If you listen to KQED on the radio, you're probably familiar with Rachael Myrow. She’s been on our airwaves for over a decade, reporting on everything from conferences for failed entrepreneurs to an art exhibit focused on foster children.
But what many don’t know about Myrow is her musical heritage. Her great-grandfather is Irving Mills, a music publisher and promoter who introduced jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, and Cab Calloway to the world. Her grandfather is Joseph Myrow, a composer whose songs were recorded by Frank Sinatra, Cassandra Wilson, and countless others. Even her godfather, Van Dyke Parks, is notable in the music world as the composer who worked with Brian Wilson on the Beach Boys’ magnum opus, Smile.
And then there's Myrow's dad, Fred Myrow. Fred was a composer who started his career in film soundtracks with Jim Morrison’s HWY: An American Pastoral and went on to write music for movies starring Al Pacino, Charlton Heston, and Jeff Bridges. Before he died in 1999, he scored dozens of films, collaborated on numerous theater projects, and released a couple of albums.
Out of all his projects, Fred Myrow is probably most famous for co-writing the music for the 1979 horror film Phantasm. Frequently cited as one of the top horror movie soundtracks of all time, the Phantasm theme forged the path for horror film music's spine-tingling atmosphere and hypnotic melody. It has such a following that, on a few occasions, fans have accosted Rachael and forced her to answer questions about the score.
“My dad’s fame, especially with Phantasm, is for a particular subset of humanity: Gen X males,” she said. “Every now and then here at KQED, some guy of a certain age will rush up to me and say, ‘Rachael Myrow, are you related to Fred Myrow?’”
Fred as a Young Composer
Fred Myrow didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps. He began composing at just nine years old, and wanted to make avant-garde music -- not the love songs his dad Josef wrote for movies, like Bundle of Joy starring Debbie Reynolds.
It was while he attended the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music that everything changed for Myrow. That first year, in 1958, the famed Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich called Myrow one of the most inventive young composers he had seen during a tour of the United States. Shostakovich’s recommendations led to the Young Musicians Foundation to commission Myrow for a major work that debuted at the Hollywood Bowl when he was just 18 years old.
Myrow followed up this milestone with three Fulbright grants, three Rockefeller grants, and one Guggenheim fellowship in less than 10 years, and topped off the decade by becoming a resident composer at the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein.
But it was around the release of his first album, 1965’s Songs from the Japanese, that Myrow realized he needed to escape the world of classical music.
“The way he described it as we were growing up is that he saw his music being performed in front of the same set of elderly women in jewels and furs. Some part of him felt like he was missing out on something happening," said Rachael, alluding to the cultural revolution of the 1960s and '70s.
At the time, Myrow was living in New York, but he soon returned to his hometown of Los Angeles where he met his future wife, Israeli actress Elana Eden, the star of the biblical epic The Story Of Ruth. Myrow had also become good friends with Jim Morrison, the Doors' eccentric frontman.
"Fred met Morrison at a party, who glommed onto Fred, seeing him as a ticket to the classical world," Rachael said.
Myrow moved back to Beverly Hills and worked with Morrison on his movie, HWY: An American Pastoral, which was never released. Myrow's luck changed a little later, when Quincy Jones turned down the opportunity to score the upcoming film Leo the Last. Director John Boorman liked Myrow and gave him the gig.
"It was my first film and it opened the door to a whole new career," Myrow told the Los Angeles Times in 1986.
Studio Life, Before and After
Myrow ended up signing a contract with Universal Studios to score movies, joining the long-established studio system. He scored dozens of films, including the Gene Hackman and Al Pacino feature Scarecrow and the dystopian thriller Soylent Green starring Charlton Heston.
Things changed in the 1970s. Studios stated to focus on distributing independently-made films like Easy Rider and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which proved to be smash hits and made millions with small budgets. Studio heads also dropped the factory-like chain of production that provided Myrow steady work. Myrow had his wife and three daughters to support. For the first time in his career, jobs weren't pouring in.
"Until he died, I don't think we realized the extent of his stress he was facing," Rachael said. "He kept it hidden. Sometimes he'd come out after having done bills and he'd be very angry but not explain why."
Around the time Myrow's studio work began drying up, a Universal executive named Peter Saphier suggested to Don Coscarelli, then a new director fresh out of film school, that he connect with Myrow. The two hit it off and Coscarelli hired Myrow to score his first feature-length film, Jim the World's Greatest. Made with a budget of $250,000, Coscarelli's drama about a troubled teenager with an alcoholic father wasn't a financial blockbuster, but it did connect him with two actors that would become the stars of the Phantasm series: Reggie Bannister and Lawrence Guy, the latter a six-foot-four actor credited as Angus Scrimm in Coscarelli's film.
Coscarelli and Myrow worked on another film together, Kenny & Company, a comedy-drama that starred Bannister and an 11-year-old A. Michael Baldwin -- another untapped talent Coscarelli discovered that would star in Phantasm. Kenny & Company also failed to break the bank in the United States, but it was a hit in Japan. During a promotional tour there in 1976, Baldwin and crew were welcomed like rockstars, with "200 screaming Japanese girls" chasing the actors down the street to their limo.
After seeing audiences react to jump scares in Kenny & Company, Coscarelli decided to make a horror movie. It was a genre that, at the time, guaranteed success in the States. Coscarelli had the perfect villain in Angus Scrimm, the tall, intimidating actor from the young director's first feature. He wrote up a script about a teenage boy (Baldwin) who discovers that a creepy mortician known as the Tall Man (Scrimm) is killing people at the local funeral home and turning them into dwarf slaves.
Coscarelli went to Myrow once again for a soundtrack. This time Myrow brought in a collaborator: Malcolm Seagrave, who, like Myrow, was a working composer and musician who also produced rock groups like the prog rock band Aviary. Together, they pitched a soundtrack that revolved around a singular, simple theme. In turn, Coscarelli gave the duo two records he had been playing repeatedly: Heaven and Hell by Vangelis and Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd.
Not long after, the pair had something to show Coscarelli.
"The first time I heard [the Phantasm theme], they had invited me over to perform it for me. They were bouncing off the walls with excitement," Coscarelli said. "They both sat down and played it as a duet on Fred's baby grand piano. For me that was an epic moment."
Coscarelli took years to make Phantasm, filming all the scenes during long shoots on weekends. Post-production took another few months; the soundtrack was recorded over a two-week session in a Long Beach studio. Myrow and Seagrave directed a small band -- guitar, bass, and drums -- while the duo provided melodies on a wide variety of keyboards. Coscarelli says the session consisted of "a lot of creative, long nights" as the band improvised and fine-tuned the music. Sometimes the band struggled to find the right synth sound for a part, which was made more difficult by the unpredictability of the nascent synthesizer technology. In other moments, the musicians rocked out as they came up with new songs that referenced the popular music of the day.
"Disco music was in vogue during the recording sessions, and it was a hoot to watch Fred and Malcolm boogie down as they recorded the 'Silver Sphere Disco,'" Coscarelli said.
Phantasm came out in 1979. Though it received negative reviews from critics like Roger Ebert, it was a box-office hit. Coscarelli estimates that the film's budget was just $300,000, but it raked in almost $12 million. And because he couldn't pay Myrow up front, Coscarelli gave the composer points on the film, which not only provided a big payday back then, but continues to generate royalties today.
An Enduring Legacy
Myrow died in 1999 at the age of 59. Rachael says there were plenty of factors that led to Myrow's death, like his "love of food and his distaste for exercise." But she also blames the stress of working as a freelancer, never knowing where his next project and paycheck would be coming from.
"He came of age in a generation that felt that [money trouble] was something you dealt with on your own," Rachael said.
After Phantasm, Myrow managed to land plenty of jobs, including other notable, quirky films such as 1989's Survival Quest and Rubin and Ed (the latter made infamous for Crispin Glover's appearance on Late Night with David Letterman while promoting the film). But none of the films were a breakout hit like Phantasm -- including the film's sequel, Phantasm II, made a decade later.
Myrow's unexpected death crushed the family. He was a dedicated father who always made time for them, despite the long hours of his composition work. He was also beloved in the film and music world, known for mentoring dozens, including his own daughter Shira, who became a musician after graduating college.
"Fred was quite supportive," Shira said. "He took under his wing many of his assistants who were aspiring composers as well as musicians."
But Myrow's music continues to live on. The theme to Phantasm has been sampled by numerous hip-hop artists, including Three 6 Mafia, Mobb Deep, and Dougie Fresh. It was also covered by the Swedish death metal band Entombed on their groundbreaking debut Left Hand Path.
Rachael believes that if her father were alive today, he'd love all the different interpretations of his music. He was a voracious fan of all kinds of genres, loving artists as diverse as Bernard Herrmann, Henryk Górecki, Madonna, Prince, and D'Angelo. And though supporting a family as a composer was difficult at times, Rachael says he took great pride in his work and never doubted his abilities. He even refused opportunities for steady work over the years because it meant he couldn't compose music freely, which meant the world to him.
"While finances were stressful for Fred, music was always pure joy," Rachael said.