When Saturn Came Back
Updated: Jan 6
One Door Opens and Another Closes - My Adventures in Underscore, part 12
You can sample a short playlist on Apple Music or Spotify @JoeSoundtrack
I’ve always been more interested in astronomy than astrology, but there’s something to be said for the pop wisdom of the Zodiac. It says that we experience the “Saturn Return” every 30 years or so, when our lives can undergo a tremendous change, either for good or bad. Well, in 1988 the rings showed up with a vengeance.
On the surface, things were pretty stable. I was climbing the corporate ladder as a magazine art director, earning a decent salary and providing for our family. Sons Mike and James were in fourth grade, still pulling pranks on their teachers and classmates as only twins can (“Let’s switch clothes and classes, to see if anyone notices…”). My wife Leslie had transferred from City College to SF State to complete her engineering degree, but it was slow going. We were very busy just getting by.
I enjoyed a steady diet of new and old film music, mostly in the car on my commute to and from Silicon Valley. But I would also bring CDs to work, particularly on day-long photo shoots spent in cold, dark studios with a photographer and assistant. I got a taste of being a film director, except my stars weren’t beautiful people—they were a series of newer-faster-better computer workstations. It was my job to create attractive covers every month with one beige box after another. I’d pop in something grand and inspirational like The Last Crusade or The Witches of Eastwick to kick off the day, imagining myself as a tinkertoy Spielberg, crafting exotic settings and colorful lighting schemes. As the hours of dragging gear and equipment wore on, my collaborators would ask for something “smoother.” So we might switch to The Falcon and the Snowman, which was easy to listen to, but hardly inspirational. At least it had a Bowie song.
My music tastes were expanding, thanks to the on-again, off-again influence of Robert Emmett and his local radio show. Not local enough, as it turns out, because I still had a hard time tuning in. But the playlist included a lot of new tunes that pricked up my ears. Stuff I might have missed, like Joe Strummer’s flavorful score for Walker—who’da thought the lead guitarist from The Clash could pull off a South American “western”? On the other end of the sonic spectrum was A Handful of Dust, a melancholic adaptation whose composer, George Fenton, was new to me. I hadn’t heard of The Singing Detective, either, until I learned that the wistful accordion piece that opened The Norman Bates Memorial Soundtrack Show was lifted from the BBC series.
I dearly appreciated these little discoveries. Life at home was strained, because I was spending 50-60 hours at work every week, and my wife was equally consumed with her studies. Factor in the care and feeding of a couple of pre-teen boys with learning challenges, and there wasn’t much time or energy left for anything else. It’s easy to see now that we were going through the motions of a marriage, without investing enough effort in a healthy relationship. But at the time, it was all we could do to plod ahead, putting one foot ahead of the other. Where we were headed was anyone’s guess.
Here’s where old Saturn comes a-calling.
I distinctly remember the morning at work, sitting at my drawing board, pasting up an unremarkable page of text for the latest issue. I’d mostly given up on sharing my music with the rest of the crew. Instead, I’d slip on the flimsy orange foam headset wired to my portable Discman player. The more boring the assignment, the louder and more dramatic the selection. This time it was The Fly, Howard Shore’s thoroughly operatic, over-the-top score about a lonely scientist whose experiments go horribly wrong. You could tell it means business from the first six notes: BA-bum BA-bummm, Baaaa-BUM! No windup, no intro, just stating the thematic material front and center. I loved the movie, full of big metaphysical ideas, wrapped up in a tragic love story.
I'd hardly finished the first track when the phone rang. It was Leslie, calling after her doctor’s appointment. She had taken a test and surprise! We were expecting again. The words hung in the air as I stared out into the magazine bullpen. Fumbling for words, I put off the conversation until later that evening. I hung up and kept staring at my co-workers, who eventually asked “What’s up?” I brushed it off—but in my head, those six notes blared over and over. BA-bum BA-bummm, Baaaa-BUM! Things were going to start mutating for me in a big way.
You see, I had taken a long time to accept becoming a father at the age of 20. And I imagined that my parental responsibilities would be wrapped up before I turned 40, free to pursue that film career that I put on hold. Now there’s another child on the way. That’s another 20-year commitment, two decades of a life I hadn't signed up for in the first place. Too much to think about right now. Too much to wrestle with. I needed a distraction.
That distraction was just a few miles away, in the Nob Hill district of San Francisco. I’d just discovered that there was a record store in town that sold nothing but soundtracks. Hard to believe, but on the first available Saturday afternoon, I took the drive into the city. Taking the freeway from Daly City to Octavia Street was a snap, but the last mile and a half was a stop-and-go roller coaster ride. I normally didn’t mind city driving, but my time was short and I lurched through every corner intersection. When I arrived at 1488 Vallejo Street, I was surprised to find a rather quaint Victorian storefront, unadorned by any window dressing save a few cardboard boxes. The sign hanging perpendicular to the street took a minute to sort out: featuring a bowtie-shaped logo, with film frames disappearing into the center and re-emerging as a bar of musical notes. This must be the place.
Intrada was not like any other record store I’d encountered. The room was not very large, with simple white fixtures that suited the turn-of-the-century moulding. The quiet atmosphere was disturbed only by the creak of hardwood planks beneath my feet. The walls were clean and sparsely decorated, except for a few framed 8x10s of men I didn’t recognize and sheet music that I couldn’t read. Then I noticed the small group standing around the stereo in the corner. Whatever they were talking about, it seemed pretty intense.
I turned my attention to the wares on display. In a couple of neat rows, were hundreds of CDs and dozens of LPs. Yes indeed, they were all soundtracks, organized alphabetically. That was nothing new, except that they weren’t ordered by film title. They were arranged by the composer’s name. Like Classical records, or Rock and Roll. I’d never seen that before. Sure enough, Battle of Neretva, Taxi Driver, and Vertigo are all in one place. Same with Poltergeist II, Islands in the Stream and The Wind and the Lion. Movies that I had missed, or never heard of, grouped by the one thing I cared most about: the music.
Just for fun, I pulled out every album that interested me and stacked them up. In no time at all I had a budget-busting pillar of plastic reaching halfway to the ceiling. I set about the hard work of selecting the three or four albums I could afford, including one I’d heard on the radio by Hugo Friedhofer and a couple by current fave Jerry Goldsmith. I noticed that there were a few of his albums sporting the Intrada logo, so I asked the clerk behind the counter for more information. He was surprisingly forthcoming. Not like those judgmental so-and-sos at the other record stores. This soft spoken fellow seemed to approve of my choices, sometimes humming a snatch of music, as he inspected each case.
While he totaled up my order, I strained to overhear the other conversation. One guy with an impressive set of sideburns was holding court, talking about sitting in a screening room with Goldsmith, director Franklin Schaffner and… did I hear that right? Talia Shire and Francis Ford Coppola? Wow. Who is this guy? He wasn’t bragging, exactly, but he obviously had some interesting connections. I wanted to hear more, but then the clerk announced, “That’s $84.95. Cash or credit?” I gulped a little as I handed over my plastic—this wasn’t exactly a budgeted expense. But what the heck, I deserved it, right?
As the year went on, I felt that I deserved these little treats more and more. Work responsibilities grew, as did my frustrations at home. By the time our daughter Jessica arrived, her brothers were getting ready to enter middle school, I had a promotion, and we’d moved from a two-bedroom apartment to a three-bedroom house. Life got more complicated and expensive, and I continued to sneak off to my little haven on Nob Hill.
Funny thing was, I wasn't finding any more community at the record store. There were few patrons and I was too shy to introduce myself to the guys behind the counter. They were always on the phone or talking to someone else anyway. But those fleeting hours were deeply comforting.
Not least because of the ever-changing inventory of budget-busting new CDs, many of which I had never seen before. In addition to the big releases like Batman and Die Hard 2 (available everywhere), I discovered a raft of other scores in the bins, on labels like “Tarantula,” “Soundtrack Library,” and “Super Tracks.” I didn’t know what a “promo” was, or why the packaging was rife with typos and shoddy artwork, but if it meant I could have the otherwise unavailable music from Morituri or Cape Fear, then I didn’t look too closely. I ignored my mounting credit card balance and just cried “Charge It!”
Hello, Saturn my old friend. You’ve come to knock on me again…
Weekday mornings were a bit of a race to get the boys off to school up in San Francisco and then turn around for the 25-mile commute to Redwood City. I'd blast The Untouchables or Barry Adamson’s Moss Side Story to pick up the pace. Was it a total surprise that one day I’d have a head-on fender bender at a busy intersection? Perhaps not. But I did not expect to suffer a long-term back injury that would linger for years. Nor did I expect to be sued by the other driver, leading to a deposition and full jury trial. Until several jurors failed to show up halfway thru, and the judge declared a mistrial. Six months later, I was back in court, only to finally have the case dismissed.
But wait, there was more. In the middle of all this, I contracted a nasty flu that laid me out for a week, with fever, chills, and splitting headaches. The first time I chalked it up to bad luck with a virus. But when it came back within a year for no apparent reason, I began to wonder.
In retrospect, it’s pretty clear. My body was trying to tell me something, that the life that I was living was not right. Laid up on the sofa, I put a CD into the player, hoping to distract myself from the miasma of misery that I felt. But as the eerie choir of The Abyss pierced the silence, and the strange synth pads played the murky depths, I felt myself sinking ever deeper into my own black hole. The pressure was building, and something had to give.
It took two more years for Saturn to complete its circuit. Two years of domestic quarrels, couples counseling, tears and gnashing teeth. Until finally, I came to the realization that while I loved and needed to care for my children, I did not need to remain married to do so. And in the summer of 1991, I moved out of our spacious rented house to a tiny studio apartment a mile away. Unpacking my boom box and tiny rack of CDs, I faced my choice. I couldn’t imagine what was in store, but I believed that I could make it better for all of us.
And the Music of the Spheres played on.
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