The Shawshank Redemption and The Bends by Radiohead
The Bends has always been the unofficial soundtrack to The Shawshank Redemption for me.
April 1995 is when I saw The Shawshank Redemption for the first time. Maybe it was May, but it was in that window somewhere. The dates aren’t clear at this point in my life, but I’m doing my best to reconstruct it with the internet. Here’s how I was able to put it together. First of all, I know for a fact that I didn’t see Shawshank in the theater, and I looked up the VHS release date. I also know that Radiohead’s The Bends was released in March of 1995 and that I was obsessed with that record simultaneously. I distinctly remember feeling those songs in a meaningful way at the same time I saw Shawshank for the first time. While these two pieces of art shouldn’t have anything to do with each other, they will always feel strangely connected in my mind.
In March 1995, I was a newly minted 16-year-old. I was a privileged kid, so I got my license immediately, and my dad bought me my first car, a 1988 Plymouth Sundance. He paid some guy an extra $100 to put a CD player in it for me. I believe the total cost was $3500, but those crank windows and pleather seats were all mine! And sure, the speakers sounded tinny, but I didn’t have to bother with cassettes like so many of my friends. I was living in the technological future! Digital discs or my favorite music. Armed with a Case Logic booklet full of obsessive love, I embraced the freedom of having a driver’s license. Most notably, I was a serial user of my local video store. If I had a weekend with nothing to do, I’d easily rent three or four movies and plow through them. I’ve seen so many movies in my life; it would probably be unbelievable to some of you.
In those days, the car stereo was an obsession. I would think about what I was going to listen to for an hour leading up to leaving for whatever I was going to do. When I was driving the girls who lived in my neighborhood to school, I leaned into Big Ones by Aerosmith because everyone loved Aerosmith in those days. “Amazing,” “Cryin’", “Livin’ on the Edge,” and tear-jerkers like “Angel” were universal musical language. But when I was driving alone, that’s when I was listening to the stuff that was for me. I’d rage out to When the Kite String Pops by Acid Bath. I’d play The Downward Spiral as loud as those tinny speakers would allow. Later that year, I would be listening to Jagged Little Pill. When I wanted to sing at the top of my lungs, I embraced my inner diva and sang all the histrionic falsettos of Thom Yorke on Radiohead’s The Bends.
“It wears me out.” There’s no more perfect lyric in 90s alternative rock than that in the context of the soaring vocals that precede it in “Fake Plastic Trees.” But before you get to my second favorite song on The Bends, you get hit with the syncopated rhythms of “Planet Telex.” It has maybe the simplest chord progression imaginable for the chorus, but you start to hear the layered shimmering sounds that would become Radiohead’s identity then and into the future. They made everything sound much more than what it would have been stripped down to its acoustic roots.
“The Bends” is Radiohead at their most anthemic and guitar-driven. It’s an arena rock opening if I’ve ever heard one. I might have thought it was a reaction to touring on the success of “Creep,” but come to find out later, “The Bends” was one of the band’s earliest songs ever written, and it could have been on Pablo Honey. It’s a song that deals with insecurity, loss of identity, and social rejection, and it pretty much speaks directly to a weird teenage boy who doesn’t know where he fits in socially. Back in those days, I was an athlete, but I wanted to be a musician with that crowd. I was in classes with the smart kids, but I was a slacker who ranked near the bottom of that top tier. Anyway, here’s “High and Dry.”
They're the ones who'll hate you
When you think you've got the world all sussed out
They're the ones who'll spit at you
You will be the one screaming out
Don't leave me high
Don't leave me dry
Don't leave me high
Don't leave me dry
This past week, we watched Shawshank with my 13-year-old son. It was his first time seeing the film and my first time in many years. I’ve probably seen the movie a dozen times, but I had long since taken it for granted. The magic of the film is in the overall tone and tenor. Tim Robbins’ portrayal of Andy Dufresne is impossibly calm and collected in the face of literal terror, tragedy, and physical brutality. In Dufresne, you’ve got a man with the odds stacked against him. Still, he essentially has superpowers that he uses to garner a rooftop beer party for his fellow inmates and a library. Of course, it ultimately enables him to turn Shawshank into one of the ultimate revenge flicks. If you skimmed over the story’s outline, you could easily mistake it for a Disney movie, except if you watch it for all the gory details as this epic character study unfolds.
Morgan Freeman’s “Red” serves as unlikely conscience and sage narrator and storyteller for the film. The interplay of Red and Andy as the should-be anti-heroes make Shawshank one of cinema's most unrepeatable unicorns. You can write a million great stories, but getting Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman to make a film like this at the top of their game is like catching a shooting star.
As I said, I was listening to The Bends constantly when this movie came into my life. I absolutely loved “Creep.” I still think of it as one of the greatest songs I’ve ever loved because of how much that song swept me up when I heard it as a kid. But I didn’t believe in this band because I didn’t really like the rest of Pablo Honey. I’m not saying I’m right and that the album stinks, but it didn’t grab me. That’s just me being honest. I take no joy in it. Much in the same way that I had no idea that Shawshank would vault into the top echelon of movies I would ever watch in my life, I had no idea that I could ever be so taken with The Bends.
I liked “My Iron Lung” when I heard it as the first single and bought the EP. It was interesting and sounded unique in the landscape of alternative rock at the time. The schizophrenic nature of the songwriting was a harbinger of things to come from Radiohead in ways we wouldn’t understand until O.K. Computer, but it also stuck out at the moment. I bought it because it included an acoustic version of “Creep” if I’m being perfectly honest. But when I heard
”Lung,” it really stuck out. The top alternative songs in September of 1994 were tunes like “Interstate Love Song” by STP, “Undone” by Weezer,” “Fell on Black Days” by Soundgarden, “Breathe” by Collective Soul, “All I Wanna Do” by Sheryl Crow, and “Fade Into You” by Mazzy Star. The grungy offbeat, almost reggae-like guitar riffs that accent the crazy sections of “My Iron Lung” were cacophonous compared to what else was happening on the radio.
I bought the full album when The Bends came out, but instantly realized that it wasn’t going to be about “Lung” for me. I heard “High and Dry,” “Fake Plastic Trees,” and “Nice Dream.”
“Bullet Proof … I Wish I Was” is one of the most understated and pretty songs of Radiohead’s career. It’s not filler, though, as the band once again uses this simple song structure as a pallet for their sonic experimentations. They follow it up with “Black Star,” which is one of the most underrated straight-forward alternative rock hits in Radiohead’s career. And maybe calling it a “hit” is a misnomer because it wasn’t a big hit. But damnit if it doesn’t sound like one. It was a hit for me.
I buried the lede, however. The real connection between Radiohead and Shawshank is in “Street Spirit (Fade Out.)” The song is inspired by the band R.E.M. and the 1991 novel The Famished Road by Ben Okri. I didn’t know any of that at the time. All I know is that I could hear the arpeggiated guitars in my mind as Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufresne is crawling through 500 yards of shit on his way to freedom. The tension of the busy guitars with the calm demeanor of the drums and legato vocals gives the song an unsettling beauty. When I think about all the brutality and unfairness that befalls Andy Dufresne on his way to freedom, those two words once again fit perfectly. Unsettling beauty.
The same could be said for the video for “Street Spirit.”
When I recently wrote about going to see Manchester Orchestra at Red Rocks, I posted the link on Facebook, and one of my dear friends commented that they “love how much I love music.” It’s honestly one of the nicest and most on point things you could say to someone like me. I’ve always made my favorite music a part of my identity. It’s led me to love, brotherhood and feelings of religious inspiration, and non-drug ecstasy. I hear it and see it and feel it in colors and numbers. I have the best time talking about it and trying to express its power of connection and wonder.
As powerful as Frank Darabont, Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, and Radiohead are in their own right, I’m empowered to make connections they never dreamed of when they set out to make their art. That’s where the magic in this world is for me. Now that I’m sharing this art generationally and across the streams of format and genre, it makes me feel like one of the luckiest people on earth. I think that’s what other people get from going to church. It’s taken me a long time to realize that’s what I have been chasing my entire life and what I get from my favorite musicians and other artists who bless us with their talents.
“Street Spirit” might be one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard in my life, but it’s also one of the most inspirational thanks to the final line, repeated twice.
Immerse your soul in love
Immerse your soul in love