Windin’ your way down on Baker Street

Baker Street | Gerry Rafferty
"Baker Street," 1978

Scottish singer-songwriter Gerry Rafferty died this week, and I’ve been hearing his hit song “Baker Street” play on the radio with an extra twinge of nostalgia.

The song accompanied the big fight scene in Good Will Hunting that sends Will to jail, therapy, and onto his personal journey — and I played it pretty much every other week on my college radio show.

The song’s Wikipedia entry describes:

Rafferty wrote the song during a period when he was trying to extricate himself from his Stealers Wheel contracts, and was regularly travelling between his family home near Glasgow and London, where he often stayed at a friend’s flat in Baker Street. The resolution of his legal and financial frustrations accounted for the exhilaration of the song’s last verse: “When you wake up it’s a new morning/ The sun is shining, it’s a new morning/ You’re going, you’re going home.”

Good Will Hunting fight

According to the original screenplay for Good Will Hunting, Matt and Ben originally intended “Let’s Get it On” to accompany the fight scene.

“Baker Street” kicks ass though; it was a much better choice.

Windin’ your way down on Baker Street
Light in your head and dead on your feet
Well another crazy day
You’ll drink the night away
And forget about everything.

You used to think that it was so easy
You used to say that it was so easy
But you’re tryin’
You’re tryin’ now.
Another year and then you’ll be happy
Just one more year and then you’ll be happy
But you’re cryin’
You’re cryin’ now.

Though it’s the most heartbreaking ass-kicking fight song you’ll ever hear.

A comedy of errors, you see

I must say, I was surprised to recently discover that there was a music video for Elliott Smith’s “Miss Misery.”

“Miss Misery” is, of course, Smith’s song that plays during the Good Will Hunting closing credits as Will drives off to California. In 1998 it was nominated for Best Original Song (losing out to Celine Dion’s Titanic theme… because the Oscars are stupid.)

Some would say “having a good time is important when making a music video,” and never has someone seemed more miserable in a music video than Mr. Smith appears here.

As he would at the Oscar performance, he wears white formal wear, and like the Oscar performance, he is not having a good time.

Elliott Smith at the Oscars
Smith (in a white suit)

It would be fair to say, I think, that Elliott Smith didn’t belong in the spotlight. His music was for quiet, dimly lit moments, lingering in the background. That’s why it worked so well with the visuals of crumbling working class apartments and late nights in dorm rooms in Good Will Hunting. Once you start listening too carefully, though, you discover the severity of the pain in his lyrics — his melancholy runs quite deep. He wasn’t meant for People Magazine.

Beck (in a white suit)
Beck (in a white suit)

In a 2000 interview with In Music We Trust he explained his ambivalence with the fame that came with Good Will Hunting :

Too much exposure, it makes you feel like a cartoon character. I’m the gloomy folk cartoon figure. Nobody wants to feel like a cartoon, but at the same time I don’t want to complain.

It all depends on how much you buy into it, though. People Magazine called me a Beck impostor because I played the Oscars in a white suit. Great, both Beck and I wore white suits, so I must be a Beck impostor. Things like that… you can choose to buy into them or just ignore them. I choose not to read press about me anymore.

The success of Good Will Hunting (for the filmmakers, as well as for this musician) was unexpected, to be sure, and the icing on the cake is much like this white suit (if you will); under close scrutiny, it’s not quite what it seems to be. Is the film a conventional, hopeful, earnest story with a big movie star (Williams), dressed up like a scrappy, rough-around-the-edges indie drama? Or is it an unapologetic, ardent indie film, adorned with some Oscar-bait monologues that were tacked on to pay the bills? Either way, does the suit fit?

Justin Stewart of Reverse Shot writes in his article “New Math“:

There’s something hostile, even violent, about the way this movie’s writing screams for attention. As much as Van Sant and Elliott Smith are able to mute it, Good Will Hunting still gives one a feeling for what it must have been like for Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in meetings with the Weinsteins (“Emotion the fuck out of this scene!”).

I like this notion of Smith’s role — to dampen the more freewheeling emotion of the film, bringing a subtlety to some of the more clunky aspects of the screenplay. It helps speak to the question of what on earth the song “Miss Misery” is doing alongside our otherwise happy, driving-off-into-the-sunset ending.

Good Will Hunting final shot

To vanish into oblivion
Is easy to do
And I try to be, but you know me
I come back when you want me to
Do you miss me, Miss Misery
Like you say you do?

The prevalence of Smith’s work on the soundtrack, not unlike Simon and Garfunkle’s in The Graduate, sets a distinct tone that — at first glance — seems to have less to do with the content of their lyrics than the quality of their sound. But the attitude behind the words are important, and I think the similarities between the films extends to the the ambivalence of their endings. One can’t imagine a sunnier-sounding outfit than Simon and Garfunkle, but what could be bleaker than the opening lyric, “hello darkness, my old friend”? “The Sound of Silence” informs the conclusion of The Graduate quite succinctly — the return of the dark, isolating unsureness Ben feels towards his future will surely set in shortly, and it perhaps already has for the pensive-looking Elaine in that final shot.

Still from The Graduate

With Smith’s tender “Miss Misery,” does Will’s uncertainty — a “vanish into oblivion” — also return? It rings true for me that would. A solo cross country road trip brings with it a lot of time to question one’s decisions and recoup some dark doubts. With Elliott Smith’s romantic ode to relapse seeping in as the credits roll, Van Sant deftly wrinkles the edge of the seemingly happy ending. No white suit can remain quite so pristine.

Check out this decidedly less uncomfortable — and surprisingly intimate — 1998 performance of “Miss Misery” on Conan O’Brien.


For more on Smith and Good Will Hunting, and to watch Smith’s Oscar performance, see Blog Will Hunting contributor Dave’s thoughtful piece on Smith’s soundtrack from last year and his essay on the album “Either/Or” on Tiny Mix Tapes.

Miss Misery, I wanna push you around, well I will, well I will

Manifest Receipt, February 1998
I tend to save things.

I suppose it should be no surprise that while home for the holidays last fall, in going through folders of old papers, I came across a receipt for a notable purchase from February 23, 1998.  It was from my local record store on College Avenue, and on that day I purchased the Good Will Hunting soundtrack.

I can pretty honestly say this would become one of the most significant music purchases I’d ever make.  I didn’t really listen to music until late in high school… or maybe I did, but it was just the Aladdin soundtrack over and over again.  In tenth grade, though, I discovered my dad’s Beatles collection.  I went from there, largely basing my new tastes on that of my peers: Dave Matthews Band, Counting Crows, Billy Joel (River of Dreams, man).  I can tell you I was definitely not someone who “listened to Dave Matthews before everyone listened to Dave Matthews.”

I can also tell you that on that February day I did not go into Manifest Records to buy the Good Will Hunting soundtrack.  More likely, I was going primarily to get my very own copy of Yourself or Someone Like You by Matchbox 20.  Also predetermined, I picked out the Counting Crows’ August and Everything After.  Somewhat less so, I snagged the soundtrack for the movie Swingers.

Near the cashier was a display of what were probably new(ish) releases.  It speaks to how hurting I was for music suggestions that I picked up the CD soundtrack to a movie I had seen, and loved, but had only vaguely recalled the music. “I think I remember liking it,” I said to myself.

While Matchbox 20 lit up my CD player, Good Will Hunting was more of a slow burn.  When I gave it a first listen I found it nice and mellow — but it kind of “all sounds the same,” I thought.  Matchbox 20, on the other hand… each song blazed like a smash-hit single.  (In fact, five of the twelve songs were released as singles.)  Good Will Hunting, at least, made good background music.

Purchases: 2/23/98But it stayed with me.

I don’t really associate it with those early months of 1998, but in following years it became a staple.  I fondly remember Good Will Hunting keeping me company on late evenings in my dimly-lit college dorm room.  If it was raining outside, it was twice as wonderful.

If not for that impulse buy, who knows how long it would have taken for me to find Elliott Smith?  And I felt like I really discovered him, rather than co-opting his catalog along with whatever else my knowledgeable peers recommended.

Elliott Smith has never been far from my ears this past decade, while Rob Thomas and Company burned out and then they faded away.

Nevertheless, I look back twelve years later and wonder: what if Good Will Hunting‘s soundtrack was populated by the songs of Matchbox 20, rather than those of Elliott Smith?

Last night I put together a little video.  I think it would have looked and sounded a lot like this…

Two tickets torn in half, and nothing to do

Hi. I’m Dave. I’m a friend of Alex’s from way back. One might say I’m the Chuckie to his Will. Or … one might not.

In any case, when Alex told me he was writing a Good Will Hunting blog, I was immediately excited. Not only because I, too, think of the movie more than anyone probably should, but because I am a bit obsessed with Elliott Smith, and this would be yet another venue to vent the effects of my insanity.

I wish I could say I was hip to Elliott Smith from the very beginning; that I was a Portland rock scenester who knew him from Heatmiser. Instead, I was like many others: I heard him in Good Will Hunting and thought to myself, this – this is for me. I want this.

I saw Good Will Hunting on TV recently, and, as watching movies on television often goes, it was a disjointed experience. Commercials interrupted important scenes, profanities became fuzzy and ineffective (all the Southie boys say “friggin'”, right?). I hadn’t watched the movie too carefully since picking up Elliott Smith’s XO in 2000 or so, and it was interesting seeing it through the eyes of a Smith fan. The songs fit perfectly in the background, but they also periodically sneak out in front.

More than the theme song “Miss Misery”, “Between The Bars” is the perfect song for Good Will Hunting, with the dark humor of that punned title and the story of someone stuck in an alcohol-aided (or fueled?) rut. No, the boys in Good Will Hunting aren’t alcoholics (yet), but they are addicted to vices that keep them stagnant, a hole Will digs himself out of at the end of the movie, at which point Smith is replaced with “Afternoon Delight”, just as Either/Or, of which “Between The Bars” is the centerpiece, closes mercifully with the hopeful “Say Yes”.

I’m a musician, and there is no avoiding the fact that I rip off Smith at every turn. Not in terms of melody, but in feel and tone, and I try in vain to capture how his songs are each universes unto themselves. His melodies wind around a fixed point, always moving, but never so far you lose your bearings.

The day Elliott Smith died, I was surprised at how upset I was. I didn’t know him, after all. I think it was because the songs, despite a couple of decent posthumous releases, were gone, along with that sense of discovery. Discovery that so many people felt watching Good Will Hunting, and again seeing the poor bastard, eternally uncomfortable with success, playing at the 1997 Oscars.

That’s what I think of when I think of Good Will Hunting.

Guest Contributor David Brusie is a musician and writer living in Boston. Check him out at davidbrusie.com.