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Jack Nitzsche

A backroom genius whose songwriting and arrangements were not only pivotal to 60s pop but to the work of both NEIL YOUNG and The ROLLING STONES, prolific producer JACK NITZSCHE (born Bernard Alfred Nitzsche, April 22, 1937, Chicago, Illinois) also forged a career as a somewhat unsung yet pioneering and movie composer, working in cinema right up until the last few years of his life.
Alongside SONNY BONO and then PHIL SPECTOR, Jack initially cut a bespectacled, boffin-esque swathe through the nascent L.A. pop landscape, using his technical skill to arrange many of Spector’s classic productions, proving pivotal in the West Coast refocusing of the American music industry and forging a mutually beneficial partnership with British Invasion acts like the aforementioned ‘Stones. As one of the prime movers on the L.A. scene (he worked at Original Sound in 1960 where he scribed `Bongo Bongo Bongo’ for Preston Epps), NITZSCHE inevitably became involved in the burgeoning relationship between sound and vision, taking on the role of musical director for 1965’s “The T.A.M.I. Show”, the era’s first major line-up of diverse talent and the first celluloid concert document of its kind.
His own pop forays arrived in summer 1963 when the title track from his instrumental THE LONELY SURFER {*6} hit the Top 40 for Reprise Records. A one-hit-wonder if one dismisses his Hot 100 cover of the exclusive `Rumble’, NITZSCHE was drowned out by cooler dudes such as The BEACH BOYS, JAN & DEAN, The SURFARIS. An unremarkable attempt to dilute the mighty Fab Four by way of 1964’s DANCE TO THE HITS OF THE BEATLES {*3}, was indeed easy-listening for muzak hall mall shoppers and therefore one to avoid.
While he’d previously arranged the theme song for Rat Pack western, “Four For Texas” (1963), his first real involvement with the big screen was as musical director and composer for Bert I. Gordon’s 1965 B-movie, “Village Of The Giants”; pretty much the first film of its kind to feature an orchestrated score. With no soundtrack forthcoming, however, his next port of call was in the graceful, classically-offbeat, CHOPIN ’66 {*6} – dedicated to some recognisable works of Frederyk Chopin, and credited to The Modern Sounds of JACK NITZSCHE and his orchestra.
Jack’s celluloid career could be said to have only really begun with Nicolas Roeg’s cult flick, Performance (1970). It was some beginning. NITZSCHE’s arrangements, by turns eerie, ragged and magnificent, remain among the man’s most striking accomplishments and this coming only a matter of months after his ingenious choral arrangements on the `Stones’ `You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ platter.
The era also found him working with NEIL YOUNG, initially during the BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD years, but then more closely as YOUNG matured into a formidable singer-songwriter. Having also recorded TIM BUCKLEY, MARIANNE FAITHFULL, The MONKEES, among many others, NITZSCHE had a hand in almost all YOUNG’s solo albums from the late 60s/early 70s, including the soundtrack to experimental film, Journey Through The Past (1973), in which he also appeared as himself; he was also part of CRAZY HORSE and played on their eponymous 1971 album.
It was nevertheless a testing time for the man, what with poor sales of his Bernard Herrmann-influenced, neo-classical solo album, ST. GILES CRIPPLEGATE (1972) {*6}, and general disillusionment with the fickle nature of the L.A. scene he’d previously been such an integral part. That same year, he recommenced his film career with a score to his friend Robert Downey (Sr.)’s Greaser’s Palace (in which he made a cameo as a mariachi musician), following it up with a contribution to the chilling, highly-regarded (but, like many of his soundtracks, frustratingly difficult and expensive to track down) score to William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist”. Mysteriously, his bosses would shelve the “Jack Nitzsche” eponymous LP (scheduled for spring 1974), although it would find light of day when the wonderful Rhino Handmade enterprise issued the whole set under the umbrella of THREE PIECE SUITE: THE REPRISE RECORDINGS 1971-1974 {*8} in 2001.
Still, a subsequent Oscar nomination for his mellow, rootsy score to Milos Forman’s ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975) {*8} was an irrefutable vindication of his talents, with the Academy Award nomination soundtrack itself – on the main theme at least – revisiting the stringed instrumental strangeness of “Performance”. Recorded at a time when JACK NITZSCHE had voluntarily extricated himself from the L.A. pop establishment, this was one of the maverick producer/songwriter/composer’s more wayward works, but all the more compelling for it. NITZSCHE effortlessly captured the tension and borderline insanity of a mental asylum, as well as the disruption caused by McMurphy’s (Jack Nicholson’s) unannounced entrance.
A composing credit on the score to Jeremy Kagan’s HEROES (1977) {*5} was followed by another memorable score for Paul Schrader’s working class drama, BLUE COLLAR (1978) {*6}. Hooking up with old sparring partner RY COODER, NITZSCHE once again proved why he was one of the best “pop/rock” composers in the business, penning the brilliant `Hard Workin’ Man’ as the title theme featuring CAPTAIN BEEFHEART; also one of the “various artists” on show.
COODER was quoted on the circumstances of its recording, recalling the unenviable task of luring the reclusive Don Van Vliet – by this point in semi-retirement – into the studio and the difficulty in actually getting him to sing. Happily he succeeded, eliciting one of the man’s last great performances. Over a re-booted MUDDY WATERS-esque riff and a pulverising, jack-hammer beat, Van Vliet “roars out the lyrics like a wounded bear” according to the CD re-issue sleevenotes author Alan Robinson. The remainder of the score – instrumental save for the aforementioned title track – was credited solely to NITZSCHE, who’d assembled a cracking band spearheaded by COODER and Jesse Ed Davis, and anchored by veterans like drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Tim Drummond. Veering from brawny blues to twilight piano-tinkling to sweaty, Stax-inspired R&B, it boasted some of COODER’s finest slide-playing in years and effectively kicked off the man’s own prolific soundtrack career.
Unreleased scores to Schrader’s “Hardcore” and Milton Katselas’ Vietnam vet drama, “When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?”, followed in 1979, a time when NITZSCHE became loosely involved in the new wave scene by producing for the likes of GRAHAM PARKER, WILLY DeVILLE et al, influences which extended to his score for Friedkin’s controversial gay S&M drama, “Cruising” (1980).
The man certainly couldn’t be accused of scoring Hollywood filler, and his clear preference for weightier material continued with music for John Byrum’s Neal/Carolyn Cassady biopic, HEART BEAT (1980) {*5} and – perfect for an L.A. renegade like NITZSCHE – a mariachi-orientated score to Ivan Passer’s examination of Santa Barbara’s dark side, “Cutter’s Way” (1981). While, regrettably, neither of these spawned soundtracks, NITZSCHE (together with writing partners, BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE – whom he’d married in March ’82 – and Will Jennings) finally received an Oscar (Best Original Song) for his stratospheric ballad, `Up Where We Belong’, as featured in Taylor Hackford’s “An Officer And A Gentleman” (1982) and taken to the top of the US charts (UK Top 10) by JOE COCKER and JENNIFER WARNES.
Now firmly established in his trade, the former pop prodigy proceeded to turn out scores at a fair old rate, sometimes racking up to five a year; 1983’s “Without A Trace” and “Breathless” included. Yet NITZSCHE was always vocal in his passion for his craft, rarely sacrificing quality for quantity and decrying composers who relied on ghost writers. If they didn’t quite equal his earlier material in terms of arcane instrumental arranging, the atmospheric electronics of his soundtrack to John Carpenter’s STARMAN (1984) {*6} and particularly the lavish orchestrations of the Somerset Maugham adaptation, THE RAZOR’S EDGE (1985) {*6}, certainly suggested NITZSCHE was more than capable of giving VANGELIS, JOHN BARRY, or indeed any of the mainstream Hollywood composers, a run for their money.
An unreleased score for Armyan Bernstein’s “Windy City” followed later the same year, while a score (co-composed with SAINTE-MARIE) for docudrama, “Stripper” (1985) punctuated another couple of high profile commissions: Michael Douglas vehicle, “Jewel Of The Nile” (1985), and – in tandem with Michael Hoenig – notorious Mickey Rourke/Kim Basinger drama, “9 & 1/2 Weeks” (1986) and Joe Roth’s “Streets Of Gold” (1986). While neither these nor the soundtrack to Rob Reiner’s Steven King adaptation, “Stand By Me” (1986), featured any of NITZSCHE’s score on their respective vinyl soundtracks, the veteran composer subsequently succeeded with the hard-to-find THE SEVENTH SIGN (1988) {*5}, but not the Edinburgh-born director John Mackenzie’s “The Last Of The Finest” (1990).
It was pork-pie hats-off to NITZSCHE in getting veteran blues/jazz giants JOHN LEE HOOKER, MILES DAVIS and TAJ MAHAL (alongside slide guitarist ROY ROGERS) into the same studio to perform the music he’d written for Dennis Hopper’s THE HOT SPOT (1990) {*8} movie. Completing an ersatz supergroup to perform the music of NITZSCHE were a rhythm section of session godfather Tim Drummond, legendary New Orleans drummer Earl Palmer and Bradford Ellis; the latter performer would turn up on Jack’s low-key Silva Screen soundtrack, REVENGE (1990) {*6}.
While again, none of NITZSCHE’s scores for Richard Benjamin’s high-grossing comedy “Mermaids” (1990) made it on to the soundtrack, Sean Penn’s directorial debut, “The Indian Runner” (1991) – featuring a script based on brooding BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN track, `Highway Patrolman’ – provided ripe material for one of NITZSCHE’s final scores, itself ironically bundled together with a clutch of 60s West Coast classics on the soundtrack. Similarly gritty subject matter informed the last couple of movies NITZSCHE worked on, namely Tony Richardson’s “Blue Sky” (1994) and Sean Penn’s drunk-driving study, “The Crossing Guard” (1995) – with SPRINGSTEEN; neither of which saw a soundtrack release. Sadly, a fatal heart attack on August 25, 2000, finally robbed the film and popular music world of one of their most enduring and adaptable talents. R.I.P. JACK NITZSCHE.
© MC Strong/LCS2 outtakes/BG // rev-up MCS Mar2016

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