Monday, February 23, 2009

Damnation Alley, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cockroaches

(another one for Film Score Monthly)

Early in eighth grade, still living off the high of Star Wars and the appearance of The Man From Atlantis as a weekly series, I began to really look forward to seeing Damnation Alley. I’d read about it in Starlog and become totally enamored with the Landmaster. It promised to be the coolest vehicle since Ark II.

After seeing the film, I still loved the Landmaster, but the only other thing that made any sort of lasting impression was the scene featuring the giant cockroaches. I’d already begun to appreciate film music, playing my Star Wars album almost continually and recording the Man From Atlantis theme from the television, but I noticed nothing about Damnation Alley’s score. I might not have even known the name Jerry Goldsmith at that time. Life went on.

When I lived in LA in the late eighties, I always got a secret thrill when I’d come around that corner on the 101 toward Hollywood and see the Landmaster and a couple of hovercrafts from the Logan’s Run series rotting behind a fence.

It never occurred to me to think about the scores that accompanied any of those vehicles on screen.

Years go by. I do not think about Damnation Alley.

Then, a couple of years back, I noticed that the movie was showing up pretty frequently on Fox Movie Classics, so I figured I’d watch it. By then I’d seen message board threads praising the score and lamenting its “lost” status. I watched the movie. I sort of noticed the score this time but mostly noticed how dumb the whole thing was. I still loved the Landmaster, though.

Then Varese released the Goldsmith at Fox box and I bit. And now I truly got exposed to the score. And I loved it. It’s a great example of the kind of thing Jerry did so well – creating a soundscape that always complements, often enhances and sometimes transcends the material on screen.

After the typically wonderful main title sequence built on brass fanfares, the score moves to an ingenious cue that sonically creates a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Here you can detect hints of some of the effects that would be employed even more devastatingly in Alien just two years later. Next comes some Goldsmithian bombast as the brass motif gets a real workout. Then the Landmaster is introduced in a suitably heroic fashion with more reference to the main brass motif, ending with some discord that perhaps hints at the troubled journey the travelers will face. Then we get the cockroach attack, one of the film’s most embarrassing sections that nevertheless gets a vicious underscore from Jerry that truly creates a feeling of simultaneous action and terror. It’s been said many times that Goldsmith seemed to be able to score some idealized version of a film in his head rather than what he actually saw on screen, and this entire score is a great example of that. Even the closing cue, with a trumpet-led melody evoking blue skies and a new beginning for the human race, captures the mood and tone of the film better than the actual scene as filmed. The entire nine track score as represented on the disc plays out as a satisfying musical journey on its own, as so many of Goldsmith’s scores do.

Now I can’t speak to any missing tracks, the missing electronic overlays and all that. I haven’t seen the film again since getting the Varese disc so I haven’t been able to compare what’s there with what we got on disc. But I’m more than satisfied. Now when I see a reference to Damnation Alley, instead of just recalling a cheesy film about giant cockroaches and an RV on steroids, I think of another Goldsmith score I absolutely love.

But I still kinda want my own Landmaster.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Rescued Monologue

I wrote an opening monologue for the Buddy Holly concert show I did recently for Centre Stage and I really liked the way it turned out.

Of course, it got cut for time.

So here it is, so I can at least send it out into the world somehow...

The day the music died. It’s a cliché now, but at the time, we hardly knew what to think. Back in 1959, rock and roll was young, a fad, it seemed, followed only by teenagers. Sure, the big news outlets made cursory mentions of the crash, but it was only in the halls of the high schools that the news really reverberated. The few radio stations in town that actually played rock and roll spun some of the hits in memoriam and Dick Clark featured a tribute on his American Bandstand. But it took time for us to really understand what we’d lost. The talent. The music. The potential. These were artists knocked down in their prime, taken away in a senseless tragedy that was miles and years away from the drug overdoses and craziness that would rob us of later musical icons. When that plane went down in that snowy Iowa cornfield, we lost some of our innocence. We lost some amazing innovation. We lost the driving musical genius that had burned so brightly in rock and roll’s infancy.

The last concert they played happened exactly 50 years ago at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly were touring with Dion and the Belmonts and a young singer named Frankie Sardo on a tour that was dubbed the Winter Dance Party. What a show that must have been…

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Long Ride

(for the Film Score Monthly blog)

When my band director asked if I’d give him a ride, my brain scrambled onto one thought: what cassette did I have in the car?

This was high school. This was the early eighties. This was the time for cassettes. To be fair, though, I had cassette players in all my cars until about 2003. I didn’t see any advantage to having a cd player since the cassettes I listened to were all mix tapes (although I never heard the term mix tape until maybe 2001). Why be forced to just listen to a prerecorded cd when I could record my own hand-picked mix of selections – and tape over it with a new batch at will?

At that time, most of my tapes all sounded pretty much alike, filled with tracks from Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back, of course, plus a couple of tracks from Superman and two or three cues from Star Trek The Motion Picture. Only the playing order varied, but you’d undoubtedly hear "The Asteroid Field" and "Ben’s Death/TIE Fighter Attack" and "The Enterprise" and the Main Titles from all and the End Titles from all and maybe something like Maynard Ferguson’s take on the Star Wars theme as an alternative.

But when my high school band director asked if I could give him a ride back to the school, I worried about what tape I currently had in the car and which specific track would come on when we got in the car. Earlier that year we had played the "Main Title March" from Superman as part of our field show in marching band, and I kind of hoped that it would play while we were in the car so he would recognize my appreciation for the art of John Williams.

We crammed into my orange VW beetle and started off. As luck would have it, when the music came on it was smack dab in the middle of the Superman March. I felt a swell of pride, envisioning him smirking happily at my choice of music.

We drove in silence for a few minutes.

“Is this Star Wars?” he asked, incredulous, the tone betraying the notion that he couldn’t believe anyone would willingly listen to this stuff.

“Uh, actually, it’s Superman,” I replied.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I can’t really tell them apart.”

I think we drove the rest of the way in silence.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Close to the Source

(Written for the Film Score Monthly Blog)

I couldn’t figure out why a hole had been punched in the upper left hand corner. The album was sealed in plastic wrap, but someone had shoved a pencil or something through one corner. Is that why it was selling for only a dollar?

There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it other than that, so I begged my mother to buy it for me. I owned only one other LP at the time: The Carpenters Close To You (I’d had trouble deciding between it and Olivia Newton John’s Have You Never Been Mellow, but opted for the Carpenters when I decided I recognized more song titles on their record than on Olivia’s). This was before the arrival of that historical pivot point, Star Wars. I had some 45s, like “Last Train to Clarksville” and “Popcorn” by Hot Butter, but LPs were still a bit beyond my usual price range.

So this new LP, stuck in a box with a bunch of country and western albums and priced at only a dollar, seemed like it might be something I could convince my mother to buy for me. It was the soundtrack to a movie called Westworld, a movie I’d seen on television and really enjoyed. Plus, my friend Reese claimed that his dad, who lived far away in California, had actually worked on the movie, helping to do the pixelated simulation of the robot’s vision.

When my mother agreed to buy it, I couldn’t wait to get back home. Westworld turned out to be a wonderful collection and the tracks are burned into my memory. It opened with the “Western Warble,” which instantly delighted me with its toothy whistled sound. I loved the “Hovercraft Muzak.” I loved the “Bar Room Piano.” The first “Chase” track, with its electronic rattlesnake sound gave me the chills. I even enjoyed the medieval world tracks. The album’s got an amazingly delicious variety.

More than anything, though, I loved “Stagecoach Arrival.” Clocking in at a single minute in length, I still hum it in my head to this day if I want to count off one minute. I chose it as the theme for the “radio station” that broadcast from my bedroom via cassette, station QQQQ. We’d “broadcast” episodes of Space:1999 and Man From Atlantis, the audio taped off the TV. “Stagecoach Arrival” opened each tape, and then I’d come in, holding my nose to alter my voice, as QQQQ’s resident announcer. I’d start talking right about 18 seconds into the track, just as the first trumpety fanfare stuff begins to fade, and say “Welcome to QQQQ!” I’d then let the guitar section play out and, about 30 seconds in, just after the fiddle introduces the banjos, I’d return to announce “On this tape…” and go on to describe the TV episode or music mix or whatever would follow.

Flash forward some twenty or thirty years.

Film Score Monthly releases Westworld on CD. I may have been the only person buying the CD for Westworld and not for the Goldsmith it was paired with. The idea of an expanded Westworld thrilled me. What kind of wonderful extra stuff could there be?

The first thing that struck me about FSM’s release was how much I loved The Carey Treatment. I’d never heard of the film, didn’t know Roy Budd as anything more than just a name and, if it had been released by itself, I most likely would have read the release announcement and never thought about it again. Instead, I was instantly blown away by the marvelously infectious main title. I loved the intimate piano version of the theme in the courtship track. And the jazzy party cue. And then perhaps my favorite source cue ever, the track called 1M2. It’s a driving jazz number that stands up on its own as a composition that would fit on the setlist of a swinging combo playing dark, smoky nightclubs.

Oh, and then there’s Westworld.

The playing order is different, much more in the film order than the LP sequence. But there were the Hovercraft pieces, plus a bonus Hovercraft piece on disc 2. And everything else was there, plus some extra source cues. But the sound was subtly different here and there - most especially on my beloved “Stagecoach Arrival.” Little did I know that the mix on the old LP was not the mix used in the film. The track now has a harmonica overlay in the section that immediately followed my “Welcome” announcement. Every time I hear it now, I’m startled because it doesn’t fit the version I grew up on, the version that plays in my head as a built-in stopwatch. But I love it. I love all the tracks on the CD. Sure, it’s full of source cues, usually the bane of a soundtrack afficianado’s existence, but these are detailed source cues, not just throwaways. These cues help define the films they’re in. And they make great listening apart from the film.

One of these days, I need to really listen to the Goldsmith stuff on disc 2. I still haven’t been able to warm up to the idea of listening to Coma. Maybe it’s those two disco tracks that open the Coma section on the CD. Yikes. I mean, I love the CHiPs discs, I love Stu Phillips’ “Something Kinda Funky” from Buck Rogers, so it’s not an innate fear of disco. It’s just that the two Coma tracks are, not to put too fine a point on it, crappy. Even (sacrilege, I know) Goldsmith’s muzak-y version of his “Theme from The Prize” is, well, boring.

But I guess that just makes the other parts of the disc that much more amazing. Roy Budd and Fred Karlin somehow outmastered the master himself when it came to writing source cues.

Now, I wonder if I still have any of those old episodes of Man From Atlantis on cassette? Sure wish somebody would release that soundtrack…

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Yeah, I did that 25 random things about me on the Facebook a few weeks ago. And today I thought I'd post them here because they were fun to write.

1. I am, at the moment I'm typing this, listening to a discotastic track from the recently released soundtrack of Chips. Volume 1. I also own Volume 2. I anticipate buying Volume 3 when it gets released.

2. In high school, I dated the head cheerleader. For two years.

3. My son, Shaw, is named after my great-grandfather. Even though he died when I was young, I have vivid memories of Grampa Shaw (Shaw was his surname -- his first name was Arthur) sitting in his customary spot: the chair beside my grandfather's t.v.

4. My daughter, Emma, is named after my wife's great great great cousin, or some such relationship. Her name was Emma LeConte and she kept a diary when she was 16 or so that documented her experiences as General Sherman marched on Columbia SC where she lived. The diary was later published and is still in print. It's called When the World Ended: The Diary of Emma LeConte and it's a really interesting read.

5. While in middle school I won some kind of contest, maybe you filled out a card at a store and dropped it in the box. The prize was a 40 channel CB. I wish I still had it, even though I still don't know what I'd do with it. Better go take a 10-100.

6. I wrote a short documentary about the SC upstate during World War 2 for an exhibit at a local history museum. I'm informed that it won an award from a national organization, but I've never seen any evidence of that.

7. I've lived in 40 different dwellings.

8. I didn't cry at my wedding or at the birth of my children. But when The Master returned on Doctor Who last year, I got goosebumps, got choked up then cried like a little girl.

9. Today I wore a scarf that my parents first gave me when I was in third or fourth grade.

10. In the nineties, I sold a joke to Playboy.

11. The first time I rode my bike after moving to Chicago, it got stolen. So I bought an old green Raleigh with big old man fenders on it and I stuck a nice nerdy basket on the handlebars. Once I got to SC, I didn't ride it at all and it sat in the basement through floods and then, in our current basementless house, sat behind the fence under a tarp. Now that Emma has a bike, I thought I'd get my back up to speed. I took it to a bike shop. They just shook their heads sadly. I left there discouraged and went to my next scheduled errand, dropping off some items at a thrift shop. I got to the back door to do the drop off and there was an old green bicycle with big old man fenders. I asked if it was for sale and they looked at it and said "How about fifteen bucks?" and I took it straight to the bike shop for new tires and a check up. I picked it up today. It's sweet. Now I need to put my basket on it.

12. The first time I met my wife, she was sitting in the bleachers, looking radiant in the sun. The next time I saw her she had a cold and had to keep blowing her runny nose. But I didn't care. I could still feel the radiance.

13. Sometimes I think about things I did years or decades before and I shudder.

14. I've been keeping a list of every book I've read since 1987.

15. There are twelve pages so far.

16. Here are the first and last books on each page. Den of Thieves by Katherine Stall and Before I Get Old by Dave Marsh. The Columbo Phile by Mark Dawidziak and The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury. Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams and Throat Sprockets by Tim Lucas. And Now For Something Completely Trivial by Kim Howard Johnson and Moby Dick Rehearsed by Orson Welles. Good Benito by Alan Lightman and The Alligator Report by W.P. Kinsella. Sombrero Fallout by Richard Brautigan and A Widow For One Year by John Irving. Singin in the Rain by Peter Wollen and Exploring Space: 1999 by John Kenneth Muir. The Year 2000 by Harry Harrison and Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov. Sources of Strength by Jimmy Carter and How to Build A Time Machine by Paul Davies. The Subatomic Monster by Isaac Asimov and The Expectant Father by Armin Brott. The Birth Book by William Sears and Natural Childbirth the Bradley Way by Susan McCutcheon. The Android's Dream by John Scalzi and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

17. Dunkin' Donuts. Not Krispy Kreme.

18. There's still something radiant about my wife.

19. I've never seen American Idol or Survivor.

20. I'm a little sad that my children will not grow up in a world where Star Trek and Gilligan and Brady's and Lost in Space and McHale's Navy and other cultural icons greet them after school.

21. I'm supposed to be uploading photos from the camera and sitting on the couch with my wife right now, so I better finish up.

22. Favorite number is still 42.

23. My dad took me to see Tora Tora Tora when I was a kid. Apparently, I rooted for the Japs.

24. I wish we had some pie in the house. Razzleberry pie from Marie Callendar. Or just a nice cherry pie. Or apple.

25. Sometimes I wish I'd become an astrophysicist. Or a Dunkin' Donuts manager.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Still Waiting

(written for the Film Score Monthly blog)

I spend most of the day building furniture and cabinets and otherwise creating a lot of sawdust. Our shop sits in an old building in a fashionable section of Main Street.

A few years back, my boss built himself a guitar (an absolutely gorgeous archtop) and started learning to play it. One day I decided to dig my saxophone out of the attic, where it had resided more or less untouched for 20 years, and play along. We gathered up some old standards and started sitting out in front of the building playing music during coffee breaks.

Since we’re on Main Street, we often get a fair amount of foot traffic. Sometimes, one of those passersby will drop a dollar into the open guitar case. And sometimes, just sometimes, a couple will be walking by and they’ll pause while we’re playing something like “Misty” and they’ll listen for a few moments and then they’ll look at each other and they’ll begin to dance, gently swaying back and forth on the sidewalk.

And so often, especially when I’m warming up, I’ll start playing Jerry Goldsmith tunes and see if anyone pricks up an ear in recognition.

Nothing too easy or blatant, like the big Star Trek march, but “Ilia’s Theme” definitely. Or the gorgeous motif that opens “The Old City” track from Masada. I’ll do the doDEEdoDEEdo doDEEdo horn fanfare from The Wind and the Lion. I’ll attempt the theme from Hawkins. I’ve played that wonderful melody from Medicine Man that soars in a string arrangement during “The Trees.” I’ve done my own interpretation of the theme from Bandolero and completely failed to do justice to The Great Train Robbery.

And all the time I watch, looking for a turned head or a knowing grin, waiting for that one person to cast me a quizzical glance and say, “Is that Jerry Goldsmith you’re playing?”

I’ve been playing this game on and off for nearly four years.

I’m still waiting.

But I’m not giving up. You never know who’s going to walk by. Maybe someone will stop one morning and say, “That’s a lovely song. What is it?” and I’ll be able to encourage them to look for a particular cd that will provide them with the tune in all its original glory.

Or, more likely, I’ll just continue tooting to deaf ears. I mean not even my guitar-playing boss, sitting beside me as I noodle through Goldsmith tunes, has ever commented on them. I’m a lone voice crying into the wilderness. But that’s okay. It’s still fun to see if I can play an identifiable version of the theme from Room 222 on alto sax. I can amuse myself for minutes at a time doing this, and that’s what matters in the end.

Maybe next time I’ll try some John Barry. “Bond Meets the Girls” from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, anyone?