Memoriam: Jack Nitzsche
published in Senses of Cinema No.9
- Melbourne, 2000
published in CINESONIC
- Experiencing the Soundtrack,
AFTRS Publishing, Sydney, 2001
gotta come and hear Jack Nitzsche talk @ Cinesonic. The
guy's pretty old, so it might be your last chance to see
Nitzsche passed away on Friday August 25th at the Queen
of Angels hospital in Hollywood following cardiac arrest
brought on by a recurring bronchial infection.
eight weeks earlier, he was sitting across from me on the
stage @ The Capitol Theatre in Melbourne, Australia. Many
people around the world had been asking me since: "How the
hell did you get Jack Nitzsche to come to Melbourne?" Most
of them were thinking of a bundle of various Jack Nitzsches
dotted across rock'n'roll history. The cool beatnik dude
often spotted holding music charts in a Spector session.
The ultra-hip session musician banging the ivories for the
Stones and Buffalo Springfield. The wired compadre of Willy
Jack Nitzsche I chased to bring to Melbourne was the one
who lived in the movies. Jack Nitzsche - film composer and
score orchestrator. Performance, One Flew Over the Cuckoos
Nest, Cruising, Blue Collar, Hardcore, Cutter's Way, Starman,
Stand By Me, The Hot Spot, Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard.
For years, whenever any dork said that only orchestras were
capable of producing great emotional depth in a score, I
would always say three names: Morricone, Takemitsu and Nitzsche.
Proof is waiting at your local video store. Get out those
movies and listen to them now. Hear how Jack uniquely combined
a rock'n'roll producer's aesthetic with the vibrancy and
scope required by movie music. Listen to his use of instrumentation,
arrangement of melody, choice of musicians. Witness his
ability to move from sublime elegaic lines to dense pits
of electrified frenzy. There is no other.
had been on a wish-list list of guests I dreamed of bringing
to Cinesonic. I started making inquiries back in late 1997
as to how I could contact him. From many sectors, word came
back: stay away from Jack. Sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. Bad
vibes, bad vices.
I heeded their advice.
in the intervening years, smack hit Melbourne so hard, that
the count of people I know who have OD'd - all young - is
now moving on to my eleventh finger. Across that time, my
attitude to hard drugs changed drastically. I accepted them
much more, to the degree that I now maintain a non-judgmental
view of the so-called 'substance abusers'. Junkies, Christians,
parents - each to his own. Good luck if you can pull through.
I realized that my hang-up about smack in particular was
petty and largely unfounded.
on this, I chased Jack up for the 2000 conference. I sent
a letter (in a real envelope) to Hollywood. And a reply
came back: sure, I'll be there. At the Cinesonic office,
we were so thrilled and excited. This living legend was
coming to Australia.
cannot describe what I felt when I first saw Jack. It was
if Keith Richards had erected a gothic statue to the memory
of Johnny Thunders - and that statue came to life. It was
hard to keep in mind that I was looking at a 63 year old
man; blind in one eye, seemingly out-of-it but elegantly
swaying in a permanent state of post-intoxica. Pancake make-up,
flamboyant hats, crocodile boots, black capes, gold crucifixes,
pitch black shades, you name it. Our few discussions were
always tentative. I was especially nervous. Part of me couldn't
figure out how best to give Jack what he wanted, while the
other part of me just wanted to tell him again and again:
you are so important to the history of film music - people
just haven't caught on yet. Every time I stated this, he
shrugged awkwardly. My sincerity always came off a bit tacky.
I just kept hammering him with it.
quickly became sensitive to a strange contradiction by which
he seemed bound. Here he was on the other side of the earth
being honoured with as much esteem as we could muster, and
while he liked the honour, he had apparently lived through
lots of negative criticism - from Hollywood, in particular.
Like, Jack is bad, dangerous, unreliable, unprofessional.
Like, Jack is messed up by drugs. As if Hollywood isn't
full of coke'n'base-head producers, writers, actors. As
if Jack is somehow doing the wrong thing in such an insular,
hypocritical, self-congratulatory community. I felt he was
so used to being dismissed that he found my compliments
false - a trick, a trap, a delusion.
was probably too rock'n'roll for Hollywood. Not that he
was overtly rebellious, but his whole sensibility &endash;
his life-worn demeanor, his sartorial manner, his way of
communicating with musicians - simply did not fit the Hollywood
production model of musical mimicry. In fact, the rise of
alt.rock compile song scores could be viewed as a way of
safely and clinically importing rock noise via the clean
syringe of A&R pushers and their music supervisor front-men.
Imagine Michael Douglas having to deal with Snoop Dog during
a score session. Imagine the complete communication breakdown
between the two. No post-dubbed gun shot effects needed
through Jack's film career with him, it was apparent that
he had done his best work with a kindred gathering of 'outcast'
directors: Donald Cammell, Milos Forman, Paul Schraeder,
John Carpenter, Dennis Hopper, Sean Penn. A curious group
of directors whose individuality has led conservative film
history to cursorily acknowledge them as low key mavericks:
difficult, unpolished, ambitious. Not garish enough to be
'outlaw'; not overdrawn enough to be 'revolutionary'. But
directors whose films will outgrow such bare criticisms
and meager assertions.
Jack's hotel before the big night of his 'onstage interview'
for Cinesonic, he held up too totally outrageous mariachi
suits: "Which one should I wear tonight?" One was a melange
of deep olive greens and intricate braiding; the other:
black with searing swirls of gold and red. "The black one"
I said. "It's totally unrestrained." Jack smiled: "I know."
Jack was lucid, alive, keen, perceptive. He went through
my list of questions with clarity and savvy. At that point,
I realized that the 'out-of-it,-man' presence Jack had conveyed
to many people was simply the result of jet lag. It figures.
Imagine anyone that old not used to travelling such long
distances. Your grandfather would probably appear a dope
head. Jack certainly was not as flaky as some people thought.
At one point, I asked him about a chord structure for a
cue in Hardcore. Without batting an eyelid, he hammered
out the arrangement: "The guitar chords shift from C to
G while the bass hangs on B." Bam. This guy still had it
all locked in his head.
him out here was an attempt to unlock that wealth of technical
artistry and musical imagination still pumping in his head.
Jack talked about getting back into producing music. At
least now, his legacy can be documented in various forms.
He was working on a biographical book with a writer which
hopefully will be published sooner rather than later. Jack
assurred me this book would "set the record straight" about
his life and his work. Plus, he had already done much work
on selecting his best material from a vast archive of recordings
to be released as a retrospective CD-box set. Modestly,
he said: "There's some good work there, man."
cannot underestimate the quiet bravery it would take for
someone like Jack to openly accept an invitation to come
all this way. For that, I thank him dearly. I also thank
him for the pleasure of walking with him through Melbourne's
tacky Crown Casino and turning the head of every tastefully
attired loser-gambler in the place.
most of all, I thank Jack for his music.