My Earliest Collecting Days
Writing about John Williams’ 90th birthday, and then the current (boxed) state of my soundtrack collection, reminded me of my earliest days discovering movie music.
The first soundtrack album I ever bought was the Varèse Sarabande vinyl album of The Star Wars Trilogy, with Varujan Kojian (I eventually learned how to spell that name) conducting the Utah Symphony Orchestra.
This was quite a good album—track list above, from the 1980s Varèse CD—which for years had the only available recordings of “Fight With TIE Fighters” and “Darth Vader’s Death” from Return of the Jedi, although both were recorded noticeably slower than the film versions. (It was noticeable once I heard the OST versions; before that, I didn’t care.)
It also has performances of the concert arrangements of “Here They Come” (from Star Wars) and “The Asteroid Field”—my favorite track!—from The Empire Strikes Back.
I remember preferring side one; side two had some pieces I found annoying, the Ewok selections (“Parade of the Ewoks” and “The Forest Battle”) and “Jabba the Hut [sic],” which seemed to stop the album dead in its tracks (so to speak).
Per my custom of the day, I’m pretty sure I made a cassette of this, then almost never played the vinyl. Our only turntable was in the living room—not the best place to sit and listen to something, in our house—and I was paranoid about degrading the quality of the disc by playing it. I hated vinyl and I’m still shocked that it made a comeback!
The CD is back in print from Varèse, by the way.
I discovered this album not at a record store, but in the pages of Starlog magazine—which was, at the time, like the greatest magazine ever (along with Cinefantastique).
They not only covered all my favorite genres movies and TV shows, but sold soundtrack albums:
Incidentally, the entire run of Starlog has been scanned at the Internet Archive.
See that listing for Star Trek II (top right of the left-hand page)? I always meant to order it, but it went out-of-print—then it became my holy grail! I’ll tell that story another time.
I discovered the John Williams Star Wars scores not through the films themselves, but the NPR radio shows. Remember those?
There was a 13-episode production of Star Wars (adding all kinds of crazy stuff to the story) in 1981:
Then a 10-episode one for The Empire Strikes Back in 1983:
Well after the fact, they also produced Return of the Jedi, without Mark Hamill, but I never heard it.
I remember they were scripted by sci-fi novelist Brian Daley—but totally overlooked they were directed by John Madden, who later directed Shakespeare in Love (and a number of other prestigious films).
George Lucas famously granted the rights for $1, and included the authentic music and sound FX library—so the show sounded absolutely amazing. Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels reprised their roles (as did Billy Dee Williams in Empire), but most of the cast was new: Brock Peters as Darth Vader, Ann Sachs as Princess Leia and Perry King as Han Solo were the biggest changes. Oh, and John Lithgow as Yoda, which I remember some people grousing about.
In the early 1980s, we didn’t have a VCR—we would occasionally rent a “top-loader” from Sight & Sound in Vineyard Haven, where all their brown videocassette cases had a unique odor that I later learned was...cigarette smoke.
My exposure to Star Wars was almost entirely through the storybooks, comics, toys and radio shows. I got acclimated to Perry King’s voice as Han Solo, and when I saw the movie on videotape, had to adjust to Harrison Ford (admittedly, an easy thing to do).
In 1984 there was a new Stephen Cannell action-adventure show Tuesday nights at 9PM on NBC, after The A-Team, called Riptide, starring Perry King. So I tuned in to see the “other” Han Solo:
However, being ten years old, it took me seven episodes to realize Perry King was not the guy I thought he was. He was actually the other guy, with the mustache. I assumed the co-lead was him, Joe Penny, because he looked like Han Solo:
An honest mistake!
Riptide had a cool Mike Post–Pete Carpenter theme song and, because this was 1984, a nerd character with a robot (ripped off from Revenge of the Nerds). Other than that, I remember it being stupid and programmatic. (I know, what a shock.)
Where was I...?
I loved the Star Wars radio shows. When I was little, I took violin, the “Suzuki method,” and my teacher was an elderly Swedish woman named Mrs. Holmberg. She was kind of a taskmaster, and a little high-strung, and I wasn’t a terrible student, but my attitude was like, “Hey lady, this is just a hobby”—so she’d get all flustered. Sorry, Mrs. Holmberg!
She lived in a house in Vineyard Haven—and had a nice adult son, named Joel, this is him—and on the drive there, we would listen to the Empire Strikes Back radio show on NPR.
And boy did I fall in love with the music! I remember being especially enchanted with Han and Leia’s love theme from Empire.
The original airdate for the Empire radio show was February–April 1983, which makes sense, as this was right before Return of the Jedi, and the entire world was dying to know: was Darth Vader Luke’s father?
I’m not sure people today have anything to compare this to...maybe the finale of Game of Thrones? There just aren’t pop-culture phenomena anymore where the entire world wants to know the end to a cliffhanger.
Know how I found out? One day I came home from school and my mom had left out the Return of the Jedi Storybook for me to read (she had picked it up at the Bunch of Grapes bookstore):
I was like...really? This is it?
And it was! Can you believe it? I learned the big reveals, about Darth Vader and who “the other” was, in completely anticlimactic fashion, by reading the Storybook.
I just looked it up, and the Storybook came out May 12, 1983, while the movie was released on May 25. So we found out all the answers two weeks before the film! I can’t imagine them doing this today.
Oh, for the movie—I was invited on a hot date! To my shock, and for reasons still completely unknown, an incredibly attractive fourth grade girl asked me—a shy, weird, reclusive third grader—to accompany her family to see Return of the Jedi...from the balcony, no less, at the Island movie theater in Oak Bluffs (her family had a connection to the owner or projectionist).
I remember being terrified at the prospect of a “date,” but I was, of course, super interested in seeing the movie. So I went!
It went fine, she and her family were super nice...I like to think I was a polite guest...and I liked the movie!
That was the last date I had, I’m pretty sure, until college!
She’s a lovely person and was, in high school, the prom queen (and deservedly so). All I remember is that I had no idea what was going on—so I poured all my attention into Return of the Jedi!
At the time, Star Wars fans grumbled about Empire not having an ending and being too dark. I think Harrison Ford famously had a line in Starlog to the effect of there being 11 dollars worth of entertainment in Empire, so if you paid $4 and didn’t get an ending, you’re still $7 ahead of the game. (Imagine—a $4 movie ticket!)
Return of the Jedi was just what an eight-year-old wanted to see. A happy ending, with everything nicely wrapped up. In time, like most people, I’ve come to find it an annoying disappointment, but whenever people knock it—and The Phantom Menace—I am reminded that George Lucas plainly said he made those movies for kids.
And I try to remember being a kid, myself, when what I badly needed was for everything to be all right for our beloved characters.
So that’s my film music “conversion story”—from Star Wars fandom (mostly via the radio show) to buying an LP from Starlog.
Some years after that, Williams conducted his own album for Sony, The Star Wars Trilogy, which I didn’t really like—for some reason, he took the themes at a very slow tempo.
Hey, want to know some other embarrassing facts from my childhood? I was terrified of frozen Han Solo! It totally creeped me out and I would run screaming from the room.
Seriously, the first time I watched Empire was on a bootleg videotape that my cousins (from Long Island) had acquired—this is before the official release—shot on a camcorder at a movie theater (so it was “letterboxed”). It took all my strength to sit through the “frozen Han” sequence, and I was so relieved when it was over. (I was maybe seven.)
I was also terrified of the “Hulk out” transformations on The Incredible Hulk...
And the final thing that I was phobic about, and had to overcome, was the facehugger from Alien—but c’mon, that’s still creepy, right?
And now they make a toy of it...
All right, folks, that’s enough nostalgia for today.
Per Tony Soprano, “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.”
I’m just kidding! This is fun!