"Music is the soundtrack of our lives."
It happened again the other day. There I was, driving through the crowded streets of LA, minding my own business, when the opening guitar licks of an old hit song from the 80's poured out from the radio -- an irresistible force that instantly ushered me into the past. Suddenly I was back in a passenger van packed shoulder to shoulder with a tired, grumpy grip and electric crew as we rolled down Mississippi State Route 7 early one morning in the spring of 1987, on the way from our hotel in Oxford to the filming location in Holly Springs. Half way through a two month shooting schedule on a low-budget feature, we were all feeling the strain of working six day weeks, twelve to fourteen hours a day.
The sleep-deprived PA at the wheel turns the radio up with that same song, sending the haunting strains of Under the Milky Way through the van. I've always been partial to minor-chord tunes, especially when physically and emotionally drained -- and if there's one thing a low budget feature is guaranteed to do, it's push every member of the crew right up to their own personal limits of resilience.
I close my eyes and drift with the lyrics as the melody flows from from minor to major chords in the classic tension-and-release formula followed by musicians for centuries.
"Wish I knew what you were looking for, might have known what you would find..."
The words cut deep, evoking memories of a wardrobe girl I'd met on my previous location feature the year before, a voluptuous beauty who -- after a few very good months that seemed to hold the promise of so much more -- went off on another show, where she cut me loose without a word, or apparently even a second thought.
It was a bitter pill to swallow, but such is life in a world where nothing good seems to last very long.
Weary of wallowing in the darkness, I turn my thoughts to a certain cute extra on the show, wondering if the warm smile she's greeted me with the past couple of weeks means anything more than mere good manners. The young women of Ole Miss have been unfailingly gracious thus far, so I don't want to read too much into her smile or make unwarranted assumptions, but working such a tough location job generates a degree of emotional desperation in us all at some point in the process -- a sense of urgency that demands a response to keep from wandering too close to the edge.
The song fades out, then a commercial blares from the radio... and I'm back at the wheel of my car in LA again, thirty years older, somewhat wiser, and considerably the worse for wear -- a time traveler returned home. The spell is broken, but I'm still thinking about that wardrobe girl's deep brown eyes -- and that cute little extra.
Such is the power of music.
Science tells us time travel is impossible, but I just flew back three decades on the wings of a song. We all do it, of course, young or old, no matter what our jobs, careers, or lives might be. I suspect humans have been indulging in this sort of emotional time travel for as long as music has existed.
It happens to me all the time these days. One week it's Teach Your Children taking me back to another van with another crew, watching a blood-red sun rise from the steamy North Carolina mist as we head east from our hotel in Tarboro to Robersonville for another fourteen hour day of miserably hot, sweaty toil. Then it's Red Rain and Peter Gabriel transporting me through time to the snowy landscape of Vermont, where I suffer through each hundred-plus hour, six-day work week, forced to get up early Sunday -- my one day off -- to navigate the ice-encrusted steps leading down to the laundromat to wash my work clothes before the rest of the crew shows up with the same thing in mind.
On a job like that, you're either working, sleeping, or preparing for the next six-day siege of hard, cold labor -- there is no real time off.
Another week passes and suddenly it's the summer of 1981, with Mick Jagger belting out She's So Cold as I ride in the passenger seat of the Gaffer's van, motoring down I-5 towards Hollywood from the sleepy little town of Piru, our location for the past week. Having just turned thirty-one, I'm working my first feature as a Best Boy, and with a fat line of cocaine stimulating the mesolimbic dopamine system of my brain, I sip a can of beer and tap my feet to the thumping beat of the Rolling Stones. Meanwhile, the Gaffer -- an immense falstaffian man with an unquenchable thirst -- drains a can every few minutes, then smashes the empty against the console and bellows "BEER!" to the juicer in the back seat, who pulls a cold one from the cooler, pops the top, then places it in the gaffers outstretched hand. Fueled on coke, alcohol, and adrenaline, the three of us ride high on a magic carpet of post-work euphoria, feeling young, strong and immortal -- and in blatant violation of half the California Penal Code.
"God takes care of fools and babies," the saying goes, and although we're well beyond that latter state of grace, we certainly fit the definition of the former. Gleefully oblivious to the punishing legal consequences should a cop pull us over right now, life isn't just good -- it's fucking great.
That last memory is particularly poignant, a moment when all was right with the world and everything seemed possible. Thirty-five years later -- the adventure nearly over, youth having long since slipped through my fingers, and my great friend the Gaffer now twenty years cold in his grave -- I know better.
There's still beer, of course, but it doesn't taste quite the same anymore.
This is all a function of age -- I understand that much. With a lot more behind me than on the road ahead, the past in all its technicolor glory shines much brighter than whatever the future might hold. At this point, any distraction from the harsh realities of these troubled times is welcome.
Apparently I'm not alone in that, either, with three new shows coming to the Toob this season that weave their dramatic narrative around the theme of time travel. I suppose this all stems from the very human desire to go back and fix mistakes made in years past -- the yearning for a do-over -- or simply to address one of mankind's oldest desires: to be young again.
None of that will happen, of course. There's no going back in life, no do-overs, no recaptured youth. What's done is done, what's gone is gone, and we just have to make the best of it.
But there's still the magic of the radio whenever it's time to travel back in time a few decades, and until physicists find a way to break the rules, that'll just have to to do.