Thursday, 21 February 2013

Influences: Let's Be Honest

What is the deal with people and influences anyway?  None of us are very honest about who and what has influenced us.  I mean, come on, think about the last time someone asked you who your influences are.  What did you come up with?  Let me guess, you didn't include your addiction to celebrity gossip magazines?  Did you mention that you read that blog about kittens?  No, of course you didn't.  You went on and on and on about how moved you were the first time you read Tolstoy.  You've read "As I Lay Dying" by Faulkner too many times to count and are still blown away by his experimentation with point-of-view.  Baloney.  Okay, a few of you might actually pass the test and do count every single important work of fiction as the backbone of your own writing process.  Great.  I commend you for your efforts.  The rest of us are lying.  Wait, I don't want to cause a fight.  You aren't liars.  Basically, when I say that all the most significant themes in my writing can be traced back to Keats, I'm lying.

We do the same thing with music.  If someone were to sit down and ask me about my influences you can bet the farm that I'm not going to say Hanna-Barbera's live-action costume show "The Banana Splits".  Still, if I think back on how UNBELIEVABLY AWESOME I used to think the musical performances on that show were when I was but a wee lad, they have to be considered an influence.  It also must be considered that I spent much of my youth apparently on acid or sugar-stoned on Cap'n Crunch:

So, do I ever tell anyone (other than you...because you're just that special) that The Banana Splits were a huge musical influence in my life?  No.  Instead, I will, of course, protect my pride and say that I was influenced by the Sex Pistols, The Smiths, Prince, REM, The Doors, Radiohead, the Arcade Fire, etc.  Don't get me wrong.  I love those bands and they have all shaped who I am.  They can certainly claim to be my musical influences.  But where then do I put Slade or the Butthole Surfers?  On the book front, I can do the same.  I love Faulkner to death.  I am, actually, quite blown away by his experimentation with point-of-view in As I Lay Dying even if I mocked people for doing so...oh...about two paragraphs ago.  It's groundbreaking.  But, if I'm going to be honest, my greatest influences came from the dog-eared pages of comic books and Mad Magazine.  So, I thought that I might travel back through time and match up my influences based on what I can remember from different time periods in my life.  This is not to be an exercise in cool though.  I certainly wasn't listening to the Sex Pistols when they formed back in 1975.  I was four-years-old and I had no way of minding or neverminding the bollocks even if I wanted to.  So, I think that I'll narrow it down to the decades of my life.  I'll try to be truthful even when my music-ego starts to get a little uneasy.  It's about honesty.  Right?  Let's go.

The 1970s

My first real musical influences, beyond that of the musical guests on the Muppet Show, were the result of my father's purchase of a new car.  It was an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and it had, of all things, a cassette tape player.  Our family's first car was a little Honda hatchback and it only had an AM radio and I grew up listening to what rural AM radio had to offer.  I, for example, did not know at the time what an "Afternoon Delight" was and the Captain and Tennille were regular favorites of mine (I said I was going to be honest.  Yes?).  Once my dad made the car upgrade, he also started purchasing tapes on a regular basis.  He had a little brown faux-leather tape case and it was filled with cassettes.  He had the Doobie Brothers in there.  Chuck Mangione.  He had some Donna Summer.  But, one duo stands out:  Hall and Oates.  I have grown to love Hall and Oates.  Their songs remind me of what my life was like before my parents got divorced.  I sometimes wish it had stayed that way.  Oh, mom and dad, say it isn't so (it isn't

As to books from the 70s, I'm going to have to go with the first book I ever remember picking out at a bookstore, paying for with my own money, and bringing home to read.  I'm sure I bought other books.  I remember my room being nearly filled to over-flowing with books.  But, this one stands out for some reason.  I give you:

The 1980s

So, before I get started on the 80s, you have to understand that this is a pretty massive developmental time-period for me.  I began the 80s as a wide-eyed nine-year-old.  I ended it as a a young-man about to head off to college.  Still, on the book front, my strongest influence was an easy one.  There has, nor may there ever be, a book that has had a greater influence on my life than this one:

Honestly, this book made me write my first serious short-stories in fifth grade.  I became a Dungeons and Dragons nut because of this book.  I drew dragons and elves and dwarves and goblins within the margins of my notebooks from middle-school, up through high-school, into college, and, if I'm honest, into staff meetings here in the present.  Let me sum things up with a confession:  I cried during the movie-version of Return of the King when the Riders of Rohan came up over the crest and charged down into the Orc army's flank.  I literally wept during that scene.  That's an influence.

As to music, I guess it is time for some honesty.  It'd be cooler to say The Clash or Jane's Addiction or The Smiths or The Pogues or some other suitably acceptable band for the serious music fan.  Hell, I could earn some serious street-cred by telling you that I was an early-adopter of rap music (which I was). I'd be lying though if I claimed any of them as my most significant influence.  I never would have discovered those bands above if I hadn't discovered someone else first.  I can remember the moment quite clearly.  It was the early 80s and my local cable provider expanded their channel offering from ten channels to twenty.  One of those channels was MTV and it made my mind blow up in a way that can only happen when a small-town boy is exposed in a single moment to the rest of the world.  It was because of MTV that this happened:

Sadly (and so very un-metal), you can't watch one of their videos here on our blog.  You can, however, run off to YouTube and watch it there.  Just promise that you'll come back.

Oh, sweet hair metal, you don't know how much I owe you.  Let me just explain one thing first, I freaking LOVED Motley Crue.  I wrote their name on my backpack.  I drew pentagrams on my school notebooks.  I wanted to be Nikki Sixx.  I wore their t-shirts.  I wanted to go home-sweet-home just like EVERYONE else in the 80s did.  Today, I wouldn't come within ten feet of so much hairspray.  But, why might they then be one of my greatest influences?  Even if they were responsible for lesser hair-metal bands?  (I'm talking to you White Lion!)  Well, let's put it like this:  Motley Crue helped me to discover The Cult who beget Jane's Addiction who beget Nirvana who beget Pearl get the idea.  If I hadn't discovered Motley Crue, I would probably have ended up listening to, excuse me while I throw up a little, Loverboy or Foreigner or Air Supply or even (gulp) Styx for the majority of my middle and high-school years.  Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto indeed!  Oh my, I don't even want to think about it.  I probably would have bought a Richard Marx album, too.  Oh, the humanity.  Also, being that honesty was what I promised, I still love Motley Crue.  Shout at the devil, baby.

The 1990s

Okay, finally, I've made it to the years when I became really, really cool when it came to music.  The 90s also happen to be when I became really serious about reading.  I don't want to give the wrong impression.  I wasn't reading a lot.  Okay.  I was reading a lot but not as much as I should have been.  I was reading serious books and I mean for that to sound just as arrogant as it does.  I was in college studying literature and writing.  I was reading Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway.  One of my professors got me hooked on the short-stories of Anton Chekov.  I spent my weekends with my nose buried in Isben.  Yeah, I was that guy.  I wasn't really cool with popular fiction at the time.  Looking back, I was a tool.  Okay, I shouldn't be so harsh on myself.  I was only being a tool because my professors were insisting that, if I were going to be a serious writer, that I had to be reading that stuff.  I've come to understand that they were wrong.  I hold them personally responsible for how long it took me to pick up the first Harry Potter book.  I did though have comics to fall back on.  Graphic novels became my thing.  I was all over them.  One series of comics really stood out for me and I still hold the author in ridiculously high-esteem:

Now, so far as music goes, the 1990s were my moment to shine.  I was a deejay at my college radio station and I had access to tons and tons and tons of new music.  It became a matter of pride to discover new bands and expose my peers to them.  I relished it and I still take great joy in doing so today.  I could go on for days about the bands that influenced me during that decade.  Nirvana.  Radiohead. Alice in Chains. Soundgarden. The Screaming Trees. Smashing Pumpkins. Nine Inch Nails.  Rage Against the Machine. Beck.  PJ Harvey. Still, only one band took the throne.  Pearl Jam.  I know that their albums are sometimes hit-or-miss.  The war they waged against Ticketmaster didn't exactly make them easy to see live.  But, from the first moment I saw the grainy video for "Alive" and I watched Eddie Vedder climb up into the balcony and dive down into the waiting arms of an enamored audience, I was theirs.  I've come to grow into the realization that Pearl Jam have become something more than a band for me.  They represent my own movement through time. They grow with me.  They've had children and started families.  I've done that, too.  It's a little fanboy of me but I sincerely feel like we share something together.  We have a relationship together.  Their frontman could put out an album of ukulele songs and I'd be right there with them.  Oh, wait....right.  Anyway, you can forget Phish.  The greatest touring band on Earth are Pearl Jam.  Honestly, does anyone do it better?

The 2000s

The first decade of the new century.  Musically, this one is really, really, really easy.  In trying to think of a band that has really meant something to me, it was very clear.  I considered briefly going with My Morning Jacket.  I love them.  I've seen them live more than any other band including Mr. Vedder and his gang of ruffians.  Still, while MMJ soar and ride around on these massive spectacles of grandiose southern-fried experimentation (I do consider them America's only real challenger to Radiohead), they didn't give me, in the past decade, what I got from Arcade Fire.  Maybe I discovered My Morning Jacket too late.  My first contact with them came from the album "Z".  In the meantime, Arcade Fire had me from the very first moments of The Funeral and they haven't let me go since.  I have never felt more exhilarated by the promise of a live performance than I did the first time I drove up to Montreal to see them live.  I was giddy.  Finally, with Pearl Jam and the Arcade Fire, we've reached the place where who I believe I am musically lines up with who I really am.

When it comes to books, my influences shift their focus.  I've tried to become very deliberate with how I live my life.  I spend my money on the people and products that have proven they stand for the same things I do. I have never had a more direct correlation between a book that I read and the changes I made in my own life than I did after reading Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation.  I remember the night very clearly when I finished that book.  I was lying in bed and I turned to my wife and said "I'm never eating fast food again."  I haven't.  It was over.  I later read Michael Pollan's Ominivore's Dilemma which only solidified the choices I had made.  But it all started with Eric Schlosser and, being that Big Macs used to be one of my most-guilty of pleasures, I have to say that's quite an influence.

I'm not sure what is coming next.  We never do.  I wonder though if any of the bands that I'm currently in love with will go the distance and be considered an influence in-and-of-themselves.  I currently love the music being put out by Fleet Foxes, The Lumineers, Japandroids, and the Black Keys (to name only a few). When this decade is over, will I look back on them or will they be surpassed by a band that hasn't even cut an album yet?  I don't know.  But it will certainly be fun to find out.

As far as book-related influences go, I feel like my greatest influences come from my amazing CPs and a band of beta readers that I've been lucky enough to join forces with.  Honestly, is there anything more influential than knowing that you aren't in this thing alone?  Is Jonathan Franzen reminding me on Twitter to keep moving forward with my re-write?  No.  Does Suzanne Collins send me emails that push me to be more demanding on my own work?  To move my writing from okay to great?  No.  Did JK Rowling just tell me to keep my chin-up after one more rejection?  Not that I noticed.  How can I call them influences then?

So, don't leave me hanging people.  We're all friends here.  Give it to me straight, who are your influences (especially the ones you don't want to admit...somebody had to buy all those Milli Vanilli albums)?

Paul Adams spends his time in the wilds of Vermont fighting bears to protect his wife and two kids.  He teaches high school English, writes MG/YA stories, embarrasses his family on a regular basis, and lets his geek-flag fly proudly.  He dreams of being a member of the Pixies. 


  1. Oh my gosh! I love HOW TO EAT FRIED WORMS! I love Pearl Jam! You just gave me about fifteen thousand things to google today instead of working :) Thank you, Paul!

    My writing playlist of late includes: Florence, MIKA, and my shocking reveals: Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber (I know shoot me)

  2. I'm glad to have personally destroyed any chance of your being productive today, Mel. Now, there is no shame in listening to T. to Mr. Bieber. Well, how about if I put it this way: "Got any old Banana Splits albums?"

    1. Hmmmm, coincidence that I mention that Banana Splits one day and then you're writing your erotic thriller about Mr. Bananapants? Hmmmm.

  3. Great post Paul. As for my musical influences, other than the ones you have already listed, British rock is something that is never far from my ears. As for music that I don't speak of much, Buddy Holly is someone that can usually be found on my iPod.

  4. Great post Paul - I love all the reveals! I am always eager to gain some insights into how my friends came to be who they are. When I was in 9th grade, I was finally allowed to stay up later than my parents. I would stand at night with my head pressed against one of the stereo speaker, which was softly whispering music to me. You will not be surprised to know that the music being whispered was the red album of The Beatles, soon followed by their blue album. I am glad to see that Beck made the cut. It took me a while to accept another musical Beck next to Jeff, but the man's brilliant.

    1. I'm actually pretty shocked that in writing this I didn't think to add the Beatles. I think they get lumped into this "classic rock" place in my brain that has become so large and so predominant that it no longer stands out. I mean, please, I can't seriously say that I wasn't influenced by the Beatles, Led Zepplin, the Stones, the Kinks, T. Rex, Pink Floyd, Queen (I mean, QUEEN...hell, I know every word to Bohemian Rhapsody and can bust that song out at a moment's notice). I think there is a curse upon the house of classic rock that makes a lot of those bands disappear into the fabric.

  5. Great post: music is the best, including musical dirty laundry.

    I think I'm inspired by a lot of music as a writer, and as a music writer I'm inspired by understanding influence; I'm inspired by tons of music, but the music that influenced me the most growing up, cool or not, was Eurythmics.

    As far as writing goes, I have some cool answers, but even as a precocious reader who got a some heady stuff early, I probably owe wanting to write to Shel Sliverstien and Donald J Sobol...

    1. Sweet dreams are made of these...who am I to disagree? I love Annie and Dave. I can still remember being so drawn into that shock of brilliant red hair that Annie Lennox used to sport. As to writing, I'm still looking for where the sidewalk ends. ;)