Yusuf looks back at 'Harold and Maude' on its 50th anniversary

For the 50th anniversary of Harold and Maude, Yusuf looks back at the cult film and the music he wrote for it, including his thoughts on why the movie was so connected to its time and what the reaction to the film might be like if it were released today.

Video Transcript

LYNDSEY PARKER: This month obviously marks the 50th anniversary of "Harold and Maude." And you just announced-- literally just announced the soundtrack reissue that's coming out next February. So do you consider "Harold and Maude" to be a movie musical, because I think it kind of is in that uses songs to sort of speak for the characters in a way.

YUSUF: Yeah, that's interesting. I never thought about it like that, but, yeah, when you analyze it, the whole process of making the film actually embedded my music from the very beginning. And that's why when I came to San Francisco to see some of the rushes-- I mean Hal Ashby, the director, already sort of filled the whole film with my music, you know? So it was a kind of fait accompli that we had to make a deal, you know? And we did, of course.

(SINGING) I used to walk alone. Every step seemed the same.

But one of the things I did insist upon, that was when finally everything was agreed on the deal, I refused to allow them to make a soundtrack album, because they were using so much of my two albums, you know, "Mona Bone Jakon" and "Tea for the Tillerman," that it was ending up to be a greatest hits. And I said, I'm too young to have a greatest hits. So that was kept out of the contract until, until now.

LYNDSEY PARKER: I do want to ask about some specific songs and their placement. In the closing portion of the film, the film were made goes to the hospital, you know, obviously, "Trouble" is in place of any spoken dialogue in that film. It's completely your song.

- (SINGING) Trouble, oh, trouble, set me free.

Wasn't that song inspired by a hospital stay that you yourself had when you were young?

YUSUF: Yeah, it was the theme to my tuberculosis moment, where I'd been very successful for about one year. And then I'd got driven into the ground with so much work, so much drain, and doing everything wrong. That's when I contracted tuberculosis. And I was in hospital.

And to me "Trouble" was the song that depicts you know that time, that moment. And it's very kind of-- but it was important, because most importantly, I was starting to look within myself. And I was becoming much more aware about myself and the impact of what I was doing, you know, in my life upon my life.

So it's kind of a very self-reflective moment. And "Trouble" just know it explained the mood I was in. It was-- it's the blues, you know? Lead Belly sang about it a long, long time before I did.

- I suppose you think that's very funny, Harold.

LYNDSEY PARKER: I don't know how much in common you have with the Harold character, but did you relate to his character in any way, especially because of your own experiences?

YUSUF: Yeah, well, I was a prankster. You know, I love doing pranks and playing tricks on people. You know, I didn't go quite as far as Al did. I mean, the first shot of him you putting a noose up on the ceiling, and then hanging himself, you know, I mean, I never did anything like that.

But it was that dark side, that kind of challenging establishment fighting, or you struggling against the perceptions of the world, of the establishment, of society, of business, and the way things are run. The establishment has worked out a way I think of making everybody feel as if they're really free when they're not. That's why this film is so important, because it does, you know I think, depict liberation from people's concepts.

(SINGING) Well, if you want to sing out, sing out. And if you want to be free, be free.

LYNDSEY PARKER: And "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out" was one of the songs that you later wrote specifically for the film. Did you write it in mind knowing the characters were going to sing it? It's obviously one of the cutest and sweetest scenes in the film.

YUSUF: Yeah, absolutely not. No, I mean it was my song, which I-- in fact, I'd sort of written it-- I was trying to record it for one of the albums it never quite made it. And then when Hal heard it, you know, he said, oh, this is great. You know, this is the theme of the actual film.

So I went into the studio and recorded a demo. And then I played it to him. He's like, great. And he puts it in the film.

And then I was, of course, getting ready to do it properly, you go in with the musicians, and do this thing professionally. But that never happened, he just kept the demo as it was. And you know, that was my-- I was very frustrated at that.

But then, now, I mean you listen to it and you hear the charm, because it was absolutely, you know, non-- I was not self-conscious. I was just doing a very ordinary demo. And it comes out great for the theme of that song.

- (SINGING) And if you want to be high, be high. If you want to be low, be low.

I must admit though, that when we did run through doing some of these songs with Ruth, particularly Ruth, I was a little bit upset by the fact that she wasn't singing it right, you know? But that was, of course, that was it, that was the whole joy of that song with her playing that piano, and, you know, and Bud and-- you know, Harold coming in. But to me, I was, you know, a bit of a professional. So I didn't want to do the demo, I wanted to do the demo properly. I didn't want her to sing like that, but it all worked out so perfectly, because it's that kind of film.

LYNDSEY PARKER: I have to admit there were times when I watched the film where I was like, I don't know if this would be made today. The subject of suicide, obviously, is a very sensitive subject, understandably. But I don't if someone was trying to get a film like this green lit if it would ever, any studio would take a chance on it.

YUSUF: Well I think if it came out today, I mean, I don't think it would become a cult film. It would be something that would be on Netflix, you know, and people might find it, again. But I don't think it would make the impact that it did, because it's kind of ingrained in the era that it was born, you know, in the 70s.

And the fact that the Vietnam was going on. And those classic shots, you know, with the general. It really is a timepiece. So I don't think anything like that can be done today. Today everything's drones. I mean war itself, it's almost-- people don't really think it's real anymore.

LYNDSEY PARKER: It's another thing that I thought about would a movie about a 19-year-old guy and a 79-year-old woman ever get made today?

YUSUF: I don't know, there are things. I mean, I think the people are now a little bit numbed by the kind of you may say the variety of relationships that we can have these days. I don't know if it would really make an impact, because any way is open for everyone. So I think that it wouldn't make that much of an impact.

Again, it belonged to that time. And that was pretty much a taboo, you can imagine. Actually, "The Graduate" had something of that, but it certainly wasn't as dynamic as the age gap between Harold and Maude.

- Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me.

LYNDSEY PARKER: Do you think there's a different standard, like if Harold had been the 79-year-old and Maude had been 19?

YUSUF: Oh, yes.

LYNDSEY PARKER: Or the roles were reversed?

YUSUF: No, no. Oh, that's a no-no. That's a no-no. That's strange. Yeah, you're right. I mean, why not? You know, yes. But it somehow feels different, doesn't it?

LYNDSEY PARKER: How do you feel the Mr. Ashby, given that he was working with some sensitive subject matter as I said earlier-- suicide, death, age differences, all that-- and yet you watch "Harold and Maude," and it absolutely works. It's tasteful. It's thoughtful. It's thought provoking. What was it about Hal's ability to sort of take subject matter that maybe in a lesser director's hands would go wrong, and just really just touch on something?

YUSUF: Well, I think that if you've ever puffed weed-- and Hal did a lot of that-- you kind of-- the world changes towards you, you know? And it's kind of like that. Things are all possible, you know? And I didn't think he saw any obstacle to his vision, because it was part of where he was.

He wasn't totally sober. A sober director could never, never have made that film. No, there was nothing, nothing that I felt was wrong about the film. I was just lucky to be chosen to be the soundtrack.

LYNDSEY PARKER: So obviously, we talked a lot about "Harold and Maude," because of the 50th anniversary and the new soundtrack. But you've had a lot of 50th anniversary milestones lately. Last year, in 2020, you did the 50th anniversary "Tea for the Tillman" reissue. This year the "Teaser and the Firecat" album."

I know, kind of a weird question, but do you ever look back on the earlier material you do and kind of wonder what might have been if you hadn't taken that break? Like, what you would have done next? What the next record-- obviously, you know, it all worked out perfectly for you. But it's like a sliding doors thing, there could have been another path, you know?

YUSUF: Yeah, no, I don't believe that. I kind of believe in the mono-life, that you can't really change the-- well, you can try to change things. And that's the whole point.

I think the whole issue about change is the effort that you put in. And I don't think that anything could work in this world-- it's like a clock. You couldn't just say, oh, what would happen if we turn this wheel that way. It won't work.

Everything, I believe, is in a kind of a formation. There is the freedom within it, but you'll end up following the path that you were chosen to in the first place, even though you may not want it to go that way, it is your way. And that's where you have to live with it. So I think it's the whole thing about destiny, which is a very tricky subject. But I think you end up living it anyway. So hey, have a party.

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