Music in the movies got more interesting when I was a approaching my teens. Of course I didn’t realize that until I saw Jeff Beck smash his guitar to bits in Blow-Up, which I wouldn’t have seen at all but Mrs. Silverman wanted her son Robert and me out of her house. So Mr. Silverman, the projectionist, brought us to work with him and sat us down in the darkened movie house where we watched in amazement a double feature of Blow-Up and Tom Jones. I have never been the same.
The music thing became what I liked most about seeing movies as a snotty adolescent. Blow-Up, was quickly followed by Simon and Garfunkel’s more rock than folk sounds in The Graduate, the Lovin’ Spoonful’s electric jugband music meets Tin Pan Alley in You’re A Big Boy Now, the diverse banquet of Easy Rider, Apple band Badfinger in The Magic Christian, and before my passion for rock documentaries took over completely, the ultimate expression of movie music as soundtrack for my teenage ennui, the nine Cat Stevens songs that permanently lift Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude into greatness.Why these songs have only been released together on vinyl and why that didn’t happen until 2007 are riddles buried under impenetrable layers of showbiz archaeology. Actually, there could be a very simple explanation; I just don’t have a clue.
What I do know, and what I’m sure real fans of either the movie or Cat Stevens know as well, is that one could, if they wanted to, assemble the tunes from Tea for the Tillerman, Mona Bone Jakon and Footsteps in the Dark/Greatest Hits Volume Two, to make their own soundtrack, but that’s crap. Doing it that way loses Ruth Gordon’s performance of “If You Want to Sing Out”---one of those wonderful “You Can all Join In,” “All Together Now,” “Why Don’t We Sing this song All Together?” “Happiness Runs,” kinds of numbers—as well as Bud Cort banjo-plucking the same tune in the final scene after Maude has died and Harold has crashed his retrofitted Jaguar/hearse, symbolically putting an end to his playing with death.
My imaginary complete soundtrack for Harold and Maude would include both the actors’ and Cat Stevens’ versions of the tune. Cameron Crowe’s Vinyl Films released 2500 copies of a Harold and Maude soundtrack record sometime in 2007, including 12 tracks and a bonus 7” (with a demo of “Don’t Be Shy,” one of the two songs written just for the film, and an alternate version of the other, “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out”). Good luck finding any of these. In the promo blurb for its release, Vinyl Films described the record as “the Holy Grail of unreleased soundtracks.” The blurb also included a statement from Yusuf (who was Yusuf Islam who was Cat Stevens who was born Steven Demetre Georgiou), who said, “What was interesting was, I’d done that project, I’d kind of put it behind me. But then, over the years it’s just taken on so much importance. It’s a milestone, and a part of people’s memories, which they love… and I love it too. Other things disappear or assume smaller proportions. Harold and Maude just gets better and means more and more. It’s the rarest thing. A film that gets better with age.”
Watching it recently, I’m inclined to agree. Bud Cort’s teenage Harold, who is friendless, rich and seeks his mother’s attention by faking garish suicides, meets Ruth Gordon’s Maude, a zestful, life loving woman of nearly 80, at one of the many funerals he attends for people he doesn’t know. She steals cars, save trees, invents things, plays piano and little by little brings Harold out of the mausoleum of his life and into the light. Their adventures together are whimsical, touching, their romance a thing to behold and all of it is deepened by Cat Stevens’ music, which ironically or synchronously was the result of a long convalescence from tuberculosis and a collapsed lung that left him nearly dead at 19.
When Stevens returned to health in 1970, he wasn’t the “Matthew and Son” Cat Stevens of the mid-sixties. Gone for the most part was the orchestration, the catchy pop tune sensibility. In its place was a more folk-oriented, acoustic sound and song lyrics that sometimes too intentionally reflected his abiding interests in metaphysics and spirituality. I read somewhere that Stevens wrote over 40 tunes during his almost two year recovery and these songs were parceled out over lots of records between 1970 and 1978. “Miles from Nowhere,” “On the Road to Find Out,” and “Where do the Children Play?” are a few that show up in Harold and Maude, to underscore or augment phases of Harold’s adventures with Maude and journey to self. It’s hard to imagine a more apt pairing of songwriting and filmic sensibilities than this.