Monday, May 30, 2011

Forgotten Movie Songs #18: "Benson, Arizona" from DARK STAR


Recently I watched a nifty little fan film called Let There Be Light: The Odyssey of Dark Star. Though its obviously dedicated maker, Daniel Griffith, couldn't get on-screen interviews with the key figures behind this history-making 1974 cult movie, he still managed to construct a detailed and dramatic saga of Dark Star's history by talking to nearly everybody else connected with the movie (and he does manage to get both producer/director John Carpenter and writer/star Dan O'Bannon on record, though quite slyly). The film is slightly padded out with too much graphic repetition, but I'm being peevishly picky in mentioning it. It's a fan-driven film through and through, and I'm a fan, so I have to give Griffith's movie high marks. I really liked that it covers everything we Dark Star enthusiasts always wanted to know about this unusual production. It's like a special edition of Cinefantastique come to life.


I'll leave it to the reader to search Let There Be Light out, of course. But I wanted to underline the sequence in which it explores the madly surprising theme song to Dark Star, played as an innerspace radio transmission over the titular spaceship's transmitter as the opening credits hit the screen. Dark Star, if you haven't heard of it, is a way-out sci-fi comedy--a loose spoof of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey--in which four astronauts are stranded in space, put out there on a pointless planet-destroying mission, during which they encounter numerous obstacles that spell their eventual doom. In Let There Be Light, novice lyricist and veteran special effects artist Bill Taylor--who's worked on scads of movies like Blade Runner, What Dreams May Come, Cape Fear, The Thing and The Blues Brothers--tells us what inspired him to write the opening song:


I proposed to John (Carpenter) that it should be a country song...{to match with the idea of} truck drivers in space. And I went away and wrote the lyric. And he liked it. and I was amazed and delighted. It's called "Benson, Arizona" because, years earlier, about 1962, I had driven my little Morris Minor car for a long road trip from Los Angeles to Los Cruses, New Mexico, where my girlfriend lived, for the Christmas holiday. And my Morris Minor broke down in Benson, Arizona on Christmas Day...A gas station attendant identified the problem and he said "You know, there's a guy here in Benson who reconditions electrical parts for cars and he might be able to handle this generator. So he called this guy up on Christmas day and he sent me over there, and this guy, God bless him, had a Lucas generator. And he couldn't install it himself because he said he was all swelled up like a toad from eating too much Christmas dinner. But he gave me tools, and gave me good instructions, so I put in a new generator and I was on my way, thanks to two total strangers willing to help out a traveler on Christmas day. And I'm still very moved by that all these years later. So when it came time to write the lyric, I was thinking about "Where is the most unlikely place in the world that these guys could be longing for? A place so obscure that it would be funny..." So Benson, Arizona automatically came to mind. I wrote three verses--the third verse wasn't necessary--and it all timed out perfectly for the titles. The other nice side effect was that the lady I wen to visit on that Christmas ultimately wound up as my wife.


One of the chief reasons I've always adored Dark Star is because it seems exactly like what it is: a student film, three-fourths of which was filmed at the University of Southern California, where John Carpenter was a student. Let There Be Light meticulously details the journey Carpenter and O'Bannon's film took from being a little 16mm basement project to being a full-fledged 35mm cult classic. But I have to be up front about it: beyond O'Bannon's snide screenplay and supporting performance, beyond Carpenter's inventive direction with those ahead-of-the-times special effects, the theme song to the film became a key ingredient to why I instantly loved the movie when I first saw it in the early 1980s. "Benson, Arizona" is just utterly apt, and filled with the pinings these four unlikely, hippiefied astronauts for a little part of the Earth they'll never see again. Its inclusion into the final print of Dark Star helps tremendously in making the film into the fledgling near-masterwork it is.

After you enjoy part of the pre-song opening (with graphics by Dan O'Bannon), you'll hear it. The song is called "Benson, Arizona." Its evocative lyrics are by Bill Taylor and the music is by John Carpenter. It's sung by John Yeager, and it still give me chills to this day:



A million suns shine down
But I see only one
When I think I'm over you
I find I've just begun
The years move faster than the days
There's no warmth in the light
How I miss those desert skies
Your cool touch in the night

Benson, Arizona
Blew warm wind through your hair
My body flies the galaxy, my heart longs to be there
Benson, Arizona
The same stars in the sky
But they seemed so much kinder
When we watched them, you and I

Benson, Arizona
Blew warm wind through your hair
My body flies the galaxy, my heart longs to be there
Benson, Arizona
The same stars in the sky
But they seemed so much kinder
When we watched them, you and I

Now the years pull us apart
I'm young and now you're old
But you're still in my heart
And the memory won't grow cold
I dream of times and spaces
I left far behind
Where we spent our last few days
Benson's on my mind

Benson, Arizona
Blew warm wind through your hair
My body flies the galaxy, my heart longs to be there
Benson, Arizona
The same stars in the sky
But they seemed so much kinder
When we watched them, you and I

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

There are a performances on YouTube of performers covering this song and singing the third verse, and it's very good too. I hope Yager recorded a version with all three verses. In my opinion, this song deserved a Best Song Oscar nomination.

Gas Station Gourmet said...

I love this song and searched for 30 years for it. I couldn't remember the name of the movie. I could only remember the chorus and Benson, Arizona.

I have it on iTunes. I'd love to find the third verse you mentioned.

In 2013 I stopped in Benson on my way to a conference. I took a few photos. It felt nice.

Al Hebert
Gas Station Gourmet

Lynn said...

I love hearing the background story of the song! Thank you so much--

I've always felt an affinity for DARK STAR because I totally lucked into seeing a midnight screening Carpenter & O'Bannon arranged for their friends, probably in 1973. Loved the movie immediately and waited years for it to be available on DVD. I'll look for "Let There Be Light" but it's not currently streaming on Netflix, so... :(