Dead Man: Earth, Wind, and Fire

Dead Man: Earth, Wind, and Fire

On Film / Essays — May 18, 2018

Whatever else can be said about the significance of Neil Young’s strange and sensitive music for Dead Man, or about its place in the history of film soundtracks, recedes, I think, before the brilliance of Jim Jarmusch’s initial intuition to hire him, and not someone else, to play solo electric guitar over a quiet, slow-moving film about physical pain, flight, indigenous-American forbearance, and eternity that takes place almost entirely outdoors. Jarmusch got the right person to do the right thing.

Young is an environmentalist, meaning he supports causes that protect natural resources. He stands publicly against GMOs, climate-change deniers, deforestation, and so forth. But his music, too, and for just as long, has been environmental. Not only in its lyrical messages and subject matter—of course it’s environmental that way (in 2016, he made a record called Earth!). I am suggesting that he is an environmentalist in sound.

What could that mean?

Young chose to record the music for Dead Man not in a conventional studio but in a San Francisco warehouse with a remote-recording truck parked outside. He played while watching an early cut of the film in several sessions, each time letting it run from beginning to end without stopping. Just as he does in his live solo performances, he deliberated among several different instruments he could pick up at will, though what you hear most in the film is the Gibson Les Paul electric guitar that Young calls Old Black. Crucially, when choosing how to situate himself in relation to the film, he did not replicate the orientation of a moviegoer—facing forward, toward the image, on a single plane. Instead, he created an environment.

Encircled by about twenty screens of different sizes, Young soundtracked the film in direct, immersed, 360-degree response. He had seen Dead Man already, and Jarmusch had given him a list of moments where he wanted music. But because Young insisted on reacting to the film in real time, the quality of attention that he brought to the task was flexible enough to complement the rhythm the film already had, and strong enough, perhaps, to shape and define our own attention to it.

What I am saying is this: because Young tracked this film in a single, semi-improvisatory act, you are seeing it through his eyes, and more importantly, hearing it through his ears.

The Dead Man music is a pretty small thing in Neil Young’s corpus. It was made to dress up someone else’s work of art, and though Young is a singer-songwriter, it has neither singing nor songs: it boils down to a couple of surf/folk/Morricone-western melodic themes and atmospheric accompaniment to the film’s action. (Young is mystical but not fancy, and sometimes he is literal-minded. During the sequence on a train, early in the film, he makes a locomotive rustling on his strings; when a character sings a little song, Young backs him with chords in the appropriate key.) But this score is as indicative of his basic musicality as anything he has ever done. And Old Black, played without a pick, is the essence of it.


“The sound of it all, the tone of it, seems to be bigger than him and bigger than me. It’s almost physical; more precisely, it’s environmental.”

Nature can kill you—either indifferently, as an energy apart from you and fundamentally opposed to you, or by your own consent, as an energy with which you are aligned, depending on how your culture thinks about these things. William Blake—the hapless accountant from Cleveland at the center of Dead Man, played by Johnny Depp—knows it. His first necessity, after reaching the town of Machine and being denied a job, is shelter (the paradoxical consequence of taking that shelter is that he becomes a fugitive in the wilderness, once again in need of shelter). Nobody, Blake’s de facto spiritual guide, played by Gary Farmer, knows it too. Why does he shoot the weird encampment of fur traders if not to give Blake an animal-skin coat to shelter him from the cold? Why would he tell Blake, “Don’t let the sun burn a hole in your ass,” if not to shelter him from the heat?

But we can also understand nature and the relationship of human bodies to it as engendering something that will not kill you—even when taken in great amounts—and that can in fact do much good for you. And that thing is music. Perhaps not all music descends from nature. But most of it does. I am thinking about the music made by animals, plants, earth, and the human body: a steady pulse (footsteps or dripping moisture), swing (the human sense of balance and proprioception), polyrhythm and heteronomy (birds, frogs, crickets), thin, reedy tones (wind, ice, leaves), density (crosswinds or waves), volume dynamics (animals running toward you and away from you). I am also thinking about two of Neil Young’s amplified electric-guitar specialties—distortion (thunder, landslides, the purring or snoring or lung-crackling of mammals) and echo (echo).

Young likes to record during full moons, and that is the extent of what I know about how much he has thought about music as an outgrowth of nature. That’s all right—I don’t have to know. When I listen to him playing Old Black, unaccompanied or in an extended solo, I find that I listen deeply. While listening, I tend to think not so much about the song’s musical structure (there is seldom very much of it) or Young’s musical genealogy but instead about how much his guitar sounds suggest weather events or organic processes: storms, the changing of the sky, the thickening of the air, combustion, rot, mud. And because there is a fair amount of space to drift within that music, I think about myself, too.

The sound of it all, the tone of it, seems to be bigger than him and bigger than me. It’s almost physical; more precisely, it’s environmental. Young lets single notes ring for a while. He lets the note get around you and lets you get around it. Sometimes the note or the sound doesn’t necessarily have a point, or if it does, the point may be you; you adapt in relation to it. There is a basic sense of integrity and purpose built into Young’s playing. And aside from that, I am certain that a few of the times I’ve heard him—particularly playing solo or playing outdoors—have been some of the best listening experiences I’ve ever had. Jarmusch has described the character of William Blake as “a blank piece of paper that everyone wants to write all over.” That’s pretty much how I feel after one of those shows: marked up. Also, restored.

The environmental psychologists Rachel Kaplan and Stephen Kaplan, in their 1989 book The Experience of Nature, use the term “soft fascination” to denote a specific kind of involuntary attention—in other words, full and effortless engagement that leaves enough room for reflection and becomes, in some way, restorative. (“Hard fascination” would be a different kind of involuntary attention: alert, self-protective, or predatory, a response to danger or a test.) The Kaplans suggest that soft fascination can be experienced most purely in nature. “Clouds, sunsets . . . the motion of the leaves in a breeze—such patterns readily hold the attention but often in an undramatic fashion.” They continue: “The play of light on foliage, the patterns created by long shadows, the different moods of a nature oasis with changes in weather and season . . .”

I would add a few more items to that list: infant behavior, a form of which Blake exhibits in his weakness and incomprehension; fire, which the characters in Dead Man look at a lot; and water, which they look at only a bit less. The gunfights in Dead Man are action sequences, of a sort. They’re somewhat hard. But much of the rest of the movie seems inspired by, and conducive to, soft fascination. The sections of the movie with only Blake and Nobody, set among trees, water, and fire, are the soul of Dead Man, and there is where you can sense that Young was paying the keenest attention.

Right at the midpoint of the movie, Blake—wounded, starving, probably dying of infection—and Nobody are sitting beside a fire. Nobody has just eaten peyote and prepares to sing. Young makes a first tiny, tentative guitar sound. Nobody follows with a soft phrase, then takes a breath; Young fills in that breath. Nobody sings another phrase, and Young fills in the next breath. This is attention on a microscopic scale.

The film fades out and fades back in. Now Nobody is kneeling, close to Blake, peering over him, curiously, knowingly. Blake is sleeping. Young’s guitar murmurs. Blake scrunches his eyes and opens them, naive and blank—an infant. With the opening of the lids, Young rings a chord loudly: bum-bronggg. From Nobody’s point of view, Blake’s face changes to a death’s-head; Young changes his chord. “What?” Blake says. “What are you looking at?” Before the words leave his mouth, the death’s-head turns back into Blake, and Young hits another chord, bronggg, stepping on Depp’s line.

Nobody applies war paint to Blake’s face, and Young’s chord becomes intense again. Nobody pulls his hand away from Blake’s cheeks, and the chord recedes. Nobody puts on Blake’s spectacles. Blake doesn’t understand why, but is too weak to take them back. Nobody mounts his horse and rides away. The fire crackles on, and Young makes his chord glow and crackle in response.

So little happens in this six-minute scene. But Neil Young’s music, environmental and incidental, quiet or indifferent or imposing, seems to register the kind of attention the characters are giving to each other and to everything around them.