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Memoirs of a True Geek

Six years of madness, film music and navel-gazing

By Jason Comerford

(Note: The following is a lengthy and highly self-indulgent trip down memory lane. You are duly warned.)

I idly browsed through some of my articles on the FSM website recently and found that, to my astonishment, there were quite a few. In the six years (egads!) that I've been associated with FSM, I've contributed dozens of CD reviews and at least 40 Film Score Daily articles, in addition to several longer feature articles for the print magazine. I've interviewed Steve Bartek, Marco Beltrami, Elmer Bernstein, John Debney, Mark Isham, Richard Marvin, Mark McKenzie, John Ottman, David Robbins, William Stromberg and Brian Tyler. (There might be others, but age and the after-effects of the typical college experience prevent me from recalling them all with any clarity.) I even interned for the magazine in the summer of 2000, and made several wonderful friends and professional contacts. Not bad for a kid from rural Pennsylvania who heard Batman when he was 10 and thought it was pretty neat.

None of these numbers and accomplishments means anything, of course. I look at the articles I've written in the past several years on the subject of film music, and most of them make me cringe. The writing is substandard, the logic is sketchy and some conclusions are downright inane. A couple of them, I think, are OK; I even won an award for one. But it's still interesting to follow the trajectory of taste and see how my own perceptions of how music works in film have mutated over time. When I interviewed Elmer Bernstein, I was 19, a film-school brat fresh out of high school who sincerely believed that there was no need to go on living after being in the same room with the man who wrote The Magnificent Seven.

Elmer, no doubt, was familiar with salivating fanboys and answered all of my questions with grace and patience. The only place I'd been able to locate for an interview space was in a dusty storage room in the upstairs of a theater facility at the North Carolina School of the Arts. The school's archivist had a collection of thousands of old soundtrack LPs that I was busily cataloguing for work-study nickels and dimes; I had accidentally left a copy of Walk on the Wild Side atop a stack of other LPs. I don't remember exactly what Elmer said when he saw it, but it was said with the patience of a man who's seen thousands of nerds just like me. That, or teaching composition at UCLA taught him how to deal with the snot-noses.

I started wading out into the film-scoring scene when I was in high school, and therefore anything I said or did was highly questionable due to the influence of all those wacky hormones. (That's no excuse for some of the dumb, idiotic and ill-informed shit I wrote online in those days, but it had more than a little to do with it.) I discovered the Internet newsgroup in, I think, my sophomore year of high school, and a whole new world was opened up to me. Debating online with other such nerds was, at first, a pastime, and slowly became something akin to an obsession. Collect, collect, collect -- that was the name of the game. Get it all. Stacks of CDs filled my room. Intrada, Screen Archives Entertainment and Soundtrack Album Retailers became my favorite places to spend the hard-earned money that I really should have been saving for college. But anyway.

I created an Internet fan site for Debney for no particular reason, other than I liked his work and felt that it was underrepresented on CD. I got a big kick out of Cutthroat Island and Hocus Pocus, understanding full well that they weren't necessarily earthshakingly good scores, but entertaining nonetheless. Eventually Debney contacted me, and when you're in high school and the composer of one of your favorite scores takes the time to drop you an email, you perk up a bit to say the very least. (Upon graduating high school I handed the reins of the website over to another, partially because I wanted to avoid conflict-of-interest issues and partly because I was just sick of the grind of running it.)

There were mistakes along the way, too, ones that I still regret. There was a bit of a flap about some misreporting I had done about the release of I Know What You Did Last Summer that nearly got Mick Stern, an engineer on many of Debney's scores, fired. I felt horrible about it and still do. There were other melees along the way, too, mostly via, that I would take back in an instant if I had the chance. I once wrote a FSD article about horror scores in which I trashed Peter Dasent's music for Peter Jackson's film Bad Taste. A couple of days later I got an email from Dasent that bemusedly informed me that however inept the music for Bad Taste might have been, he didn't write it. I felt badly about that: insulting two composers at once! (I never replied to Dasent's message but appreciated the fact that he didn't rip me a new one when he had every right to.) But I learned some very valuable lessons along the way. I learned that the power of gossip can wreck careers. I learned that producers of bootlegged film scores have a way of rationalizing themselves into a state of utter incoherency. And I came to learn that the status I applied to many of my favorite film composers was slightly off-base.

I had had some contact with Lukas Kendall through, mostly through some heated but primarily good-natured debate, but the thought of actually writing something for this venerable magazine which I had heard so much about seemed like a fantasy. But then suddenly appeared, Film Score Daily emerged, and suddenly there was the opportunity. My first FSD appeared in May of 1997; it was an examination of comedy scoring using Father's Day, a then-recent release, as a springboard. I wrote it up on a whim in the middle of the night and emailed it off to Lukas, not expecting much more than a curt dismissal (Lukas' posts on r.m.m. had the tendency to get acidic). Instead, Lukas wrote back, "Great article, man! Thanks!" And the rest, as they say...

Soon enough I was chomping at the bit to write for the print magazine. The FSD stuff was fine, and the feedback I got on the articles was gratifying, but I wanted the brass ring. Lukas finally relented, having apparently decided that I wasn't, in his words, "some crazy fuckin' freak," and allowed me to interview Steve Bartek about Meet the Deedles. It was, of course, my worst interview (my questions were downright embarrassing in their fanboy cluelessness) and some of the poorest writing overall I've done for the magazine, but it was a start. I probably asked Bartek more questions about Danny Elfman's music than I did about Bartek's, but he was incredibly gracious and polite, and the experience was positive enough to convince me that this journalistic stuff was where it was at.

During the next few years I interviewed Isham twice (he's polite but reserved), Beltrami twice (somewhat grumpy, but maybe it was just the topics we covered -- more on that later) and Debney three times (Tom Shaydac's assertion that Debney brings to mind Ward Cleaver is absolutely spot-on). I was woefully unprepared for the David Robbins interview and regretted not researching his musical background before conducting the chat. For the most part, I asked for, and got to do, interviews with some of the lesser-known composers, who interested me more than the A-list hotshots. (Since I was going to college on the East Coast, all of my early interviews were done over the phone. The bill was regularly outrageous.) I still remember my first interview with Mark McKenzie with tremendous fondness. My uncle had died a month or two before, and at some point the conversation, somehow, came around to him. We talked for a solid hour about family, current events, movies, film music and much else; McKenzie was warm, friendly and receptive. Not only did I feel like I'd gotten a decent interview out of it, but I felt very lucky to have had such an experience with a man whose work I so admired.

My big break, so to speak, was an in-depth examination of the Halloween: H20 debacle, what with John Ottman's original score being largely rewritten and replaced by Marco Beltrami. I worked like a mad dog on that piece; Ottman had sent me the cue sheets from BMI and I spent hours poring over it and every other bit of info I could scrape together. The subsequent article was well-received enough and it's still in my portfolio. Interviewing Ottman was, of course, no problem; he was fired up about the whole affair and I just let him talk and let the tape recorder run. (Ottman is always great fun to interview.) Beltrami was reserved, to say the least, about the topic and was more interested in talking about The Florentine, a score for a low-budget film he had just completed (it remains my favorite of his scores). I perhaps didn't push the issue as hard as I should have but I also wanted to keep the composer on the good side of the FSM crew, which, happily to say, he still is. At least, as far as I know.

Fans follow film composers like they're rock stars. The soundtrack for Star Trek: Nemesis isn't the soundtrack for Star Trek: Nemesis; it's the new Jerry Goldsmith album. So when a fan gets to speak with one of said rock stars, one of two things can happen. The fan can remain a fan, focus on the work as it compares to past work, ignoring the film and concentrating only upon the music. (Philosophies of reviewing film music are a dime a dozen, but the simple fact of the matter is that all of it is written in support of another medium and, I think, should be approached as such.) Or the fan can adapt and learn more about the process and approach the material from a very different angle, which can yield very interesting results. There's a tremendous amount of pressure from the fan community on composers to continually crank out memorable themes and classic scores on a regular basis, which is why many composers don't pay attention to these freaks anyway. That kind of consistency is impossible, no matter how venerable you are. I've found that most composers view the fan community with equal parts graciousness, amusement and/or contempt. Most fans, the feeling seems to go, just don't get it.

I was terrified about coming to Los Angeles to intern with the magazine, absolutely terrified. I was a kid from the sticks who was about to start hob-knobbing with the big boys in a big, big town. I pictured Lukas running around the FSM office with Jon Kaplan's head and Jeff Bond's arm or something, pounding them upon a desk to make a point about Jerry Fielding. I detailed the experience in a series of five "Confessions of an FSM Intern" (yes, the "an" is grammatically correct) articles for FSD that were usually whiny, sometimes not, typically user-friendly, sometimes not. (Clearly, anyone who quotes Sun-Tzu and Denis Leary within the same article deserves to be dragged out into the street and shot.) But if anything else, those articles show the confusion of a kid who's getting eyeball-to-eyeball with the cold hard reality of the movie business, and not liking what he sees one bit. More often than not, I found myself wandering around the city, head in hands, channeling Rodney King: "Can't we all just get along?"

Nonetheless I remember that period of time in LA with great fondness. The sense of discovering and coming to understand a whole new world was like some kind of elixir. Finding the cracks and discovering the nasty side of things was perhaps even more instructive. I always will remember the way Bill Stromberg's eyes cut nervously to the tape recorder when, during an interview at his house, the subject of ghostwriting for various other composers came up. I soft-pedaled the issue in the eventual interview but that detail has stayed with me, because it says so much to me about the rigors and trials of being in any way associated with the film business. You're walking on eggs, 24-7.

It must be said that the positives gave the negatives a run for their money, though. One week you're cooling your heels on the East Coast, and the next you're playing softball with one of the most famous screenwriters in the world. One week you're noodling around on some lame article about all the unreleased music from Gremlins, and the next you're standing on a scoring stage on the Warner Brothers backlot watching a huge union orchestra tear into large-scale action cues, where, for all I know, the Gremlins score might have been recorded. (And yes, it's true: the talent of the union orchestra members is absolutely phenomenal.) You're rubbing elbows with supermodels in a mansion in Beverly Hills, having lunch with composers at swank Tinseltown eateries and going to bacchanalian premiere parties. It's all a bit of a sensory overload.

It's all a sham, of course. LA is a town built on bullshit. The term "entertainment journalism" is an oxymoron. Interviews are conducted with the facile glibness of a salesman pushing Bibles to housewives. Most entertainment journalism these days exists only to promote the products of the big studios; they're just members of the studio's PR and advertising sections, except that they don't get the same nifty business cards. I wasn't embittered or disillusioned when I came to understand this so much as I was simply saddened that this was the way things worked. Some of the composers that I met and interviewed during my stay handled me with the easy, empty kindness that is uniquely Hollywood in origin. From others I got a faint whiff of desperation, sometimes even fear. Because when you're a composer-for-hire, it can get a little scary. I had so much more respect and understanding of composers in general after dipping my toes in Hollywood that I now can hardly bring myself to thrash a bad score, simply because I know that, in all likelihood, the poor man or woman was just trying to get the job done so he can go home and feed his family. Call me deluded, but the latter has priority over the former. Life, Stephen King once wrote, is not a support system for art; it's the other way around.

Maybe it was the shock of all the new information that was getting thrown at me. Maybe it was having to write dozens of CD reviews at the FSM office, mostly of boring scores like Running Free and Fever and The Dish and God knows what else. But I started to lose my taste for it all. I now had access to practically any score I ever wanted, and because of that, it didn't seem like much fun anymore. Part of the kick of being a collector is that drool that fills up your mouth when you hear about this or that score being released or expanded or remastered or remixed or bootlegged or stolen or inhaled or sautéed, whatever -- you're a fan and you've gotta have it. But the pursuit is so much more fun than the actual capture.

My fellow FSM contributor Jason Foster's brother was attending the North Carolina School of the Arts as a freshman, when I was a senior. He came over to our apartment a few times and swapped scores with me and things of that nature, and invariably I'd go off on a tirade about something and proceed, from the stentorian heights of my soapbox, to give him all kinds of advice when it came to interviewing composers and things of that sort. "Research their background and what they were schooled in. Don't ask them if it was hard to switch between styles because they'll all tell you it wasn't a problem. And for God's sake, don't ask them for copies of unreleased scores because they'll never send you anything." I had a month at FSM under my belt, you see, so I knew everything. (Jon Foster, to his credit, just nodded and smiled and humored me. His first student film at NCSA, a riotous mockumentary about foosball, trounced most of the others I saw that year, including mine, so my hat is off to him.)

Nonetheless, like all things, it faded. Post-graduate life hit me across the face hard, as it has a tendency to do, and I found myself listening to practically no film music. And for good reasons, too. These reasons include Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Albert Ayler, Charlie Hunter, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock and Charlie Parker. They include Tortoise, Sonic Youth, Faith No More, Mogwai, Zwan, Nirvana, Mr. Bungle, Tool, Nine Inch Nails, Stereolab and A Perfect Circle. They include Michael Gira, the Swans, Jarboe, the Body Lovers and the Angels of Light. They include John Zorn, Masada, Mike Patton, Painkiller, Bill Laswell and Naked City. They include the Ramones, the Dropkick Murphys, Rancid, Pennywise, Black Flag, Rollins Band, the Buzzcocks, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Pogues, Husker Du and the Stooges. They include Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, Iggy Pop, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Jimi Hendrix. They include Slayer, Metallica, Sepultura, Pantera, Venom, Black Sabbath, Cradle of Filth and Queens of the Stone Age. They include Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Eddie Izzard, Henry Rollins, David Cross, Lenny Bruce and Lewis Black. So it's not like I'm missing out. And as you can see, my geekness is not limited to film music.

My soundtrack collection is currently stuffed into a very large box that I crammed into a very small closet, like some dirty secret. I have a CD storage booklet filled with CDRs, half bootlegs and half legit releases, sitting beside my CD rack. It doesn't get opened much. For a while I called it "putting away childish things." But I'm very proud of the work I've done for FSM. I have them to thank for every contact I've ever made in Hollywood. If I ever get even halfway to where I'd like to someday be in the film business, they deserve the credit, for giving me the opportunities they did.

Still, I can't help but to feel a little guilty sometimes, like I've stood upon the heads of others to get to higher ground. I'm a bit older now, and a bit wiser, albeit plenty naïve still. (That will never change.) I seldom write for FSM anymore aside from the occasional CD review, which I typically put off doing until Jon Kaplan threatens me with decapitation, and the usual the-year-in-film-music recap which, distressingly, I have increasingly little to say about. But I still keep an eye on the up-and-comers. I think that Rolfe Kent, Brian Tyler, James L. Venable, Elia Cmiral and Craig Armstrong are composers to keep an eye on. (Especially Kent and Venable; Kent's got a striking talent for melody and Venable's score to Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is the best score Carl Stalling never wrote.) And no matter what, my favorite composers will still be rock stars in my eyes. How can anyone completely shut out something which has brought so much joy to their lives?

Old love fades but never dies.

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