Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Lost Highway put David Lynch onto America’s car stereos

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images, Graphic: Nick Wanserski/Jimmy Hasse
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images, Graphic: Nick Wanserski/Jimmy Hasse

If Twin Peaks brought David Lynch into America’s living rooms, then Lost Highway put him on America’s car stereos. The film itself is a heady mindfuck of a neo-noir tale structured around the idea of a Möbius strip, a reassurance that network TV had not impeded Lynch’s ability to dive into the deeper, darker waters of his subconscious. Save for The Straight Story, none of Lynch’s films can be called “heartwarming,” but the tone of Lost Highway is especially chilling, eschewing tongue-in-cheek Americana for snuff films, graphic head wounds, and a sinister Mystery Man pale as death itself. Like its predecessors Wild At Heart—which debuted to mixed reception at Cannes, despite winning the Palme D’Or—and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, critics and audiences didn’t seem to know what to make of the film, and it left theaters after a modest three-week run.


In those three weeks, though, Lost Highway managed to wrap its tentacles around multiplexes, eventually expanding to more than 300 theaters across the U.S.— presumably on single screens tucked into shadowy corners at the end of long, dark hallways. The Lost Highway soundtrack was even more successful at penetrating suburbia, eventually reaching No. 7 on the Billboard 200 chart and achieving certified gold status in the U.S. So why was the soundtrack so successful, more so—at least in a commercial sense—than the film it came from?

Lynch has always been as much of an audio artist as a visual one, with music and sound design essential to evoking the buzzy discomfort of Eraserhead’s industrial anxiety or Blue Velvet’s forbidden sadomasochistic longing. Lost Highway similarly uses sound to build atmosphere, with repeated musical cues and snippets of dialogue providing clues to decoding the film’s fractured timeline. The difference here is that Lynch’s earlier films seemed to exist in their own worlds, far outside of the pop cultural zeitgeist—even his most notable foray into pop music to date, the evocative renditions of Bobby Vinton and Roy Orbison in Blue Velvet, had come with an ironic distance from a time when crooners topped the charts. In 1997, however, as goth and industrial bands vied with swing revivalists and Lilith Fair singer-songwriters to fill the post-grunge void, Lynch’s obsession with buzzsaw acoustics was positively on trend.

With the wave of dark music being released at the time, the Lost Highway soundtrack also gives us an opportunity to peer into Lynch’s personal listening habits. On the suggestion of a mutual friend, Lynch recruited Nine Inch Nails frontman and future Oscar winner Trent Reznor—who at the time had only done one soundtrack, 1994’s Natural Born Killers—to produce the album, then populated it with alternative stars of the era hand-picked for their commercial as well as their inspirational qualities. (Coil’s John Balance rather bitterly described Lynch’s approach in a 1997 interview, saying, “He wanted David Bowie, he wanted Marilyn Manson, he wanted whoever he could get. He just said, ‘These people are really big. I want this film to be really big.’ He didn’t give a fuck about the integrity.” Apparently, Reznor had pushed for Coil to be included on the soundtrack, only to have its music rejected by Lynch.) Cameos from ’90s movie staple Henry Rollins as a prison guard and Marilyn Manson as a porn star only enhance the backstage-pass rock ’n’ roll vibe.

At first, Reznor, who had been a massive Twin Peaks fan, was intimidated by Lynch. Here’s how he described the experience to Rolling Stone:

[H]e’d describe a scene and say, “Here’s what I want. Now, there’s a police car chasing Fred down the highway, and I want you to picture this: There’s a box, OK? And in this box there’s snakes coming out; snakes whizzing past your face. So, what I want is the sound of that—the snakes whizzing out of the box—but it’s got to be like impending doom.” And he hadn’t brought any footage with him.

But eventually the two bonded over their experience as weirdo artists who had stumbled into success, and Reznor wrote tracks for the score based on patterns Lynch would draw on scraps of paper and a particularly musical white noise machine.

Along with a pair of instrumental compositions—one of which was done in collaboration with Peter Christopherson of Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, and, yes, Coil—Reznor wrote a new Nine Inch Nails song, “The Perfect Drug,” for the film. Influenced by Reznor’s interest in the British jungle and drum ’n’ bass scenes, the song combines sexually charged lyrics and a catchy chorus with a frenetic techno beat. It plays a bit like a slick reprise to the 1994 NIN hit “Closer,” complete with a Mark Romanek-directed video that leans heavily into the Victoriana aspect of goth with hedge mazes, top hats, women in corseted gowns serving absinthe, and Reznor sporting his best Gary Oldman-as-Dracula facial hair.


Reznor largely dismissed “The Perfect Drug” in an interview with Viva 2 magazine in 1999, writing it off as a stylistic experiment that’s “the most I’ve ever seen external influence come out in my own music” that was recorded during a “transition period” amid the freedom of working on a movie soundtrack. “It’s the last thing that I would play to somebody if they said play me, you know, the top hundred songs you’ve written,” he said. “I’m not cringing about it, but it’s not my favorite piece.” He expressed similar ambivalence in a Pitchfork piece about Lynch’s soundtracks last year, noting that he got sober a few years later and saying, “When I think back, that was one of my regrets—I wasn’t at 100 percent during the time I spent with [Lynch] on Lost Highway. I was struggling to keep my shit together, convincing myself that it was business as usual. Looking back I know that I could have been better.”


Shortly before he started working on Lost Highway, Reznor had toured with David Bowie, who had done some dabbling of his own in the gothic-tinged industrial electronic genre he had anticipated on his Berlin Trilogy of albums. One of those experiments, “I’m Deranged,” bookends Lost Highway; the original four-minute, 30-second track is extended and cut into two pieces, the second isolating Bowie’s haunting vocal track for the first few bars. The song originated on Outside, Bowie’s 1995 reunion album with Brian Eno, who co-wrote “I’m Deranged”; the album is a Brazil-esque conceptual piece about a commissioner charged with investigating “art crimes” in a dystopian near future. Bowie and Eno interviewed mental patients in Vienna while conceiving the album, but Lynch heard the track and saw broken yellow lines clicking past at high speed under bright white headlights, a vision that inspired the opening and closing credits of the film as well as its climactic late-night drive through the desert.

Like Bowie, Lou Reed was a pioneer of the heavy experimental sounds that dominate Lost Highway’s aesthetic. So it’s rather ironic that he contributes a relatively straightforward, romantic pop cover, linking nostalgia with menace in the spirit of Lynch’s perversions of Roy Orbison in Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. Written by the songwriting team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, “This Magic Moment” was originally recorded by the early ’60s incarnation of the doo-wop group Ben E. King And The Drifters. Their rendition is sweet as a strawberry milkshake, but Reed’s version replaces the smooth harmonies and hokey string arrangements with his dry speak-singing and the metallic rumble of an electric guitar. The Pomus tribute CD for which Reed originally recorded his cover is long since out of print, but you can hear Shawn Colvin’s cover of “Viva Las Vegas” from the same album in the end credits (but not soundtrack) to The Big Lebowski.

Bowie’s and Reed’s contributions to Lost Highway were recorded for other projects, but “Eye,” the hypnotic, drum-machine-driven Smashing Pumpkins song, was a commission—and a last-minute one, at that. After failing to obtain the rights to The Pixies’ “Ana,” Lynch charged Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan with writing an original song for the film; Corgan presented him with an early version of “Tear” from the group’s electronica-driven album Adore, only to be told, as Corgan puts it in a 2009 video interview for the David Lynch Foundation, “It’s not going to work, Billy.” So Corgan, scrambling to come up with another song in a hurry, dug up a repetitive, Dr. Dre-inspired drum-machine track he had recorded for Shaquille O’Neal and reworked it into “Eye.” So next time you watch Lost Highway and Pete and Sheila are slow dancing, remember that in a Lynchian alternate reality, Shaq is rapping over that beat.

Years later, Lynch would call Corgan “a magical musician” in a press release for his foundation, but that’s nothing compared to the praise he’s heaped on Marilyn Manson. Since the two met through Trent Reznor during the production of Lost Highway, not only has Lynch lent his name and some short films to a joint art show (and later, coffee-table book) with Manson called Genealogies Of Pain, he wrote a short, typically cryptic introduction to Manson’s autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out Of Hell:

Outside, it was raining cats and barking dogs. Like an egg-born offspring of collective humanity, in sauntered Marilyn Manson. It was obvious—he was beginning to look and sound a lot like Elvis.


That’s it. That’s the whole introduction.

After their initial meeting, Lynch ended up using two Manson songs in Lost Highway: first, his infernal cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ already-unhinged “I Put A Spell On You” from the 1995 EP Smells Like Children, which went platinum on the strength of another cover, the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This).” Then there’s the grimy “Apple Of Sodom,” which Manson wrote for the film and opens with a barely audible, whispered snippet of dialogue: “You will never have me,” Alice’s cold dismissal of Pete when he proclaims his undying love. That theme carries through to the song’s lyrics, which growl, “I’ve got something you can never eat,” alongside imagery of original sin and physical and moral decay. A video for the song was actually shot after it was recorded in 1996, but never aired on MTV due to its nudity and general cheapness (Manson’s words, not ours). It finally emerged in 2009, when director Joseph Cultice uploaded it to YouTube.

Manson also makes his acting debut in Lost Highway, in a brief cameo as a porn star who, unbeknownst to him, is starring in a snuff film. In the movie, Manson’s about as far from an oiled-up, muscular porno beefcake as you can get: pale and thin, with long, stringy hair and his signature special-effects contact lenses. Talking about the experience with BBC Radio in 2015, Manson puts on his best David Lynch voice (Corgan does a pretty decent one, too) and says, “‘Now, Marilyn, listen, you’re going to be naked, covered in blood, and you’re going to fall down. Why? Doesn’t matter.’ That was my experience working with David Lynch.” He adds that his favorite Lynch movie is actually Wild At Heart and wonders aloud if “that proves I’m not as narcissistic as people think.”

But while Manson’s music straddles the line between the erotic and the terrifying, it’s German industrial band Rammstein that steps in when things get really nightmarish. Rammstein had sent Lynch a copy of its debut album, and after putting it off for a while, Lynch finally played it in his car while driving around scouting locations for Lost Highway. He loved it. So after checking the band’s darkling bona fides with Manson, he decided to use Rammstein on the soundtrack—and blare it on repeat at top volume on the set, as Henry Rollins later recalled. Rammstein was still obscure in the U.S. at the time: A contemporary Billboard article specifically mentions Lynch’s advocacy as a driving force behind its commercial breakthrough, and Anthrax’s Scott Ian, who’s a big Rammstein fan, claims to have heard its music for the first time in Lost Highway. And the admiration goes both ways: The band included footage from Lost Highway in the official video for “Rammstein”:

In its native Germany, Rammstein’s image was a bit like a more self-serious KISS, prone to statements like “Rammstein is the place where hope crashed to the ground” and known for onstage pyrotechnics. (Singer Till Lindemann typically performed the band’s titular number with flames covering the back and sleeves of his 140-pound “fire suit.”) Rammstein’s lyrics about serial killers and child molesters, militaristic onstage uniforms, and general lack of humor led to charges of involvement with right-wing fringe political groups, much like those that plagued its fellow theatrical doom-rockers Laibach. Lynch strips Rammstein of this context, and to the uninitiated it must have sounded like the jaws of hell creaking open.


For the film, Lynch and Reznor edited down two Rammstein songs, “Rammstein” and “Heirate Mich,” from the band’s debut album Herzeleid, whose cover depicts all five members oiled up and shirtless in front of a giant flower. Herzeleid, which translates to “Heartbreak,” is purportedly a breakup album. But Lynch uses it more like haunted-house music, Lindemann’s bass-baritone ominously intoning an occult incantation as Pete searches for Alice in a hallway full of fog and flashing funhouse lights. “Rammstein” serves as the soundtrack to Pete’s psychosis throughout, re-appearing when he goes to the Lost Highway Hotel—a place that may or may not be real—to confront Robert Loggia’s Dick Laurent. “Hierate Mich,” translated as “Marry Me,” meanwhile, is less prominent; it appears twice in the film, but Lynch mostly just utilizes the ominous spoken-word vocal intro backed by eerie chanting for a scene where Alice, Mr. Eddy, and their sleazy crew watch a snuff movie.

Lynch is also a big fan of Barry Adamson, who composed tracks for the film’s score based on a piece of advice Lynch gave him: “When you work to a scene like this, it’s a good thing to look at their eyes all the time rather than going on what’s being said or what can you hear.” Adamson, a longtime fixture on the Manchester music scene, had taken a break from playing with Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds in the mid-’80s; during his sabbatical, he produced a series of sonic experiments that eventually led to his first solo record, Moss Side Story. A deliberate calling card made in hopes of getting soundtrack work, the record combines jazz, lounge, and electronic sounds in a manner not unlike Lynch’s longtime collaborator Angelo Badalamenti.


And it worked. In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, Adamson recalls getting a call from Lynch, who had been given a copy of Moss Side Story by one of the women who worked in his office. “Barry. This is David Lynch. I’ve been listening to your music for 10 hours straight,” Adamson remembers him saying. “I would like you to work on my new movie. I will send you a scene. Show it to no one.” In the end, Adamson contributed two variations on slinky jazz number “Mister Eddy’s Theme,” as well as the ambient “Hollywood Sunset,” cut down from 10 pieces of music spanning 40 minutes. Lynch also edited down the ’60s-inspired, organ-driven lounge song “Something Wicked This Way Comes” from Adamson’s atmospheric Oedipus Schmoedipus for use in the film, for a sound that Movieline wrote “reshuffles the flotsam and jetsam of film noir music and ’60s pop in a way that always plays up the sinister.” “The film is so up my street,” Adamson said in an interview with City Of Absurdity. “I connected with it totally. It’s a thriller, it’s noir, there’s mystery, horror, it was perfect for me.”

In terms of instrumentals, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s version of the bossa nova standard “Insensatez” (“How Insensitive”), previously recorded as a vocal track by the likes of Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra, adds another layer of titillating kitsch fantasia with strings and piano. But the star of the Lost Highway score is, as always, Angelo Badalamenti. Like they do for every project, early in the pre-production process, Lynch and Badalamenti sat down and came up with a few musical themes on a keyboard, then each went off to follow their respective muses—Lynch the marriage of sound and image, and Badalamenti the evolution of a simple melody into an orchestral arrangement.


Badalamenti’s music is always laid-back and a little aloof—in a 2004 review, Pitchfork rather contemptuously referred to his Lost Highway score as “heroin-den background music”—but especially so on “Dub Driving,” which evokes the dangerous sexuality of Fire Walk With Me’s Pink Room while riding a Jamaican-inspired bass line. “Haunting And Heartbreaking” and “Fred And Renee Make Love” are more workmanlike examples of atmospheric background music, and “Police” is little more than an eerie series of sustained tones mimicking a police siren. Then there’s “Fats Revisited,” which starts off like a haunted piano playing by itself before the swish of a brush across a snare drum invites in lush strings and, by the end of the song, a full orchestra; and “Fred’s World,” which sees Badalamenti building exquisite layers of sound like he did in the Twin Peaks theme.

But the most notable—both musically and cinematically—Badalamenti composition on Lost Highway is “Red Bats With Teeth,” a steadily building jazz number that starts off controlled, but eventually loses its cool and spins out into an atonal free-jazz frenzy. It’s the perfect evocation of poor Fred’s mental state, who blows the song’s anarchic final solo while thinking about his wife’s infidelity early in the film.

Badalamenti is Lynch’s most reliable inspiration, but Lost Highway is significant in that it was his first chance to use another profoundly influential piece of music—This Mortal Coil’s ethereal cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song To The Siren”—in one of his films. Lynch had wanted to use “Song To The Siren” in Blue Velvet, but couldn’t get the rights. Instead, at Badalamenti’s suggestion, he brought on singer Julee Cruise to recreate that same otherworldly, weightless quality in “Mysteries Of Love” and, later, “Falling,” the vocal version of the Twin Peaks theme. A decade and two Cruise albums later, producer Ivo Watts-Russell finally gave permission for “Song To The Siren” to be used in a movie—but only in the movie, not on the soundtrack album. And Lynch made the most of it. The song, given a Celtic new-age quality by singer Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, shows up three times throughout Lost Highway: once as Fred and Renee lay in bed, again when Fred has the vision that turns him into Pete, and finally toward the end as Alice is lit up by Pete’s headlights, her blond hair glowing and her skin a luminous pink.

Bouncing from tawdry lounge music to glitchy goth-industrial furor to gauzy new-age-inspired melodies, the Lost Highway soundtrack should give listeners sonic whiplash. But it doesn’t. The whole thing holds together quite well as an album, incorporating snippets of dialogue to smooth the transition from mood to mood between songs. The heavy bass that serves as a through-line connecting all the alt-rock numbers helps, as does the fact that the songs on the album are in approximately the same order as in the film, taking the listener on an emotional ride similar to what they’d get in the theater. It’s Lynch’s most accessible soundtrack (not film; Lost Highway is actually one of his more impenetrable), a gateway drug to get teenagers hooked before they move on to the harder stuff, like dark ambient and noise bands and obscure Italian film scores on vinyl. It’s a doorway to another, cooler, darker dimension, lying in wait in shrink wrap at the mall.