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It's All in My Head



All right. I'm going to be trying to paint a series of word pictures here, but every time I try this, paint goes flying all over the place. Don't let any of this get on your clothes.

Now picture this: the inside of a dive, one with a chillingly simple name like Mary's Tavern, a place as dark as the cassock of a priest gone bad. Watch out for a couple of unfettered toucans buzzing the bar. The Valkyrie behind the bar — this could only be Mary — has an eye patch and a scar that runs from her rib cage to where her right eyebrow once stood.

Complete the picture with this: music from a hundred saxophones, the same notes over and over in a fast monotony, jazz-flavored. Enter a brace of trombones, throwing up a musical warning to slow down. Finally, a single trumpet begging you to stop, insisting on it.

The music does it. In reality, I'm about to go into this strange barroom. In fantasy, I concoct a catacomb-colored place of toucans and eye patches.

Then I add music.

Not just any music. In this case, Elmer Bernstein's theme from the 1955 movie The Man With the Golden Arm. The picture is complete as my inner ear catches my inner music and plays it back to me, the perfect audience.

Now for many scenes that force their way into my imagination, I write the musical composition myself. The melodies are lovely and totally intertwined with the visual and its mood, if I must say so myself, though they are nameless. But for big moments, nothing less than a full-blown soundtrack from the Golden Age of Movies will do.

Another example. I am about to walk through the swinging doors of a courtroom, slated to testify in the homicide trial of my former mother-in-law. Or, even grimmer, I'm being shown into the Human Resources office of somebody, where I'm about to be interviewed for this job that is both soft and lucrative. Only two applicants remain: me and the interviewer's girlfriend. In either case, I'm expecting tough questions.

And here comes the music. Maybe the clippety-clop rhythms and mournful harmonica airs that preceded Tex Ritter's flat vocals on Dimitri Tiomkin's 1952 score for High Noon. Or maybe the haunting call-and-response between woodwinds and tin whistle that gives way to the ever-louder chorus and its indiscernible grunting in Ennio Morricone's music for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or another of Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns.

Open that door. Here I come.

Now I can hear some snickering in the audience. Do I have any idea how much of this sounds like unalloyed megalomania? Creating music interludes in your head based on things composed by the likes of Sergei Prokofiev or Leonard Bernstein and performed by 87-piece orchestras? Are you full of yourself or what?

Naturally. I'm a columnist, ain't I? One of those folks endlessly fascinated by life's passing parade because it — passes me. Why, I should have an 87-piece orchestra always on hand should I decide to do something requiring musical accompaniment. Sadly, I usually have to make do with the recreations conjured between my left ear and my right one.

Say it's Jazz Fest, that acropolis where dispirited columnists go to be revived, and I am wandering, reeking of sinsemillia and Chardonnay. The Neville Brothers have deigned to favor the local masses with a set and are setting up with proper gods-do-not-answer-letters indifference. The masses are rabidly grateful. They chant, they weep, they try their best to dance.

Suddenly, I am above it all, maybe perched atop a light fixture, arms outstretched with messianic zeal and style. And the music I am hearing! Tender violins raising goose bumps on each hand, then gradually swelling to a giant lump in the throat as a golden sun silhouettes Tara to the breathtaking strains of Max Steiner's theme to Gone With the Wind.

Thus does my life become a movie score. Stepping along the dripping sidewalks of deepest French Quarter, trying to see in the windows of the secret cargoes of midnight cabs. My interior hum is of a sax oozing X-rated jazz from Bernard Herrmann's very last movie score, and the taxi driver who is cruising past has a certain Travis Bickle cast to his face.

I try never to run anymore unless a badger is hanging from my ring finger. But if I was going to stretch it out, I would prefer to be hearing Vangelis' "Chariots of Fire" or at least Bill Conti's corny theme from Rocky.

Take my word for it: I have imaginary scenarios for soundtracks like Zorba the Greek and that cool zither lick on The Third Man, but I'd rather keep it my secret.

And please, don't think that you must be awash in narcissism to play this game, though it definitely helps. Start off simply, using such staples as John Williams' Jaws score or Maurice Jarre's Doctor Zhivago. You'll be glad you did.

Myself, I see Heidi Klum on an old-style brass bed, and she is trying to cover herself with a throw pillow that's just a little too small, and her laugh is just a little too nervous.

Music up. The call-and-response from the start of John Barry's "Goldfinger." I step into the bedroom, make an OK sign with thumb and forefinger, and —

Hey, wait a second. Get your own damn theme song.

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