SoundTreks | Eraserhead

David Lynch’s 1977 debut feature Eraserhead remains just as upsetting, scary, striking, and important today as it ever has. When I first saw the film in the mid 1990s (when I was about 15 or 16), it blew my mind. This was the first time I saw, or at least paid really close attention to, a film that dispensed with story, with conventional plot beats and with all the usual tropes of quotidian Hollywood melodrama, and sold me on the notion of pure cinema. This, I realized, is what film can really accomplish. It can give you unadulterated images straight out of your nightmares, and accurately represent the interior of a human subconsciousness.

To heck with dull “story.” Give me a nightmare opera. Eraserhead is one of the movies that made me love movies. 

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When I use the word “unique,” I do not exaggerate. There is nothing like Eraserhead. Maybe some of Lynch’s earlier shorts (The Grandmother in particular) might bear a similar aesthetic approach, but this is the only feature film of its kind. Spare, gaunt, dark, dreamlike. Little dialogue. And, oddly enough, it came with a soundtrack album, released by IRS Records in 1982. Eraserhead was running on the midnight movie circuit for years, so by the early ’80s, enthusiasm was high enough to warrant the release of such a thing. This record is prime material for SoundTreks

The Eraserhead soundtrack record runs 37 minutes and contains only two tracks, mostly occupied by long abstract soundscapes as constructed by Lynch and his sound designer Alan R. Splet. Eraserhead is not a film punctuated by music, but by a constant, mechanical, almost womb-like drone of whirring machines and whipping winds. The only real music in the film is ancient, low-fidelity recordings of old blues records, often heard bleeding through a thin apartment wall. 

Lynch, rather than highlight the songs, left them in auditory context, playing bits and pieces of the songs as they appear in the film, hidden underneath groaning and whirring. Let’s take a listen to this experimental soundtrack record, and see what we can surmise.


Track 1. 

Contains excerpts from “Diga’s Stomp,” “Lenox Avenue Blues,” and “Messin’ Around with the Blues” by Fats Waller, as well as “Stompin’ the Bug.”

The soundtrack starts with the opening noises of the movie, and the above excerpts don’t appear for a little bit. When we do finally hear them, they drift in and out unexpectedly. 

Thomas “Fats” Waller (1904 – 1943) is one of the clown princes of the keyboard. He always played with a sweet smirk, often wore a jaunty, comically small cap, and sang songs about women with big feet. He was a living carnival. That personality is a pretty great juxtaposition to play against the moaning and groaning noises. “Digah’s Stomp” is an organ solo, a rarity for Waller. It appears in the film as the angelic and cancerous Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near) dances for Henry Spencer (Jack Nance). She steps on worm creatures that fall from the ceiling. It’s a jaunty and musical moment in a movie that has, up to this point, been deliberately atonal. 

The other tracks are either played on Henry’s record player, or are songs he overhears from other rooms in his dingy, Kafkaeque apartment. 

These tracks are timeless. They come from a definite era of blues music, but feel oddly out of time. These particular selections squeal of faraway happiness, or perhaps of immediate enjoyment, but are so old and scratchy that they are instantly ancient. These are songs with cobwebs on them. They evoke music halls that were torn down a long time ago, or a carousel you remember riding on a hazy, overcast day. 

The following song, “Stompin’ the Bug,” is the one that plays over the credits to Eraserhead, after the terrifying climax where hideous violence was committed, giant monsters appeared, and Henry may (or may not) have killed himself. The song, out of context, is merely musty. But in context, it has now been forever altered. It’s the exact same effect experienced with “Midnight, the Stars, and You” from the end of The Shining. Halcyon nostalgia for a bygone era, now repurposed as the punctuation of confusion and terror. How wonderful that a fun piece of music can be reused to evoke the opposite of what it intended. This is the most skilled use of music. 


Track 2. 

Contains “In Heaven (The Lady in the Radiator Song)” written by Peter Ivers and David Lynch, and performed by Laurel Near

Yes, this song was once covered by The Pixies. It has been covered and sampled numerous times over the years, including Bauhaus, Modest Mouse, Faith No More, and Devo (yes, Devo; Booji Boy sang it on one of their live albums). Just to be holistic, here are the complete lyrics to the original song from Eraserhead

In Heaven, Everything is fine,

In Heaven, Everything is fine,

In Heaven, Everything is fine,

You got your good things, And I got mine.

In Heaven, Everything is fine,

In Heaven, Everything is fine,

In Heaven, Everything is fine,

You got your good things, And you got mine.

In Heaven, Everything is fine.

“In Heaven” appears about halfway through track 2, which runs 18 minutes and 18 seconds. It appears out of nowhere, and is kind of jarring. I’m sure this was deliberate. 

This song is a gentle fable and, the first time I heard it, I assumed it was a temptation into suicide. This may be an appropriate interpretation if you believe Eraserhead to be a film all about suicide and death, but it’s a film that notoriously defies characterization, so your interpretation is as valid as mine. No interpretation may be better. 

I can say that “In Heaven” is childlike and almost innocent. I would say that it’s a fine lullaby to show to your kids, but its simplicity undercuts its innocence. What exactly does that mean, “You got your good things and I got mine?” When you see the song in context of the film, you do see that The Lady in the Radiator, while dressed like a sweetie-pie Depression-era kewpie, has large, icky, cancerous growths on her face. Her sweet song, and her joy, is always going to be undercut by something grotesque. Musically, it’s the dull innocence. Visually, it’s her diseased face. 


Which is Better? The Soundtrack or the Film?

DO NOT PURGE ERASERHEAD, Jack Nance, 1977

David Lynch

The film is better. This is as visual a film as a silent movie, and you need to experience the dream-within-a-dream logic visually in order to appreciate the film as a whole. 

Some soundtrack records attempt to recapture the mood of their movie by assembling a (presumably) carefully selected roster of preexisting pop songs, and a lot can be done with the subtle art; you really can construct a tone and a story using nothing but skilled curating. Eraserhead is one of only a few movies that seems to pluck the audio from the film, sans dialogue, almost wholesale from the movie and elect to call that a soundtrack record. 

I think if you had no idea what Eraserhead was, and you were to listen to the record, you would be bored and baffled. You would constantly ask if these grinding machines and half-heard blues tunes were it, or if something was going to happen. It’s a maddening experience. A scary one. A distressing one. In that regard, it works well.  

 


Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.