I'm thrilled (and haunted) to have contributed to this beautiful book on David Lynch and music, Beyond The Beyond: Music From the Films of David Lynch, out now, with the hands on involvement of Lynch himself. I wrote the chapter on the music of "Twin Peaks," entitled "The Extended Refrain," an undertaking that stayed with me longer than I could have imagined. Images of Laura Palmer's face keeping me up at night, those deep dark Pacific Northwest woods, the music traveling through my insides, jumbling up my brain chemicals ... it brought me back to the show, it brought me back to my childhood and it brought me back to the mysterious Laura. Here is my chapter, published with permission from my kindly editors, J.C. Gabel and Jessica Hundley. Order the book here.
Laura Palmer. Can you see her? Pretty. Blonde. The All-American girl, smiling curiously from that homecoming queen photo. The girl every father would be proud of. Every boy wanted to date. Or sleep with. Or just… smell her hair. And, then, this was the girl: that sad, exquisite corpse wrapped in plastic, the mystery everyone wanted to solve. We can see her. We can’t forget her. But, in the beginning, what did David Lynch see?
That was the question for composer Angelo Badalamenti, who would sit with Lynch side by side at the piano, and ask, before any film was shot, through sound, not just sight, but sound: “What do you see, David?”
“We’re in a dark woods. There’s a soft wind blowing through some sycamore trees and the moon out, and animal sounds in the background, and you can hear the hoot of an owl, and [again] you’re in the dark woods… just get me into that beautiful darkness with the soft wind.”
Badalamenti began to improvise on the piano. He played a somber tune, low, low, low... The composer continued, recalling an even further vision of the vision, the melancholic Laura Palmer and her necessary theme with Lynch instructing, “Start it off foreboding... and then segue into something beautiful to reflect the trouble of a beautiful teenage girl. Then, once you’ve got that, go back and do something that’s sad and go back into that sad, foreboding darkness.”
Badalamenti started playing the theme of the girl, again, that somber sound, and, in one take, translated Lynch’s words and pictures to music. This was the music of a dead girl. But a girl so alive in everyone’s memory that she’s maddeningly mysterious, the blonde princess, the innocent when there is no such thing as innocent; the girl that suffers both purity and perversion, strangling her with expectations she will never live up, and indeed, never live through.
She dies, found on the shore by Pete wrapped in the afore-mentioned plastic, her beautiful lips, blue-purple, her face a death mask now, almost as iconic as Marilyn Monroe’s sad eyes and sweet, inscrutable smile during her final sitting with Bert Stern. Those dead blonde girls everyone thinks they know or think they understand or think they want to understand (they never do when they’re alive, it seems); those beautiful blonde mirrors for men and women who love and grieve and wallow and become twisted with sick desire. They’re so sad it almost feels good. The kind of sadness that either purges one of evil, or invites evil in, like the long haired terror Bob, crawling under the bed, walking over the couches in the nice suburban Northwest home of Sarah and Leland Palmer, ready to lure you to… the dark woods.
Laura Palmer. A girl who knew the dark woods deep in her soul, a girl who was both frightened and drawn to them like the sex she wasn’t supposed to be having yet. The dark woods would seduce her. The dark woods would rape her. The dark woods would kill her. She would never leave the dark woods in the memory of her family, even as they wailed of their sweet, beautiful, virtuous baby. She never left the dark woods in the memories of the quiet, comfortably chilly Pacific Northwest town, Twin Peaks. And most especially, she never left the dark woods of the viewer, who after two decades, cannot detach that melancholic theme of the light blonde girl killed by the deep dark woods from their memories. She was a memory when the show started, and she feels an even more powerful memory upon revisiting. If you watched the show as a teenager, and perhaps especially as a teenage girl, you, as an older viewer, contemplates your own past dark nights of the soul. The woods you may have walked through and survived.
Badalamenti and Lynch could not know how we would feel in the future, listening to this theme, but somehow they must have sensed it. When Laura Palmer’s theme moves from the foreboding, to the climax… As Badalamenti passionately described in "Secrets From Another Place", the composer sat at the piano while Lynch instructed a change in tone,:
“From behind a tree in the back of the woods is this very lonely girl. Her name is Laura Palmer and it’s very sad...” As Badalamenti moved to a different tone, a little sweeter, Lynch remarked how beautiful it was, and in passionate excitement said, like a silent movie director rousing his actors, “I can see her, she’s walking towards the camera, she’s coming closer, closer, just keep building it, keep building... she’s getting close. Now reach some kind of climax...” And as Badalamenti crescendoed with the most moving passage of the theme, Lynch exclaimed, “Oh, Angelo! It’s tearing my heart out!”
But then, a return with Lynch: “Now she’s trying to leave so fall down… fall down. Falling. Falling. Falling. Now, go back to the darkness…”
Yes. Always go back to the darkness.
The collaboration between Badalmenti and Lynch began with darkness, the darkness simmering underneath another idyllic little town, another place where loggers drive by, but another town full of secrets and perversion and violence and, not a body, but… a severed ear. And of course, the mysteries of not a girl, but a woman, a raven-haired, full figured vixen with a sad face and ruby red lips. Another idealized beauty, the siren, the femme fatale, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini, no less, the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini) who sings sultry in a nightclub, stuns in her gowns and nightclothes and indulges in kinks that surprise (and turn on) the supposed innocents. But like Laura Palmer, she’s not simply a bad girl. There’s always more to “the girl” with Lynch and, instinctually, it seems, Badalametti understood this. That he was drawn to the film for the girl, Rossellini, (she needed assistance singing the titular Bobby Vinton song and producer Fred Caruso called on Badalmaletti) makes the Lynch Badalametti collision all the more perfect.
Just as he did with Twin Peaks, Badalamenti scored Blue Velvet with his ethereal, cosmic sound partly ambient and modern, partly retro, rooted in the past; partly evocative of some elusive dream (or nightmare) we strain to remember (or hope to forget). He also brought in future Twin Peaks chanteuse Julee Cruise to sing the Lynch penned “Mysteries of Love.” As told to Rolling Stone, in a touching moment, Lynch’s ex-paramour Rossellini brought the lyrics to Badalamenti on a piece of paper. In Lynch’s handwriting, the composer read these lyrics:
“Sometimes a wind blows and you and I float in love and kiss forever in a darkness and the mysteries of love come clear...”
Well, that’s swooningly romantic on a level that’s impossible to reach. And a bit creepy. But do the mysterious come clear? With Lynch. Never. That Phil Spector-ish touch of warped melodrama and inscrutability is key to Lynch and Badalmaletti and why the music in Twin Peaks (it all started in 1989, which seems perfect. Goodbye 1980s…) both elevates and deviates the show's storyline – it perverts the soap opera – which Twin Peaks most certainly was. A throwback, it also incorporates jazz, something Badalmaletti grew up with and knew well, utilized beautifully here, with an electronic modernity that made everything feel off kilter, yet eternal. A damn good cup of coffee that’ll burn your tongue if you don’t drink it just right, like Agent Dale Cooper (who seems to do everything right).
There’s so many tunes that saturate the show, and manage to blend seamlessly with achieving a stand-alone uniqueness. With the mischievous and menacing “Audrey’s Theme,” vibes and orchestration set to finger snapping and bleating horns, you can picture teenage siren Audrey Horne, sexily swaying along in her angora sweater, school-girl skirt and saddle shoes. It’s a confounding sound. Audrey is not so innocent, though we do learn she’s a virgin. She’s five feet of sex, she can tie a cherry stem with her tongue, but she’s not as dangerous as she seems. But she’s not so sweet either. When Laura Palmer is pronounced missing in class and Donna cries with knowing grief, Audrey looks more thrilled…. What is this girl about? Like the music, a bad/ good girl who could go off the rails any moment. Beautiful, titillating, obvious and mysterious at the same time and, ultimately, disturbing. A trademark of Lynch. Don’t be fooled: Those saddle shoes have walked through some weird shit.
“Freshly Squeezed” plays like mixture of Henry Mancini and a hip-daddy-o Leif Stephens score (the The Wild One), albeit darker, not so fresh as the title states. You expect Holly Golightly to slink around the corner with Marlon Brando and, perhaps, a dwarf, a dwarf who starts dancing (“Let’s rock.”) “The Bookhouse Boys,” gives us an echo chamber of horns and frantic drums, a dream, emerging only to awake to a nightmare. “Nightlife in Twin Peaks” is just that – pure, dark night. Discordant, as if Igor Stravinsky is teasing Special Agent Dale Cooper with Petrushka's ghost as he runs around the town like his own haunted Puppet Theater. “Dance of the Dream Man,” is more finger snapping and horns, showing a lot of consistency to the music, but also, intriguingly, distinctive in each movement. And just how we would picture a “Dream Man” by David Lynch. Not always a good dream.
More dreams… “Into the Night,” sung by Julee Cruise is like a Cocteau Twins song intoned by a lonely teenage girl pondering the mysteries of life, death, love, sex, melodrama and existentialism all wrapped and warped into one wistful, pleading harmony. A representation of Laura Palmer scribbling away in that secret diary before dipping off into the blackest of the black Northwest woods and into that hotbed of sin, the casino and brothel, “One Eyed-Jacks.” Is she pulled there by the evil specter of Bob? Or is this Laura’s teenage curiosity and sadness pushed towards the erotic nocturnal? Even if you knew nothing of the storyline, it’s a song seeking something – it’s a song in which a girl who wandered off, and, now scared, wants to be saved, by anyone it seems. Cruise sings: “I cried out, I cried out for you. Night so dark. Where are you? Come back in my heart. So dark. So dark.” It should be corny but it’s not. It’s heartbreaking.
As is the “Twin Peaks" theme. For those who watched religiously and re-watched the new box set, listened to all of the music on all of the various compilations, you never forget that theme. Never. The “DAH-dum, DAH-dum” -- that baseline that builds to a literal waterfall of sound, is as iconic as The Andy Griffith Show, I Love Lucy, Hawaii Five-O or Peter Gunn. I don’t know how people felt, nostalgia-wise, when hearing I Love Lucy, perhaps it reminded them of their youth, or a marriage or their parents or grandparents, something special or poignant, but Twin Peaks seemed to take it a step further. Hearing the music now, one is transported into what already felt like some kind of past we’d already lived, even upon first watching the show.
And this recalls Phil Spector, again. Though he and Badalametti’s sounds are quite different, their epic intensity, love of melodrama and dirge-like refrains firmly entrenched in some long lost love, never retrievable, possibly dead, are of the same species. Spector’s first hit, after all was “To Know Him Is To Love Him,” which was not about some boy, but his father. Those were the words etched into Spector’s father’s gravestone. And like both Soap Operas and Spector, Twin Peaks is soaked in score – almost trapped in the oft-termed “Wall of Sound,” only, not Spector’s “muted roar” (as Jerry Wexler called it) but an ambient pathos, like a more emotive “Faraway Beach” Brian Eno, who, on the right occasion, screams. And like Laura Palmer running towards Agent Cooper after enigmatically uttering “Meanwhile,” screams loudly.
Going back to the show all these years later, the theme feels less kitschy and “essential TV viewing of the week,” and more emotional. We feel loss, like our youth is gone too. As the show is re-emerging on the air once again, it’s baffling to think how it will be handled. Laura Palmer was to return 25 years later, but will she? And how? She was a memory when the show began, but one that became very much alive sitting in that room with the red curtains, uttering baffling lines like, “sometimes my arms bend back.” But she’s still a dream figure, a memory. And we have our own memories we carry with her – our own experiences we can even apply to Laura Palmer. And it’s a little scary. That’s how powerful Badalmaetti’s score is – we’re actually frightened by its nostalgic power.
Those varied emotions are best felt in the season pilot (directed by Lynch). Initially, when Julee Cruise popped up in the night club, singing “The Nightingale” the one Bobby Briggs really shouldn’t be at (these are teenagers!) and the one Bobby proceeds to cause a fistfight in, it’s so over the top it’s almost comical. A 1950s youth movie set to This Mortal Coil. But then, as it builds, and as you watch with time on your side, it become almost hysterical, not laughable hysterical, but hysterical like someone needs to be slapped-to-calm-down, hysterical. As Donna and James dramatically confess their love for one another with Agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman in pursuit, lights driving through all of that darkness, we actually feel that teenage love and confession and intensity so strongly, that it’s hard to not be moved by it. And Cruise’s ethereal “Nightingale” (penned by Lynch) makes it even more confounding. My god, this shouldn’t work! But it does.
The melodrama is pitched to, not realism, for what does realism mean anyway? But to dark melodrama bursting from the night air, as if it’s been trapped in the town and in Leland Palmer’s smile all these years. No wonder he wails “Somebody dance with me!” Give him a reason to smile. And be crazy. And sing “Mairzy Doats” for no reason other than, that’s just the right song to sing when you’re losing your mind. It’s funny. But it’s troubling and despondent.
Lynch always understood the emotions through music were strong, and not to be ironic, but to truly move an audience. And in many cases, his characters. As he said in the book “Lynch on Lynch”:
“The music becomes important as far as the narrative is concerned. It’s often when Julee Cruise is singing that other things start to happen. It’s as if the music generates events or certain realizations, such as when the Giant appears and tells Cooper ‘It’s happening again.’ Well the songs existed before the scene, so there were a couple of songs there, and a lot of accidents as well. Cooper was there with Truman and the Log Lady, and Julee’s singing. Bobby Briggs wasn’t supposed to work that day, but came by the studio to get something. We were getting ready to shoot the scene and I said, ‘Bobby, you gotta be here…’ And suddenly these emotions came, and everyone was just overcome with sadness. Something was going on. You could feel it, like, 100 percent. It was everywhere in the room, and it was overwhelmingly sad. And then Donna starts crying. And Cooper see this -- he’s the only one seeing the whole story. Maybe the Log Lady too. And then Bobby breaks. And you could see Donna feeling it – being moved by this abstract thing. But when Bobby gets sad and feels it, that was what did it for me. And he wasn’t even supposed to be there. It was one of the coolest things because if certain people get moved, knowing their characters, then something really is happening.”
Twin Peaks and its music is all about emotional honesty -- this is how one feels when overwhelmed with love and grief and confusion. Distraught Deliriously distraught. This moment, the club, Donna and James, and indeed, the entire show (the first season of in particular) is right up there with the Sirkiest Douglas Sirk, the weepiest George Cukor and the bleeding theatricality of John Stahl’s melodrama-noir, Leave Her To Heaven, (Gene Tierney’s scarlet-lipped, blue black hair Ellen Berendt could easily walk straight into Lynch, bringing Cornell Wilde, Jeanne Crain, Alfred Newman and especially Vincent Price right along with her). Since Badalmletti was influenced by film noir, surely this title didn’t escape him. Or at least the spirit of it, because he understands what gets right into our beautifully rotten marrow, especially between women and men, even if we chuckle for a moment and think, “this is absurd.”
But it’s not absurd. The music of Twin Peaks all comes together because it has a core concern at heart – grief. And the grief of a young woman’s death. And the mysteries and horror, real, supernatural, imagined, not imagined and who knows what else, that unfold while investigating her death. And to understand those secrets inside that girl, secrets many girls carry with them, but dare not share. As Laura Palmer wrote in her diary:
“I love Donna very much, but sometimes I worry that she wouldn’t be around me at all if she knew what my insides were like. Black and dark, and soaked with dreams of big, big men and different ways they might hold me and take me into their control. A fairy princess who thinks she has been rescued from the tower, but finds that the man who takes her away is not there to save her, but instead to go inside her, deep. To ride her as if she were an animal, to tease her and make her close her eyes, and listen as he tells her all that he does. Step by step. I hope that is not a bad thing to think.”
You can hear the music right along with that passage, because it’s not bad to think, as she asks. But what happens… that’s where the complications begin. And those complications are gorgeously expressed through Badalamenti.
That this girl, the lonely girl Lynch envisioned hiding behind a tree in the dark woods, wants to be loved and ravaged, admired and defiled, saved and thrown away offers the viewer an emotional, sexual complexity and sadness, flirting with death. To score that so accurately, with melancholy, sexiness, fear, wickedness, irony and wistful longing is Badalamenti’s brilliance. The Brooklyn-born composer somehow got the Pacific Northwest in all its green-tree-black-wood glory. He also got the girl. A cherry pie of a face, flaxen hair, and a chubby-cheeked- cheerleader smile, a girl with a good heart, sometimes, but a restless, reckless, searching, spirit. A spirit corrupted. But aren’t all spirits? And isn’t all great music?
And he got the woods that Lynch so skillfully described. Robert Frost wrote, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” Yes, they are. They are also sad, frightening and dangerous. And as the music builds and builds and peaks, we know this about Laura Palmer: She had miles to go before she’d sleep, she had miles to go before she’d sleep…