Friday, January 30, 2015

An Alternate Soundtrack for Inherent Vice

Going in to the theater to watch Paul Thomas Anderson's new film, Inherent Vice, I knew nothing about the soundtrack. So when the first song queued up was Can's "Vitamin C," I, as a fanatical Krautrock devotee (& especially a Can man) thrilled with anticipation of what more vintage tunes the film might have in store. But in the end I was left somewhat underwhelmed. Johnny Greenwood's original score is perfectly fine, but it is subtle and subdued: it dissappears into the film's mystery rather than setting the tone in the way his music did for There Will Be Blood (much of which was composed before the film). This is the way to go for most instances of film scoring. But this is Pynchon, and he has a special kind of highbrow hi-jinx. Layered complexity, lyricism, yes. Subtlety, no. Pynchon draws from pulp and pop as much as from quantuum physics and multivalent modernism. He can  be zany, to a fault even, but this is the quality I found charming about the novel version of Inherent Vice, what saved it from being a mere exercise in nostaliga, and what I found ultimately lacking in Greenwood's score.

As for the rest of it, while I certainly love classics like Kyu Sakamoto's "Sukuyaki," The Marketts' "Here Comes the Hodads," (the goofiness of that title is perfectly Pynchonian) and Les Baxter's "Simba," they belong to another era than that of the hippie-hangover in which Inherent Vice is set ("Sukiyaki" was used in a season two episode of Mad Men, for instance, and although it hadn't been released yet when Don Draper is supposedly listening to it, it feels less anachronistic there). The real gem of the soundtrack is Minnie Ripperton's "Les Fleurs." (Riperton was famous for dog whistle-register hit "Lovin' You" from 1975, and is the mother of Maya Rudolph, Paul Thomas Anderson's wife.)   It was actually released in 1970!

Finally, the film includes not one but two Neil Young songs, and not the guitar-freakouts but the faux-rustic ballads. I'm not a fan. So, at the hazard of monday-morning quarterbacking, I submit to you some suggestions for a soundtrack that works better in terms of tone, period (which I consider in a rough way, since the music in this film is non-diagetic), and theme.

I should mention that, as is typical of the pop-obsessed Pynchon, the novel mentions dozens of songs and artists, some mainstream and some obscure, and you can find a list of them here. PTA only uses one (but it's a goodie), the aforementioned Marketts' tune. But I'm not interested in that kind of fidelity, and I also only use one. My soundtrack is more a tribute to the genre, the era, and Pynchon's style and themes.

1. Alcatraz- Simple Headphone Mind (Vampire State Building, 1972)

This has "cruising around L.A. with hippies in a VW and trying to get to the bottom of a vast conspiracy while avoiding the cops" written all over it. And while the bulk of the music should be California-centric, a little Krautrock never hurt anyone.

2. Jack Nitzsche- The Lonely Surfer (The Lonely Surfer, 1963)

This one instead of Neil Young (Nitzsche produced Young's Harvest). There's a serious lack of surf music in Inherent Vice, which is odd because a major subplot involves a heroin-addicted surf saxaphone player. But how to do that without sounding like a Tarantino movie (hey, he used The Marketts too!)? Well, here ya go.

3. The Music Machine- Point of No Return (1966)

The Music Machine was an L.A. garage band, and one of the most innovative and idiosyncratic of that genre, often verging into psychedelic territory but with a dark undercurrent missing from bands in the bay area scene, but fairly common to L.A. (The Doors, Love) bands. Appropriate for the home of noir, no? And if a rock band running around in Beatle-cuts and matching black suits and one black glove isn't something that belongs in a Pynchon novel, I don't know what is. I believe this song remained unreleased until well after the band broke up.

4. Fapardokly- Supermarket (Fapardokly, 1966)

Ah, what could be better for this soundtrack than a band that "never existed?" Or rather, an invented band that was a cover for another band, in this case Merrell Fankhauser & The Exiles. Fankhauser apprenticed in surf and graduated to psych-folk. This song has the virtue of actually being mentioned in Pynchon's novel.

5. Shuggie Otis- Ice Cold Daydream (Freedom Flight, 1971)

When Doc Sportello is said to be sticking his nose into every creepy den of iniquity L.A. has to offer, LA. born-and-bred wunderkind Shuggie Otis (son of R&B bandleader Johnny) was cooking up some of the most original psychedelic soul around.

6. David Axelrod- A Divine Image (Songs of Experience, 1969)

A tense, ominous piece from David Axelrod (another L.A. native, who came out of the jazz scene and developed a distinctive brand of moody psychedelic/symphonic third-stream which has been a perennial favorite of crate-digging DJs) that succinctly sums up a good detective-movie score. It also helps that this is from the experience side of the Blakean dialectic that Axelrod was paying tribute to with his Blake-inspired albums. Inherent Vice is in part about the change from innocence to experience that happened in the late 60's and early 70's, as progressive and utopian hopes exploded in apocalyptic praxis.

7. Charles Manson- Eyes of a Dreamer (LIE: The Love and Terror Cult, 1970)

Do I really have to explain this one? Inherent Vice is replete with Manson references, including a very funny scene in which a cop pulls over Doc and the gang and explains to them that any large gathering of youngsters considered a cult in the eyes if the LAPD. The eyes of the Man, if you will.

8. Linda Perhacs- Parallelograms  (Parallelograms, 1970)

Linda Perhacs was a Beverly Hills dental hygenist when she cut this great record in 1970. The album went nowhere fast and she never quit her dayjob. But she became a cause celebre among cult fans, and she eventually returned to music and made a second album in 2014, 44 years after her first! The album, and the title track in particular, is just brimming with trippy mysteries (the lyrics seem to have to do with sacred geometry, beloved by gnostic occultists). I find myself with no surprise at reading this account of her synesthesia (and perhaps otherworldly influence) in an interview she gave to NPR:

And you were sort of becoming part of that hippie culture, it sounds like.

Well, I loved them instantly because they understood energies. I ave a synesthesia-type capacity, since childhood, and I can see and feel and hear things that would not be the average. I have sensitivities that are more acute than the normal. 

It has something to do with colors, too, right? You hear sounds and see certain colors?

Yes, yes. I finally figured out how to explain it to myself, as well as to others: if you have a normal radio and you're turning from one part of the radio all the way up to the other end, you're changing frequencies. When people have that sensitivity, they are able naturally to go to a higher frequency. So that was a natural realm for me, to find friends who understood these things. It was a natural friendship without effort.

. . .

I'm driving home on the freeway that connects you from Brentwood to Topanga Canyon, which is called the Ventura Freeway, and all of a sudden I got some synesthesia. It was about 11:30 at night, and in the sky I saw beautiful lights, hard to describe, but they were so magnificent. And I said, "Linda, you're seeing music, you're not just hearing it. Stop and draw what you're seeing before you forget." So I did. I drew these pictures on little pieces of paper in a dark, deserted gas station off the freeway and tried not to forget what I'd seen. I went home, took a melody that I'd been creating, put it on the front end of that idea I was getting, to create a three-dimensional sound sculpture from the beauty I had just seen in the sky.

And this would become the song "Parallelograms," right?

9. Love- Live and Let Live (Forever Changes, 1967)

Oh the snot has caked against my pants
It has turned into crystal
There's a bluebird sitting on a branch
I guess I'll take my pistol
I've got it in my hand
Because he's on my land

Already in the hippie annus mirabilis of 1967, the L.A. band Love, led by an increasingly eccentric and reclusive Arthur Lee, was registering the bad vibes that would wreck the whole trip. Forever Changes has all the elements of flower-power folk rock: lush arrangements, intricately picked acoustic guitar, strings and melodies galore. But the lyrics and mood deliver up dread, paranoia, hatred, insanity, apocalypse. It's about the "end end end end end end end."

10. The United States of America- Garden of Earthly Delights (The United States of America, 1967)

11. The United States of America- Cloud Song (The United States of America, 1967)

The U.S.A. is still one of the best-kept secrets of the High Psychedelic period (1967-68). They were much more experimental and technically-accomplished than any other rock band at the time, except probably Zappa & The Mothers. But where Zappa went for satirical humor that ultimately tended toward cynicism, The U.S.A. (though not without a sense of humor themselves) were visionaries with the controls firmly set for the heart of the sun.

12. Brainticket- Black Sand (Cottonwoodhill, 1971)

This song is just really fuckin groovy and way far out.

The Millennium- Nothing More to Say (Begin, 1968)

This album is a stone cold psych-pop classic, and it fairly screams "utopian hippie cult." The lyrics of this song even ominously suggest some kind of Manchurian Candidate-style brainwashing or secret commune-ication to hippie sleeper-cells:

There is something that you hear in so many of our songs
But it's something that we want you to know
Oh the time is going to come
When we're going to lead the way
You'll be shown the way
And s

I can't think of a better way or a better song to end my imagined version of this movie.

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