My father, Budd, is a great arranger of band music. He can take a song and compose parts for various wind instruments simply by sitting at the piano, pulling notes from the air and writing them in pencil on the back of discarded paper from the school, drawing the music clefts by hand. A staggering number of students have played his arrangements, though he never got paid for this extra work as the high school band director. When he retired, for the second time, earlier this year, he was still writing out arrangements for the musicians in his bands to perform. Why did he do it? I’m not sure, but I think some of it had to do with that bird called creativity chirping in his ear. Watching him work so hard all of the years of my childhood influenced me profoundly, teaching me to keep at something until you get it right, even if it means going back and revising again and again.
When I sat down to write this column, Joe Jackson’s “The Trial” seemed to leap out at me. I had been thinking of my father and our relationship. So much of what we have bonded over has been music. While he is definitely a student of classical music, I am a disciple of rock. Where we often met halfway was the populist movie themes of some of our favorite composers, like John Williams and James Horner. That this track, a classical piece of film music written by a pop artist like Joe Jackson would come to mind when I haven’t listened to it in years, well, to me that’s serendipity.
“The Trial” comes from Jackson’s underappreciated, out-of-print soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1988 film, Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Jeff Bridges stars in this great, inspiring movie as Preston Tucker, the automobile entrepreneur who took on the Big Three auto manufacturers in trying to produce and market his own line of cars. Martin Landau also stars, and the movie features fine performances by Joan Allen, Christian Slater, Elias Koteas, and Bridges’ father, Lloyd. Dean Stockwell also shows up in an uncredited appearance as the eccentric Howard Hughes. For the score, Jackson delved into his love of postwar music from the 1940s.
Unlike so many pieces of music written for movie soundtracks, “The Trial” works as a stand-alone composition. It’s heard under the climactic courtroom sequence of the film, in which Tucker is put on trial for stock fraud. The trial is a farce, trumped up by the manufacturers to ruin Tucker and his dream. The scene plays out like a real film noir/conspiracy sequence and Jackson’s music that aptly creates the right mood. Plus, it has a Theremin solo!
Listen to how mysteriously it begins, with just trombones, pulling you in with their simple, heavy notes. Slowly, the orchestra builds, with piano, clarinet, vibes, xylophone and the drum set. I love the way the drums keep rhythm but are creating their own melody that works against the saxophone solo. Those drums are a constant reminder that things aren’t going to work out well for Tucker. I’ve always loved how Jackson has incorporated percussion into his music — whether it’s his new wave period, his slick studio albums of the ’80s, or the soundtrack scores he’s been involved with, he really understands how important these array of instruments in the percussion section are to the success of a piece. From the jazz guitar solo to the mournful clarinets, “The Trial” is lovely piece of work that will haunt you if you let it under your skin (must be the Theremin!)
There are days when I wonder why it is that I write the Basement Songs series, as I’m sure many of you do (especially those of you questioning my taste in music). I think to myself, “Is this worth it? The strain, the pressure I put on myself, the revisions, the self doubt and depression, is it all worth it just for a couple of comments each week?” Those are the moments I just want to say, “Forget it.Â No one gives a shit. It just doesn’t matter.”
Then I’ll hear a melody, like “The Trial,” and a thought forms. I grab a phrase out of the air, as my dad does catching notes at the piano, and words begin to flow like a series of music notes scribbled on scrap pieces of paper. Sitting at the kitchen table, sometimes with Julie in the next room watching television, I write diligently on a legal pad with my trusty Bic pen, though I’ve been known to use a scrap piece of paper from time to time.