Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Song And Vision No. 1: "Late For The Sky" and Taxi Driver

Why do movies and pop songs work so well together, and how does the union of sound and vision affect how you see the image in the moment and hear the song for years afterward? These are some of the pretentiously worded questions I'll be trying to answer in this new semi-regular column "Song And Vision," where I'll be writing about famous (and maybe not-so famous) movie scenes set to pop songs and all the weird and wonderful things that happen when directors and singers collide. I'm curious why it's impossible to hear The Creation's "Making Time" and not see the montage of Max Fischer's extracurricular activities from Rushmore. Or why I can't play "New Slang" by The Shins anymore without picturing Zach Braff and Natalie Portman in Garden State. I want to get to the bottom of why my perception of songs I've heard a million times suddenly changes once they get naked and roll around in celluloid.

It's fitting that one of the first guests on the "Song And Vision" train is Martin Scorsese, because without Martin Scorsese there wouldn't even be a "Song And Vision" train. (At least not a "Song And Vision" train built by me.) I saw Goodfellas when I was around 12 or 13, and it was the single most important movie-watching experience of my life as far as learning about film goes. For the first time I realized that movies didn't just appear out of thin air but were made by people (artists even!) who obsessively plotted the camera angles, the editing, and, yes, which songs to play for each scene. Goodfellas is wall-to-wall pop music, from Tony Bennett's "Rags To Riches" to Sid Vicious' "My Way," and the songs play a crucial role in charting Henry Hill's evolution from a kid with a romanticized vision of the mob (Bennett) to a coked-up gangster (Let It Bleed-era Rolling Stones) to a "schnook" hiding in the Witness Relocation Program (Vicious). The songs don't just go along with the time periods the movie plows through, they get up inside their respective scenes and illuminate the thoughts and emotions of the characters, enhancing the suggestive movements of the actors and occasionally going beyond them.

This is what any kind of music is supposed to do in a movie, whether it's composed by Cat Stevens or John Williams. But unless you sit around and listen to film scores all day–not that there's anything wrong with that–most movie music is as easy to extract from the cinematic whole as the lighting or costumes. Pop songs, though, have lives of their own, and they are irrevocably changed by the residue of a powerful film image. If I had discovered Donovan's "Atlantis" on an oldies station, I probably would have found it ponderous and stupid. But since I first heard it playing in the background as Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci turn Billy Batts into a pile of Ragu in Goodfellas, a dippy-hippie folk rock tune was transformed into a hauntingly elegiac signpost marking the point where Henry Hill's life starts to go to hell, which is something that has added to my appreciation of "Atlantis" every time it comes up on my iPod.

I could have written about any number of great scenes set to pop songs in Goodfellas, or about how my intense passion for The Rolling Stones probably began when I heard "Monkey Man" and "Memo From Turner" accompany the brilliant "Henry Hill is fucking paranoid and being chased by helicopters" sequence. But I'd rather (for now anyway) turn to Taxi Driver, a film known more for Bernard Herrmann's smoky score than its use of pop music. (I also haven't overlooked Mean Streets, made by Scorsese three years earlier and, hands down, my favorite "pop song" movie ever. More on that at a later date.) Taxi Driver gets the nod because it includes for me the best example of a relationship between song and scene being mutually beneficial.

First, a little history. Taxi Driver began with screenwriter Paul Schrader, who banged out two drafts of the script in 10 days as his life was falling apart piece by piece. "I had broken with my wife, I had broken with the woman I left my wife for, I had broken with the American Film Institute and I was in debt," Schrader told The Guardian in 2006. He ended up living in his car, not talking to anyone for weeks on end, and surviving on a diet of junk food and porn. For all intents and purposes Schrader was Travis Bickle, only his dark odyssey ended with a trip to the hospital to treat an ulcer rather than an orgy of blood and dead pimps. (Schrader has said the script later "jumped out of me like an animal.") Because the violence and seamy sexual smut in Taxi Driver is so overwhelming, sometimes people forget that it's basically a movie about the all-consuming loneliness we all endure while traversing the deepest valleys of our lives. The crazy mohawked motherfucker holding the twin Magnums is what ends up on Taxi Driver T-shirts and posters, but people relate to Travis Bickle because of what happens before the final 15 minutes of the film. If you watch Taxi Driver enough times to get beyond its still potent shock value, you begin to see how awkwardly funny many of the scenes are, as Travis tries in vain to connect with other people. (Sacha Baron Cohen has nothing on De Niro talking to Cybil Shepherd about his "One of these days I'm gonna get organazized" sign.) But there's nothing funny about Travis' profound, and profoundly credible, sense of isolation. Who hasn't at some point felt like "God's Lonely Man," standing on the sidelines while the rest of the world is having a ball?

My favorite scene in Taxi Driver occurs about an hour in, right after Travis kills a stick-up guy at the corner market. He goes home and watches American Bandstand on TV, waving his gun menacingly at the smiling black teenagers on the screen. Then the TV cameras zoom in on a melancholy image: a pair of empty sneakers in the middle of the dance floor. Travis pulls his gun back and watches sullenly, re-enacting the familiar role of the wallflower watching "normal" people dance and have the fun he will never have. I love this scene because it conveys both Travis' intrinsic otherness and his yearning to transcend that otherness, and a big reason the scene does this so well is because it's set to Jackson Browne's lonely anthem of romantic alienation, "Late For The Sky."

If Thomas Wolfe's "God's Lonely Man" sums up Travis Bickle, it also describes Jackson Browne's musical persona in the early '70s. "Late For The Sky" is the title track and lead-off song on Browne's third album, and amazingly it may only be the record's third or fourth most depressing song. Browne sings about the apocalypse ("Before The Deluge"), death ("For A Dancer"), and disintegrating relationships (practically everything else), and he articulates pretty well considering he must have been holding a gun in his mouth constantly in the studio. Jackson Browne might have been a boyishly handsome L.A. singer-songwriter who hung out with cool, jocky assholes like Don Henley and Glenn Frey, but his mindset wasn't too far removed from Bickle and Schrader's. In another life he totally could have shaved a Mohawk into his cute little bowl cut and ranted about flushing New York City down the fucking toilet. But he instead ended up turning out sensitive ballads like "Late For The Sky," which chronicles one of those horrible late-night fights we've all had where you come to realize that the one person you love and care for the most in the world is actually a complete stranger who doesn't love you back, and is about to abandon you. (For Travis it was Betsy. For Jackson it was, supposedly, Joni Mitchell.) "Late For The Sky" is a supremely self-absorbed song, erecting epic angst out of a small-scale, almost mundane romantic problem. Browne doesn't even have enough empathy to care about the other person in the song. His pain is so deep and wide there's no room for anybody else. I don't mean that as a criticism necessarily, just a description of his lyrical point of view. Solipsism has its place, especially if it can provide comfort to an emotionally unstable and lonely man watching American Bandstand with bad thoughts running through his head.

Lester Bangs once wrote of Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks "that I only really wanted to play this record whenever I had a fight with someone I was falling in love with." Incredibly, he meant this as a criticism: "I concluded that any record whose principal utility lay in such an emotional twilight zone was at worst an instrument of self-abuse, at best innocuous as a crying towel and certainly was not going to make me a better person or teach me anything about women, myself or anything else but how painfully confused Bob Dylan seemed to be. Which was simply not enough." With all due respect to the memory of Lester Bangs–or my memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous, which is how I always picture Bangs–it is totally enough. If I'm going through a low point in my romantic life, I don't turn to Bob Dylan for an "answer," whatever that means, I'm looking for a freakin' crying towel. I want something that's going to tell me, "It's okay. I've been through this, too. It sucks, but you can make it out the other end. But let's just wallow for now." For two blessed minutes in Taxi Driver, Jackson Browne does just that for Travis Bickle. "Awake again, I can't pretend, and I know I'm alone." It's enough to make Travis put his gun down, if only for one scene.

Because Travis is such an off-putting character–he's racist, he likes weird Swedish porn, he's completely fucking insane–the "Late For The Sky" scene stands out because it humanizes him at a point when he's teetering on the edge of perpetrating horrifying violence. Even if he eventually does fall over the edge, Travis' connection to Jackson Browne still matters because it's the only human connection he makes in the entire movie. (Wizard comes close, but his parting shot–"We're all fucked"–states Browne's point far less beautifully.) Meanwhile, Travis' response to "Late For The Sky" reaffirms the universality of Browne's solipsism. He sings about the end of his relationship like it's the end of the world because that's exactly how it always feels for anybody going through something like that. I love "Late For The Sky" because it makes me think about Travis Bickle, and about me, and about how me and Travis aren't all that different after all. And for some reason I can't quite explain, this actually makes me feel good.