The Big Lebowski came out 20 years ago this month.
At that time in my life, I was going to a lot of movies. I was ABD (done with my graduate courses, exams, and left with “all but dissertation” before the PhD) and I lived in Oakland, mere blocks away from two really good theaters (the Piedmont and the Grand Lake). I’d often go for a walk, pass by one of the two, and buy a ticket to see just about anything that happened to be playing.
I don’t remember if I planned to see The Big Lebowski or if it was one of those spontaneous things. I do remember that I pretty much thought it was a work of genius. Cheech and Chong’s Up In Smoke (1978) invented the stoner genre–circular narrative which ends up being about nothing, filled with odd characters, some of who get high and/or are trying to get high. The Big Lebowski gave us the big budget, high production, epically operatic version of the form.
The Coen Brothers use of music was a standout feature of the movie for me, so much so that I bought the soundtrack that same day. The CD remains one of my favorite soundtracks of all time. It introduced me to a whole bunch of songs that I had never heard before and ended up loving to this day. There were some amazingly great records (“The Man in Me” and “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”); two great covers (one by the Gypsy Kings and one by Townes Van Zandt); and a classic tune sung by the great Nina Simone. It even had a German opera duet (“Gluck Das Mir Verblieb”), which was undoubtedly the first of that genre I ever heard.
So here’s my five favorite tracks from The Big Lebowski Original Motion Picture Soundtrack:
5. “Hotel California” by the Gypsy Kings
I knew no more than one song by the Gypsy Kings. I knew more than one by the Eagles. I never knew the two became one until this.
4. “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) by The First Edition
As a child of the 80s, Kenny Rogers was a known entity for me. Even though we didn’t listen to country, he had a good deal of crossover “pop” appeal to make him more than familiar. What I didn’t know until 20 years ago was just how serpentine his path to being country legend was, including as it did a stop in psychedelic rock. (Nor did I know that the band had character actor Mickey Jones on drums!)
3. “Dead Flowers” by Townes Van Zandt
I had heard of Townes Van Zandt by 1998, mostly in relation to Steve Earle, whom I admired since I heard his album Copperhead Road. As far as I can remember, this was the first time I heard Townes sing. I bought his Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas shortly after.
2. “The Man in Me” by Bob Dylan
I’ve never been a huge Dylan fan. What I did know (and respect, and often like) went up to Blonde on Blonde. Between Lebowski and The Hurricane (1999) I started to really prefer some of his 70s work over the rest.
1. “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good)” by Nina Simone
I love Nina Simone. In the pre-all-music-on-the-internet days, her long and eclectic career meant a constant stream of amazing discoveries for me. They often came to my attention in the most random of ways–an essay on the civil rights movement, a documentary on the assassination of Dr. King, or (in this case) a stoner movie.