This essay is part of a series of investigations, reflections, and reminiscences by writers, artists, and musicians who were influenced by David Lynch’s seminal television show Twin Peaks. To read more, or to learn about participation, visit www.twinpeaksproject.com.
Thanks to my library’s tattered copies of Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone that were encased in protective blue binders, (wrapped in plastic!), I knew the exact night some highly anticipated and highly bizarre show was going to debut. The critics were freaking out about the premiere of Twin Peaks, saying it was the weirdest thing to hit TV ever, so I—an identity-hungry fifteen year old kid on the brink of a major hormone and brain chemistry explosion—made sure to watch its arrival in the spring of 1990. The very first seconds of the title sequence shocked me into silence. It wasn’t what I saw that floored me; it was what I heard. Don’t get me wrong, the mythology took hold as the story unfolded, particularly the central mystery of who killed Laura Palmer, and why. But composer Angelo Badalamenti’s score was aural heroin.
Did you know that the bird in the opening shot is a Varied Thrush? When I watch the show now, I feel like his look mimics my own from that night when the first bass note hit. His head cocked up to the cloudy sky roughly translates to: “What the hell is that sound and where did it come from?” We both froze in rapturous attention.
Admittedly, I was stoned. But I’d never heard a resonance so deep, so thundering, and yet melodious. The first boom is cautiously wistful, and the second drops several octaves into a dark pit. The third note rises quickly back up to meet the first two somewhere in between, while the piano is a wisp of smoke in the background. I could actually see it.
Once that week’s show was over, there was no way I could get that music back until the next episode. During those pre-internet days, I only had one shot at viewing a program unless I recorded it on the VCR, which I did for the second episode. I watched the opening credits over and over, staring so hard at the screen that everything blurred into leaping green and black dots. For the next two months, I rushed home every Thursday night to watch the show.
At the start of my junior year, just before the second season began, I was furious to discover that a relentlessly friendly cheerleader had gained a copy of the Twin Peaks soundtrack. I hadn’t even known one existed, and I couldn’t picture this girl having any sort of relationship to the music. I was territorial, and convinced that there was no way she had watched the show from the very beginning, like I had. When I overheard her gushing about her purchase during homeroom, I approached her. She reluctantly agreed to let me borrow her tape overnight so I could dub it.
That afternoon, I climbed a flight of narrow stairs to the second floor of the unused barn in our backyard. For the most part, the space was untouched from the previous owners, going back decades. There were shelves of filthy pop-top beer cans; long forgotten brands I didn’t recognize. I made my way through old crates and withered clumps of hay to a broken window in the back corner, out of view from our house. I sat cross-legged in front of my red double cassette boom box, lit a Marlboro, and pressed the play and record buttons simultaneously. There were the normal few seconds of static—the empty reel, followed by the telltale silence of the actual tape hitting the head. The magical first note finally floated from the speakers, now mine to hear whenever and wherever I wanted. I looked up and out at the sky, just like that dumb bird from the show’s credits. I’d never felt lonelier, or more alive.
Music had spoken to me in such a powerful way just a few times before—most recently it had been the continuous soundscape that makes up the entire second side of The Sky’s Gone Out by Bauhaus. Those five pieces, starting with The Three Shadows Part I, transported me to a world perfectly alive in my head, a nether realm that I glided through when I closed my eyes and pressed my cheap, foam-covered headphones painfully close to my ears. I wanted the music to lodge permanently inside my brain, hoping that if it went in deep enough I could turn my body inside out and reach that place Peter Murphy was singing about, where gentlemen said prayers “to the wind of prostitution.” It was a sinister place, but in it I could gain some semblance of control over the emerging awareness that I was gay. I didn’t think being gay was wrong, yet I still felt marked for something evil. At the time, gayness was basically synonymous with AIDS; at fifteen, all I’d ever been told was that sex could kill me. Since experience with guys was what I wanted more than anything, sex became a death wish.
Unlike The Sky’s Gone Out, the Twin Peaks soundtrack came from a world I could actually see on the physical plane, a place where secrets and drugs and something darker ruled over everyone’s lives. It was still an imaginary space, but I began doing my self-destructive best to make it real, because I related to the idea of a place where just a slight scratch across a surface could reveal so much more. Our small, isolated town helped fuel the image I began to craft, and I systematically set out to make my world as sinister as possible while externally radiating a quiet, sweet demeanor. An appearance of innocence made the decisions I began to set in motion easier to get away with. But inside, I considered myself hardened and ruthless to emotionally protect myself from what I saw as the inevitable conclusion to my actions. I modeled myself after a queer version of Laura Palmer, because she seemed to have a death wish, too.
Like most gay kids who grew up in a small town in the nineties, I knew I had to look for someone older if I wanted to lose my virginity. It’s just how it was done in the days before “It Gets Better” campaigns and queer student alliances. I started to hunt the Colgate University campus. It was easy to slip inside the back doors of parties, and I finally met and began to sleep with a depressed twenty-five-year-old senior who majored in neuroscience and had a large tattoo of a spider on his right bicep. He was a serial HIV tester, and even though he told me we were safe, the word had lost most of its meaning.
After him, I grew bolder. I developed a flirtatious relationship with a teacher at school who I’d heard vague whispers about. The situation rapidly advanced toward a punishable offense on his part. Or possibly blackmail on mine, I hadn’t decided which way to steer it yet. The after-school rides in the teacher’s blue jeep were getting longer, he let me smoke in front of him, and he’d recently gotten up the courage to put his hand on my leg. This is when I also gained possession of my first bag of cocaine.
It happened after I’d hopped a Greyhound bus to Rochester to visit some skater friends I’d met through a Unitarian church, where the youth group served some of the same introductory functions as the perfume counter at Horne’s Department Store. It was where you went to meet people who wanted to party. On the first night out of town, I found myself crouched behind the passenger seat of a car full of guys, all of us lightly stoned on a bag of cheap shake. I didn’t know the person in front of me very well, and he was ranting about how coke had screwed up his life. “Fuck it, I’m throwing this shit out,” he said as the car slowed on an off-ramp curve. He stuck his hand out the window, a tiny baggie in his fist. He paused for a second, seemingly unsure if he could actually do it, and I took the opportunity to shoot my arm out the back window and wrap my hand around his. I leaned forward and whispered that I would take it. He released his grip and I swiped the baggie out of his palm safely into my own.
I began to perfect my ability to manipulate situations. I had secrets. I had drugs. And I had Walkman access to music that perfectly fit this new existence. I would smoke in the tiny alley downtown with one foot against the wall to The Bookhouse Boys. I’d put on the slow drone of Nightlife in Twin Peaks while waiting behind a tree for the school play rehearsal to end, for the teacher to pick me up, out of sight from other students. I made out with my much older boyfriend in the college dorms to The Nightingale. Coming down from my first few lines of coke, I rewound Laura Palmer’s Theme over and over. And when it came to the very last song on the tape, I willfully ignored Julee Cruise’s breathless warning:
“Don’t let yourself get hurt this time.”
I knew I wouldn’t. Technically, my relationship with the college student was statutory rape, but I reveled in the fact that we were breaking a law. With the teacher, I loved having an authority figure on a string. I took careful notes on Laura Palmer’s defensive indifference to the men in her life, while she simultaneously made sure they would never leave her. The reward was a fast, hard and dirty life, with sainthood upon death.
I didn’t comprehend at the time that Laura was a victim—she’s naked and dead in the first two minutes. I like to think that had I been a few years older when the show came out I would have been smarter, wouldn’t have been as cavalier about trying to glamorize a woman who met such a violent end as a means of my own self-discovery. But at that time, I wanted danger and I wanted experience; the show and its music coincided perfectly with that awakening. I was desperate to be corrupted because I already considered myself condemned.
I have a hard time listening to the score now. For the most part the show itself makes me laugh; all the melodrama flew right over my head as a teenager. (The movie is a different story—I believe it’s brilliant and criminally ignored.) But the opening credits of Twin Peaks, especially those first three bass notes, feel like something that belongs only to me. They’re a hypnotist’s trick, one that sends me back to high school, waiting for the sun to go down so I can crawl out my bedroom window and into the night.
**Note: A previous version of this essay identified the bird from the opening credits as a Bewick’s Wren. This has been corrected.