There are two must-see movies in the Tom Cruise filmography. One is Risky Business, where he plays a cocky but well-meaning guy with daddy issues. The other is The Color Of Money, where he plays a cocky but well-meaning guy with daddy issues. The rest of the Cruise oeuvre, where he plays a cocky but well-meaning guy with daddy issues, is recommended viewing only in the event that you are wavering on that suicide attempt that you’re halfway through. Fifteen minutes of Magnolia ought to finish the job.
Sherri and I saw Risky Business in the theater sometime during the late summer of 1983. I don’t think we knew much about it going in. My memory of the trailer is hazy, but I’m pretty sure it was Joey Pants, the crystal egg, the Porsche going into the water, and pantless Joel in his Ray-Bans dancing to Bob Seger.
I have to admit that I’m not much of a Seger fan, though I’m susceptible to bouts of “Turn The Page” melancholy, but Great Silver Bullets is “Old Time Rock And Roll” fucked out. If you are thinking what a great idea it would be to crank up the Bob, strip down to your nut huggers, and film yourself doing the Risky Business dance, don’t. You’ll thank me in the morning.
Anyway, we stepped into the theater with little or no preconceptions. Sherri probably knew who Tom Cruise was — she kept up on that kind of thing — but I didn’t. What a great movie, and not just because it added “sometimes you just have to say what the fuck” to the lexicon, or for creating the Home Alone template. For that matter, not even for introducing Curtis “Booger” Armstrong to the masses, or for getting Muddy Waters’s “Mannish Boy” around the bases one more time.
No, Risky Business was great because it was a visualization of every sixteen year old guy’s favorite fantasy: If I could just get rid of my parents I could turn this place into a party mansion, drive my father’s Porsche, and bang hot women. Never mind that wrecking the Porsche and getting robbed by Joey Pants stuff — the basics were there.
And nowhere were the basics more there than during the scene where Joel and Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) explore each other’s daddy issues on a real train. To my undiscriminating eye and even less discriminating hormones this was the most erotic piece of film ever produced: the flashing lights, the strong taboo against public sexuality; the very, very beautiful Lana straddling my proxy, the wide-eyed Joel. I wasn’t alone. Sherri and I didn’t even make it to her room when we got back to her house after the movie. She unlocked the front door, laid down on the stairs, and pulled me on top of her.
What really grabbed me in that scene in particular but throughout the movie was the score. It was electronic, but not Vangelis electronic, not Wendy Carlos or Meco. This was warm, sexy — analog drums and guitar, piano. The rhythm of the train built right into the score. Although Sherri and I were squirming in our seats, visions of staircases dancing in our heads, I had to know who made those amazing sounds. We sat through the end titles, watched the gaffers and the grips scroll by until I had my answer: Tangerine Dream.
Back in the B.I. era–before the internet–we were pretty much limited to whatever music was available in our local stores. This isn’t completely true, obviously. Most record stores had a Phonolog on a shelf somewhere, that big yellow catalog of every record in print from the major labels. Cooler record stores also had a Jem Imports catalog tucked behind the counter, and at least in small town South Carolina I might occasionally luck into a secondhand zine with ads for mail order indies. But for the most part it’s a true statement: What was available was what was in the local bins.
I searched both Record Bar and Camelot Music top to bottom, no sign of Tangerine Dream. The hunt became an obsession, expanding my record store boundaries beyond the county line to include shops in Greenville, Asheville, and Charlotte. No luck, and then one afternoon Sherri and I visited Hillcrest, the forgotten shopping mall on the other side of Spartanburg. BJ’s Music’s cutout bin was freshly stocked. I hit a vein of Tangerine Dream on this Island of Misfit Toys that had to be a foot thick. My eyes rolled back like a shark’s just before it lunges into a wounded sea lion and I started clearing out the cutout bin.
“What are you doing?” Sherri asked.
“I finally found them!”
“But you don’t know if you like them. You just know what you heard in the movie.”
“I know I like them.”
“Enough to spend all your money?”
She had a point. What if their only good stuff was in the movie and the rest sounded like the Star Wars cantina scene? Better to do a little recon — buy one, check it out, come back for the rest.
I picked Force Majeure on the strength of the cover — an abstract painting of diminishing gray squares with an orange sphere hovering in the foreground. What was it, a tangerine? Mars? God? Chaos hovering over an ordered universe? Four bucks to find out seemed like a deal.
The cover art perfectly depicted the instrumental content: orderly patterns threatened by this fiery, organic mass, yet the whole thing somehow managed to hold together. The album contained only three cuts, the title track taking up the entire A side with “Cloudburst Flight” and “Thru Metamorphic Rocks” accounting for side B.
I was never really much of a Prog Rock fan — nothing against it, just never really spoke to me. I love Rush, but admittedly I’d rather listen to Moving Pictures than Hemispheres. I don’t know much about Rick Wakeman or Emerson, Lake and Palmer. My sole observation regarding Yes is that bassist Chris Squire quite likely moonlights as Rip “King Of Confetti” Taylor.
But there was something very different about Force Majeure, something that grabbed me immediately. The opening chords of the title track are almost narrative, as if I’m watching a remake of Lon Chaney’s Phantom Of the Opera, a slow walk down the mossy stone steps. Birds chirp. I’m not descending into a cellar, after all — the spiral stairway opens into a sunrise forest, a light fog clinging to the ferns.
And then ripples on a pond, and I’m running — bolting through the forest as if in a dream. Barefoot, shirtless, the cool morning air burning my lungs, but never tiring. I can run forever. Animals bolt from the underbrush when I fly past.
I surprise a doe. She runs by my side for twenty yards, her head twitching left and right as she thinks. She isn’t running beside me so much as looking for an exit. She spots it, peels off. I stop and watch her disappear into the woods, breathing heavily.
A train appears, from where I don’t know but it’s there, all steam and whistles. I climb aboard and sit alone. The music from the mossy stairwell throbs through the car.
And then the church bell chimes once. The train begins to vibrate, not on the track but in its atoms. They drift apart until my leather seat looks pixelated. I poke my finger through the hide, swirl the red leather like cream in a coffee cup. Farther and farther the atoms drift until the train is the faintest of dust lingering in the air.
Now I am marching. I don’t know where or when. Am I soldier? A drum major? I’m not marching at all — I’m dancing a minuet. My partner is beautiful: big, sweet eyes; a nervous energy. She does not hate me yet, nothing but love and joy on her face. And then she fades away like the train — like the song itself — and all that is left is the kathuk kathuk kathuk of needle against label gently nudging me, urging me to start over.
No lyrics, no liner notes, no drugs — just an instrumental track and my busy mind. I was hooked. I went back to BJ’s and bought every Tangerine Dream album in the cutout bin.
Years later my Tower Records employed hipster doofus of a neighbor launched into a long rant about how badly Tangerine Dream sucks. I understood where he was coming from. Edgar Froese has kept the name alive since 1967. That is forty-five years of musical experimentation. It hasn’t all been good, and it hasn’t all been brave. Tangerine Dream got a bit swept up in the whole New Age thing for a while, and some of the early work sounds like the bleats and farts of primitive electronica. But when they are good they are very good, and they were never better than 1979’s Force Majeure.