By Stephen B. Armstrong
When I lived in Baltimore, the owner of the French restaurant where I had a job as a cook didn’t believe in doing business on the Sabbath, so I never worked Sundays. Instead, I would go to the movies.
Sometimes I’d walk downtown to the Charles Theatre and watch independent films and foreign features. Or I’d take the bus to the harbor and catch new releases at a multiplex on President Street, which is where I saw “Pulp Fiction” for the first time in the fall of 1994.
The picture had premiered just a few weeks earlier, and its intense violence and profanity had prompted several critics to lament the arrival of a new harshness in American cinema; others, however, fawned over John Travolta’s and Samuel L. Jackson’s performances as philosophical hit men and director Quentin Tarantino’s nerdy on-screen allusions to old gangster flicks like “Kiss Me Deadly” and “The Set-up.”
The soundtrack album from “Pulp Fiction” was generating serious interest, too, even though it included several “oldies” first recorded in the 1960s and 1970s by the likes of Al Green, Dusty Springfield, the Statler Brothers and Kool & the Gang. Program directors around the country sensed that the vintage funk, country and rock ‘n’ roll songs featured in the collection were cool again. Mainstream pop stations added throwback R&B tracks “Jungle Boogie” and “Let’s Stay Together,” both given prominent attention in the movie, to their playlists.
The notoriety and ubiquity of “Pulp Fiction” were such that I expected to have trouble finding a seat in the multiplex theater that afternoon, but no one else was in there. I picked a spot under the projection booth and with the edge of my thumb pried open a box of Jujyfruits.
The film soon started, and over the next two and a half hours, I felt like I was watching both the trashiest and the most ambitious crime picture ever made. It was as funny as it was violent, a series of interrelated sketches in which street hustlers, sadists and other bad people chatted about TV shows like “Green Acres” and buying fast food in France as they planned murders.
The scenes all seemed ludicrous, but I liked them anyway, in part because Tarantino embroidered his characters and their problems with surf guitar licks and soul music.
After the movie ended, I stepped outside the theater and inhaled the wet air coming from the harbor. There was a Sam Goody record store in a shopping mall around the corner on East Pratt Street, and I started in its direction.
The Sam Goody was still open, and it had several copies of “Music from the Motion Picture ‘Pulp Fiction’” in stock. Buying the soundtrack on cassette tape rather than CD saved me a couple bucks.
As the city bus carried me back to my neighborhood that night, I read the album’s liner notes card, and once I was inside my apartment, I dropped the tape into the stereo and listened to it, marveling at the freshness of tracks like Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” and Dick Dale’s “Misirlou,” which I played over and over.
Twenty-four years later, whenever I listen to this collection, similar feelings swim through me. The charm of the “Pulp Fiction” soundtrack, like the movie for which it was created, endures.
Stephen B. Armstrong co-hosts “Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll with Katie ‘n’ Steve” on 91.3 Radio Dixie Thursdays at noon.