthur B. Rubinstein. He came out of nowhere writing for a big orchestra, flavored with electronics—the flip side of his simultaneous hit Blue Thunder. He was certainly my new favorite composer, with uptempo stylings for downer movies that lifted my spirits. I liked it so much that I dubbed the LPs onto cassette to play in the car. The track “Winner None” inspired some spectacularly reckless driving when I was alone.
Feeling alone was the story I liked best. Y’know, woe is me! It explained my misery without offering any solutions. I projected that isolation onto the world around me. The flood of popular movies continued, and when I wasn’t spooked by gloom and doom flicks, I was annoyed by the juvenilia of so many other others. The Never-Ending Story and Goonies were supposed to be kid stuff, but I felt like movies in general were being dumbed down. Sheena. Megaforce. Breakin’ 2: Elecric Boogaloo. Even Star Wars sold out to the peanut gallery with those damned Ewoks. As a father, I didn’t want my kids to see this junk. But secretly, I wished I could have hung onto my adolescence a little longer.
Seemed like every other movie was for or about teens, from Risky Business to Footloose to The Outsiders. At least Coppola understood the importance of music, so his artsy, experimental Rumble Fish had a kicky, pop-flavored score to match. I liked it so much that I sought other solo work by Stewart Copeland, including his Afro-pop LP The Rhythmatist and geezer vigilante show The Equalizer. I’ve always been a sucker for new sounds, and the novel pings and pulses of the Fairlight, DMX and Roland Parlaphonic pricked up my ears. I even tolerated his fellow Police-man Andy Summers sexing-up Richard Strauss to sell the sequel to my favorite movie of all time. The rock video for 2010: The Year We Make Contact was the least of its problems…
One movie hit the sweet spot of my despair. Imagine a world doomed from the outset, where robots from the future know your every move and it was only a matter of time before they came for you, your family, and eventually all of humanity, reducing the Earth to a cinder in the process. Sitting in the Royal Theater on Polk, I felt the familiar churn in my gut. Was it the new fear of Skynet, replacing the Soviets as nuclear bogeyman? Was I anticipating harsh penalties for taking an unauthorized extra-long dinner break from my dead-end job? Or was it the ominous main title theme by Brad Fiedel, an uneasy dirge for humanity punctuated by the clanging hammers and relentless march of The Terminator? Why choose? At least I was feeling something different than usual.
I would have bought that soundtrack in a microsecond—if it was available. Not having much in the way of disposable income, I had to be choosy anyway. Another new composer on the block was doing a better job of picking projects, and thereby emptying my wallet. I lapped up three releases in a row from James Horner. He was a complete unknown to me when I saw Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but he brought a classical, sea-faring sound to my beloved space series and I was sold. After the great disappointment of the first motion picture, it was great to see the old crew back together in an action-adventure epic with dramatic, pulse-pounding music to match.
I followed the trail to his next assignment, Brainstorm, which had my favorite special effects artist at the helm, and again, the LP delivered the goods—ethereal, atonal and grandiose in the best possible way. Jamie’s success as a composer seemed to come in opposition to the films themselves—he was writing better and better scores to prop up weak or compromised movies. Krull was supposed to be an epic swashbuckler set in a fantasy realm, but it only worked if you closed your eyes and imagined what “Riding the Firemares” could be. And the less said about Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, the better—I’ll just shut my mouth and open my ears for a replay of “Stealing the Enterprise.”
I had to admit that Horner’s music reminded me a lot of another favorite. More prolific than ever, Jerry Goldsmith provided endless opportunities to compare notes. I wish that I could say Iiked his movies better than his scores, but he didn’t fare so well either. Twilight Zone: The Movie was wildly inventive musically—the equal or better than his work from two decades earlier on the original series. Psycho II borrowed liberally from the Master but Jerry didn't take the bait to swipe from Bennie. I didn’t much like Gremlins with its gratingly raucous ragtime theme, and the soundtrack EP was like a Catskills joke “the music was bad, and the portions were so small.” I found Supergirl to be unwatchable and Under Fire, while sturdy, was so disguised by Pat Metheny’s guitar that I barely recognized the rest. The score to Rambo II may have been a blast, but its politics kept me out of the theater.
As a child of the 1960s, I looked forward to The Right Stuff for the better part of the year. The optimism of that period was infectious, and it shifted my mood for the moment. Tom Wolfe’s book was a jaw-dropping, amped-up account of the space program, revealing lots of things we never got to hear or see during the Space Race. I was so determined to see it that I lied about a PTA meeting to get out of work after being transferred to the day shift. The trip across town to the giant Coronet Theater would take about twenty minutes—if I ignored the traffic. Barreling through Golden Gate Park in my beat-up Toyota, sunshine glinting off my aviator shades, I felt like the best pilot you ever saw. Until I glimpsed the flashing red and blue lights of an SFPD cruiser in my rear view mirror. I had screwed the pooch.
The $85 speeding ticket notwithstanding, I loved the movie. That was a surprise—I hadn’t felt so good at the cinema in a long while. It was better than a chemical high, and the music undoubtedly goosed my good feelings. I hadn’t expected to see Bill Conti’s credit for original score, but he brought some of the same feel-good triumphalism from the Rocky series. I didn’t realize he could write such grand, almost classical symphonic music—and it would be many years in the future before I realized how much he was forced to borrow from classical symphonies of the past. I wanted to revisit that good feeling with a soundtrack album, but of course it took years just to get a meager suite re-recorded. More frustration.
Eventually, all that frustration sparked a change. There was nothing more I could do to milk my data processing job for income or opportunity. I needed another outlet. My creative soul was drying up and I looked for an inexpensive way to get some juice. Individual classes at City College were just a few bucks per semester—so I signed up for an introduction to industrial design. It was essentially a drawing course, teaching prospective draftsmen how to use pens and paper in two-point perspective.
What was a humdrum technical exercise for my classmates became a point of inspiration for me. I took each assignment as an excuse to pour out my dreams on paper. I was staying up late (again) to work at my drawing board after Michael and James went to bed. With Tony the cat on my lap, and the exultant music from The Natural on my headphones, I flew into my homework. Those banal assignments in drafting became grand flights of fancy, rendering elaborate floor plans, intricate medieval castles and futuristic space stations. Without realizing it, I was marshaling a new hope.
Eventually I brought in my portfolio for review. Our instructor Martin was a tall, heavyset mensch in his late fifties, wrapped in a thick sweater with his knitted green “jeep cap” pulled down tight over his ears. Running a hand over my drawing, he brushed the edges as if to wipe away imaginary flecks of rubber eraser. He spoke in a gravelly and distinctive Bronx accent. “Very nice.” Now that he had my attention, he looked over his wire rimmed glasses to make eye contact. “You know, you’re good at this. Maybe you should be doing this for a living. Have you ever thought about that?”
I didn’t dare before, but now that you mention it…
The next eighteen months was a crash course in photography, typography and graphic design. All the things that I had intuitively loved but had never formally considered. That one question from Martin changed everything: with time my attitude adjusted and life opened up to new possibilities. I was no longer stewing in my own juices but cooking with gas. After a rocky launch in 1986, I got my first real job as an assistant art director. I raised my pay by 50%, got to work a 9-to-5 schedule and was excited to go to work every day. Even if my job was somewhat rote and repetitive, I was part of a creative team of magazine writers, artists and editors. I was finding my tribe, and feeling a little less alone.
I think I’ll celebrate. Maybe there’s a new Horner soundtrack in the bin at Tower Records in San Mateo. I'll swing by on the way home.
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