It Was the Best of Times, It Was blah, blah, blah…
Updated: Jan 6
Stumbling into fatherhood in the early ’80s - My Adventures in Underscore, part 9
You can hear a selected playlist for this story on Apple Music or Spotify @joesoundtrack
Lots of fans look back on the early ’80s with great fondness, as well they might. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg opened the floodgates for blockbuster movies and especially, a new wave of sci-fi, fantasy and adventure films like nothing that had been seen—or heard—before. There had already been a couple of sequels to popular hits like Jaws and The Omen, but generally the soundtracks were the best thing about those retreads. We hoped that the followup to Star Wars would be different.
There was a lot of scuttlebutt around the film department at SF State, where I was finishing my animation degree. Lucasfilm was just across the Golden Gate Bridge from us, and rumors were flying thick and fast about that most anticipated sequel. For the first time in my life I knew people who knew people working on big motion pictures. I recall a classmate who wisely predicted a future of many Skywalker sequels, where we would look back at the first movie and laugh at the antiquated special effects (Little did we know…) The trailer for The Empire Strikes Back (with grating narration by one of the cast) promised an exciting expansion of the series, but my goosebump moment came just before the premiere.
While shopping at a comic book store downtown, I was stopped in my tracks by an insistent beat of timpani, and a deep, thrumming ostinato. It reminded me of “Mars, The Bringer of War” from The Planets, but that wasn’t it. I rushed to the counter and implored the clerk to tell me what was playing. “It’s called “The Imperial March”— we got a promo copy of the soundtrack.” I looked at the blank white sleeve stamped with “Not For Sale” leaning against the stereo. Even without cover art, the music was painting a picture. I thought this music sounded even more like a Flash Gordon serial than the original! The clerk nodded solemnly in agreement. And a week later, we were all rewarded beyond any reasonable expectations.
While the decade was getting off to a grand start at the cinemas, I was still stumbling at the starting gate. It had been almost two years since our twins were born, and once I’d graduated, it would be my turn to go to work while my wife Leslie completed her degree. The pressure was building and it was a challenge to complete my studies.
I had a big report due in theory class, the last requirement for a degree in film production. I’d struggled to bang out a 12-page analysis of French philosopher Roland Barthes’ essay on semiotics and the meanings of text (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, well, that makes two of us.) The report was produced on my hand-me-down Remington typewriter, and the result was a wrinkled, careworn stack of papers, splotched with dabs of white out and carefully hand-lettered corrections.
As the melancholy strains of Watership Down played on my scratchy little turntable, I began to feel some relief. I’d been running like a scared rabbit all semester. The paper was due today but I still had an hour to get to my instructor’s office. After retyping the bibliography and stapling the stack of papers, I hauled Michael and James out of their playpen. To speed things along, I carried them both down the two flights of stairs to the garage, put my paper on the roof, and buckled them into their back seats.
The boys were restless, keeping up a steady stream of chatter on the ten minute drive to school. Mike and James spoke a lot of gibberish that only they seemed to understand. Fortunately, I found street parking nearby, unloaded our makeshift double stroller, and packed them in for the final stretch. All good, except—I couldn’t find my report. I searched the tiny Toyota, once, twice, then started tearing out the carseats and ripping up the floor mats. It was gone. On the roof.
I began to kick myself. Why didn’t I use carbon paper? Why didn’t I keep better notes!? A tsunami of emotion knocked me off my feet as the boys giggled and wriggled in their seats. The only saving grace was that I didn’t need to make up a story to tell my instructor. Only a few years older than I was, he took pity and gave me an extension and a passing grade.
So I began my next chapter with a film degree and no prospects. What’s the difference between an out-of-work animator and a large cheese pizza? The pizza can feed a family of four. I’d worked on a short film, lost an apprenticeship, and struck out as a comic book artist. Time had run out so I took a job as a copier repair man, and graduated to data processing for the worst five years of my life.
Which made the early eighties a very mixed bag for me. While folks were queueing up for all the new movies, from Airplane! to Body Heat to Caddyshack, I was mostly watching from the sidelines, reading magazines for a rundown of films that I wished that I could see and waiting for them to show up on cable a year or two later. I grew embittered—the further that I got from my dream of filmmaking, the more difficult it was to enjoy movies in almost any form. My soundtrack collection was largely put on hold, except for a couple of standout albums that I couldn’t do without. John Carpenter’s Escape From New York was one of the rare trifectas: a movie I saw in the theater, enjoyed greatly, and whose soundtrack I bought immediately. A-number-one.
I still loved movie music, and there were a few places in San Francisco to pick up records on the cheap. Ironically, I began buying used albums from movies that I hadn’t even seen, and created the best versions of them in my head. This worked in my favor with flicks like Nighthawks, a routine Sylvester Stallone cop thriller. The score was a driving blend of synthesizer and symphonic music composed by one of my former rock idols, and cheesy as it sounds today, that music melted in my mind. (Still haven't seen it—I’d hate to ruin the album...)
The films I couldn’t miss were by auteurs I admired. DePalma continued in the Master’s footsteps with Dressed to Kill, and much as I wanted to see the film a second time, I settled for playing Donaggio’s album over and over. Heavy with strings, the score may have evoked Psycho at times, but more importantly, the director turned over several long sequences to his composer, just like Hitch would do. I think this is why some soundtracks become favorites with fans: they have a few key moments where the music isn’t simply background, but moves to the foreground to great effect (like during Angie Dickinson’s fateful stroll through the art museum). I liked their followup even more, but Blow Out was a bust at the box office and there was no LP to be had.
Kubrick released his first and only horror movie, and while Stephen King hated it, I found it fascinating, as always. My favorite director assembled an all-star lineup of unsettling music by Ligeti, Penderecki and Bartok (even their names are creepy!). But it was the “original” theme for The Shining that became the earworm. Wendy Carlos was back on her synthesizer, reworking a haunting dirge that I felt that I’d heard before, but couldn’t place. It would be years before I learned about the ancient “Dies Irae,” (or “day of wrath”) a composition for funeral mass that was plundered endlessly for horror movies before and since.
That dreary tune became my theme song. 1982 may have been a magical year for cinefantastique, but it was simply my nadir. The boys were diagnosed with learning disabilities, and while they were emotionally light-hearted, they were way behind in development. At the age of 25, I was sitting in school meetings with teachers, counselors and other parents who were all a generation older than me, feeling judged and scolded for not doing a better job as a parent. Their droning voices played like that downbeat Latin plainsong that never ended. We got help from the school system, but—that’s another story as well.
Where I had previously watched movies in a scholarly fashion, now I turned to them for escape. Escape was fleeting, however, when the films were big disappointments like Conan The Barbarian. I’d stared at (and even re-drew) the vivid paperback covers by Frank Frazetta, but seeing those tableaus reenacted with the muscle-bound meathead from Pumping Iron did not an adventure make. I was so glum that I barely registered Basil Poledouris’ muscular score—not because it wasn’t great, but five years into the film music renaissance I was taking great symphonic scores for granted. I liked Vangelis’ eerie electronica for Blade Runner, but no authentic soundtrack was available (strike one) the movie was a visually stunning bore (strike two) and it starred that snarky guy who played Han Solo (strike three!).
At this time I couldn’t call myself a collector. Didn’t have many soundtrack albums, maybe 15 or 20. I couldn’t afford to buy LPs unless they were guaranteed to be favorites. Music, especially film music, was my mood-altering drug of choice. My emotions were tangled and a good tune could straighten them out, at least for twenty minutes at a time. That’s the closest to a weekend getaway a dad can have with two toddlers under foot. I couldn’t afford to be fussy about the condition of my albums. After Michael worked over the sleeves with his crayons, or Tony the cat sharpened his claws on the spines, I gave up.
How bad was my mood? So bad that I had a few dozen complaints about the immensely popular Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was a sourpuss when it came to Indiana Jones’ casting—wasn't there anyone else available to play the hero in these movies? And that damned “Raiders March” was all over the movie, even though it wasn’t as good as the march John Williams wrote for 1941. Wished that they could have swapped themes—though I had to admit the desert truck chase was completely awesome…
At the time, I preferred The Road Warrior, not just because the action was breathtaking, the mood grim, and the music loud and relentless—but because I was swept up in my own storm of doom and gloom. The opening prologue spoke forlornly of a time of chaos and ruined dreams, while Brian May’s edgy, elegiac music closed the coffin lid on the world. Yeah, that was my idea of fun!
So now the star director of Raiders was making a movie about kids meeting an alien. I was sure it would be a flop. Critics were talking about the dumbing down of modern cinema, how the auteurist achievements of the ’70s had given way to the popcorn-populism of the ’80s. I couldn’t believe that there could be a decent sci-fi film that would appeal to a mass audience, and that this film, with the overly-punctuated title, would be neither fish nor fowl. Neither Alien nor Thing.
But from the mysterioso strains of the first scene, with urgent horns and plaintive flute tracking the title character through the woods, I had to admit I was wrong. The movie had heft, emotion, imagination—and a world-class score. Johnny Williams had done it again. The pulse of the orchestra went right for the gut, and yeah, the music wasn’t as wonderfully intense and intellectual as Goldsmith’s music for Poltergeist or Outland, but the movie was a whole lot better than either of those. To be fair, I was in need of a belly rub, not a head trip. The exhilarating bike chase and finale provided the catharsis I needed from a movie.
E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial won me over, so much so that six months later I came back for seconds and brought along Leslie and the boys. Sure enough, even at the age of four-and-half, they loved it, laughing and jumping at all the right places. When E.T. flew home, little James broke into tears and his big brother (by five minutes) followed on cue. Did they understand what was happening? I think they simply felt it. Through the music.
Just like their old man. I was moved to share what I loved with my little boys. And they loved it too. Things might get worse before they got better, but for the moment, we were all smiling through our tears.
* * *
If you enjoyed this post, maybe you'd like to join my site (sign up, above). And if you're already a member, I'd appreciate any comments below. Thanks!