From Good Will Hunting to William Burroughs to the greatest golf album you’ve never heard
Words by Steven Hyden
Light / Dark
In 1983, a man wrote, performed and recorded the greatest golf-related album of all time. I realize this might strike some as faint praise, because, well, it is: In terms of album-albums, it’s barely worth mentioning. A relatively good golf album is still only about 1/200th as great as,i. That’s why this is (probably) the first you’re hearing about it. And it’s also (probably) why after you’re done reading this article, you won’t be able to find it on any streaming platforms. In terms of the general musical world, the album barely exists.
But it is an album about golf, and in this extremely small subgenre—I’m not aware of another LP that’s strictly about golf, even from the likes of John Daly, Jake Trout and the Flounders or Hootie and the Blowfish—it is a masterful, as well as mysterious, classic.
When I say mysterious, I mean it’s really hard to track down information about it. I know it was made in Darien, Connecticut. The man was either 30 or 31 at the time; the album’s liner notes state only the year of the album’s creation, not any specific dates or studio information. But secondary sources tell us that he was a moonlighting advertising copywriter from Manhattan who presumably made the album at or near his boyhood home, in a makeshift bedroom studio on a four-track recording device.
All we really have is the album itself, which was released in 1998 on a micro-sized indie-experimental record label based in Portland, Oregon, called Pop Secret. (It folded not long after this album came out, and after putting out only about 10 records overall.) Golf purists will no doubt quibble with the album’s verisimilitude: There’s a track about a caddy who sings (“My Caddy Sings”), one about a person who appears to have sexual feelings for a golf course (“18 Holes”), another one about a cart outfitted with “gold-plated golf mats” (“My Cart”) and so on. These stories and observations are set to music that is reminiscent of early Lou Reed, the post–Modern Lovers work of Jonathan Richman and the wave of indie “twee” bands (think Beat Happening) that were still a few years from emerging in the American rock underground when the album was recorded.
Ultimately, the most noteworthy part of the album—it is called 18 Songs About Golf—is that the person who made it, Gus Van Sant, eventually made other, much more celebrated things that weren’t about golf.
Yes, I refer to that Gus Van Sant, one of the most respected film directors of the last 30 years. The guy responsible for Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho and To Die For. Two years after making 18 Songs About Golf, he shot his breakout feature, Mala Noche, in black-and-white 16 millimeter. A decade later, he entered the world of mainstream filmmaking with 1997’s Good Will Hunting, the movie that made Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Robin Williams Oscar winners. (Van Sant was also nominated for Best Director.) With a budget of just $10 million, Good Will Hunting grossed more than $225 million, exponentially more than all of Van Sant’s previous films combined. After that, the world—or, rather, a small number of Van Sant fanatics and long-suffering music critics—finally heard 18 Songs About Golf.
The 1990s were a boom time for indie directors gaining entrée into the world of Hollywood filmmaking and making hits in the process; everybody from Quentin Tarantino to Paul Thomas Anderson to the Coen brothers to Spike Lee impacted pop culture while maintaining their idiosyncratic independence, leveraging their success to push their careers in surprising (and occasionally confounding) directions. But no filmmaker used his newfound industry status more perversely than Van Sant.
In 1998, along with the belated release of 18 Songs About Golf, Van Sant put out a novel called Pink, about a small-town infomercial director named Spunky Davis who encounters two visitors from another dimension posing as aspiring filmmakers. (On the cover, novelist Tom Robbins—a pivotal influence on Van Sant’s writing style—calls him “a Luke Skywalker of the heart.”) More famously, Van Sant that year made his postmodern shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, casting a gleefully masturbating Vince Vaughn in the Anthony Perkins role. Incredibly, Universal Pictures handed Van Sant $60 million to make a movie that Roger Ebert (and nearly anybody else not invested in taking needlessly contrarian stances about cinematic disasters) swiftly dismissed as “pointless.”
Compared with those projects, 18 Songs About Golf almost seems successful, even though it’s clearly not, at least not commercially. However, unlike Psycho, it’s not remembered as a black mark on Van Sant’s career; unlike Pink, you can get through it in about a half-hour. By these low standards—and the nonexistent standard of golf-related albums—18 Songs About Golf is a triumph.
18 Songs About Golf Gus Van Sant Tracklist
1. Nothing’s for Free 1:35 2. Par-Aid 1:03 3. It Won’t Be Long Now 1:58 4. Course of Love 1:20 5. Smoking in the Rain 1:49 6. Stoned Cold Pro 1:37 7. Lost 1:30 8. The Elvis of Golf Courses 2:49 9. Sunstroke 1:16 10. Halfway House 1:35 11. Ladies’ Day 1:05 12. My Caddy Sings 2:30 13. Sunny Skies 2:05 14. My Cart 1:46 15. She’s Caught 2:08 16. You 0:50 17. Murder on the 18th Hole 1:29 18. 18 Holes 1:42
Full disclosure: I had never heard of 18 Songs About Golf until an editor for this magazine contacted me and asked if I wanted to write about it.
“But how can I write about an album I have never heard about a sport I’ve never played?” I thought to myself.
“Because we’ll pay you,” the editor said, sensing my apprehension and greed.
Fortunately, I was able to find a used CD copy in “very good” condition on Amazon for just a buck. (Shipping cost another $3.99, plus tax—a 400 percent markup just to get the godforsaken golf album to my house.) When the CD arrived a few weeks later, I procrastinated—not on the writing of the piece, but on actually listening to the album. I dreaded 18 Songs About Golf. I assumed it would be a trite and tedious listen. The title seemed like a taunt: I dare you to listen to all 18 songs of this.
I had done enough research on Van Sant to know that he was 1) an enthusiastic if not entirely talented musician and 2) a decent if not entirely enthusiastic golfer. Along with 18 Songs About Golf, Pop Secret put out another album, Gus Van Sant, that was recorded in similar fashion in 1984. Van Sant also recorded an EP with William Burroughs, The Elvis of Letters, that came out in 1991. As a student at the Rhode Island School of Design in the early ’70s, he attended school with future members of Talking Heads, including David Byrne, who later articulated the semi-ironic/semi-affectionate view of mainstream American culture that permeates Van Sant’s own songs.
Even after he became a successful director, Van Sant remained obsessed with music. A 2004 Guardian profile describes an otherwise reticent Van Sant suddenly opening up when the topic of conversation shifts from his cinematic oeuvre to the number of guitars that he owns. “Ten? About 10,” he says.
When I finally slipped 18 Songs About Golf inside my cheapo hybrid CD player/record player/radio, I was pleasantly surprised. Van Sant’s songs were perfectly fine as music and fucking amazing as golf music. His sonic palette is limited—just guitar, a drum machine and his own boyish, smart-alecky vocals. But the songs are fairly diverse musically, ranging from rockabilly (“Par-Aid”) to post-punk (“It Won’t Be Long”), hipster blues (“Smoking in the Rain”) and a genre that can be described only as proto-Ween (“Halfway House”). At his best, Van Sant is able to express aurally what his threadbare lyrics can’t quite put across literally.
“The Elvis of Golf Courses”—note that his work with Burroughs includes
a callback to his then-unreleased golf album—is, like the titular subject, spare, brooding and touched with reverb. (“The roughest and the toughest I know…I shot 94,” Van Sant sings.) The instrumental “Sunstroke” is a lite-psych guitar workout that replicates the disorientation of standing in the sun for too long, much like Van Sant’s ponderous 2003 film Gerry evokes the sensation of getting lost amid a series of desolate landscapes. (This is also true of another 18 Songs About Golf standout, the self-explanatory “Lost.”)
The worst track on 18 Songs About Golf, meanwhile, has to be “Course of Love,” in which Van Sant likens golf to romantic love with a glib, insincere smirk and a cadre of mixed metaphors. Though even this song is harmless: “When we finally get to the dance floor / My favorite part / Tap the ball and it disappears / Into your heart.”
For a golfer, it’s natural to wonder while listening to 18 Songs About Golf—you can borrow my copy, so long as you don’t mind paying those punishing shipping costs—if Van Sant actually likes golf or is making fun of the game in order to make some larger, esoteric artistic statement. In that same Guardian article, Van Sant refers to Darien as “an upper-middle-class, bucolic environment” with “all this trouble under the surface…People do things like play golf.” (The writer notes that Van Sant said golf “with some distaste, though he has been a keen player himself.”)
Van Sant has discussed how in his teens and 20s he had not yet come to terms with his sexuality. He dated women for years, going out to gay bars only with his gay friends and strictly, he believed at the time, as a fascinated outsider. It wasn’t until his early 30s, when he first started thinking seriously about being a film director, that he came to realize that he was also gay.
All of this was swirling in his head as he made 18 Songs About Golf. If you’ll indulge me as I psychoanalyze an album of golf songs: I wonder if the mixed feelings about the sport Van Sant was writing and singing about was tied up with his sexually repressive upbringing. Perhaps golf was a symbol of the conservatism that he was in the process of negotiating, while at the same time also being a comforting ballast for a man in the process of finding himself. You can sense this ambivalence in the best song on the album, “18 Holes,” the love ballad about an anthropomorphized golf course. “Everybody’s got some place to go, but not me / You’re so big and free,” Van Sant croons, with the maximum amount of sincerity possible for a song about possibly giving the fairway a good rogering. Yes, the song is jokey and pretty goofy. (“Look at you / You’ve got 18 holes / Who can ask for anything more?”) But it’s also kind of…melancholy? 18 Songs About Golf, I suspect, is like so many afternoons on the course: You spend the front nine laughing and the back nine emoting.