Graded on a Curve: Eraserhead Original Soundtrack Recording, Deluxe Edition

Heads up to collectors of soundtracks, fans of David Lynch and general aficionados of the weird; the Eraserhead Original Soundtrack Recording has been given a repress. But its limited Deluxe Edition is far more than just an oddity. It’s also an early claim to greatness from one of the most unusual and unpredictable multi-media artists to have appeared in the last forty years.

Eraserhead was a difficult film to see in the mid-‘80s, or at least it proved to be such outside of the bohemian enclaves that thrived in the major cities. But like a host of diverse motion pictures that possessed a lingering otherness, a quality that helped them to survive being tossed onto the ever growing mountain of ephemera and forgotten, the movie survived as a cult item. And getting to see it meant inclusion into a club, or better put a society based upon sincere eccentricity, the movie meant to be experienced more than once and in the company of new initiates if possible, an artifact that’s reputation truly preceded it into the dark corners of American suburbia’s restless heart.

And its legend became magnified in print, for Eraserhead earned a spot in the first of three Cult Movies volumes authored by Danny Peary, books that were a major educational resource for hungry culture mavens during the decade of their publication. But more importantly, passionate word of mouth carried the flick into the rarefied circle of Outsider Essentials; somebody always knew a person whose friend’s brother saw it at a midnight screening his freshman year of college, and descriptions would often culminate with the phrase “You just have to see it.”

But home video in that era was a new frontier, and most movies were priced for rental, with an average retail of around eighty dollars. And in the ‘80s, video stores in the burbs were dominated by Mom & Pops, largely owned by entrepreneurs with relatively mainstream tastes and clientele; the chance that a store owner would shell out for a video that would need to rent up to forty times before the owner would start making profit was an occurrence that transpired far too rarely. Eraserhead lacked any star power, Lynch’s rep had yet to grow to where he could sell a movie on his name alone, and exactly which section of the store should it be filed under? Horror I guess, but this was a few football fields away from Friday the 13th.

So it’s no surprise that the soundtrack to the movie would be less troublesome to obtain than a copy of the film itself. Not that the LP was easy to come by. It first hit racks in 1982 through Alternative Tentacles, and wasn’t repressed by the label until 1990. I first heard it via dubbed cassette roughly two years before actually getting to see the film (again on dubbed VHS), and exposure to its audio divorced from the imagery it was designed to accompany proved a fascinating and frustrating experience in equal measure, intriguing because it sounded so outlandishly mysterious and frustrating because it felt like one crucial part of a huge bewildering puzzle.

It was obviously different from the soundtrack norm then and now, which is essentially a collection of songs either new or borrowed, often both. This was certainly not that, though it did hold a small sliver of similarity to that concept through the inclusion of “In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song).” But it was ultimately no closer to the grand tradition of film scores ala Bernard Hermann, Ennio Morricone, and Nino Rota. There were no overtures or catchy melodies, registering instead like long passages of the movie’s audio that was edited into two deft bits of sound collage.

It was certainly reminiscent of some of the pre-dance industrial music that had crept its way into the record bins of indie shops all over the globe. One of the first associations that sprung to mind upon first hearing it was Throbbing Gristle, the UK cornerstone of the early industrial music scene. In fact it was TG’s record label Industrial that partially named the movement. Solidifying the connection between the filmmaker and the young industrial music scene however is Industrial Symphony No. 1, an avant-garde play produced by Lynch in 1990 that was based on some mosaics he’d made back in the ‘60s while attending art-school in Philadelphia. Lynch had titled them Industrial Symphonies.

Extending from this aspect somewhat, the soundtrack to Eraserhead was also similar to some of the experimental tape music that was appearing during the same period, much of it covered in the pages of the small press periodical Sound Choice, a publication that had grown out of OP, a magazine that’s dissolution also produced Option.

Amongst more traditional sounds in a variety of genres, abstract post-industrial home-tapers from near and far were covered in the pages of all three magazines, and without the exposure of this loose movement (and some of the original industrial material, obviously), the sounds of Eraserhead would’ve been far more perplexing that they already were.

Another assist towards understanding came, at least in my case, from hearing György Ligeti’s Atmosphères on another massive soundtrack, that of Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s not that one sounds much (or anything) like the other, but hearing Ligeti’s composition opened up my young ears to the possibility and to the validity of music that eschewed melody, and thusly for me the highly unconventional sounds derived from Lynch’s film connected not as a provocation or folly and instead as legitimate road less taken.

Naturally, understanding would increase through time. For instance, in 1987 I knew nothing of Harlem piano maestro Thomas “Fats” Waller except that he was an early jazz figure, just a name amongst many. I surely didn’t know he was also the first organist that jazz produced and due to lack of liner info I was obviously ignorant that it was Waller’s organ tones drifting in and out as Eraserhead progressed.

After learning of Waller’s unwitting involvement in Lynch and sound designer Alan Splet’s aural scheme (and finally getting to see the film), I’d been party to a couple highly off-target suppositions, one insinuating that the appropriation of those organ sides was an act of pranksterism on the part of Lynch/Splet. The other is more general but also more odious; it insinuated that Waller was a natural talent but also a huge dimwit over how his skills were best applied, and that Lynch was attracted to those recordings due to the wrongheadedness of their conception.

Both ideas are, in two words, total malarkey. Waller’s organ playing is a big deal for a couple of reasons (at least); first, it took the unruly spirit of early jazz and translated through an instrument that was almost completely associated with the church. Second, in doing so the man made his most distinctive statements as an artist. The novelty tunes and the hot piano? It’s top-flight, but it’s all commercial stuff in the end; if you want a taste of where Waller was really at, you need to check him out on organ.

It’s clear that Lynch recognized a kindred spirit in Waller. Fats was valued more for his personality and skills as a showman that for his musical genius, and Lynch also struggled with an environment of misunderstanding that persisted even after the artistic breakthrough of Eraserhead and the commercial success of The Elephant Man.

Another kindred spirit was Peter Ivers, who’d cut a few albums to little interest prior to Lynch tapping him to write and sing “In Heaven” (actress Laura Neal lip-synched it in the film). An odd, lullaby-like and very pretty little tune, it’s been covered numerous times, notably by The Pixies. His androgynous voice hit a floaty, ethereal sweet spot that was later reexamined by Lynch, Angelo Badalamenti, and Julee Cruise in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Ivers went on to be the host of New Wave Theatre, a part of USA Network’s ‘80s program Night Flight, helping to bring a bunch of Cali punk into late-night living rooms across the land. In 1983 he was found murdered with a hammer in his apartment, a crime that remains unsolved.

But the most kindred collaborator on Eraserhead was sound designer Splet (who passed in 1994 due to cancer). Any serious fan of David Lynch’s filmography has obviously soaked up just how much care is given to the sound on those works, and Eraserhead is where it all really begins. And the audio properties are frankly even more integral to the success of this film than some of his others, since this one is so light on dialogue and relies so heavily on ambiance to set its mood. The soundtrack still stands up as a standalone entity 25 years later, but that’s really no surprise.

At the beginning of 1989 I finally saw Eraserhead and was knocked sideways by its confounding brilliance. And it remains one of the enduring examples of cult film, as well-conceived and one-of-a-kind as it was on the midnight of its first premier. It’s Original Soundtrack Recording has been repressed on vinyl by the Sacred Bones label, and it’s limited Deluxe Edition is a loving, well done piece of work, including a booklet, three art prints and a bonus 45 of “In Heaven” with un unearthed track from the same session “Pete’s Boogie” on the flip.

The label is already into a second and final pressing of 1,000 copies, so it’s obvious not everyone who wants this will get their moist mitts on a copy. So if writhing around on a big plush mattress while staring at a black and white photo of a young and impressively coiffed Jack Nance is your idea of good times, I’d act quick. And if you do score, please play it (and the movie, as well) for the appropriate young people in your life. Eraserhead may no longer hold the allure of elusive contraband, but it still has the power to change lives for the better in its unique and enduringly brilliant approach to audio.

GRADED ON A CURVE:

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