1998 feels like a million years ago, maybe because it was the last year that I felt like a child the whole year. I turned 12 and I remember the University of Kentucky Wildcats winning the national championship in men’s college basketball, which made me so happy.
1998 was also the year that I realized that I liked to read and write. Amazingly, I probably read more books that year than in any year before or since. I remember tearing through “The Lord of the Rings” in a week, reading seemingly half of Stephen King’s corpus over the summer and eventually getting into Tom Clancy and Charles Dickens in the fall.
That year was also the year the movie “The Big Lebowski” was released. I didn’t see it at the time, but it has since become one of my favorite films. I won’t attempt to add to the body of criticism about it – in part because I’m no longer in the business of writing reviews – and I’ll only add that I have a physical copy of the screenplay that my brother for some reason picked up off of a vendor in Manhattan. If you’re unfamiliar with the movie’s plot or legacy, just check out its IMDb page sometime.
Anyway, throughout the movie, Jeff Bridges’ character – nicknamed The Dude – indulges in many stereotypical stoner-hippie habits, from smoking marijuana to listening to a distinctive combination of Creedence Clearwater Revival (while driving stoned), whale songs, and – for some reason this always bowled me over – a cassette tape labeled “1989 league semifinals,” which is just the sound of bowling balls striking pins. The Dude is no “Rolling Stone” or Pitchfork.com critic.
Outside of “The Big Lebowski,” Jeff Bridges has had an interesting relationship with music. He starred in “Crazy Heart,” for which he won an Oscar for portraying a country music star, singing many of the songs from the film’s Academy Award-winning soundtrack. He released his own eponymous country album in 2011. This year, he released a follow-up of sorts called “Sleeping Tapes.”
The album is presented as a sleep aid but it is far too funny and unpredictable and experimental to serve as one. One of the more memorable numbers early on involves him explaining how he likes to hum while getting ready to act and that his makeup guy get a kick out of the tunes he hums. He then hums out the word “hummm” for several minutes in a surprisingly tuneful, almost vaguely Goa trance-y way. It’s like a Frank Zappa album that’s actually humorous.
There are lots of spoken word pieces, including one called “The Hen” in which he explains that a saxophonist he knew used to keep eggs of Silly Putty in his pockets and so acquired his avian nickname. The music, as it is, goes in and out, with some piano and what sound like Tibetan prayer bowls and other typically New Age instruments.
In the centerpiece, the 11-minute long “Temescal Canyon,” he wonders aloud if he and the audience should just be crows that could fly over the canyon. He sees a hiker, think he’s probably named “Steve or Neil” and shouts out to this “Neil” and gets a wave back, happy that his guess about the hiker’s name was accurate. He then ruminates on how “freeway’ is a great word.
As the album wraps up, Bridges muses about the relaxing sound that water makes when it fills up a toilet tank. So, back to “The Big Lebowski,” which of course has an early scene in which a character is dunked in a toilet to make him talk. It feels like “Sleeping Tapes” is life (it presents itself as a window into his daily routines) imitating art, with Jeff Bridges taking on the persona of Jeffrey Lebowski to narrate and, well, hum his way through an album chock-full of the New Age mysticism, fake philosophy and distinctive voice intonations that made Bridges’ character so memorable.
It’s almost like an audio-only sequel to the movie. During the last number, he says “you aren’t asleep yet?” and recommends replaying the album which I’m pretty sure won’t help anyone doze off. I listened to it twice today already during a walk through Forest Park in Queens and figure I’ll be coming back to it many more times, sleepy or not.