35 years later, The Lost Boys’ “Cry Little Sister” is still a gothic epic
It was unlike anything that had ever happened before. The song flowed out in a stream of consciousness as he moved between his piano and guitar and back again. That was unusual — he usually stayed at the keys. A gothic symphony capturing the gnaw of loneliness and desperate longing for family. He could even hear the backing choir. Joel Schumacher told him there was something otherworldly about “Cry Little Sister,” the theme song for 1987 teen horror-comedy The Lost Boys. Thirty-five years later, G Tom Mac (aka Gerard McMahon) recalls just how right the cult classic’s director was.
“I felt something go through me,” Gerard tells Alternative Press. “It just was a moment of that melody coming out of my head and through my mouth, all my being.”
With inspiration from Peter Pan and Interview with the Vampire, The Lost Boys follows brothers Sam (Corey Haim) and Michael (Jason Patric) Emerson as they move to Santa Carla, California. They soon encounter a blood-sucking gang, led by platinum-haired punk David (Kiefer Sutherland), and join forces with the Frog brothers (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander) to fight “for truth, justice and the American way.”
The cast was stacked with some of the decade’s biggest stars and that extended to the crew, too: The Lost Boys was directed by the late Schumacher (St. Elmo’s Fire) and executive-produced by Richard Donner (The Goonies). Together, their sexy, stylish alchemy forever changed the way vampires were seen in pop culture, trading stately and decrepit for motorcycle riding and deliciously dangerous. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight are direct descendants.
The Lost Boys’ soundtrack, a perfect companion to the film, also reflects the era’s musical landscape. Lou Gramm’s “Lost in the Shadows” and “Good Times” by Jimmy Barnes and INXS tap into hairspray-heavy metal, while Echo & the Bunnymen’s “People are Strange” lends angular new wave. Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” give diabolical party vibes during a vamp-out blood bath and Tim Cappello makes an oily, gyrating cameo performing his sax anthem “I Still Believe.” But by far the most defining is the film’s theme, “Cry Little Sister.”
Speaking over Zoom from Los Angeles, Gerard looks stylish in oversized pink-tinted glasses and a neck scarf. He recalls how, by the mid-’80s, he’d released a few eclectic albums but found success in songwriting for films like Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Schumacher was impressed with his work and asked if he’d write the theme for The Lost Boys. Since they were filming in Santa Cruz, Schumacher offered to mail a script to New York, where Gerard was living. Gerard had never done that before; he’d always looked at the film to get the overall vibe and character flow. “And then he said to me, ‘I’m not going to put any temp music in this film — I want you to just do what you want to do.’”
Noting the greater subtext of the film, Gerard related to similar feelings he was experiencing in his own life. “It’s about finding family,” he explains. “Kiefer said this to me later, without me saying a word. He said, ‘I always felt David was a very lonely character.’ And I thought to myself, I found him in the script to be lonely.”
“I was just in a really vulnerable place, I think, at that time,” Gerard continues. He wasn’t into drugs but was surrounded by them as New York was in the clutches of the crack epidemic. Gerard remembers seeing vials and needles on the streets. Being around these things that were “kind of evil” inspired an innate dark poetry that crept into that song.
After the melody poured out, Gerard went to his Manhattan studio to work on lyrics. As he walked down the hallway, he heard a beat vibrating through the walls. It was coming from the studio of jazz vibraphonist and orchestral arranger Michael Mainieri. That was the tempo of his song. Gerard asked Mainieri what it was and Mainieri shrugged — he was working on something he might use for a commercial and would gladly share the beat. The two went to Gerard’s studio and got it into place with the track and started messing around with the Synclavier.
Gerard sent the demo off, thinking it was too adventurous for what the director was looking for. Schumacher called a couple of days later, on a Saturday morning. Gerard was in bed, nursing a hangover. “I hear my answering machine going off, and he's going, ‘Gerard, if you're there, pick up, please!’ And Kiefer in the background, ‘Gerard, pick up! This song's unbelievable!’ And I got up and I said, ‘What's going on?’” Gerard laughs. “Joel's first words were, ‘How did you know? How did you possibly know?’ He said, ‘This is the theme song to my film.”
[Photo by Charlie Watson]
“Cry Little Sister” is tragic, hopeful and sensual, with a palpitating beat and sharply turning synths. On the verses, Gerard sings almost ominously. On the chorus, he howls with triumphant abandon, backed by a children’s choir intoning commandments like “thou shalt not fear.” The choir comprise 20 young singers from New York, each voice recorded individually so Gerard could arrange them to get the evocative effect he’d heard in his head. They recorded at Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village.
The song sets the tone for The Lost Boys immediately, playing instrumentally as the film opens, panning over the ocean glimmering by moonlight and soaring right into the tormented heart of the Santa Carla boardwalk. The instrumental start was Gerard’s suggestion — the original cut featured him singing. It was overkill, he’d said; his voice would be more impactful later. “My manager said, ‘I can't believe you did that,’’ Gerard laughs. “‘You realize that was two opportunities of your voice being there?’ I said, ‘It's not always about more. Sometimes less makes the point.’”
So does thoughtful placement. “Cry Little Sister” goes on during pivotal moments throughout The Lost Boys, like as Michael and love interest Star make love and after Michael impales David on a pair of wall-mounted antlers. The song acts, as Schumacher always told him, like the narrator of the story, adding emotional depth by scoring the highs and lows of the characters, all outsiders seeking understanding, validation, belonging and love. The greatest power of “Cry Little Sister,” after all, is that it isn’t about vampires. It's in how the song illustrates the feelings beneath the surface, the very things driving the search for immortality.
Released July 31, 1987, The Lost Boys did well critically and commercially. The soundtrack did too, peaking at No. 15 on the Billboard 200. But despite how integral “Cry Little Sister” was to that success, label politics prevented it from being released as a single. The soundtrack was distributed by Atlantic, which, in standard practice, wanted to include as many of their roster’s artists as possible, such as INXS and Lou Gramm. When it came to “Cry Little Sister,” though, Gerard says the label felt it was too futuristic-sounding and didn’t fit with what was popular on the radio. So, to Schumacher’s dismay, Atlantic offered to have someone else sing it. “They had Phil Collins sing over my track, they had Steve Perry of Journey,” Gerard recalls. “And Joel said, ‘These are not the voices of my film. The only voice is Gerard, and that's what I'm going with.’”
The Lost Boys steadily built a cult following, as did “Cry Little Sister,” which has been covered and sampled by everyone from CHVRCHES to Eminem. Shaquille O’Neal even listed it as his favorite song to workout to. The song’s cult status translates to a legacy of longevity — those universal feelings about family, Gerard adds, are why he thinks it’s reached so many people.
Including the late Corey Haim. Gerard met Haim, and many other cast members, for the first time in 2008 at the horror film convention Monster Mania, for a celebration of The Lost Boys’ 20th anniversary. “Corey didn't even say hello — he just came up and gave me the biggest hug and said, ‘You've saved my life so many times by your song,’” Gerard says.
Monster Mania also connected Gerard with Brooke McCarter, who portrayed Paul, the blond-haired surfer of the gang. Gerard was performing at the con, and, a few hours before, McCarter pulled him aside and asked if they could jam. He was a drummer, he told Gerard, and had brought his congas. They started jamming, and Gerard was blown away. He asked if McCarter would join him onstage for “Cry Little Sister,” which he did for the chorus’s reprise. They became dear friends, and McCarter, who died in 2015, ended up joining Gerard’s band. “We went out and toured the world together,” Gerard says. “He was such a great spirit. We really connected spiritually, soulfully.”
While Gerard has gone on to enjoy a wide-spanning career — writing for Robert Plant, Roger Daltrey and Ice Cube and contributing to movies like Chasing Amy — he doesn’t mind that he’s best known for “Cry Little Sister.” “It's very much given me this very good life to live,” he says. “I’m fortunate that I made a living doing this most of my life, by being a songwriter as well as a performer and a producer.”
Gerard even has a couple of Lost Boys projects of his own in the works. He’s been developing a musical, A Lost Boys Story—The Musical, which tells the backstory of David before catching up to the film’s plot. Schumacher was so supportive of it, Gerard says. The musical also underscores David’s attraction to Michael — a homoerotic sense that Gerard says Schumacher originally wanted in the film, but the studio wouldn’t greenlight.
Gerard also recently wrapped the first-ever music video for “Cry Little Sister.” Directed by Dave Maresca and with Holly Sidell as Star, the video features a remixed version of the song and honors many Lost Boys hallmarks, including the cave the boys used as their lair. It will be released in September to coincide with Warner Bros.’ 4K Ultra HD re-release of the film in celebration of its 35th anniversary.
Gerard’s phone suddenly rings. He squints and leans forward to check the Caller ID. “Oh, Billy Wirth called!” he laughs. Wirth played Dwayne, whose death by stereo is one of the most badass and quotable scenes of The Lost Boys.
Perhaps the most enduring part of the legacy of “Cry Little Sister,” a song based on the dark depths of loneliness, is the connection it’s facilitated between the cast, crew and fans. An immortal kind of love that never grows old, never dies. For Gerard, the song continues to stand as an otherworldly beacon of hope. “I think it connects me with a sense of meaning, to my own life,” he says, “as to no matter how dark things get, there will always be some kind of light.”