Your Sister’s (Record) Rack: ‘Zachariah’ soundtrack
I came across this record – the soundtrack for the 1971 movie Zachariah, which was billed at the time as the “first electric western.” Do you remember that one?
This movie, I believe, was one of the strange films that came out of Hollywood after Easy Rider virtually destroyed the old-school big-studio movie model in 1969. In the wake of that groundbreaking movie, filmmakers saw that there was a huge untapped market in the era’s youth – so you had a lot of low-budget movies with avant-garde leanings … and a lot of rock music. It didn’t hurt that Easy Rider was kind of a western too.
So dig this: take the central idea behind Easy Rider (two buddies on the road, searching for something) and put it back in the Old West: check. Rock music? Check. Hey, how about putting rockers in the movie as actors? Oh yeah, check. While we’re at it, let’s just give them their electric guitars and let ’em play on screen! What????
Yeah, that’s Zachariah. The movie opens on this arid desert scene, there’s a lonely rider getting off his horse and scuffling through the dust, then – three dudes playing electric instruments! That’s the James Gang, and that sets into motion the story of young Zachariah (played by John Rubenstein), who gets a mail-order gun and winds up shooting down some dude in the local saloon. He and his friend Matthew (Don Johnson!) join the Crackers, a rock band who are also pitifully inept stagecoach bandits. Zachariah and Matthew eventually set out to become big-time gunslingers, but a break in their friendship grows into a rivalry that can only have deadly consequences.
At first it’s kind of disorienting to see dudes riding around on horses then go into a saloon where Joe Walsh is tearing off a riff on his guitar. Immediately you get the idea this is some kind of spoof, maybe some kind of thing where the people who made it were stoned (it was written by two members of the Firesign Theatre), maybe the movie was intended to be seen by audiences who were also stoned. I remember seeing it when it came out, and even as a 16-year-0ld I thought it was pretty stupid. But I also thought the rock music in the film was killer bee.
So, about the record (this is a blog about music, remember?): it has the rockin’ tune “Laguna Salada” played by the James Gang in the opening sequence. Other artists who appear on the record also acted in the movie – Country Joe and the Fish played the inept Crackers gang, and their spotlight is “All I Need,” a banjo pluckin’ goof song that fits in pretty well with their best-known music. Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw had a small part, and his “Ballad of Job Cain” is pretty good.
Job Cain is a gunslinger, and in the movie he’s played by Elvin Jones, who is easily the best actor here. Jones is actually a musician though – he drummed with the John Coltrane Quartet, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Charlie Mingus. He’s a real bad-ass, and appropriately Job rips a real bad-ass drum solo in the movie.
The rest of the rock music (another song by the James Gang, the New York Rock Ensemble, etc.) is passable, but the soundtrack loses points for me because it includes some of the usual soundtrack music (moody, instrumental strings) by Jimmie Haskell. Of course Zachariah was a flop upon its release. I remember being pretty confused by the whole thing, particularly the really fruity ending. Wasn’t nearly as fun as The Magic Christian, which came out of England the year before. If the movie sounds attractive to you, it’s still around on DVD. No such luck with the soundtrack: it’s out of print.
Rubenstein went on to make other movies (The Boys From Brazil) and did TV; Johnson made his biggest impact on TV (Miami Vice, Nash Bridges); Country Joe played the 40th anniversary of Woodstock last year with no Fish; Kershaw is still presumably around; Elvin Jones died in 2004 and never acted in another movie.