In the Key of Jarmusch: Ragged Western Riffs

By Simon Reynolds | May 12, 2009
Johnny Depp in Dead Man Johnny Depp in Dead Man

Jim Jarmusch’s choice of music and musicians is as poetic and precise as his cinematic allusions. Music writer Simon Reynolds shows us how to listen to Dead Man.

In part three of his five-part listen to the music in Jarmusch’s films, Simon Reynolds lifts his ear to Neil Young’s raw guitar riffs in Dead Man.

Dead Man (1995): Ragged Western Riffs

Neil Young and his backing band Crazy Horse are the Wild Bunch of rock, haggard but heroic survivors of a grander, free-spirited musical era. One of Neil Young's most famous albums, After the Gold Rush, echoes that elegiac sense of the frontier having closed a long time ago, the ache left by the loss of American wilderness and wildness.  The name Crazy Horse itself comes from the Lakota warrior chief who rebelled against the Federal government in the hopes of preserving traditional Native American folkways. All these associations made Young the ideal candidate to score Dead Man, a sort of postmodern Western that in typical Jarmusch style manages to be poignant and playful at the same time.

The story concerns a city slicker by the name of William Blake (Johnny Depp) who migrates from Cleveland to the very end of the railroad line in pursuit of a promised job only to find himself stranded out West, an incongruously clean-shaven and smart suit-wearing figure in a land of rugged, hairy trappers and prospectors. Yet the Industrial Revolution has already reached this wilderness: the town is called Machine and Blake's job was supposed to be working at a metal works firm. 

Winterlong

For the score, rather than write fully-fledged songs, Young improvised in a recording studio while watching the film. Minimally titled on the soundtrack CD as "Guitar Solo, No. 1", "Guitar Solo, No. 2" and so forth, the result was a sequence of guitar miniatures: flickering micro-riffs full of tension and strangeness, glistening golden trails of melody that cut abruptly to a single crunching power chord like the report of a rifle. The music gestures towards the epic grandeur of Young in his full-bore, Crazy Horse-assisted mode but its fragmentary form withholds the full ragged glory the listener craves, just as Jarmusch's movie alludes to the Hollywood Wild West but slyly frustrates one's expectations with absurdist twists.

Simon Reynolds

Simon Reynolds is a New York-based journalist and author. He has contributed to The New York Times, Sight and Sound, and Spin, among other places, and his books include Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-84 and Bring the Noise: 20 Years Writing About Hip Rock and Hip Hop.  His blog can be found at http://blissout.blogspot.com/.

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