SUBJECT: "The Strawberry Statement" (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
PLACE OF PURCHASE: Happy Trails Records, Corvallis
BY CORY FRYE
I’ve seen The Strawberry Statement (1970) precisely once, burped in edited form onto local television in 1986, long after the hippies became sparkling-water yuppies.
One transformed into my father, wrestling a household of two kids, including a teenage boy: me. Here’s what happens: Bruce Davison’s college naif turns radical, beds the post-True Grit Kim Darby, and grooves to Neil Young. Bud Cort shows up looking mousy-aghast. Then the cops hit a campus protest and beat the shit out of everyone because fuck the pigs. I think. Forgive my middle-aged reminiscence of a half-century-old phenomenon.
Directed by workaday TV vet Stuart Hagmann, the film was loosely based on James Simon Kunen’s The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary, his account of Columbia University life in the mid- to late ’60s, specifically its 1968 unrest. I’ve seen one copy of this book in my life: a $75 paperback under glass at a used bookstore in Whittier, California. Although I never read it, I did peruse his twilit memoir, Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life (2011), in which he grew from counterculture icongraphy into an unemployed Time-Warner/AOL PR flack. “I get up to look out the window and notice that the seat of my black Naugahyde desk chair bears my imprint: two kidney-shaped depressions separated by a crease,” he wrote. A different kind of sit-in altogether.
Bruce Davison, of course, suffered a similar fate. It’s weird to imagine how a man best known now for playing assholes in suits — THE MAN — could feasibly essay a fiery denim militant in his youth. But there he is in 1970, marching with determination to Thunderclap Newman, getting clobbered by the fuzz. Call out the instigators.
Naturally, I leapt upon this curio. A 2-record set for 4 bucks? I had to own it for the rare historical value alone.
The double gatefold opens to stills and credits, plus corny-ass far-out liner notes from then-MGM Records head (“head”) Mike Curb, who would ditch the lion to launch his own label and serve as California’s 42nd lieutenant governor. “It’s music melting symbiotically into the mind, into the body, into the celebration of life,” he writes of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s 1967 interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game,” which opens the set. Modern audiences are more familiar with the song’s trilling presence in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, framing Margot Robbie’s luminescence as Sharon Tate behind the wheel of a Porsche. Joni herself wouldn’t release her take until 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon.
Any decent music freak owns most of the soundtrack in multiple formats already. It focuses heavily on Neil Young in and outside of Crosby, Stills & Nash perennials. Side 1 ends with the estimable “Down by the River” (all four sides feature three to four cuts apiece, necessitating decent slab-flipping workouts) in its 9-minute glory, Young’s lengthy solo pricking at the edges of patience, at last releasing listeners with the woebegone “Be on my side; I’ll be on your side.” He resurfaces on Side 3, romping through “The Loner.” CSN leads into Side 2 with the familiar mourning organ that rises over “Long Time Gone.” Young and CSN then convene for “Helpless” on Side 4.
Between them rest instrumental interstitials variously labeled “Theme from ‘The Strawberry Statement’” that sound vaguely Wrecking Crew-ish in their construction: “Market Basket,” “Cyclatron,” “Colt Tower,” and “Pocket,” written by Ian Freebairn-Smith, who later scored a Grammy for his work with Barbra Streisand, and performed by the MGM Studio Orchestra. What they signify, I’m not sure; none are particularly memorable. “Also Sprach Zarathustra” phones in from space. The mysterious Red Mountain Jug Band (not to be confused with the much later, much younger, much more prolific duo) crashes the classic-rock party with “Fishin’ Blues”; these ukulele- and kazoo-wielding zanies seem to have existed long enough to wax this public domain number, then slunk into oblivion.
Finally, the marathon concludes with the cast en masse chanting John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” as they did before the movie’s concluding billy-club retort. All I could remember was my dad in '86, shrugging his shoulders as the credits rolled. "You had to be there to understand," he said. I felt his presence again after re-holstering the stylus, pondering a generation batoned into submission.