Tuesday, March 31, 2009


A week or two ago I got tagged in one of those Facebook memes--Did I mention I'm on Facebook? Doesn't seem like the type of thing I'd do, does it?--to list fifteen albums that mattered the most to me, that changed my life, blah, blah, blah. It came with the standard stuff about tagging fifteen friends and all that, which I of course didn't bother doing, but I did compile the list.

And since it was on Facebook, where terseness is the order of the day, I didn't spend much time actually talking about the music, or my relationship to it. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I wanted to say more, to explore how much music has mattered to me, both in and of itself and how it came into my life, how it changed me, why it means so much. And I realized fifteen was a ridiculously arbitrary number, so I'd want to list all the albums that are a vital part of my life.

Well, okay, not all of them. But like that list of my favorite movies you had to endure last fall, this will probably take a few days. The tone will be different, though, more openly autobiographical. In thinking about music, I realize the story behind why I was drawn to some particular sound is perhaps as interesting as the sound itself. This is, in essence, the story of my life, told as a list of albums, in roughly chronological order.

1. John Williams, Star Wars

The first album I ever bought was John Williams' score for Jaws, so I was already primed when I noticed Williams' name in the print ads for this new science fiction movie I'd never heard of. I'm not going to bother describing the impact Star Wars had on my life; I'm not even going to mention how vital the score is to the movie, and how it gives it a grandeur its often static images would otherwise lack.

I'll just talk about what the music means to me. Mom bought this album for me on a trip to Des Moines on labor day in '77. I listened to the album (two LPs!) that night, and the next day, and the day after that. It conjured up visions of the movie, of course, but soon, that faded, and what was left was the music. Particularly Princess Leia's Theme, an oasis of melancholy among all the brass-and-percussion bombast. This was the track that called me back repeatedly, that seemed to define my life in that strange, sad fall and winter, as I sat in my room and looked out the window at the bleak farmland surrounding me, dreaming of another life, a change that was surely on the way, if not today then tomorrow, or soon, maybe, maybe.

2. Bernard Herrmann, The Mysterious Film World Of Bernard Herrmann

Every record store was different, every one had its own feel. Music Land had a stoner vibe, with rolling papers and bongs for sale at the counter, and the loud, raucous Music Circuit specialized in punk and new wave, which had no interest for me at the time, but also featured a surprisingly large classical section.

The main store for me was Music Den in Merle Hay Mall. It was part of a national chain, and there were other locations in Des Moines, but the one at Merle Hay had a large soundtrack section, and in the wake of my discovery of John Williams, I continued exploring the work of other film composers. The albums were shelved in alphabetical order, strictly A to Z, with no individual titles or artists singled out, save two: There was a section devoted to James Bond scores, and a section devoted to Bernard Herrmann.

I didn't know who Herrmann was. I didn't know his work, I didn't know he had died only two years before, or that he had rerecorded a number of his scores for the London label in the early seventies. So I never thumbed through those albums, with their odd covers more appropriate for some prog rock opus.

But when the Ray Harryhausen epic Jason And The Argonauts was rereleased in the summer of '78, you damn well bet I was there. And I noticed Herrmann's name in the credits, and I kinda liked the music. So I looked through the albums at Music Den, and one of them, The Mysterious Film World Of, featured a suite from Jason, as well as two other Harryhausen epics. I bought it, brought it home and from the first clashing chords of The Mysterious Island, I realized this was something stark and primal. This wasn't pretty music or catchy music; it made me almost uncomfortable, as its odd orchestrations and insistent rhythms never cued me how to feel. This music existed in its own world, not caring whether you liked it or not. And I realized Bernard Herrmann's music was kind of like me, and I realized I was soon going to be buying every one of those albums at Music Den, and every other Herrmann composition I could find.

3. Ennio Morricone, Once Upon A Time In The West

Of course I knew Morricone's music. If you loved Clint Eastwood movies, you knew the title music from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly from numerous re-viewings on the ABC Sunday Night Movie. And I had that album, of course, and A Fistful Of Dollars, and I considered them essential.

So when I bought the soundtrack to Once Upon A Time In The West, I expected more of the same. I hadn't seen the movie, but it was another Sergio Leone western with an Ennio Morricone score. How different could it be? And in a sense, it wasn't all that different: the booming choruses, slashing guitar and ever-present whistler were all there.

But there was a deeper lyricism here, and a pitiless fatalism, and an aching sense of loss. And more: In just one cut, Man With A Harmonica, Morricone seemed to find the point where Miles Davis' post-bop fusion work, John Cage's experimentation and the Velvet Underground's heroin-fueled nihilism all came together. It was as though Morricone could hear everything, understand everything, and make it all his own. Midway through my first hearing of this album, I experienced something akin to a religious conversion: This was the greatest thing I had ever heard, and the greatest thing I ever would hear. That opinion hasn't changed: When I die, I hope they bury me with a copy of this album, because I wouldn't want to go through this world or the next without it.