Bernard Herrmann was not only a genius but a master of precognition.
The late composer, most famous for being Alfred Hitchcock’s secret weapon on a slew of cinema’s most deadly film scores, wrote the music for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver 45 years ago. He turned isolation, paranoia, fear, and violence into compelling music.
In other words, how’s 2020 been treating ya? Herrmann provided the soundtrack for this doomed year more than four decades ago, completing his work on the film just hours before he died of a heart attack. Maybe he was already getting a glimpse into the void.
Both the film and the soundtrack retain their scorched-earth power, and Herrmann’s score is only enhanced when listened to on headphones. The existential dread at the core of Herrmann’s music thrives when it’s locked inside your head, almost to the point where it can get uncomfortable.
My ticket to this dark ride was the same collection of gear as on other headphone experiences, such as Dark Side of the Moon, D’Angelo’s Voodoo, FKA Twigs’ LP1, and Robert Fripp’s Exposure. Headphones were the House of Marley Exodus, which offer a great combination of well-balanced sound and spicy looks.
My 1976 pressing of the LP was listened to using a Schiit Valhalla tube headphone amp, fed by a Clearaudio Concept turntable, Audio Technica AT30E cartridge, and Eastern Electric MiniMax tube phono stage. Digital was Spotify streamed through a Macbook and iFi ZEN DAC with upgraded power supply and USB filter, both also made by iFi.
I’ve been listening to this music for decades, but this time around soon had me thinking: Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
The year 2020 has been such an unrelenting shit show that my defenses are weakened, apparently, and when the Snare Drum of the Damned kicks off this score, it feels like a summation of everything wrong with the world. A string section nervously thrums in the left channel. That maddening drum keeps popping high in the right channel and the woodwinds, good Lord, the woodwinds sound like Satan taking a deep breath before blowing out all of our candles.
For those who don’t know, Taxi Driver is the story of Travis Bickle, a profoundly damaged Vietnam vet who drives a cab in the worst parts of 1970s New York City. He has succumbed to an almost Stygian loneliness and sees the world as a cesspool of scum and hypocrisy. As his last futile attempts at human connection fail, he turns to misplaced chivalry and violence — with unexpected results. It’s a movie about the inherent dangers of loneliness and the damage done when the only reflection we can see of ourselves is in the mirror.
Herrmann understands Bickle completely, and the way the music is arranged and recorded largely reflects Bickle’s illness in a way that is always visceral and often thrilling. “Thank God For the Rain” and “Cleaning the Cab” are the key templates for the soundtrack.
A jazz rhythm section represents New York City, which is Bickle’s constant adversary, and it’s always placed in the upper right of the soundstage, a position of power. Strings twitter nervously in the lower left, overmatched, while the woodwinds ominously rise in the center like a swelling storm front. And every once in awhile, jazz saxophonist Ronnie Lang enters with a beautiful melody representing the last vestiges of Bickle’s hope before it’s overwhelmed by his madness.
“Cleaning the Cab” is especially thorough. At the end of each shift, Bickle has to clean the blood, vomit, and ejaculate off of his back seat, all of which he sees as acts of war. Herrmann has the city, the rhythm section, rise up out of the darkness as a jazzy martial beat thudding on the right side of your head. Those evil fucking woodwinds, which seem to represent Bickle’s mental illness, then surge in response only to fall away impotently. The city/drums get the last laugh.
It’s only one minute and seven seconds long but it feels like a battle has been fought between your ears and you, the possibly innocent observer, are trapped. Herrmann’s ability to orchestrate claustrophobia is unparalleled.
Now’s a good time to detail the versions of this soundtrack that are readily available, because one is sure to disappoint.
The 1976 version is fun to own just because, but it’s also severely neutered. Side A is dedicated to Dave Blume’s washed-out arrangements of several themes written by Herrmann. Side B is pure Herrmann but only five tracks. It’s as if Arista thought that a more commercial Side A would appeal to the Bible Belt, but as usual, got it backward.
Several full soundtracks, including all of Herrmann’s music with Blume’s efforts tacked on at the end, were released on CD in the 1990s. But it wasn’t until Waxwork Records’ 2016 reissue that Herrmann’s full glory was available on vinyl. Waxworks, as usual, goes above and beyond with a couple of alternate cuts and gorgeous art and design work by Rich Kelly.
There’s no reason to own the original, which remains somewhat pricey given how little Herrmann you get unless you’re a completist and/or a Scorsese fanboy. One thing in the original’s favor is that it includes “The .44 Magnum is a Monster,” Herrmann’s tour de force. It’s a dizzying piece of music, beautifully recorded, that redefines all existing themes while adding a new one.
The first thing that alarms you is a harp that sounds as if it’s being dragged by its hair across the soundstage from left to right. Meanwhile, the mentally ill woodwinds are stomping down a poorly-lit hallway and then, in a moment of brilliance, Herrmann repeats the lovely saxophone melody that has been our lifeline — but this time it’s played on an electric piano that sounds like it’s had a nervous breakdown. The .44 itself is represented by full-throated cellos and contrabass, which is the first time they’re featured. The martial drums are still fighting but they’re now more recessed in the mix, momentarily stymied now that Bickle has armed himself.
The whole soundtrack is just a wild ride (other than the Blume stuff). I’m not sure if it would resonate as much for those who haven’t seen the movie, but I’d like to think that it connects simply as a body of unnerving music.
It’s definitely a sonic thrill on headphones, expertly recorded and mixed, but it’s true delight — or perhaps horror — is how headphones let it come fully alive emotionally. The film’s intent, the music’s intent, Herrmann’s genius — all of it comes brutally charged in a way that, unfortunately, can sometimes leave you feeling a bit unhinged.
I thought I was immune to this music, but after multiple listens over the span of a week it has gotten under my skin in some disturbing ways. I wish I was joking but I’m going to file this music away, drink a lot of beer, and listen to Johnny Paycheck until I stop thinking about giving myself a mohawk.
This is the fifth article in our series exploring the headphone experience. Published in partnership with House of Marley.