The Definitive Guide to the Music of The Big Lebowski
L.A. Weekly is celebrating The Big Lebowski's 15th anniversary with a massive cover story tribute! Check out our other Lebowski-themed stories. Not doing so would be very un-Dude.
The Dude's identity is strongly informed by music. As a former Metallica roadie and free love-era denizen still trying to live the dream, The Big Lebowski's protagonist is known to draw lines in the sand: He loves Creedence Clearwater Revival, but he hates the fucking Eagles. In the film, his subconscious is filled with psychedelic anthems, and his bumbling waking efforts are soundtracked by vivid tracks from the '60s and '70s, both famous and obscure. Masterfully curated by roots-obsessed performer and producer T Bone Burnett -- who would later win a Grammy for his work on the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- the music in Lebowski is a second narrator of sorts, carrying the Dude along, sometimes against his will.
Below, the Weekly's music writers thoroughly dissect the most memorable and important songs from the movie. It's almost frightening how much forethought went into setting the film's mood. --Ben Westhoff
Song: "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" (1946)
Performer: Sons of the Pioneers
Where the song is heard: During the opening credits, as a tumbleweed rolls through Los Angeles, past Benito's Tacos and Eagle Rock Lanes and onto the beach. As our story begins, the Dude sniffs a carton of half-and-half in a Ralphs, as "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" morphs into grocery-store Muzak.
The tumbleweed, aka salsola tragus -- or Russian thistle -- is an annual that dies, breaks off at the stem and disperses seeds as it drifts through the desolate desert landscape, rolling with the wind. Much like the Dude.
Though the plant's origins aren't Western (far from it), it has come to symbolize windswept Western landscapes, perfect for Lebowski, whose bad-guy sheriff, gunslinging sidekick, cowboy narrator and just-wants-to-be-left-alone hero give it a Western feel.
The Sons of the Pioneers were a hugely influential Western group formed in 1933 and co-founded by the singing cowboy Roy Rogers, star of more than 100 Western movies and an eponymous TV show. Though he was born in Ohio, Rogers met his Sons of the Pioneers co-founders in Los Angeles. Evoking the 19th-century cowboy era, the group's smooth harmonizing was featured in just about every Hollywood Western that featured music from 1935 to 1950. Though the principals are long dead, the group survives today with different personnel.
Released during World War II, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" evokes the romance of the Old West; Lebowski, on the other hand, which was released in 1998, retreats to a time of war, the early '90s, just about the time of our conflict with Saddam and the Iraqis. --L.J. Williamson
Song: "The Man in Me" (1970)
Performer: Bob Dylan
Where the song is heard: During the opening title sequence, as well as during the scene where the Dude flies after he's been knocked out by Maude Lebowski's henchmen.
At some point post-Woodstock, Bob Dylan decided he wanted to shake loose much of his fan base, i.e., the late-wave hippies. He soon released another masterpiece, New Morning, which contains, amid the laid-back country songs and light-rocking tunes, the once-obscure tune that really ties The Big Lebowski together, "The Man in Me." "Take a woman like your kind/To find the man in me," he sings, likely representing for the Dude his affection for his sort-of love interest, Maude.
The strangest part of all of this? As channeled through Lebowski, the song has become the unofficial wedding song of my generation. In fact, one summer a few years ago, I attended eight weddings, from New England to Alabama to Southern California, and all but one featured "The Man in Me."
For some of my friends, it was their first dance. Others had it in the ceremony, and one brave pal performed it with a band. None of these guys was a particularly huge Dylan fanatic; the through-line was simply that they all saw the Dude as an earnest role model.
"Oh, what a wonderful feeling/Just to know that you are near," Dylan sings.
I think most men would agree it has a much better ring than, "Till death do us part." --Paul T. Bradley
See also: The 20 Worst Albums of the '90s
Song: "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles" (1972)
Performer: Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band
Where the song is heard: While the Dude is fixing a White Russian, listening to answering-machine messages ("I just thought it was fair to tell you that Gilbert and I will be submitting this to the league") and performing tai chi moves on his replacement rug.
When T Bone Burnett included the deep cut "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles" from Captain Beefheart's 1972 album, Clear Spot, did he have Maude Lebowski's lustrous blue-green eyes in mind? Perhaps it's intended to foreshadow the imminent and unlikely relationship between the highfalutin avant-garde painter and the bowling aficionado. The lyric "I don't see what she sees in a man like me/She says she loves me" perhaps references a scene later in the film, when Maude emerges from the Dude's bedroom, drops his robe, which she's wearing, and demands: "Love me."
"Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles" also may be an homage to the rug itself, with its blue diamond within an oval-shaped center. The scene featuring the track begins with a tight shot of the rug's center, highlighting its blue "eye." It is the rug, of course, that is the impetus for Maude and the Dude's initial meeting.
The voice of Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, also makes perfect sense to speak for our far-out protagonist, who lives in Los Angeles and enjoys the occasional acid flashback. Beefheart is quintessential psychedelica, and Glendale-born Van Vliet was a painter and sculptor from childhood. In fact, Clear Spot originally contained an insert photograph of Beefheart and the Magic Band at the control panel of the Griffith Park Observatory's Planetarium, not far from the Dude's Hollywood apartment.