In Garden State, Natalie Portman’s MPDG said that hearing a Shins song would change Zach Braff’s life. Not likely… but has there been a book, film, album, etc., that actually effected a real change in some aspect of your life? And I mean something more profound than “Hearing Nevermind ended my obsession with hair metal.” —Kurt
Of all the things I’ve ever read or seen that I’ve internalized in some significant way, none is weirder than Dave Sim’s Reads, a notoriously controversial graphic novel in the middle of his indie-comics series Cerebus. The general reaction to that book—which devotes a major section to an extended schizophrenic essay-rant about how women are soulless Voids that devour the creative Light which only exists in men—was rightly horrified. And yet no matter how crazed Sim’s depiction of women became—one sequence literally depicts a woman eating her boyfriend’s brain as he vapidly describes their looove—I kept wondering if there were some truths in there. His conviction that men are essentially logical and women are wildly emotional and endlessly tricky and selfish and manipulative didn’t hold water with me, but his anecdotes made me think twice about my own behavior, and start to monitor it. Was I really authentically angry over some perceived slight, or was I creating drama to get attention? Did I honestly not want to be around my boyfriend, or was I only withholding affection to force him to agree with me? And it was a short step from monitoring to actually altering my behavior, and trying to be more rational, direct, and honest about my issues with other people. I’m not sure any of this self-judging is entirely healthy, and I am sure that learning life lessons from a man who seems to be authentically mentally ill is a bad idea. But I do feel more comfortable with my own emotions and behavior in feeling that aware of, and consciously avoiding, the cheap stereotypes about my gender.
I hate to be that guy, but… yes, I became a vegetarian in high school after listening to The Smiths’ “Meat Is Murder.” I was 16, and my family was as red-meat-obsessed as any other upstanding white-trash brood. Call it an act of rebellion if you want, but at the time, I seriously and sensitively bought into Morrissey’s crusade against “sizzling blood and the unholy stench of murder.” Soon after that, I got into straight-edge hardcore, a scene that was diving headlong into veganism at that time. It sucked at Thanksgiving, but my mom was surprisingly okay about the whole thing. Back then, though, it was almost impossible to find tofu at the grocery store. (The irony being, I didn’t even start liking tofu until I stopped being a vegetarian.) Even worse were the veggie-burger mixes that were the staple before the frozen kind became widespread; you’d have to blend this dry bean powder with water, make a paste out of it, and try to fry it in patty form without it falling apart. Back then, I even had a homemade jean jacket—cruelty-free, of course—with “The Smiths: Meat Is Murder” stenciled on the back in marker. (An unexpected side-benefit of being vegetarian: Punk girls dug it.) Still, I vividly remember the day I finally got tired of eating spaghetti and fries every day and resumed eating meat: I was 19, and I went to a local diner—alone, shamefully, as if I were about to get arrested—and ordered a giant, juicy French-dip sandwich with a side of au jus to dunk it in. The next day at work, I coated the bathroom walls with it. Many years later, here I am: an utter omnivore who still feels a faint, nostalgic twinge of guilt when sinking my canines into a nice ribeye.
Even more than sentencing me to a lifetime in the culture-crit salt mines, reading Pauline Kael’s Movie Love as a high-school senior profoundly altered the way I allowed myself to think about movies. I can trace it back to a single sentence, from Kael’s review of say anything…, where she says that John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler “stands for something, like Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot.” I’d never heard of Tati, and wouldn’t get around to seeing one of his movies for years, but the idea that a teenage romantic comedy, even one that I loved and profoundly identified with, could be compared to something so obviously, well, French, and by a critic who was older than my parents, blew my fragile little mind. While I was busy finishing The Sheltering Sky to the accompaniment of Peter Gabriel’s Passion and feeling like the most intense 17-year-old on the planet, a woman three times my age was applying her critical erudition to a movie with a Red Hot Chili Peppers song on the soundtrack. Notwithstanding its lack of existentialist bona fides, the film moved her, and that was reason enough to take it seriously. In the space of a few words, she taught me that a work of art’s profundity lies in its effect on its audience, not in its self-seriousness (or lack thereof). The only comparable experience was when I spent a lonely semester abroad holed up with Greil Marcus’ Ranters And Crowd Pleasers and Rhino’s D.I.Y. compilations, but that’s a story for another time.
When I was younger, I wasn’t exactly one of those “I don’t even own a TV”-type snobs, but I definitely thought there were media in which greatness was possible—film, literature, music, visual art—and then there was television. Sure, some television shows were better than others, and sometimes the medium could even hover around the lower reaches of what might be called “great,” but all in all, it really was a vast wasteland. Because of its very nature, broken up into easily digestible fragments and interrupted by the crassest possible advertising, it could never be great: it could never build or sustain a mood, and worse still, people who were truly creative and innovative didn’t want to work in television. They wanted to make movies. TV was okay for sitcoms, and very good for live events like sports and news, but for narrative storytelling, it ranked way below even hit-and-miss media like comic strips and magazines. That all changed, as did my perspective on the very nature and possibility of storytelling, when Twin Peaks hit the airwaves. In retrospect, it was only half a great show (much of the second season is infamously terrible), and even worse, its impact wasn’t really felt for decades. Good as it was, it didn’t immediately trigger a renaissance in television, and I don’t think the true Golden Age Of TV really hit until the late 1990s and into the 2000s. But it was so innovative, so brilliant, so funny and dark, so evil and good, that it changed not only what television was capable of, but my estimation of what television was capable of. Its still-stunning blend of great acting, phenomenal visuals, great dialogue, unforgettable characters, and—most importantly to a medium that had never paid much attention to it—incredible depth and sustainability of mood opened up infinite possibilities for television that had only been hinted at before. From that point on, not only did it seem possible that greatness could be part of the television experience, but that talented people would want to test that possibility. There had been good shows before, and there would be better shows after, but it represented a high-water mark previously unthinkable for television, and it not only opened my eyes to what TV could be, it helped remove my self-inflicted blinders about narrative storytelling possibilities in other media as well.
When I was 15, I spent a month at The Tennessee Governor’s School For The Humanities, a kind of summer camp for smart kids, and there I took a film class in which we watched, among other things, It Happened One Night, the original Scarface, and The Graduate, none of which I’d seen before. I’d already been developing an interest in movies thanks to my older brother buying our family our first VCR (and renting the likes of Blood Simple and Blue Velvet for me to watch), but the instructor in that class helped explain what I should be looking for, and those three movies in particular were an ideal introduction to the idea of film-as-art. I enjoyed counting up the Xs in Scarface and soaking up the water imagery in The Graduate so much that I’m sure I became insufferable as a moviegoer throughout the rest of high school, as I elbowed my friends and pointed out the symbolism while they were trying to follow the plot. Over time though, I think I got the most out of the discussion of It Happened One Night, which taught me how plots and ideas can be recycled yet still remain fresh, thanks to the eye of a director and a specific sense of time and place. That was when I learned that “dated” doesn’t have to be a complaint; it can be a promise.
I was raised to believe that homosexuality was wrong, full stop. Every time I let a bit of doubt creep into my mind on the matter, I reminded myself that the Bible was clear on the matter. Ellen DeGeneres, however, was not. I don’t want to say that her mere existence caused me to re-evaluate all of my priorities, but when I was about 16, there were the first rumblings in the press about how her character on the show Ellen might become the first gay lead character on a U.S. television series. I wasn’t a regular Ellen watcher. I had no real opinions on Ms. DeGeneres. But I was a kid who was starting to doubt that everything I had been taught my whole life was 100 percent true, and one of the things I doubted most was the idea that homosexuality was a sin. It just seemed to me that no one would choose to be that humiliated, to have that kind of life. I remembered the rush of emotion I felt as a young teen when I first noticed the existence of girls. Wasn’t it equally likely that someone might have felt that rush of feelings for someone of the same sex? That they might, indeed, be even more confused by that rush than I had been? Something about the whole DeGeneres debate—the way many in the media purporting to be from my own faith ran her through the wringer—caused me to realize that, well, I thought people weren’t choosing to be gay. They were probably born that way. And if they were born that way, then God either didn’t care (and the people who wrote the Bible had gotten it wrong) or He was far crueler than I would have thought him to be. It was one of the first big chinks in the armor of my beliefs, of my self-identification as a social conservative. The wall would come down years later, but the fact that both Ellen and Ellen ended up being gay (and obviously born that way) was the thing that pushed me in that direction in the first place.
I wrote about this in my memoir, The Big Rewind, but when I was 11, I sunk into a deep depression. I’d just moved to a new school, and in time-honored tradition, was forced to prove my mettle after class each day by getting jumped by bullies. I had no friends. My dad was sick and chronically unemployed. Things were bleak all around. Times were hard and troubles were many. Then one afternoon I stole a jar of quarters from the laundry room of our apartment complex and used the winnings to fund a ticket to see Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. As soon as the lights went down and the curtain parted, I forgot about my problems for 90 minutes and lost myself in the film’s ridiculous fantasy world. It was then and there that I had an epiphany, a Road To Damascus moment, and decided I wanted to devote my life to film. I wanted to be part of anything that could provide such joy and comfort in an often-cruel world. My life changed that afternoon. I had discovered my destiny, and I’ve doggedly pursued it ever since.
I got my first record-store job when I was about 17, and me and the other workers would go through periods of listening to the same five CDs over and over again. This is how I was introduced to Refused’s The Shape Of Punk To Come. I was young and defiant, had spiky hair, and had already made my way from pop-punk to street-punk to hardcore. But it wasn’t until I was subjected to daily listens of Refused that I really started to figure out my niche and where I fit in. The hardcore I listened to then was brutish and antagonistic (yes, bro-core), and though it was alluring in its own way, I was always turned off by the mindless hostility that permeated it. Refused, and that album in particular, made me realize that aggressive music didn’t have to be dumbed-down, that you could be intellectual and angry, that you could wear polished mod suits and be an anarchist, that you could care about things like art and history and still have crushing fucking breakdowns. It led me down a much humbler (and brainier) path, and opened me to more positive influences. Like going to shows that didn’t always end up in a fight.
I may have mentioned Stephen King before. When I was 11, my dad read The Stand, and I remember the cover: a night sky, fading blue into black, with a face staring out of the darkness. I didn’t really get it (to be honest, I’ve read the book four or five times now, and I still don’t exactly get it), but it looked scary, and Dad said it was scary, so I was interested. My whole life, I’ve been obsessed with horror, because I don’t have a stomach for it, and I’m easily frightened. Getting past that made me feel brave. Dad was initially reluctant to let me read the book, because he didn’t think I was ready for it, but then he came home from work one day and saw me reading a novelization of Poltergeist II. He decided if I could handle that, I could handle Captain Trips, Randall Flagg, and all that came with them. I can remember him going to the nightstand in my parents’ bedroom and getting the paperback out, and I remember thinking I’d done something important, and also worrying that Dad was about to make a horrible mistake, like I’d lied to him in a way I didn’t really understand, but still felt responsible for. I don’t know how far I was into the story before I got the idea that I’d like to try my own kind of writing, but I do remember that it felt like the most natural thing in the world, like waking up. I was a smart kid, not a super-genius or anything, but I never had a sense of purpose before. Reading The Stand, and all the King books I read after, gave me a reason to be alive, because they gave me a language to speak in. I’ve been amazed by art since then, astonished, moved, enriched, disgusted, but I don’t think there’s ever been another time of such perfect, resounding clarity. I have an honest-to-God origin story, maybe not as exciting as a window-crashing bat or a radioactive spider, but it still makes me smile.
I don’t remember how I heard about it, or exactly when I started watching, but MTV’s 120 Minutes played an integral role in developing my musical tastes right when they were most malleable: my freshman year of high school. And what a time to be shaped: 1990-1991, just on the cusp of the alternative-rock revolution. Every Sunday night, I’d set our VCR to record it, then spend the next week watching and re-watching host Dave Kendall—with his cool hair and British accent, the epitome of cool in my eyes back then—introduce a smorgasbord of amazing music. It was how I learned about The Jesus And Mary Chain, Pixies, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Sonic Youth, Ride, Lush, My Bloody Valentine, Pearl Jam, XTC, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, and a host of others. (Most memorable: the night they world premièred some song about deodorant by a band called Nirvana.) Those tapes were sacred to me—I never forgave my friend Darwin after his VCR ate the one with The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” on it. When my birthday rolled around in March of ’91, I asked only for money, then hit the mall and walked out with a stack of CDs (in those long cardboard boxes) from 120 Minutes bands, dizzy with delight. (“Check it out: I got Nitzer Ebb’s Showtime!”) Although I had mostly checked out by the time Dave Kendall left, 120 Minutes undoubtedly sent me down a path I remain on today. I’ll argue about the greatness of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin’s second album, Are You Normal?, to anyone who will listen.
That's pretty easy for me: reading the book The Outsiders when I was in middle school changed my life. It’s been a long time since I’ve read the book, so I can't actually argue its literary merit, but I remember reading that the book’s author, S.E. Hinton, was 15 when she first started writing it, and 19 when she published it. For some reason, I took that as a challenge. “Well, if SHE can do it, then SO CAN I!” Thus began my own personal campaign to publish a book at an extremely tender age. The tender-age part didn’t work out, but I did publish a book, all thanks to young S.E. and those Greasers and Socs.