Friday, July 17, 2015

We are our influences

She's too "Precious," indeed.

There are few things I enjoy more than talking about the writers, artists, musicians, etc. that have influenced me in ways that have helped to shape who I've become. In fact, set me up in a coffee shop or a bar with good friends and no time limit, and I can wax on for a ridiculous amount of time on just this sort of stuff. I'm fortunate enough to have a partner and friends who also love doing this, which means I've done it a lot in my life. So—surprise!—I'll be doing it here in this space too. Probably often. So consider this part one of a multi-part series. And I'd love to hear your thoughts on my ramblings and/or if your influences dovetail with mine or if not what's influenced you.

So here we go with the first two entries in what I'll call my Personal Influence Hall of Fame. More to come later. And like my children, I love 'em all equally.

Probably the first band I remember loving, The Pretenders have been a musical constant for most of my life now. I discovered them like most kids in the early to mid 1980s through MTV and their video for "Brass in Pocket." And when I say I discovered them, I think it was really Chrissie Hynde that I discovered and whenever that video came on (which was a lot back in the days when, yes, we watched actual videos on MTV, and there were  relatively few of them on so you could be sure to catch the same ones often) I sat rapt, staring at the mysterious waitress singing to herself in a diner, and listened intently to a song whose lyrics oozed sexuality in a way my young mind could not possibly comprehend but dammit if she didn't get my attention. The guys in the video (her bandmates) were clearly idiots for not giving her the time of day and my god didn't they understand she was one-hundred times better than those women they were hanging out with in the diner I mean even I knew that and I wasn't even ten years old yet!

Uh, yeah, so I had what you might call a little crush on Chrissie. I'm pretty sure she was my first pop culture crush (or at least real-life, non-illustrated pop culture crush—I'm sure I'll write about Jean Grey here one day too). A crush that has held up for the last thirty-plus years, in fact. But it was really about the music and lyrics—her authorial voice was so strong and compelling. Her songs were mostly about how complicated it was to be an adult, so as I aged they became even more meaningful to me. Also as I started to appreciate music more I came to realize that while I loved this band's hits and deep cuts equally over the decades, it was really this initial iteration of the band that recorded their first two albums that blew my mind. I return to those first two records often, along with the equally strong third album. The first album is utterly perfect. Not a clunker in sight, all hits no filler: "Precious," "The Wait," "Mystery Achievement," etc. And as I started winding my path through musical genres in my teens and college years, absorbing them like a sponge, I realized that a lot of what I loved tied back to that first Pretenders album. The ringing guitar tones, the gorgeous melodies and catchy-as-hell song structures, and the utterly unique voice of the lead singer who could convey strength, weakness, joy, sorrow, tenderness, and acerbic wit—all in one line of a song! These were the hallmarks of my favorite bands and once I realized this it helped me to further define what most brought me happiness and joy when listening to music. And Hynde and the Pretenders really started it all for me.

I saw them with Elizabeth (also a fan) for the first and only time maybe five or six years ago at a small theater. It was around that time that I realized Hynde was old enough to be my mother, and amazingly always had been! Crazy how aging works, huh? As a kid you think of famous people as ageless, or timeless. I was a little worried, that as an aging band with several new members, they might not do justice to all of the years I'd spent living with their music and words in my head, but as they started to play the first song of the night it was obvious I had nothing to fear. Hynde must have been close to sixty years old at this point and she commanded the stage with absolute authority, just like she had in all of those live videos from their early years that I'd been watching for decades. I guess some crushes are built to last.

Sadly, I never found out what diner she worked at or else I'd have made myself a regular there.

Michael Chabon had written two previous novels before The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but neither he nor those books had made my radar. Kavalier and Clay was getting major accolades when it was published in 2000 and eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001. I read it sometime in 2000. Or more accurately, I devoured it sometime in 2000. It's been my favorite novel ever since. I also caught up on his previous novels and have read practically every damn word the man has written in the fifteen years since, from novels to short stories to essay collections to online only essays, etc. I've tried explaining how his work has influenced me before, and I think I've failed at it pretty miserably. But here goes, once more with feeling.

My Chabon shelf runneth over

Unlike the title of this blog, Chabon's words never seem out of place. They fit together in the most organic of ways to create an emotional resonance in me that few, if any, authors ever have. It doesn't hurt that some of his favorite interests to write about align perfectly with my own: how music can not only soundtrack your life but burrow into your heart and head in a way few other art forms can; the relationships between men, be they friends, lovers, or somewhere in between, have never been as richly explored by any other writer I've ever read; and finding value in works of "low" culture like comics and pulp and science fiction novels by noting that they are just as much worthy of critical analysis as the most respected texts in the "cannon." Kavalier and Clay really did a lot to bring these "low" culture bottom-dwellers like comics and science fiction/fantasy stories to a place of more importance in the greater culture, a place they seem to reside in (occasionally at least, and definitely more often than they had previously) with increasing frequency today (for good or ill). Chabon is of a generation (Gen X) that decided that everything was for the taking when it came to culture—whereas members of previous generations of the twentieth century had been taught to feel ashamed to read comics or lurid pulp novels out in the open, let alone name-check them as influences for god's sake, Chabon and his contemporaries like Jennifer Egan and Jonathan Lethem praised these hidden gems and talked in essays and interviews about how works of genre fiction influenced them as much as works of classic literature. For me, as a younger member of Chabon's generation, I took this to heart. It clearly influenced me, and my friends, in  how we participated in popular culture. We proudly wear our Marvel Comics pins on our messenger bags while carrying in said bags copies of a science-fiction graphic novel alongside a seminal work of feminist essays. There is no difference in our minds. Chabon helped codify that for me.

And now I'm realizing I just spilled 500 words and barely discussed how gorgeous his sentences are and, and, and...I'll have to return to him another day here.

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