In honor of David Lynch’s release on vinyl of his single “Good Day Today” (and our love of all things Lynch), Noise Narcs is posting on the music of, for, and about David Lynch this week. See our intro post (and claim of Lynch as a Philadelphian) here, and see the rest of the DLW posts here.
When Special Agent Dale Cooper enters the Waiting Room of the Black Lodge in the final episode of “Twin Peaks,” he is greeted by two mysterious figures. One we, and Cooper, have met before, in Cooper’s dreams. He is the Man from Another Place, the backward-talking, shuffling, dancing dwarf who acts as a sort of demented guide to the mythological realm of the Lodges. The other is a face new to Cooper, and probably to most viewers as well. It belongs to Little Jimmy Scott, “perhaps the most unjustly ignored American singer of the 20th century,” according to a New York Times Magazine profile from 2000.
If someone knows anything about Scott, it’s that he has an impossibly high voice due to a rare genetic condition, Kallmann’s syndrome, that prevented him from reaching puberty. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find a talent regarded as a singer’s singer, someone who has worked with luminaries like Lionel Hampton, Charlie Parker, and Ray Charles, to name a few.
In episode 2 of “Twin Peaks,” the Man from Another Place tells Cooper, “Where we’re from, the birds sing a pretty song and there’s always music in the air.” From what we can tell, that air, like most of the air in Twin Peaks — the town and the show — is filled with the sounds of Angelo Badalamenti. And sometimes, Jimmy Scott.
In the final episode of the series, Cooper, with the help of Sheriff Harry S. Truman and Pete “fish in the percolator” Martell, figures out how to enter the Black Lodge — via Glastonbury Grove, a circle of 12 sycamore trees in Ghostwood Forest. (Note the circle of 12 candles in Cooper’s dream.)
Cooper enters the grove, parts the red curtains and enters the Lodge. We immediately hear Jimmy Scott’s voice accompanied by synthesizer and bass. Cooper walks down the hall and into the next room. What follows is the most amazing two minutes of scripted television ever.
Composed by Badalamenti, with lyrics by Lynch, “Sycamore Trees” can be found on the soundtrack to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, even though in that film, the song is only heard in an instrumental version. (The song is not included on the “Twin Peaks” soundtrack because that album includes only music from the first season.) Here’s the album version:
“Sycamore Trees” is a beautiful, haunting song. Musically, it fits well within the sonic world of “Twin Peaks,” especially with the jazz quartet-plus-synth second verse. But Jimmy Scott elevates the song to another realm (fitting for a performer who gigs at the Black Lodge). This is something special, the song signifies, something you haven’t seen before. We’re in a new place now. We have seen diegetic, lip-synched vocal performance before, of course, courtesy of Julee Cruise in the Roadhouse on a number of occasions, including in the previous episode at the Miss Twin Peaks contest. But Julee Cruise is no Jimmy Scott.
You’ll notice that the album version is a slightly different mix from the one in the scene above. For one, the key is shifted slightly. Another thing is that the synth seems heavier in the TV version. You can really hear Badalamenti’s motif of the descending minor second (more on that below), whereas in the album version, it’s much more subtle.
There are lots of recurring musical motifs in “Twin Peaks,” but the one that sticks out in my mind is the falling minor second, used in the opening bars of “Laura Palmer’s Theme,” and thus all over the place in the show.
In “Sycamore Trees” that motif returns, which makes sense because Laura and her doppelgänger are denizens of the Black Lodge.
Another thing I’d like to point out about this song — it’s easier to hear in the album version — is the bass. There are two bass tracks playing simultaneously — on one track the bassist is using a bow, on the other he’s plucking the strings and making percussive, vibrato sounds with the instrument. Having two basses simultaneously making very different sounds on the same instrument seems to me more than just a musical choice on Badalamenti’s part. It’s yet another representation of the doppelgänger/reflection theme of the final episode, which begins (after a few scenes with minor characters) with the sober Cooper we’ve grown to love, and ends with his BOB-infected double looking into the bathroom mirror, squeezing toothpaste into the sink, laughing and maniacally repeating, “How’s Annie? How’s Annie?”
Hearing Jimmy Scott’s voice was the beginning of the end of, to paraphrase Audrey Horne’s note, “Our Special Agent.”