The Definitive Guide to the Music of The Big Lebowski
L.A. Weekly is celebrating The Big Lebowski's 15th anniversary with a massive cover story tribute! Check out our other Lebowski-themed stories. Not doing so would be very un-Dude.
The Dude's identity is strongly informed by music. As a former Metallica roadie and free love-era denizen still trying to live the dream, The Big Lebowski's protagonist is known to draw lines in the sand: He loves Creedence Clearwater Revival, but he hates the fucking Eagles. In the film, his subconscious is filled with psychedelic anthems, and his bumbling waking efforts are soundtracked by vivid tracks from the '60s and '70s, both famous and obscure. Masterfully curated by roots-obsessed performer and producer T Bone Burnett -- who would later win a Grammy for his work on the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- the music in Lebowski is a second narrator of sorts, carrying the Dude along, sometimes against his will.
Below, the Weekly's music writers thoroughly dissect the most memorable and important songs from the movie. It's almost frightening how much forethought went into setting the film's mood. --Ben Westhoff
Song: "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" (1946)
Performer: Sons of the Pioneers
Where the song is heard: During the opening credits, as a tumbleweed rolls through Los Angeles, past Benito's Tacos and Eagle Rock Lanes and onto the beach. As our story begins, the Dude sniffs a carton of half-and-half in a Ralphs, as "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" morphs into grocery-store Muzak.
The tumbleweed, aka salsola tragus -- or Russian thistle -- is an annual that dies, breaks off at the stem and disperses seeds as it drifts through the desolate desert landscape, rolling with the wind. Much like the Dude.
Though the plant's origins aren't Western (far from it), it has come to symbolize windswept Western landscapes, perfect for Lebowski, whose bad-guy sheriff, gunslinging sidekick, cowboy narrator and just-wants-to-be-left-alone hero give it a Western feel.
The Sons of the Pioneers were a hugely influential Western group formed in 1933 and co-founded by the singing cowboy Roy Rogers, star of more than 100 Western movies and an eponymous TV show. Though he was born in Ohio, Rogers met his Sons of the Pioneers co-founders in Los Angeles. Evoking the 19th-century cowboy era, the group's smooth harmonizing was featured in just about every Hollywood Western that featured music from 1935 to 1950. Though the principals are long dead, the group survives today with different personnel.
Released during World War II, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" evokes the romance of the Old West; Lebowski, on the other hand, which was released in 1998, retreats to a time of war, the early '90s, just about the time of our conflict with Saddam and the Iraqis. --L.J. Williamson
Song: "The Man in Me" (1970)
Performer: Bob Dylan
Where the song is heard: During the opening title sequence, as well as during the scene where the Dude flies after he's been knocked out by Maude Lebowski's henchmen.
At some point post-Woodstock, Bob Dylan decided he wanted to shake loose much of his fan base, i.e., the late-wave hippies. He soon released another masterpiece, New Morning, which contains, amid the laid-back country songs and light-rocking tunes, the once-obscure tune that really ties The Big Lebowski together, "The Man in Me." "Take a woman like your kind/To find the man in me," he sings, likely representing for the Dude his affection for his sort-of love interest, Maude.
The strangest part of all of this? As channeled through Lebowski, the song has become the unofficial wedding song of my generation. In fact, one summer a few years ago, I attended eight weddings, from New England to Alabama to Southern California, and all but one featured "The Man in Me."
For some of my friends, it was their first dance. Others had it in the ceremony, and one brave pal performed it with a band. None of these guys was a particularly huge Dylan fanatic; the through-line was simply that they all saw the Dude as an earnest role model.
"Oh, what a wonderful feeling/Just to know that you are near," Dylan sings.
I think most men would agree it has a much better ring than, "Till death do us part." --Paul T. Bradley
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Song: "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles" (1972)
Performer: Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band
Where the song is heard: While the Dude is fixing a White Russian, listening to answering-machine messages ("I just thought it was fair to tell you that Gilbert and I will be submitting this to the league") and performing tai chi moves on his replacement rug.
When T Bone Burnett included the deep cut "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles" from Captain Beefheart's 1972 album, Clear Spot, did he have Maude Lebowski's lustrous blue-green eyes in mind? Perhaps it's intended to foreshadow the imminent and unlikely relationship between the highfalutin avant-garde painter and the bowling aficionado. The lyric "I don't see what she sees in a man like me/She says she loves me" perhaps references a scene later in the film, when Maude emerges from the Dude's bedroom, drops his robe, which she's wearing, and demands: "Love me."
"Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles" also may be an homage to the rug itself, with its blue diamond within an oval-shaped center. The scene featuring the track begins with a tight shot of the rug's center, highlighting its blue "eye." It is the rug, of course, that is the impetus for Maude and the Dude's initial meeting.
The voice of Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, also makes perfect sense to speak for our far-out protagonist, who lives in Los Angeles and enjoys the occasional acid flashback. Beefheart is quintessential psychedelica, and Glendale-born Van Vliet was a painter and sculptor from childhood. In fact, Clear Spot originally contained an insert photograph of Beefheart and the Magic Band at the control panel of the Griffith Park Observatory's Planetarium, not far from the Dude's Hollywood apartment.
Song: "Hotel California" (1990)
Performer: Gipsy Kings
Where the song is heard: During the introduction of Jesus Quintana.
The Dude's most obvious rival in the film is his namesake, but his bowling rival, local pederast Quintana, also ruffles his feathers. Jesus is wrapped in a greasy-slick North Hollywood narcissism, right down to the coke-spoon pinkie finger. He is the embodiment of everything the Dude is not -- sharply dressed, arrogant, but devoid of substance. Also, he's a kid toucher. Still, in his defense, that creep can roll, man.
If Jesus were to have a classic-rock analogue, it would have to be confident and technically proficient but ultimately overrated, right? That's where "Hotel California" comes in. But considering Jesus' Latin heritage, it makes sense that the track would be an artful Spanish-language cover by the Gypsy Kings. The fluttering guitar intro opens on Jesus taking his sweet-ass time, warming his fingers, making a spectacle of his roll -- he throws another strike. Still, his dance, and the way he and partner Liam O'Brien handle their bowling shammies, are creepy.
So, are the Eagles the rock & roll equivalent to Jesus? Indeed, just as Quintana douches up the bowling league, so did the popular rock band with '70s music. Explained T Bone Burnett to Rolling Stone: "[The Eagles] sort of single-handedly destroyed that whole scene that was brewing back then."
Oh, and it turns out Jeff Bridges got an earful about his character's hatred of the Eagles from one of the Eagles himself. "I ran into [Glenn Frey] and he gave me some shit," Bridges told Rolling Stone. "I can't remember what he said exactly, but my anus tightened a bit." --Paul T. Bradley
Song: "Lookin' Out My Back Door" (1970)
Performer: Creedence Clearwater Revival
Where the song is heard: After the Dude passes his examination with Maude's doctor, he's driving home in his beat-up Torino. His spirits revived, he hits a joint, taps the roof of his car along with the song and then spies little Larry's homework. He drops the lit roach in his lap, tries to extinguish it with a beer and careens into a Dumpster.
Little-known fact: The Lebowski soundtrack album has no Creedence Clearwater Revival. This is a shame. Nonetheless, "Lookin' Out My Back Door," with its laid-back yet up-tempo rhythm, country feel and psychedelic lyrics, make it a good theme song for the Dude.
Sometimes called Creedence's "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," the track's lyrics involve a ride on a flying spoon and a "wondrous apparition, provided by magician." Drug references? Not so, its writer John Fogerty has said, insisting he wrote it for his then-3-year-old son, Josh. He also has said that the parade references -- "giants doing cartwheels, statues wearing high heels" -- were inspired by the Dr. Seuss book And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. --Will Russell
Song: "Lujon" (1961)
Performer: Henry Mancini
Where the song is heard: Inside Jackie Treehorn's house, where, to the Dude, the adult-entertainment mogul talks up the future of pornography -- "100 percent electronic!"
Henry Mancini, a Pennsylvania steel-town boy of Italian descent who sometimes worked in Latin jazz, was brilliant at evoking mood. He enjoyed unrivaled success as a composer for film and television for decades in the latter half of the 20th century -- from the Pink Panther theme to "Baby Elephant Walk." He scored everything from monster movies to romantic comedies, all with a sleek, smooth, swanky sound.
In "Lujon," lush, breezy strings are set off by slow and seductive tiki-lounge percussion, a sophisticated yet exotic feel that creates a sense of intrigue. Los Angeles hip-hop group Freestyle Fellowship sampled the song on their ode to the joys of cannabis, "Mary."
"Lujon" comes from Mancini's 1961 album, Mr. Lucky Goes Latin, alongside nacho cheesy-named tracks like "Siesta" and "Speedy Gonzalez." Sure, the work is not authentically Latin, but with every rough edge polished, "Lujon" goes down as creamy and sweet as a spiked Caucasian. --L.J. Williamson
Song: "Just Dropped in (to See What Condition My Condition Was in)" (1968)
Performer: The First Edition
Where the song is heard: When the Dude succumbs to Jackie Treehorn's drugged White Russian, the film's narrative pauses, and we take a detour into the dark recesses of the Dude's id, via a bowling-themed film-within-the-film, Gutterballs. There is no dialogue, simply the sounds of Kenny Rogers and his band, The First Edition.
The effects-laden, acid-rocking "Just Dropped in" is not the sound we've come to associate with Rogers, known in his middle years for country crossovers like "The Gambler." At the time Rogers was singer and bass player for The First Edition, who had country and folk roots but were prone to genre experimentation.
Glen Campbell, the Rhinestone Cowboy himself, was brought in as a session musician, and he plays the track's first notes, which are backward guitar -- i.e., recorded guitar parts played backward on tape. They usher in a phallic bowling pin, rising between two bowling balls. Later, a purposefully unfocused guitar solo makes the whole experience feel trippier, along with lyrics like, "tripped on a cloud and fell eight miles high," and imagery like the "sundown in the morning." The track's title, something like a Zen koan, seems to be about introspection; if you've "just dropped in," you'll only be inside your own mind for a few hours -- or however long the drugs last.
In an interview the song's author, Mickey Newbury, described "Just Dropped in" as a cautionary tale against drug use. A country legend who wrote for everyone from Tammy Wynette to Johnny Cash, Newbury was considered something of a country outlaw for consorting with hippies. In his biography, Rogers claims Newbury urged him to take his first and only acid trip. (He got a bit freaked out.)
Gutterballs is cut to go with the song, rather than the other way around. Indeed, the Dude's dream turns nightmare as the song ends and the giant scissors-wielding nihilists reappear -- including Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers -- ready to cut off the Dude's johnson. When he comes to, the Dude's in the back of a Malibu police cruiser, singing the theme song to the 1960s TV series Branded, in which tough-guy actor Chuck Connors plays a cavalry captain on the run for a crime he didn't commit. --L.J. Williamson
Song: "Peaceful Easy Feeling" (1972)
Performer: The Eagles
Where the song is heard: Booted out of Malibu, the Dude ends up in a cab whose radio is blaring "Peaceful Easy Feeling." After the Dude twice asks the driver to change the channel, the driver pulls over and throws the Dude out. "Fuck you, man. If you don't like my fuckin' music, get your own fuckin' cab!"
Written by Jack Tempchin, a friend of Eagles guitarist Glenn Frey, "Peaceful Easy Feeling" was recorded in 1972 in a London apartment, where the group secluded itself and whose members drank heavily until their self-titled debut album emerged.
Lebowski never explains why, exactly, the Dude hates the fucking Eagles so much. It even seems a bit odd on the surface, considering that the Los Angeles country-rockers were huge during the Dude's heyday and would seem to appeal to his laid-back nature. Then again, "Peaceful Easy Feeling" is about a stable romantic relationship -- "I know you won't let me down" -- which is not exactly the Dude's style. --Will Russell
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Song: "I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good)" (1962)
Performer: Nina Simone
Where the song is heard: "Tell me about yourself, Jeffrey," says Maude Lebowski, after she and the Dude are finished engaging in the act of coitus. As all four minutes of "I Got It Bad" play out, the two lie naked between the sheets, while the Dude puffs on a roach, tells his life story, uses the bathroom, makes a White Russian, calls Walter and learns Maude's reason for seducing him: She wants a baby.
Simone's sultry tune was written by Duke Ellington and included in his Jump for Joy musical revue, which premiered at the Mayan Theater in downtown Los Angeles in 1941. The project featured an all-black cast, and was an early statement by the jazz legend addressing civil rights. Vocalist Ivie Anderson performed "I Got It Bad" 101 times during the show's run, and the sensitive ballad became an instant classic, with everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Louis Prima to Thelonious Monk tackling it.
Twenty-one years after Anderson, Nina Simone recorded the track as part of Nina Simone Sings Ellington, a 1962 tribute album. Her label, Colpix, pulled out all the stops for the ambitious project, employing a full orchestra and the Malcolm Dodd Singers, who provided a soothing, gospel hush to the record. Simone's interpretation is a slow burn, with the glacial tempo pushed gently by the drummer's brushes while the orchestra quietly punctuates her husky vibrato. It's a masterful display of minimalism and control, which closes with a 10-second scat flourish, enough to secure Simone's place as the "High Priestess of Soul."
How does all of this tie in with the Dude and Maude? It doesn't, although their conversation shows that he, too, has undertaken a bit of activism in his day. ("I was one of the authors of the Port Huron Statement. The original Port Huron Statement. Not the compromised second draft.") Oh, and like Maude, by the time Simone shot the cover photo for Ellington, she, too, was pregnant. --Sean J. O'Connell
Song: "Stamping Ground" (1969)
Where the song is heard: The eureka moment, in Walter Sobchak's van, after he's picked up the Dude in violation of Shabbos. It's all come into focus: The Big Lebowski never wanted his wife found; there was no money in that briefcase; the Dude was just a patsy in a plan to embezzle a million dollars. It's all suddenly so clear, and it's all backed by throbbing timpani and eerie reeds.
"Stamping Ground" was composed by Louis Thomas Hardin, aka Moondog, a blind musician, who before his 1999 death spent four decades hanging out on the streets of Manhattan in a Viking costume. "He's someone who's really living a different life and has an incredible kind of commitment and tenacity to stand there all that time in all weathers, selling his music and doing his own thing," says director Holly Elson, whose documentary on Moondog's life, The Viking of 6th Avenue, is currently in production. "People start to orientate the city around him, and they say things like, 'Turn left at Moondog.' "
His music, which relied heavily on the sounds of the city and often was written with a Braille slate and paper under his cape, has popped up in numerous movies and commercials. "It's a very visual kind of music," Elson says. As the instrumental "Stamping Ground" plays in the film, images toggle between the Dude and Walter in the van, the other Lebowski yelling at his wife, a briefcase stuffed with phone books instead of money, and the other briefcase stuffed with Walter's dirty undies, spinning in the air. The music takes us right where we need to be.
In a 1972 radio interview, Moondog described the song's title as a play on words. "Actually 'Stamping Ground' is the place I stand," he said. "It's on 6th Avenue and 53rd, and ground is also a musical form, a very old form where you have a phrase that repeats itself over and over, and you have a free-melody line over it, but this is a four-bar phrase and the theme is stated with four different timpani. Over that, the melody line is working to a two-part cannon, so you actually have two forms at work there, the ground and the cannon."
Just because a man stands around in a Viking costume all day doesn't mean he's not serious about music theory. And just because a stoner wears a bathrobe and sandals doesn't mean he couldn't make a decent brother shamus. --Keith Plocek
Song: "Dead Flowers" (1993)
Performer: Townes Van Zandt
Where the song is heard: Near the film's end, after the "scattering" of Donnie's ashes, as Walter and Jeff are bowling. During the closing credits, it segues into "Viva Las Vegas," performed by Shawn Colvin.
Townes Van Zandt's version of "Dead Flowers" is a more maudlin take on the Rolling Stones' rollicking stab at pure American country, as it was originally released in 1971 by the group of 20-something British boys enamored of all things cowboy. The song's themes of drug abuse, debasement and denial were right in the wheelhouse of Van Zandt, who was in and out of rehab for alcoholism before his death in 1997, a mere month before Lebowski went into production in L.A.
"This was one of his favorite 'get drunk' songs," says Rex "Wrecks" Bell, a close friend and sideman of Van Zandt's, who owns Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe in Galveston, Texas, where Van Zandt recorded a 1973 live album. "I don't think he had any connection to the Stones, or anything. [He] just loved to do this song when he was the perfect amount of drunk."
It's hard to tell what drew the Coens and T Bone Burnett to the track; the connection to Jeff Bridges seems more obvious, considering he's a singer-songwriter himself, who later won an Oscar for playing fallen country star Otis "Bad" Blake in the 2009 film Crazy Heart. (Blake himself wasn't too terribly far removed from Van Zandt and his songwriting friends.)
The genesis of the Stones' original probably can be traced back to Keith Richards' running buddy, Gram Parsons, who is partly to blame for the group's rootsy turn in the late 1960s. Richards is the Stone who most understands country music at its core.
Van Zandt didn't do many covers, but he covered this one many times, including on a double disc of demos released this year by Omnivore Recordings. The take used in Lebowski comes from the 1993 live album Roadsongs, though for many, this version is inferior to others. The sounds of drunks whoopin' and hollerin' is distracting, it could be said, from Van Zandt's pain.
In any case, the song was tough to acquire, since it is owned by former Rolling Stones manager Allen Klein. Fortunately, he was swayed by the "I hate the fuckin' Eagles, man" line and gave in to Burnett's pleading. True story. --Craig Hlavaty
L.A. Weekly is celebrating The Big Lebowski's 15th anniversary with a massive cover story tribute! Check out our other Lebowski-themed stories. Not doing so would be very un-Dude.
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