Over the last year I've felt disconnected from my usual writing habit, so I decided to jumpstart things by writing about something fun: I've chosen the ten books, albums, movies, and games that were most important in defining me as a person, and challenged myself to explain why.
Some of these set my artistic tone or left huge imprints on my personality, others changed the course of my life or career. With each item I can say, "if not for this, I would be someone else right now." But why? It's a surprisingly hard question to answer. A strong feeling would compel me to put something on the list, and then I'd realize I had no clue how to unpack that feeling.
When I was twelve or so, I visited my cousin in Berkeley. He was a sophisticated 16-year-old, with skills I could only grasp at - like sarcasm - and a collection of weird t-shirts, and real opinions about music. I had a few blank cassette tapes, which I was using to record puerile skits and fart noises with my friends, and my cousin had a CD collection. So after breakfast one day I spent a few hours tinkering with his Mom's stereo and managed to dub a couple of his CDs onto tapes before I had to go home.
This was a big thing for me. I idolized my cousin and if he liked something then I must like it too. In retrospect I might say that it was fortunate he actually did have good taste, but that would be based on my own opinions as an adult, which were evolved from his, so how much is that statement really worth? But perhaps you can judge for yourself: The first thing I dubbed from him was Pink Floyd's epic prog-rock album The Wall.
I understood almost nothing in the lyrics. I was too young to handle metaphors, and the drug and sex references sailed right over my head. But the music was astounding. David Gilmour made guitar solos you could follow like a train of thought, and Roger Waters sang with a kind of all-out intensity while still being musical, like a person right on the edge of exploding but still under control. I could really relate to that. Puberty, yo.
I rounded out my Floyd collection slowly, since I was spending most of my money on candy and software. I listened to Dark Side Of The Moon while walking home, A Nice Pair while doing homework, and Atom Heart Mother before bed. I listened to Animals and The Final Cut while hanging out with friends, and we would occasionally discuss the lyrics.
Except for some stuff in their early years, Pink Floyd is not what I'd call "light". It's not dance party music. When Roger Waters is in artistic control, the music is a psychodrama - obsessed with confronting tragedy and working through it. When David Gilmour has artistic control, the music is psychedelic and strange - all about transformation, inside and out. The creative tension between these two made music that was always challenging, in sound and words. I came to expect this from music in general. What was the point of lyrics if they didn't say anything?
Much later in high school this became a touchstone for my friends, and we would relentlessly mock popular music for its apparent lack of substance. During one lunch break we recorded a skit where a "top 40" radio DJ introduced a song called "Oh Baby I Want To Suck All The Love Out Of You". The song itself was just a repeating keyboard riff while one of us screamed the title over and over, until the DJ cut it off.
Just about everyone is a little asshole in high school. I was definitely more of an asshole than average, mentally placing myself outside what I thought was a happy collective of cool conformist kids, then resenting that collective for not including me. As an adult I can see how obvious it was that I'd constructed my own little narrative to give my social awkwardness and difficult feelings some kind of positive spin, perhaps the way previous generations of awkward kids found an identity reading superhero comics. (As I write this in 2015 I find it hilarious that popular culture has turned superheroes with tragic pasts into its own billion-dollar entertainment industry. We're now an entire nation of underdog outcasts! How does that work?) But at the time, it was the most serious thing in my life. Pop culture was mindless consumption, elevating "having a good time" over everything else, and to my friends and I it was an Orwellian propaganda war against our complicated and angry feelings, against our desire to focus on what was wrong instead of what was right, which apparently had no place in adult society.
It bears repeating: We were teenagers. Being a teenager is an ugly business. I'm not trying to credit my cousin or Pink Floyd for my attitudes as a teenager, but I will credit them for providing a soundtrack that helped me connect with my friends, and with myself, and continues to connect me with adults and an entire genre of rock music.
My Berkeley cousin came to visit us for a while during the summer, and he brought a collection of mixtapes with him. It was my solemn duty to assimilate everything he thought was cool, but I only had a few blank tapes of my own, so I asked him which ones were the best. He handed me one with no labels on it, and said, "This is industrial music. It's what they listen to in the factories in Germany."
Cool! My cousin was awesome; he knew everything!
The music was really bizarre to my young ears. Highly electronic and beat-driven, atonal and mysterious; a landscape of metallic percussion and chopped-up orchestral music scattered with out-of-context voice samples. Repetitive to the point of being hypnotic, but unreal enough to hold my attention. This was my first connection to music that seemed to enhance my ability to concentrate. It located the place in my brain that was constantly interrupting me and neutralized it -- like, I would still feel the distraction start to happen, but I would run straight into the music and ricochet back the way I came, into whatever I was already paying attention to, without losing my place. If this is what people listened to in factories, I could understand why. It lived up to the idea of "industrial", since it helped me to be industrious.
My cousin never told me what band or bands were on the mixtape, and he didn't visit very often so I was always too distracted by his presence to remember to ask. I played the tape for my friends, and none of them could identify it. Eventually I brought it to a record store in Santa Cruz and played it for the staff. They didn't have a clue. No one did. It remained a mystery for eleven years, and not for lack of trying. Every time I went shopping for music I bought anything in the "alternative" or "industrial" section whose tracklist seemed to reflect what I heard on the tape, hoping to get lucky and stumble across it. I never did, but I found a lot of other interesting music by accident that way.
The second song on the tape was Dance Of The Cowards. I memorized every word of the monologue long ago, and when I was in middle school I believed it was about how narrow-minded people get obsessed with conformity out of cowardice, and are abusive towards anyone truly different, but eventually the different people rise above them socially, rise above their abuse, and leave them behind. I interpreted it in my own context as a weird and lonely kid, just like I did with Pink Floyd. 25 years later this song still stands as one of the strangest compositions I've heard - and I've heard a lot of weird music, for sure. It has no drums, no stringed instruments, no brass instruments. The repeating motif is not on any musical scale but it does have structure, and it's clearly made from snippets of a voice but it never forms any words. Then there's that bizarre monologue. Cold, dehumanizing, and threatening. If I were a parent hearing my kid listen to this, I would probably get a bit worried... Until I remembered that I listened to the same stuff at the same age and - ahem - "turned out fine".
Eventually one of my friends encountered the source album when he got a radio show in Davis and spent many hours rummaging through the station's library. It was the band "Greater Than One", and they were from England - not Germany - and their music had nothing to do with making factory workers productive. My cousin had just been bullshitting me, of course. Not that it mattered - it was the sound that I liked, not the origin story - and by the time the mystery was solved my musical tastes had been developing for a decade and were firmly in place.
(Age 13) - Placido Domingo - Perhaps Love
I had no idea who Placido Domingo was. I didn't even know he was an opera singer. What mattered was that whenever my Dad took us on a drive any longer than 15 minutes, chances were pretty good that he would play this cassette in the car stereo, and he would sing along half-seriously to most of the lyrics as we went.
To my thirteen-year-old self, my Dad was a gigantic, generally quiet man with a very dry sense of humor. He would occasionally act like a goofball with his kids, but only when he was absolutely sure no one else was looking. Driving down the road with us in the confined environment of the car, he would alternately croon and bellow his way through each song in the mode of this legendary Spanish opera singer, and his enthusiasm was so infectious that we would sometimes join in for the chorus, even if we couldn't quite make out what Placido Domingo was saying in his heavy Spanish accent. We would just sing some garbled up approximation instead.
It takes some practice to understand what opera singers are saying when they get loud, since so much of their enunciation is dropped in favor of volume. Add a foreign accent on top, and us kids didn't stand a chance. Placido would explode with "Is there an explanation, to ease my sorrow?" and I would participate with "Is Aaron echination, poofeezy arrow?" It didn't seem to matter!
Dad would also listen to an Elvis cassette over and over, and I consistently mistook the line "ever since the world began" with "Elvis is a waffle maker", and I imagined Elvis gyrating around a kitchen wearing a chef's hat - and then burning his fingers on the waffle iron, prompting his followup "ahuhuh!" Dad also got a Huey Lewis And The News tape from somewhere, and Huey at least could make himself understood, but my Dad never sang along to that.
Yep, it was the Placido Domingo that really brought out his performative side, and in turn, inspired my own enthusiasm for vocal performance - mostly singing by myself as I drove my own car, for year upon year as a teenager, until I worked up the guts to first join the choir class, and later, perform in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It didn't hurt that he also encouraged me to join choir by saying, "when I was a kid, the football coach actually ordered the whole team to join choir, all at once. He said it was mandatory." I liked that.
Meeting my Dad in any other context, it's very hard to imagine him flapping his elbows at the wheel of the car and singing, especially to a song like "Perhaps Love." (And especially to "Perhaps Love" as a duet by Placido Domingo and John Denver!) In fact, it's hard to imagine that song even exists. But if this six-foot-two, serious-looking middle-aged dude with a beard and gorilla hands could cut loose from his life-long John Wayne impersonation and showcase his inner opera diva, then it was totally okay for me to do the same.
And that was very important.
(Age 14) - Ministry - Twitch
This was one of the albums I bought in the record store when I was looking for the source of the "industrial" music my cousin gave me. The cover art looked vaguely eastern-european, like a stone monument to some austere political regime, and the track names sort of matched what I heard on the tape - if you really squint, maybe. I brought it home and dropped it eagerly into the CD player...
I can still remember seeing the level meters on the stereo slam all the way to the right with every beat when I played this track for the first time. This was exactly what I anticipated from a category called "industrial", and I liked it. In fact, I thought I was hearing a template for the whole genre, and that there were many other albums like this one waiting to be explored ... but that wasn't true. Even the rest of Ministry's own discography doesn't sound like this, as though they tried it one time and then said, "ugh, forget it, we need to drop these synthesizers and add in some guitars."
"Twitch" is a well engineered album, with a cleanness to it that I hadn't encountered before. Take the track "The Angel" for example. Skip halfway into the song, so it's really going. Notice how distinct every instrument is, how the snare drum in the beat has an airy quality to it that seems to rise up through everything else. To a kid whose ears were accustomed to the hiss of cassette tapes, this was a revelation. It started the beginning of my obsession with purely digital sounds, leading into groups like Moby, Biosphere, Kraftwerk, et cetera. (Now for extra credit, notice how everything swaps from left to right on the soundstage and back again, every four beats. That's got to be Adrian Sherwood working his sequencer magic.)
This CD was only the second or third piece of music I'd purchased using my own money. (I think the first CD I ever purchased was "Radio KAOS" by Roger Waters, which didn't have much of an impact.) Everything earlier had been from the family collection, or dubbed from my cousin or friends. I brought this home seeking industrial music, and hadn't been disappointed, but when I moved on to purchase some of Ministry's other albums, I found something much more aggressive and distorted, and my musical tastes expanded into that, too.
(Age 16) - In The Nursery - An Ambush Of Ghosts Soundtrack
Ministry's "Twitch" had a purity to the sound. Pink Floyd's "The Wall" had interstitial quiet moments, where the listener could relax, or just hang out for a while between two thoughts. My small music collection was hinting at a much larger territory, called "ambient music". Meditative, unhurried, without even lyrics. Then one day - doing my usual thing of hunting for albums that might be the elusive "industrial music" my cousin gave me - I dropped right into the middle of this new terrain.
I don't think I'll ever know why the band is called "In The Nursery". Something to do with gardens? Something about childhood? It hardly matters. What their music is, in a word, is ethereal. It's what you would expect to hear in a cathedral - quietly in the background, or loud in your ears when a sunbeam pierces you through a stained glass window - but the closest you'll ever get instead is an ordinary church organ or choir. Well, maybe a live performance in some world-famous location would have the same effect. But only maybe.
The alternately rapturous, then tragic, compositions on "An Ambush of Ghosts", mixed in with short pieces of tense dialogue from a film that - even after 20 years - I still haven't bothered to see (how could it live up to this music?) connected together with half a dozen things I was obsessed with at the time. Meditation, choral music, victorian architecture, stone monuments and ruins, ghosts and demons... I sometimes wonder if, had I been raised in a religious household, some other set of concepts would already be rooted in my mind as a 16-year-old to tie all these things together a different way, rendering the music mundane, or even annoying. I'll never know.
What I do know, is that after this album, I had a voracious appetite for "ambient music", and the more albums I bought - by Robert Rich, Brian Eno, Biosphere, Harold Budd - the more I appreciated the sound of In The Nursery, and of this album in particular. One day, as a 17-year-old, I got an extra-long speaker wire and dragged my stereo speakers into the bathroom and took a bath with one lit candle and this music playing. Very "goth", as my generation might say. Over twenty years later, about half the music I have is "ambient", and my 100 most-played songs are almost exclusively "ambient".
Some people crave this stuff, some people are annoyed by it, and some people are totally unmoved. I like to think that this means there are at least three kinds of inner universe, and we each live our lives immersed in one of the three, and only occasionally visit the others. So a state of mind we only occasionally visit - one we find strange and exotic - is what some other person might be comfortably resting in, all the time, every day. It's amazing society works at all, eh?
In a funny twist, the movie that I never bothered to seek out and watch, was actually never released! Even if I wanted to see it, there's no way.