Jackie Brown has a convoluted lineage. In 1997, Quentin Tarantino used the name as title for his film version of Elmore Leonard’s novel from 1992, Rum Punch, renaming Leonard’s Jackie Burke as a tribute to an illicit gun seller in George V. Higgins’s first novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, published in 1972. But Leonard was also paying tribute to Higgins by using the unisex name of Jackie for a female character in Rum Punch. It’s complicated and crosses a few time zones but to make sense of a George V. Higgins novel you have to pay close attention, otherwise you’re lost. As Higgins told me in 1986 when I interviewed him for The Face, a tyre iron – the sharp end filed and polished – might show up in an early chapter. “I’m not going to take a big roll of salami or something and bang you on the head with that,” he said, “but if you miss it you’re not gonna understand the story.”
In The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Jackie Brown is an abrasive foreground character, riding for a fall, albeit in a $4,000 Plymouth Roadrunner, whereas Coyle aspires to be as shadowy as his sobriquet, “the stocky man”, allows. Like most everyone else, Coyle is a racist, misogynist lowlife, though also pathetic, too drunk at the end to know much about the way things work out. But mostly he’s paying attention and has to be in a story dominated by fractious exchanges between Boston’s finks, cops and mobsters. The Higgins writing style was driven by dialogue. Instead of describing Jackie Brown’s car, Higgins lets us eavesdrop on a conversation about its fittings, a technique whose ancestry goes back to Ivy Compton-Burnett in the late Victorian era and Jane Austen before her.
What Leonard learned from Higgins you couldn’t get from Austen or Compton-Burnett. These rhythms of coarse speech, as he put it, liberated the author of Be Cool and Get Shorty, setting him on course to become a great novelist, and in the long term came to influence a television series like The Wire, not just because it’s tough guys barking “Fuck you” but because of the way sentences can wind their way through a lot of witty, ripe and ingeniously cryptolectic language. With his day job as a Boston state prosecutor and assistant US attorney, Higgins had a thorough understanding of criminals and their perfidies. Nobody in the book is cultured to any discernable degree, nor are they particularly smart. As Higgins told me in 1986: “They have absolutely not a glimmer of the possibility that Cromwell put to the elders of the Scottish church in 1615 I think it was: ‘I beseech you in the bowels of Christ consider that ye may be mistaken’. And of course they didn’t and he beat the shit outta them.” They operate in the unglamorous 1970s of Screw magazine, panhandling hippies, armed black radicals and toxic opinion. What interests them is the art of the deal, so there are no sexy villains listening to hip music or sentimental liaisons with the good guys coming through, as is often the case with Leonard. Jackie Brown listens to Johnny Cash tapes; a bank employee hears a Supremes record on his way to work. Otherwise it’s strictly business.
All of which presented Dave Grusin with a blank canvas when he came to score Peter Yates’s 1973 film of The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Yates was born in England, working his way through films like Summer Holiday before making Robbery in 1967. A scene in which a silver-grey Jaguar is pursued by police at high speed through London streets, wild by British standards, led to him directing Bullitt, in which Steve McQueen staked a claim to greatest cinematic car chase ever. Jackie Gleason was mooted as Eddie Coyle but the part went to Robert Mitchum. “I thought he did a wonderful job with it,” said Higgins, albeit with some typically colourful expressions of displeasure concerning Mitchum’s off-screen personality.
Paul Monash’s screenplay adaptation of the Coyle character could have been made for Mitchum. From his first appearance on screen, walk, face, clothes and speech all emanate the clammy odour of exhaustion and desperation; though there’s a general softening of the novel’s brutal tone he fills the centre of the story with a discretely virtuoso portrait of a doomed loser. Chilly, autumnal moods hang over the entire enterprise – the first chords of Grusin’s theme promising a mournful hundred or so minutes – but then the music kicks back against the downbeat atmosphere with a sequence of short, exquisitely crafted cues that seem to melt in and out of each other. What we’re seeing is a bleak world yet Grusin makes it sparkle.
Grusin’s path to film composing emerged in the 1960s out of string-sweetened piano jazz and the hard bop of Kaleidoscope. By the time he came to score The Friends of Eddie Coyle his soundtrack credits included The Graduate, Candy, a melodramatic Henry Hathaway western called Shoot Out, Abraham Polonsky’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here and various other genre comedies and forgettable dramas, in other words a successful Hollywood apprenticeship. Scattered about in this motley collection there are moments that anticipate his work on The Friends of Eddie Coyle, particularly in Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here from 1969, similarly based around exotic percussion, bass flutes, electric guitar and unusual keyboard sounds.
Film composing is a pragmatic art, dependent on soothing contradictory agendas. Grusin already proved himself capable of compromise composing but The Friends of Eddie Coyle was attuned, deliberately or not, to a funkier zeitgeist of What’s Going On, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi, Stevie Wonder, The Crusaders, The Meters, Donny Hathaway’s score for Come Back, Charleston Blue and Marvin Gaye’s score for Trouble Man, along with TV show themes like The Streets of San Francisco. There are few cues but as beautifully transparent miniatures they have the integrated feel of a complex suite of subtle transitions and textural mood shifts: tense, strutting, explosive, though always haunted by melancholy. Listen, for example, to the way the two bass flutes heighten suspense by playing slightly out of tune with each other on Partridge Robbery, then follow that by playing a similar phrase in tune but with one flautist using a sobbing vibrato, like a Japanese hotchiku. All that for a car leaving a garage.
The musicians – including Tom Scott, Bud Shank, Dennis Budimir, Chuck Rainey, Larry Bunker, Joe Porcaro and Emil Richards – were among the very best of the LA session scene of the time. Between them, their shared discographies (even in 1973) ranged across the fault lines of American music: Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Evans, Frank Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy, The Beach Boys’ SMiLE, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, The Byrds, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Don Ellis, Henry Mancini’s Hatari! and Lalo Schifrin’s scores for Bullitt, Mission: Impossible and Enter the Dragon.
Inevitably, given the plethora of studio work in the 1960s and 70s, their connections with each other were intricate. Percussionists Joe Porcaro and Emil Richards played together, for example, on an experimental electronic-psychedelic album – New Sound Element “Stones” – credited to Richards in 1967, while Richards, guitarist Dennis Budimir, woodwind player Gene Cipriano and violinist James Getzoff all played on Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy. From the range of global percussion heard on these recordings – sansa, Chinese gongs, marimba, waterphone, woodblocks, chimes and a host of other ticking and tocking devices, it seems to be Richards, the doyen of studio percussionists, who is at the heart of the music. Ultimately, the tight focus, harmonic sensibility and subtle arrangements come from the composer, Dave Grusin. The Friends of Eddie Coyle may not be his best known or most celebrated score but like both book and film, it’s a quiet classic.
Original essay by David Toop written for the Wewantsounds vinyl release of the Eddie Coyle soundtrack (2018)
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