A Kiss After Supper
Drugstore Cowboy

in the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...

Drugstore Cowboy is still Gus Van Sant’s high-water mark (though he’s approached it since, and word from Cannes on Final Days is encouraging). It made his first dent in the mainstream, hammered or diffidently tapped at to differing degrees since, with greater commercial success, if not artistic. A good deal of that can be attributed to the cast’s tight relationship. Not that these felonious junkies are more sympathetic than his other characters; they just seem to belong together. Perhaps it’s because they’re not intruded upon by Shakespeare, Hitchcock, Robin Williams, or the specter of the Columbine massacre. Mind you, sexually ambivalent/narcoleptic hustlers, homicidal sociopaths (whether driven by Mother or classmates) and autodidactic janitors all have their places in society; his treatment of them just seems less organic. This group just clicks like Legos. A voiceover by Bob (wonderfully portrayed by Matt Dillon as a superstitious and overly analytic, but partially sympathetic control freak) introduces the rest of the group:
Diane was my wife. I loved her, yeah, and she loved dope, so we made a good couple. Whenever I got outta the joint, I always ended up with Diane. Rick was my sidekick, my muscle. He was no novice to the life of crime. His record showed a steady climb from juvenile offender to petty theft. Nadine was Rick’s old lady, a counter-girl he picked up during one of our jobs. She was a piece of work. She had no record, just a smile that caught us all off guard.
This economical introduction is preceded/backed by the most affecting version of “For All We Know” imaginable. It’s sung by Abbey Lincoln, with Geri Allen supporting on piano. Her voice is wounded, but strong, and rich as a tenor sax. All excess ornamentation is stripped, perfectly accompanying this interior monologue by a sweating, resigned Bob in the back of an ambulance. Not only is it an instant grab, emotionally, it’s heightened by a “home-movie” montage of the gang hamming and goofing during carefree times, begging the question, why Bob’s use of the past tense? Why, for all we know, may they never meet again? Extra-economy bonus points: the main credits and setting of Portland, OR, 1971 are interspersed into this lean 3 ½ minute introduction.

Cut to Bob entering a pharmacy, in which the radio is softly playing “Little Things” by Bobby Goldsboro. “Little things that you say, make me glad that I feel this way. The way you smile (Doo! Doo!) The way you hold my hand. (Doo! Doo!) And when I’m down (Doo! Doo!) You always understand, you know I love those little things (Baa!) in my ear (Baa!) That you say (Baa!) when there’s no one near. Little things, that you do…” What a joyous song, and what a subversive usage. Of course, the little things here aren’t romantic gestures. The other three sidle in one at a time, perfectly positioning themselves to get the staff off-balance so that Bob can get behind the counter and grab the narcotics.

Goldsboro fades out, and the first instance of a spectacular score huffs its way in. Adrenaline-fuelled panting sets off Nadine’s riveting distraction ploy, followed through with tense, skittering drumwork, highly suggestive of the adrenaline rush of all involved. Heather Graham owns this role, and left me wondering where she’d been �til she finally appeared as Roller Girl in Boogie Nights. In light of these two roles, it seems ludicrous that she’s done nothing else of consequence, given her beauty and demonstrable (well, at times) talent.

Job successful, they pull up to the hideout, witnessed by a cranked-up neighbor who’s listening to the psychedelic breakdown of “Psychotic Reaction” by The Count Five. It’s gone before most viewers would register, but the band’s lone hit is on Nuggets and countless other compilations, so at least some will have vaguely recognized it. Said neighbor then interrupts the fixing up process, leading to a sharp scene with the ringleaders en suite discussing a drug swap. Bob’s all for getting some speed: “Then we’ll go hit that big fat pharmacy. You know, the one right next to the unemployment office.” His reasoning is that when you’re on a hot roll, you keep it going. Diane’s response is enthusiastic, but with a different thrust: “Yeah, well if you’re so goddamn hot, why don’t you lay me down right now?”

Thus is the stage set for a quick wrap to business, and Diane playing for Bob “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” She does a little stripdance to the Jackie DeShannon tune, only to be rebuffed by Bob wondering if she’s on glue. He’s so entranced by the concept of the big-time score, he disregards and disrespects the score that’s right in front of his face. Another ace performance, Kelly Lynch is great as Diane, alternately maternal and needy, calculating and vulnerable. Just as well they never really get into it, as the cops choose that moment for a raid. They don’t find the goods, but the heat is on, and the foursome moves to the other side of town. After another run-in, they decide to skip out altogether.

They pack up and get on the road to “The Israelites” by Desmond Dekker and the Aces, one of the first ska tunes to break big outside Jamaica. Its infectious rhythms and four part vocal line are a perfect backing for their new start, but, once again, it’s a highly perverse choice. Bob’s detailing the travails of trying to stay high on the road without getting caught as Desmond’s singing “Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir, so that every mouth can be fed” is hardly subtle. Nor is the line “Don’t want to die like Bonnie and Clyde. Ohh, the Israelites.” Note the reference to being driven out of the homeland. Great falsetto, great song.

The original score, written by Elliot Goldenthal, carries most of the rest, and quite effectively. Rather than being incidental or intrusive, it mostly springs directly from characters’ perspectives, seeming to represent their mindsets in an almost physiological way. Whether it’s more hyperactive drum and sax work during Bob’s tussle with hospital orderlies or droning didgeridoo and water-drum during a shooting-up session, it’s always fitting.

Bob spies a drugstore with an open transom as he, Nadine, and Rick are exploring their new setting. Rick, played totally straight throughout by James LeGros, asks “What’s a transom, Bob?” He provides a great foil throughout. Thinking they’ve outrun their spell of bad luck, Bob decides to go for it, not knowing that things are about to go south. Things finally unravel to the tune of another one-hit wonder, “Judy in Disguise” by John Fred and his Playboy Band. Bob’s soon haunted by another appearance of “Little Things,” and then a continuation of “For All We Know,” as he heads back to Portland to clean up his act. There’s quite a bit more to the story, but you should really watch the movie and see for yourself.

As the threads are rewoven, we realize that stricken Bob has actually been clean, and is the victim of a thorough beating by young thugs assuming he has access to narcotics. We rejoin him, and Abbey Lincoln, in the continuation of the intro scene, wondering if he’s going to make it to the hospital. We know from prior exposition that he has seen Diane again; the remainder of the monologue makes clear that he’s, at least from his perspective, outlasted his curse. He exults that he has a police escort to the “fattest pharmacy in town.” Sure enough, they’ll meet again, our Bob and his dope, if he makes it. Lest any doubt remain, “The Israelites” is reprised for the end credits, indicating that Bob fully intends to be back in the saddle again, hoping not to “die like Bonnie and Clyde.” It’s a strange resilience he shows; after getting clean, he feels he’s beat the hex, earned his high. Quite a neat trick, that. In the beginning, he looks like a sweating junkie on his way to detox or the slab. In the end, we see someone who’s proven he can kick the addiction, but looks forward to getting back to it.

By: Dan Miron
Published on: 2005-05-26
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