Heraclitus tells us that a person can never step twice into the same river. This saying, according to Borges, has a double meaning. Just as a river is always the same but is always changing, so too is the person who steps into it.
I often recall Heraclitus’s maxim when thinking about my childhood self. He seems so different from me, from who I am now. We do not share the same thoughts, the same interests, or the same circumstances. Even our bodies appear so different as to negate the significance of our partially overlapping atoms: mine large and rough and overgrown with hair, his small and smooth and unblemished. What connects me to that child, other than physical continuity? DNA? Memories? A certain resemblance that can be seen and faintly heard in pictures and home videos?
It certainly is not our taste in music. Now, I’m not saying that I should have been listening to Keith Jarrett and Tago Mago as a child, or even that but when I think of some of the stuff I enjoyed back then, good lord. Young MC. The Simpsons Sing the Blues. Late-period Def Leppard. And of course, my all-time favorite, the soundtrack to the original motion picture Cocktail.
I loved the film Cocktail, which my parents let me watch when it came out on Showtime. It stems from the era when Tom Cruise was riding a string of hits about being awesome at stuff, such as flying fighter jets and racing stock cars. In the case of Cocktail, he was awesome at bartending. Cruise’s showmanship with liquor bottles, I think, had a lot to do with why I loved this movie so much. Once, while attempting to imitate him, I accidentally dropped a big plastic bottle of Heinz ketchup, which exploded all over the kitchen. My mom was thoroughly unimpressed, and she punished me, whether for making a mess or for being an idiot, I’m not really sure.
As much as I loved the movie, I loved the soundtrack even more. I had the cassette, and a Walkman, and I spent more than one summer rocking out to such jams as “Wild Again” and “Kokomo” while mowing the lawn. And it wasn’t just me. Other kids loved Cocktail, too, and I distinctly recall discussing the songs at school the way people now discuss episodes of Game of Thrones with their co-workers.
I’m not sure if I just grew out of the music on Cocktail (and into more sophisticated fare, such as Adrenalize) or if I had some more significant shift in my musical taste, but it occurred to me recently that I hadn’t seen the film or listened to the soundtrack in well over two decades. It also occurred to me that listening to the soundtrack now might be a way for me to reconnect with the little boy I once was, to see if I could discover the link between myself and the child that I once was, and, possibly, to evaluate the course my life has taken, the way Charles Ryder does when he stops at Brideshead Castle.
In pursuit of this goal, I recently went back and listened to the songs on Cocktail, attempting to experience them with fresh ears. I then wrote this essay summarizing my reactions, on a track-by-track basis, grouped into three categories: the Opening Songs, the Big Hits, and the Filler.
The soundtrack kicks off with “Wild Again,” a late-period Starship track. Starship, the band behind the grotesque “We Built This City,” was the lineal descendant of Jefferson Airplane, which eventually became Jefferson Starship and then, after a complicated legal battle, just Starship. Reading the Allmusic.com biography of Starship is one of
the most interesting things I’ve done in a long time. The band’s story concludes in the early 90s, when one of its former members steals the name Starship, re-records a bunch of the band’s songs, and releases them as a greatest hits album. Grace Slick, who owned the name Starship, didn’t even bother to stop him. (By the way, did you know that Grace Slick is almost 80? Did you also know that you and everyone you care about will keep getting older as time goes on and that this fact will feel sadder and sadder to you the more you reflect on it?)
I used to think “Wild Again” was awesome, and listening to it now, I have to say that it is actually pretty good, despite some corny Beverly Hills Cop-style marimba effects at the beginning. It’s the kind of song that, if a character on a television show wrote and performed it—Jesse Spano from Saved by the Bell, say—it would be believable that her friends would be proud of her.
“Wild Again” is followed by the forgettable “Powerful Stuff,” by Jimmie Ray Vaughan’s Texas blues-rock band The Fabulous Thunderbirds, and “Since When” by Robbie Nevil. I had to listen to the latter song on YouTube, since Tidal and Spotify apparently couldn’t secure the rights to many of Cocktail’s songs. I actually had no memory of “Since When.” It was nowhere near as bad as I expected it to be.
The Big Hits
“Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” on the other hand, was much worse than I expected it to be. For some reason, I had fond memories of Bobby McFerrin’s mega-hit, which I always thought had been treated unfairly by posterity, thrown out with the bathwater of 80s excess during the hangover and detoxing of the early 90s. I was very wrong. McFerrin is a talented vocalist, but everything about this song, particularly the pointless spoken intercessions (“Look at me, I’m happy”), is agonizing.
So now we come, at last, to the spiritual heart of the Cocktail soundtrack: The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo.” The first thing you need to know about this song is that Brian Wilson did not write it. “So what?” you might say. “Brian Wilson didn’t write a lot of songs.” True, but you’re missing the point. “Kokomo” was written by Mike Love and a trio of assisting songwriters and recorded during a period where Brian Wilson, generally regarded as both the Lennon and the McCartney of The Beach Boys, was getting the cold shoulder from Love and the rest of the remaining Boys. (Drummer Dennis Wilson drowned in 1980 after releasing the terrific, largely overlooked solo album Pacific Ocean Blue.) It is simultaneously one of the best songs ever written about an imaginary island and one of the worst songs in the world. Of all of Brian Wilson’s many formidable achievements—“Surfer Girl,” “Help
Me Rhonda,” “California Girls,” Pet Sounds, “Good Vibrations”—not being in any way responsible for “Kokomo” may be his greatest.
The second thing you need to know about this song is that, in 2006, disgruntled NASA technician Ed Hodges, of Titusville, Florida, secretly slipped a CD-R containing “Kokomo” into one of the side panels of the New Horizons spacecraft shortly before it was launched. Approximately one thousand years from now, aliens passing through the Oort Cloud will find this spacecraft. These aliens had previously learned about the existence of Earth by listening to the Golden Record stashed aboard the Voyager II spacecraft (launched in 1977), which contained recordings of classic and important music from various of our planet’s cultures, and will be on their way to share with humanity their advanced technology and their insights into achieving world peace. Upon opening up New Horizons, they will find the Hodges CD, listen to “Kokomo,” and then turn their spaceship around and go home.
The rest of the soundtrack consists primarily of covers of 50s rock n’ roll songs by contemporary artists, suggesting that the film’s music director blew most of her budget on the two big hits. The Georgia Satellites add some milquetoast distortion to “Hippy Hippy Shake,” John Cougar Mellencamp covers Buddy Holly’s “Rave On,” Ry Cooder does an excellent version of “All Shook Up,” and Little Richard covers a Pat Boone song. Of these, only the Cooder track merits repeat listening. For any of the others, you should just go straight to the original. Mellencamp’s primary innovation to “Rave On,” for example, is adding an accordion, which tells you pretty much all you need to know. Things wrap up with “Oh, I Love You So,” a fun song written especially for the film by the relatively obscure Preston Smith, and the aforementioned “Tutti Frutti.” The latter song’s presence and placement on the soundtrack are both more or less inexplicable. “Oh, I Love You So” would have been a much more natural closer.
Looking back, I think I had far higher expectations for this project than it reasonably could bear. I learned very little about myself or the world by revisiting the Cocktail soundtrack, and the things I did learn, I wish I hadn’t. Much of the soundtrack is actively terrible, and most of the rest is flat and lifeless, like a charcoal imprint of a four-day-old balloon. While I think I can be forgiven for liking this music when I was 8 years old, the fact that many, many adults also found it engaging is significantly more disturbing. The best that can be said, I guess, is that our tastes change over time. You can never step twice into the same river. Some things that seem great to us when we are young do not seem so great to us when we have matured. Some things that seem great to us when we are human beings in 1988 do not seem so great to us when we are human beings in 2018, or maybe just in 1989 after we’ve finally gone to rehab (or, for that matter, when we are aliens in the 3010s with an aesthetic sensibility that makes Adorno look like a dog rolling in goose poop). Other things are more timeless. Young MC, for instance.
 This is what happens in Cocktail, as reconstructed from my memory of watching it when I was 8 or 9. I would give you a spoiler alert, but much of what follows is probably wrong. It is the late 1980s. Tom Cruise moves to New York City to become a bartender. But not just any bartender. He’s a performative bartender. He and his mentor, Australian actor Bryan Brown, entertain their patrons by twirling, flipping, and doing other tricks with liquor bottles while mixing their drinks, kind of like the Harlem Globetrotters, but with cooler music (see accompanying text). Everyone loves what these guys do, particularly the ladies, and Cruise winds up going home with a girl who may or may not have been played by Famke Janssen. There follows a scene that I didn’t watch because my mom made me close my eyes.
Cruise confides to possibly-Famke Janssen that his greatest ambition is to open a franchised chain bar called “Cocktails and Dreams,” and I think he and Bryan Brown are saving up the money to open the flagship establishment together. All is going well until Cruise catches Famke cheating on him with Bryan Brown, which in one fell swoop ends both Cruise’s romantic relationship and his fledgling business partnership, while souring his opinion of Australians, possibly forever.
Disillusioned, Cruise moves to Jamaica, where he passes the time working at an island bar, wearing comfortable clothing, and smiling ruefully about his broken dreams. He meets and falls in love with Elizabeth Shue, a rich American girl on vacation with her family. They go swimming together in a tropical lagoon with a waterfall, at which point I had to close my eyes again. Everything is going well, but two things happen. First, Elizabeth Shue’s rich parents are pretty upset that she is dating and apparently contemplating a long-term relationship with a bartender who lives in Jamaica. And second, Bryan Brown shows up with a rich older girlfriend and a serious drinking and/or cocaine problem. Brown is bad news, and his influence interferes with Tom’s priorities. Tom cheats on Elizabeth, I think, but I can’t remember why or with whom. Maybe it was with Brown’s girlfriend, and it was done to get revenge. Elizabeth Shue’s parents offer Cruise a substantial check if he will agree to never see their daughter again, and Cruise accepts because he has been blinded by greed. Bryan Brown dies on a boat (overdose? suicide?), and this has an effect on Tom Cruise. He goes back to Elizabeth Shue’s parents, who live in an apartment building (Why do they have an apartment in Jamaica? Was it a hotel room? Are they in New York?), and tears up the check in front of them. Cruise and Shue get married and open a bar in a strip mall. It is called “Cocktails and Dreams.”
 I was 10 in 1991, when Nirvana released Nevermind, so the strongest thing I ever had in the 80s was Ovaltine, but I have heard stories and remember the neon clothing.
 Cf. Wayne’s World 2 (Wayne: “My girlfriend’s in there.” Roadie at Alice Cooper Show: “A lot of people’s girlfriends are in there.”).
 I have it on good authority that, at a recent Brian Wilson concert, the editor of this publication was offered a dollar to shout “Play Kokomo!” in between songs. I’ll leave it to you to decide, based on your general view of human nature (or your specific knowledge of the editor), whether he accepted that offer.
 Allmusic.com informs me that the soundtrack sold 4 million copies in 1988 and spawned two #1 hits, “Kokomo” and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” After gaining this additional insight into human nature, you may wish to rethink your decision from footnote 4.
- Cocktail, Revisited - March 5, 2018
- Top Ten Books I Started But Didn’t Finish in 2017 - January 10, 2018