Moose Music

Northern Exposure features the weirdest – and the best – music on prime time





GQ Magazine, November, 1991
by Stephen Fried

With the music writing market a little soft these days, I've been thinking about looking around for a real job. The one that appeals to me most is the deejay position at KBHR – K-Bear – in Cicely, Alaska, but there are two problems. First, the job is filled. And second, it's not real.

I wish it were, because Cicely, the mythical town where the CBS-TV series Northern Exposure is set, seems like a place where someone with my musical sensibility would fit in great. It's the center of what one of the show's creators is fond of calling a "totally nonjudgmental universe" that exists for only one hour on Monday nights. And one of the biggest reasons that Northern Exposure has been so successful at establishing a place to which viewers can escape is its use of popular and unpopular music.

There has, to my knowledge, never been a TV show that made such extensive use of "source" music: everything from Dwight Yoakam, k.d. lang and Kitty Wells to Motley Crue, Sinead O'Connor and Robert Palmer to Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Stan Getz to Little Jimmy Dickens singing his immortal "Take an Old Cold Tater (and Wait)." They use many more songs per episode (an average of twelve) in Northern Exposure than in a month of Miami Vices. And, so far, not one by Phil Collins. These guys have good taste.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps the reason the music on Northern Exposure is so compelling is that the show has no definable musical taste at all, no clear biases or blind spots. The music can by anything – show tunes, opera, rap, zydeco, even stuff by street musicians the producers meet on vacation. And the great thing is that almost nobody in Cicely – young or old, white, black, red or redneck – is offended by the songs played by deejay-philosopher-modern man Chris Stevens, who quotes Jung and searches for his soul in the records he spins on America's most eclectic morning radio show. (Which is so eclectic that it doesn't necessarily come on in the morning.) And nobody says "Will you turn that damned music off!" no matter what spews forth from the world's weirdest, most overstocked jukebox (it must go up to ZZZ999), situated in the local tavern.

Cicely is a town full of highly opinionated sorts, like Dr. Joel Fleischman, who was beamed there from Manhattan when his med-school loan from the state of Alaska came due; Maggie O'Connell, the pioneering pilot whose boyfriends are a dying breed; Maurice Minnifield, the retired astronaut who thinks he owns the town (he only owns most of it); young Ed Chigliak, the Native American Steven Wright; Holling Vincoeur, senior-citizen barkeep and sexual adventurer; Shelly Tambo, Holling's MTV babe; and Marilyn Whirlwind, Fleischman's imperturbable assistant. But even with all these vivid personalities, no one seems to mind if the songs playing are old or new, recognizable or un-, pleasing or shrill. (Although somebody did once ask that the music in the bar be turned down.)

This feeds into my Utopian fantasy about how music could be consumed: by people who are beyond open-mindedness (which ultimately requires some deliberateness) and are simply open to whatever's playing on the sound track of their lives. Amazingly enough, viewers seem to be taken with this fantasy too. CBS gets so many calls each Tuesday morning asking about the titles of tunes used on the show – some of which play for only five seconds – that the producers have taken to providing a song list for each program. MCA Records is talking to the producers about making a Northern Exposure CD: The show's music coordinator has already made two cassette-tape compilations of songs from the program, which were distributed to cast members and friends.

I decided to call Northern Exposure's musical dude to find out how a prime-time TV show has managed to succeed where the music business in general and radio specifically have failed – namely, at exploring music rather than pandering with it. But before talking to the overworked staffer who actually tracks down all the music, I was directed to series co-creator Joshua Brand, he of St. Elsewhere, Amazing Stories and A Year in the Life.

I was, frankly, a little surprised: The big boss actually pays attention to such stuff. But the 41-year-old Brand's genuine fascination with music became clear immediately. He had a master plan for making Northern Exposure unique by incorporating source music, a plan that had developed from the day CBS programming chief Jeff Sagansky suggested that the character Chris, who was always to be the resident shaman, should work as Cicely's deejay. This meant that Chris could present his approach to life over the airwaves. "Chris' philosophical belief is that the uncertainty principle is one on which you can build a life," Brand says. "In terms of music, that means that when you expect to hear a certain kind of song, that's exactly when you should hear something else. Sometimes that requires him to play something bad."

As the Chris character developed and his routines became more routine, Brand came to understand the other value of music in Northern Exposure. "We came to think of music as sort of the sixth man on the show, like our John Havlicek," he says. "We use music to change the quality of scenes on the show, and we have used it to get us out of situations. It makes things that don't work work and things that do work, work better. We sometimes have a lot of production problems on the show, which is shot on location and put together in L.A. There are certain episodes that eventually turn out great but, as we like to say, were 'created mechanically' in post-production. The music was the sixth man."

Very little of the music appears in the scripts that are used while shooting in the little towns of Roslyn and Bellevue, outside of Seattle. And Brand says that almost none of the songs the writers propose turn out to work, anyway. ("Take an Old Cold Tater" was the one exception.) The tunes are generally not chosen until a director's cut of the location footage has literally come down from the mountaintop. It's then that the research begins. Most of the work falls to a 27-year-old associate producer named Martin Bruestle, who used to toil at thirtysomething. It is Bruestle's job to search his own eclectic music collection and that of postproduction man Steve Turner and to comb through the bins at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard or the stacks at L.A.'s commercial music libraries. The last time Bruestle visited his hometown of Bemidji, Minnesota, he went to one of its two radio stations and asked if he could rummage through the basement.

Many times, he is sent to ferret out a song Brand heard while doing something else. Bruestle has called Los Angeles restaurants, trying to determine who was playing at 7:30 on a particular evening when his boss was eating there. ("Jorge? Would he be interested in recording something?") He tracked down an Irish group Brand had heard singing at the L.A. Zoo when he'd taken his kids there, and a steel-drum player Brand had heard on the street playing a killer rendition of "Goodnight Irene." When Brand came back from his vacation in Hawaii, Bruestle was dispatched to find recordings of the native Hawaiian bands his boss had enjoyed with the poi and the pupu. "Josh called me one Saturday morning." Bruestle recalls. "I was still sleeping. He said he heard a song with lyrics something like 'Don Quixote no esta.' I wrote it down, and we tracked it through the lyrics. It ended up being 'Don Quichotte,' by Magazine 60. It was kind of electronic and dance club-ish. I said 'Josh couldn't have picked that!' But he had. He'll stop at nothing."

But just as often, the process begins with Brand, Bruestle or someone else involved with Northern Exposure being turned on to an artist he never knew much about – like, say, Etta James – and then figuring out a way to spin that interest into a musical moment on the show. Steve Turner's liking for k.d. lang ensures that her music will be used frequently (four times so far; she's tied for the lead with country duo Bud and Travis, but Satchmo, Django Reinhardt, Kitty Wells and Ruth Brown have all been heard a number of times). Bruestle compiles several choices for each place where music might be used: a bar scene, a Chris in the Morning scene or any scene that needs more than the incidental music written by David Schwartz (the staff composer, who did the catchy accordion-harmonica-percussion theme song that the moose saunters around to in the opening credits). Then Brand and Bruestle go to a dubbing stage – or, more often than not, just sit with a boom box in the editing room –and try out each song "to picture." It is, they agree, truly amazing how differently the same scene plays with different music.

Some of Brand's favorite juxtapositions came in the episode "Spring Break," in which everyone went a little nuts during the first thaw, and Cicely experienced a crime spree. At one point, Chris explained to Ed why he stole – people have to be reminded, he said, that there is wildness out there, and sometimes you have to do something wrong to know you're alive. It could have been a very trashy or a very dumb scene. But someone was inspired to lay in the aria that dominated the movie Diva (from the obscure Italian opera La Wally, by Catalani, performed by Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez). "When you heard that music playing while Chris talks about petty thievery," recalls Brand, "the scene became extremely elegant and moving." In the show's last sequence, all the men in town stripped off their thermals for the annual nude run through the snowscapes of Cicely. Bruestle suggested a fairly obscure tune by Lindsey Buckingham, "D.W. Suite," about Dennis Wilson's going crazy. It created a lovely moment.

While almost anything can, and has, worked on Northern Exposure (my personal favorite was when they used "New York, New York" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five), some internal guidelines are emerging. The producers generally don't want to use anything too closely associated with some other medium (songs already brought to a larger audience by, say, the sound tracks of The Big Chill or of the Woody Allen oeuvre), except as an inside joke. And the show shies away from tunes that are too popular in their own right – because they are often too expensive to license and arrive with a lot of other associative baggage. "We want the music, like the rest of the show, to be much more of a delightful surprise," says Brand. "There are musicians I love. I love Van Morrison, but a lot of his songs are just too familiar. I don't want something that draws too much attention to itself. We're not 'Hey, look how different we can be, how hip we can be.' Any element of self-consciousness on the show is bad. We think of this show as a souffle: It can easily collapse. We're looking for songs that, without knowing them, you know are great. It's not like olives or beer, where you have to develop a taste for it. Songs you can absorb into your musical lexicon without listening to them over and over."

In other words, they know exactly what they want but have no idea what they want. Or, as Brand readily admits, "I don't know music, but I know what I like." Bruestle is a little more specific: "I just say 'Does the song make you smile? Does it make you feel good?' Although, what makes people smile is very subjective."

Hmm, let me get this straight. A salaried position – paid in L.A. money, which, as we all know, is dispensed like Monopoly dollars – in which you spend your day searching for songs people don't know but will immediately take to? Maybe the deejay's job at KBHR isn't the gig I should be coveting after all.


© Copyright 2008 • Northern Exposure is Copyright Universal City Studios. All Rights Reserved. • Created 2/12/04 • Updated 3/22/08