The Next Hot Music Scene Can Be Found at Twin Peaks' Bang Bang Bar

by Robert Loss

12 September 2017

One of the most heartening and compelling aspects of David Lynch's approach to this new season of Twin Peaks is his widened musical palette.
 
cover art

Twin Peaks

Cast: Kyle MacLachlan, Sheryl Lee, Michael Horse

(Showtime)

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Various

Twin Peaks (Music from the Limited Event Series)

(Rhino)
US: 8 Sep 2017

“My dream
Is to go
To that place
(You know the one)
Where it all began
On a starry night
On a starry night
When it all began”
—Rebekah Del Rio, “No Stars”

At the end of the second episode of the new season of Twin Peaks, we returned to the Roadhouse, a.k.a. The Bang Bang Bar. I was expecting and hoping to see Julee Cruise, the dream-pop singer whose angelic voice and appearance defined the sound of the original series. But the tempo was too fast—well, too mid-tempo—to be Cruise. A synth pattern built and then dropped into a brooding dance beat, a lot of empty air, and a woman’s hazy voice: “Shadow… take me down… with you. For the last time.” Onstage, the singer seemed to have stepped out of a ‘60s fashion magazine. She could have been Julee Cruise’s daughter, following in her mother’s footsteps. Her head cocked to one side, the singer observed the audience like a curious alien.

I didn’t recognize the Chromatics when I saw them, or “Shadow” when I heard it, and maybe that’s why it was so perfect: Cruise’s signature dream pop style updated for 2017. Given all that had transpired in the two episodes, I nearly fell off the couch when the song came up. It was perfect. I had no idea what was going on in terms of the plot, but I wanted to weep for these people and for our broken, broken world.

I started wondering who these musicians were inside of the show. Diegetically, as the profs like to say. Does this version of the Chromatics live in Twin Peaks? Did the band members graduate from the local high school or drop out? Do they have day jobs? Or do they scrape by on Roadhouse gigs and out-of-town shows in Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, and Billings? And that brought up other questions, mainly: What’s the scene like in an isolated town deep in the deep woods of the Northwest, a little town where the local legends are about a homecoming queen killed by her father who may or may not have been possessed by a demon?

Well, once you get started down that road, it’s hard to turn back. Is the trip worth it?

As the new season of Twin Peaks meandered and occasionally leapt forward, nearly every episode ended with a musical performance at the Roadhouse. The bands lip-synched to their recordings. At times the move felt gratuitous, or some gesture at a theme we were supposed to pick up, but when these performances worked, they expanded our sense of what had happened in the town of Twin Peaks—what had happened to its people, and what had happened to the sense of the town as a hidden-away secret at odds with the rest of the United States.

In the first two seasons of Twin Peaks, the music Julee Cruise performed with her group—she was known officially as the “Roadhouse Singer”—haunted the town nearly as much as Angelo Badalamenti’s score. In a town where truth is hard to come by, and in a story of fractured subplots, Cruise is a one-woman Greek chorus, and even, sometimes, an oracle. It mattered that she was part of the town, appearing so often at the Roadhouse that you might imagine she had a standing gig there. Like most other residents of Twin Peaks, it seemed like there was nowhere else she could be.

No one in town escaped Cruise’s music because it was their music, too—including, whether she knew it or not, Laura Palmer. In the prequel film Fire Walk With Me, Palmer lives her final days shattered by the discovery that her father Leland is the demon named Bov who has been raping her for years. After this epiphany, and after she’s confronted by the Log Lady—another oracle—Palmer staggers into The Bang-Bang Bar. Cruise is on stage singing “Questions in a World of Blue”, the music by Angelo Badalamenti and the lyrics, like all of those sung by Cruise in the Twin Peaks world, written by David Lynch. Weary and disoriented, Palmer watches Cruise for a moment and begins to make her way through the club toward a table where she’ll wait for two johns.

Palmer never takes her eyes off the singer, and Cruise seems to be singing to her alone. The fatalism in the song, its ethereal combination of noir, soap opera kitsch, and torch ballad, and the broken innocence in Cruise’s voice all materialize into a surface of glass, a mirror in which Palmer sees herself: her tortured heart, everything she’s lost, and everything she’s about to lose.

(Sheryl Lee was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for her performance as Laura Palmer in Fire Walk With Me. She should have been at least nominated for an Oscar. Palmer is a postmodern Hamlet. The script calls for her motives and emotions to twist from one extreme to another and another and another—normally a recipe for disaster—but somehow Lee makes every turn natural, every impossible height and depth utterly real. She’s just as magnetic and grounded in the new Twin Peaks. Even if a fourth season were to consist entirely of her and Kyle McLachlan driving around America reading tweets to one another, I would be down for it.)

Moments like the encounter between Cruise and Palmer weren’t common in the show’s first two seasons or in the film, but there was always an intense, even incestuous, connection between Badalamenti’s romantic, dread-saturated score, its pop expression by Cruise, and the characters. I would have believed that the Roadhouse Singer released her own cassette in D.I.Y. fashion, that it was passed around the high school, that Cruise was an underground celebrity. This intimacy is partly what made the town of Twin Peaks seem so isolated, so us-against-the-world. When characters talked about going to Seattle or Philadelphia, they might as well have been talking about going to the moon. They also seemed like they were betraying the entire town.

The Chromatics’ appearance at the end of “Part Two” was so affecting because it was tonally right while at the same time showing us how much had changed. The context of the scene made a difference, too. For instance: Who are all these young hip people? Millennial professionals! They look like the crowd you’ll see in the art district on a Friday night, people who’ve come in from the suburbs to get their culture on. (Is there a Starbucks in Twin Peaks now? An Urban Outfitters?) And then we watch Shelly, the waitress at Norma’s diner, doing shots with her girlfriends. James Hurley, the former teenage heartthrob, walks in like he’s just gotten off work. In the good old days he was having a secret love affair with Laura Palmer before she died, then fell in love with Laura’s best friend Donna—and then with Laura’s doppelganger cousin Maddy. Twenty-five years later, James carries the same sadness he always carried, but age has made it more believable. Like the rest of us, he’s learned to hide it with an affable smile.

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There was a sense in the original series that Twin Peaks, as a town, could collapse in on itself and disappear. But it hasn’t. It seems to be thriving. Young people have moved in. The Roadhouse was never desolate; everyone went there, and usually nobody asked questions about what happened there. It was part of the town’s public dreamscape. Now it’s just public. Openly, freely public. A pall of shame no longer hangs in the air.

If the scene is a signal that Twin Peaks has become modernized—Norma’s diner, we find out much later, has become a kitschy franchise—then the Chromatics’ “Shadow” signals that the dark heart of the town has not stopped beating. Its primal, dangerous, horrifying qualities are still lurking, though they seem, now, even more at odds with what the town’s residents believe about themselves. Twin Peaks has caught up to the rationality, technology, and capitalism that are common across the rest of the United States. The town is, perhaps, no longer a dream.

But the stage still is, and the musicians who perform there know it. That’s why they seem local. They hold together the ties between the past and the present, nostalgia and progress, desire and reality, and spirit and technology. They seem like an entire subculture of oracles. Watch Chromatics singer Ruth Radelet sing “Shadow” again. Watch Rebekah Del Rio sing “No Stars” as she gazes out at the Roadhouse’s patrons with subdued compassion for what they do not yet know.

Moby and Rebekah Del Rio in Twin Peaks (2017, IMDB)

Moby and Rebekah Del Rio in Twin Peaks (2017, IMDB)

One of the most heartening and compelling aspects of Lynch’s approach to this new season is his widened musical palette, particularly the inclusion of synth-pop bands like the Chromatics and Au Revoir Simone, who build on the ‘50s and ‘60s nostalgia with contemporary, cold electronic sounds and rhythms. The latter’s “Lark” hits a point—its chorus—that feels anxiously withdrawn and sweeping at the same time. From there, the palette gets darker, harder.

“Part 5” featured the crunchy nightclub avant-jazz of Trouble doing “Snake Eyes”, as close as the series was going to get to Tom Waits being on stage. There was the IDM producer Hudson Mohawke performing the atmospheric “Human” underneath one of those “I’m not sure who these people are or what they have to do with the story” booth conversations. (Are these people dreams? Who is Billy? For God’s sake, who is Billy?) Late in the season, the Veils stopped in to perform “Axolotl” from last year’s Total Depravity. It was close as the series was going to get to Nick Cave being on stage. The lyrics quote a couplet from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. And yet lead singer Finn Andrews makes the moment his, pleading and swaying like a convert, even as a young woman crawls through the legs of the crowd and eventually, because this is Twin Peaks, screams.

And then, breaking the logic of the show—maybe—and certainly making it harder to imagine that only local musicians play the Roadhouse, here is Nine Inch Nails introduced as… The Nine Inch Nails. Okay then. Maybe they got lost. Maybe they needed to fill in a night between Billings and Seattle.

A stalking piece of industrial metal, “She’s Gone Away” is a direct sonic expression of the horrific supernatural elements in Lynch’s vision, and more specifically, those elements’ infestation of mechanical and technological contemporaneity. It is the soundtrack of the charcoal-faced Woodsmen decades earlier as they crawl out of an irradiated desert.

It is the song you should hear every time Kyle McLachlan’s “Bad Cooper” is on screen, speaking as if his jaw is wired shut and staring at people the way he stares at the night road passing under whatever vehicle he happens to have borrowed, stolen, or hijacked. As much as the lyrics seem to refer to Laura Palmer, the singer seems to have been disoriented by trauma and is desperately trying to “get the feeling back”. In some ways, the real Dale Cooper. More likely: the America that needs to cut its skin in order to feel alive. Situated maybe 15 minutes into “Part Eight”, “She’s Gone Away” also foreshadowed the absolute mind fuck that was to come in the rest of the episode, easily one of the most perplexing and captivating hours of television I’ve ever seen. Suitably, there was no return to the Roadhouse.

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