Media That Shaped My Life
by Rusty W. Spell


"This changed my life" is a strong phrase, especially when you're referring to something silly like media.  That's originally why I softened the title to "shaped my life," but lots of what I'm discussing below did in fact change my life.  My life is largely a creative one, so it only makes sense that creative people and the things they created changed it.  So, yes, "changed my life," but "shaped" is still more accurate so I'm sticking to that.

I've structured this article somewhat as of a biography of my early creative life, though by no means a complete one.  Think of the headers as key poses that the animation of the rest of my life filled in as it naturally had to.  As a warning, you'll be reading a lot about me, so unless you're interested in Rusty Spell, I can't promise you'll enjoy this, but I hope you'll give it a shot.

Charles M. Schulz: Peanuts

Everything began with Charles M. Schulz and his Peanuts characters.  Since Snoopy and Charlie Brown are everywhere, and have been since 1950, they were of course present even before any time that I can remember.  My first material possession (at least one that I still have) was a Christmas ornament of Snoopy wearing reindeer antlers and his tongue sticking out, given to my mother to give to me a month before I was born.

Of course, almost everyone -- certainly every kid -- likes or loves Peanuts, so I'm not special in that regard.  But did they change my life?  Yes.  The main thing that happened at this early stage was that Schulz helped me realize what an artist was.  I was just as interested in Charles Schulz as a person as I was his characters.  I wasn't yet interested in his personal life (his kids, his history at the syndicate, his religious affiliations, etc.), but I was interested to know that there was this living person who drew pictures and made jokes and made people happy for a living.  From the beginning, when asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, my answer was to be "an artist."  When pressed for more information, I would say that I wanted my own comic strip in the paper, but even then I knew that was being too specific.  The best answer, in my mind, was "an artist" and all that this title implied.  (I do now, by the way, have a couple of comic strip series that I put on the web, and both are Schulzian.)

During the first week, maybe even the first day, of first grade, I spent most of the day drawing Snoopies and Smurfs for everyone in the class.  I remember thinking, "Oh, I guess I can draw then.  I guess I'm an artist."  My early memories are like that, little realizations.  I probably was drawing at my desk and someone saw me and wanted one and it went from there.  At any rate, I certainly was known by everyone else, including especially the teacher, as the artist.  I drew the same picture of Snoopy (one that was on my lunchbox) every single day of first grade before drawing or doing anything else, like a freak.

So did Snoopy just happen to be around?  Could it have been anything?  I don't think so.  I didn't draw the Smurfs or any other thing unless someone asked me to.  I don't care much today about other cartoon characters that were around in 1980.  The Peanuts characters have only grown more rich to me as I've become an adult, especially now that the entire comic series is being released in chronological order and I can see every strip and its development.

Here's where a chicken-egg thing comes into play in terms of my thought development.  Do I feel certain ways and believe certain ideas and view certain things in a specific way because I got them from Schulz, or did I get into Schulz because I already felt these ways?  Take one thing, for example: the way Schulz deals with the seasons, holidays, and nature.  The first leaf of autumn means something profound, as does the first snowflake of winter.  I never was able to experience a lot of these seasonal events first hand -- living in Mississippi where you were lucky if it snowed once, and then sometimes it would happen during some ridiculous month like April -- but the idea behind these structures meant a lot to me, and still do.  The obsession over even minor holidays like Columbus Day or Arbor Day still makes perfect sense to me.  And, back when I was a kid, you could always tell what month it was based on what I was drawing: an Easter egg factory, leprechauns in a four-leaf clover field, Draculas and Frankensteins.

And, though I didn't know it yet at the time, Charles M. Schulz would also help teach me how to write fiction.  I don't use drawings or panels when I write short stories, but damned if those things don't feel like Peanuts comics in terms of structure, characterization, humor, obsessions, moods, and almost anything else you can think of.  When I decided, at age fifteen, to use the middle initial in my name anytime I wrote, it was partly a joke about pretension (and partly pretension itself) but mostly an homage to Charles M. Schulz.  That's the way he did it; therefore, that's the way it's done.

The fact that Schulz did everything by himself was important to me.  When I first discovered that Jim Davis, creator of Garfield, didn't do all the drawings (or even all the jokes) himself, but employed a super-large staff, I was disappointed in him.  "Oh, well, he's not that special then," I thought.  I still have a lack of respect for things that are done by committee.  As much as I often enjoy a good collaboration, I still like doing everything by myself.  I like the idea of one person's vision.  And that's what Schulz did (at least with the comic strip, his baby) from day one until the last strip published one day before the day he died.  No one else touched a letter.

I haven't even said anything about the Peanuts' treatment of imagination, spirituality, philosophy, simplicity, love and relationships, melancholy, religion, mood, politics, or hundreds of other things that mirror my own view of life (chicken or egg--again I'm not sure), but they're certainly there and I couldn't possibly cover everything.

Mel Blanc: Looney Toons Voices

I don't know if Mel Blanc changed my life, but I certainly do like doing voices and impressions (all the time), and Mel Blanc (voice of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Barney Rubble, Heathcliffe, Twiki from Buck Rogers, etc.) was the first person I knew of who did voices for a living, and it's something I've considered doing for a living myself since I was a child.  So I should say that Mel Blanc hasn't changed my life yet.

When I was only five or six, the Looney Toon characters were coming to the mall.  I was smart enough to know that they were actually just people dressed up in outfits, but I was dumb enough to think that Mel Blanc would be inside one of them (probably the Bugs Bunny) doing the voices.  I wondered who would be inside the others doing their voices.  I knew that Noel Blanc, Mel's son, could do a lot of the voices, so I assumed he would be in one of them.  I figured I could get Mom to make the appropriate calls to let them know I could do any of the others.  That's right: I pretty much thought I was third in line to the voice throne of the Looney Toons characters.

Of course, I still believe that if Mike Judge ever needs someone to do Beavis and Butt-Head for him, I'm the best there is.

C.S. Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia

Fourth grade was a big year for me artistically, in large part due to my brother introducing me to C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia.  I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in one day.  I read most of it during school anytime I had a free moment, and I read the rest at home that afternoon on my sister's bed (which must have been the quietest place in the house at the time).  I've since heard that many first-time readers -- especially young ones -- of that book have similar experiences of needing to read it all at once, often being in semi-hypnotic states while doing so, only pausing for bites of food.

When, not too many weeks later, I finished all seven books, I felt the need to get out a sheet of paper, print all the names of the humans who entered Narnia, and write at the bottom of the page, in my overly-ornate cursive, "I have just finished reading the best books ever written!"

So they meant a lot to me, though it's hard to explain exactly why.  If you read the books at a young age, or even at an older age, and some of this sounds familiar, then you already know.

At the base of it all is magic, and a particular kind of magic.  For one, the magic in Narnia, though fantasy-based, seems real.  In fact, the magic is so real that you believe you've already experienced it, only in a different form.

I didn't like Narnia because it was exotic and fantastic.  I liked it because it was familiar.

I'm not just talking about the Christian stuff either.  If I'd wanted Bible stories, I'd have read the Bible.  It wasn't just the other mythological stuff either (Norse, Greek, Arthurian, Wind in the Willows, Santa Claus, etc.), though it may have partially resulted from a fusing of all of the above.  But, no, I'm not talking about it being familiar in the sense that I'd heard it already in some other form.

The best way I can explain it is to say that the Narnia books took the mystical feelings that I already had inside me (and that I still have) and put them into pictures, stories, characters, settings, and words.  I can go to Narnia without reading the books, if you know what I mean.

Beyond having this profound effect on me, they increased my interest in books and writing.  I was reading from an early age and had been reading all the time, but I mostly read things like short stories found in elementary school readers or that kind of thing.  The Chronicles of Narnia were more or less the first novel-length books I ever read, or at least the first I cared about enough to remember.

After I finished them, they made me want to move on to other "magic books," which is what I called them.  I only later learned the term fantasy, which still doesn't sound quite accurate.  I went on to Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quartet (which at the time was only a trilogy), Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, Edward Eager's magic books, and of course J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.  Only one other author came close to the same magic feel of C.S. Lewis, however, and that was George MacDonald, Lewis's literary father, but even he wouldn't have been enough to change my life.

I had been writing from an early age too, but these books made me want to really pay attention to how things were really done.  I wrote my first two illustrated books during this time and I would use The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as my model for how to paragraph, punctuate dialog, and that kind of thing.  I'd keep it next to me on the table as a reference book.

I eventually moved on to other books beyond fantasy (after realizing that the fantasy section of the bookstore was 95 percent crap) and into my career as a writer and teacher of writing and literature, but C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia started it all for me.

Prince: Purple Rain

Thanks to my five years older brother Tony, I was interested in popular music from the age of three or four.  One of the first radio songs I remember hearing was Peaches and Herb's "Reunited."  I listened to the Chipmunks and other children's records, of course, but some of my favorite bands of the late 70s and early 80s were new wave bands like Blondie and The Cars, synth pop like A-Ha and The Human League and Men Without Hats, and electro-rap groups like Newcleus and The Egyptian Lover.

You can see from the above list that I really liked keyboard-based electronic music, and later I will talk about the person that influenced my own music the most, but first I want to talk about the first album that I recognized as a masterpiece, at the age of nine, and that's Prince's Purple Rain.

Narnia and Purple Rain happened around the same time for me and in a way I liked them both for the same reason.  Prince was a mystic (or at least did a good job of acting like one) and this was a mystical album.  Prince created a brand new world in this album, one where Satan was "the elevator" (bringing us down) and God was "let's go crazy" who would "die 4 U."   "The Beautiful Ones" made perfect sense to me as a fourth grader in love.  And of course there was "Purple Rain" itself, a lovely apocalyptic image of the blue sky bleeding red blood to make purple rain.  Listening to the album at night with the lights off, it felt like church.

Purple Rain made me realize that albums were important as an art form.  I liked songs by themselves, and still do, but this one showed me that it was often worth it to see what an artist was up to in this extended form: like a novel vs. a short story.  In this age of iPods and MP3s, Purple Rain and its kind are the reason I still collect CDs and desire the wholeness of true albums.

Michael J. Fox

Family Ties and Back to the Future screwed me up forever.  I thought Michael J. Fox was the coolest guy: smart, funny, handsome, well-dressed, outspoken, and those quirks.  Maybe what I'm about to say isn't true, but it sure seems true, that I lifted all my major mannerisms from Michael J. Fox.  Messing with the hair, touching the face, moving around nervously.  I still do all that stuff today, and at this point I can't help it.  Maybe I would have anyway, but maybe I might be a perfectly normal-acting guy if he weren't around when I was an impressionable adolescent.

And let me be clear.  I thought and think those nervous ticks are cool.  Others might think they're annoying or something to be corrected, but not me.  I think nervousness looks cool on other people too, like Jeff Goldblum or Hugh Grant.  My freshman year of college, I exaggerated my nervous behavior on purpose when I gave my first presentation in speech class because I thought it would look cool and get me a high score.  Instead, I was made fun of by the class, got a low grade, and the professor asked if I practiced at all or was I just making stuff up as I went along.

Like I said, Michael J. Fox screwed me up forever.

Late Night with David Letterman

Although David Letterman wasn't ultimately the most influential person for me in terms of comedy, the humor of his original Late Night show from 1982 to 1993 was among the earliest humor that connected to me in a personal way, beyond just the usual funny ha-ha I'd experienced up to that point.  Though I'd watched it on and off since its beginning, it was around maybe 1986, at age eleven, when I really started watching the show every night with my brother.

Around this time, my comedy style and preferences began forming, largely as a result of the kind of comedy that Letterman introduced me to: absurd, silly, postmodern, being stupid in a smart way, finding comedy in the mundane, showing reverence to old show business styles or other "important" institutions while mocking them at the same time, and much more.  Some of the other comedy that appealed to me at this time was It's Garry Shandling's Show, SCTV, and Police Squad!  I watched "normal" sit-com-type comedy shows, but I knew even then that they were just killing time.  Letterman and some of these others felt like they were making me smarter (and, of course, more funny).

For many years, I said that David Letterman was the second funniest person ever, next to Jack Benny.  His ability to create himself as a character is something I still do and something done by many of my favorite current comedians, including Tom Green.

R.E.M.: Green

As I've already said, I'd been a genuine fan of music since the age of three or four, and I've hinted that I had more alternative tastes, but R.E.M.'s 1988 album Green solidified this alternative route for me.  I was a thirteen-year-old in junior high when the album came out, so it was around the time for my musical tastes to start gelling.

The first time I heard the term alternative was when I went to pick up the new Fine Young Cannibals album in 1988.  I looked in the regular pop/rock section of the music store and it wasn't there.  When the clerk pointed me to a small section in the corner of the store labeled "alternative," I was like, "What's that supposed to mean?"  I was a little insulted.  I looked around the section and there were my favorite bands: They Might Be Giants, Edie Brickell and New Bohemians, The Lightning Seeds, The B-52's, Talking Heads, and of course R.E.M.  Oh well, I guess I was alternative, whatever that meant.

None of these bands sound too "alternative" today -- and they were certainly being played on the radio and MTV at the time, else I wouldn't have heard of them -- but there was a huge distinction between them and the more mainstream stuff like Wham!, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, or Paula Abdul (all of which I enjoyed well enough).  R.E.M., too, showed that the label "alternative" meant very little even back then.  Green spent forty weeks on the Billboard top 200 charts, going to number twelve.  "Stand" went to number one even on the mainstream rock chart.  But I guess you have to compare that to George Michael's Faith which spent twelve weeks at number one, fifty-one weeks in the top ten, and spit out four number one songs.  In mainstream media, everything is relative and anything slightly less than oversaturatedly-popular is considered abnormal or weird.

I had been fans of their "It's the End of the World as We Know It" and "The One I Love" from 1987's Document, when they were a college rock band just breaking into the mainstream, and it was an exciting day in late 1988 when I bought the newly-released Green cassette as a Christmas present for my friend Lori (making a copy of it for myself before giving it to her).  Having a friend to share it with made it special too.  Millions of people bought their own copy that year, but this still felt like our own personal music.

By the way, I and we didn't become musical snobs ever.  I wasn't above listening to Was (Not Was)'s "Walk the Dinosaur," Karyn White's "Superwoman," or whatever odd hit was on the radio at the time.  I had preferences, but still liked a lot of the rest.  Just so you know.

And my preference had nothing to do with who was or wasn't listening to something, of course.  It had to do with what the music sounded like and what it meant to me.  I would never be able to connect to Chicago's "Look Away" no matter how hard I tried, but I still get a special feeling when Green begins and "Pop Song 89" starts blasting, the album continuing with a mix of mandolins, cellos, pedal steels, and other non-rock instruments.

The album's lyrics were more meaningful to me, too.  Equating discussions of the government to discussions of the weather (both just meaningless chit-chat), dreams and sleep both complicated and complimenting life, the weirdness of direction, sad and regretful and artificial world leaders, killing the environment (and California completely), the ever-present-ness of Vietnam, and every damn word of "You Are the Everything."  A line like "run a carbon-black test on my jaw and you will find it's all been said before" or "you're drifting off to sleep with your teeth in your mouth" was more interesting to me than a straightforward and clichéd lyric like "It's too late when we die to admit we don't see eye to eye" (no offense to Mike + The Mechanics).

Green was by no means the first alternative album I enjoyed, but it came at a place in my life where my identity was being shaped by the music I liked, just like a lot of teenagers, and its spell on me has continued to this day.

Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

During the same period I was listening to R.E.M.'s Green, I was reading Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy--sometimes at exactly the same time.  This is one of those books that I don't think of as being incredibly influential until I encounter it again and realize that it was.  Primarily, it influenced the way I talk and write.  I might have eventually been overtaken by Hemingway's lean style if I hadn't first realized how fun it is to write with all these clever loopty-loos.  It also gave me permission to be funny in writing.  Of course, the content of the book helped too, since I was already of the opinion that the universe is just as absurd as Adams described it.

 The Kids in the Hall

David Letterman was great, Douglas Adams was great, but the Kids in the Hall connected with my comedy brain more than anything else.  I still think they're about the funniest thing that's ever been recorded.  Almost every day of my life, I'm not only quoting from them, but mimicking their style of speech and delivery--so much that I don't even realize I'm doing it.

The Kids in the Hall also helped me with certain ideas and writers I would later encounter, especially my favorite playwright Harold Pinter who they seem to be influenced by.  And, of course, this show helped desensitize me to almost everything--in a good way.  Almost nothing is beyond joking about, and in fact sometimes the more serious it is, the more it should be joked about.  In the end, no matter how black or surreal their comedy was, it always came from a positive place in their hearts.

David Lynch: Twin Peaks

It's going to be impossible to say how much my favorite TV show Twin Peaks -- and ultimately David Lynch himself -- impacted the way I now view the world.  Where things like Peanuts and Narnia appealed to me because they seemed already familiar, Twin Peaks  seemed brand new.  And, though at the time the show was like nothing I'd ever experienced, it and almost everything David Lynch does is more like the current version of me than anything else in media, so this definitely shaped and changed me in drastic ways.

I was fifteen when Twin Peaks came out and I didn't know who David Lynch was.  I knew about The Elephant Man and Dune, but I didn't know who directed them.  Everyone was talking about Twin Peaks, though, and I sat by myself on the couch and watched the pilot slowly unfold on television.  That did it.  Even after one episode, I was different.

It was some kind of mind-expansion for me.  The owls were not what they seemed, indeed.  Stoplights looked different and took on meaning.  Power tools were beautiful.  Red curtains enclosed entire worlds.  Everything around me was floating.  Words meant more, and so did silence.  I could lie in my bed and stare at the ceiling fan for long periods of time.  Electricity.

All without drugs.

Keeping up with television shows then, as now, was difficult to do, even with the aid of VCRs, so I didn't see every episode, hard as I tried.  But that lack of information didn't hurt me too much when the movie prequel, Fire Walk With Me, came out two years later.  My friend Tommy and I went to see it and we were both in weird states of stun when the film ended.  I remember opening my umbrella in the parking lot afterward, even though it wasn't raining, and I don't know why I did.  Two things were now true for me.  1. The world looked pretty different after seeing this movie, even more than seeing the TV show: more surreal, more beautiful, more scary, more meaningful, more mysterious.  2. "Regular" media looked even more like complete crap.

Similar to my music situation, I never became a snob, but I certainly became picky.  Most things just wouldn't do anymore.  I remember coming home from the movie and looking at whatever somebody was watching on television and thinking it looked like vomit.

Moods became very important around that time, creating and maintaining moods.  My friends were big with this mood thing too: Tommy, Lori, and Noby.  We could set the mood with music (the Twin Peaks soundtracks worked well), or lighting, or ways of speaking to each other that felt more rich (using specific words and tones and with specific content).  This wasn't escapism.  These moods were the real world.  Television and stupid movies and people arguing and noisy telephone conversations and car horns: that was some sort of hideous trash version of the world that I just wasn't having any more of.

To enter these moody worlds more fully, we'd create our own stories, music, and movies.  I'd been writing stories since at least age ten, and making movies and music were around this time for me anyway, but Twin Peaks shifted their directions.  Peaks-y stories began appearing, especially when Noby and I got together.  We once played the Twin Peaks soundtrack for about eight hours straight while talking about and writing a story.  We formed an instrumental-only musical group very much inspired by Angelo Badalamenti's music.  Inspired by but not copied.  Everything we did was original, not just teenage imitations of David Lynch.

That's the thing about Twin Peaks.  It crawled into every area of my life, and not just my creative life.  Friendships were changed and strengthened.  Even my romantic relationships were different and better.  That's the thing also.  Don't think for a second that this was normal fan obsession and all of its dorky, crappy trappings.  When I say I was inspired by Twin Peaks, you shouldn't imagine me and my friends sitting around nerdily discussing theories about who killed Laura Palmer or what the owls really were.  We weren't brought together by fan-talk.  In fact, unlike the rest of America, we didn't care who killed Laura Palmer.  If we talked about it, it was in the form of a joke:  "Oh, I dunno, maybe Dr. Jacoby."  "Why him?"  "Because he wears different colored glasses."  That little bit of information didn't matter to us.  We barely cared about plot at all, almost to a fault when it came to our own creative works.  No one was wasting their time with "Peaks Mania."  That's what television was about.  That's what trashy magazines were about.  That was the shit they talked about on the E! channel and everything I was against (and still am).

As I entered college, David Lynch meant even more to me.  The series was released on VHS tape and I was able to watch Twin Peaks properly.  After doing so, seeing Fire Walk With Me again meant even more, too.  During my first theater viewing, I was stunned.  This time, I felt that I completely understood the movie and it hit me in a really deep and emotional place.  I still can't watch the movie without having some kind of breakdown.  Other Lynch movies have similar effects, though not as much.  The closest is Mulholland Drive, in the scene behind Winkies, which makes me feel like I'm having a nightmare mixed with an anxiety attack.  Episode fourteen of Twin Peaks also makes me pretty useless for a minute or two.

I could probably keep talking about this, and I could certainly write a separate article about it, but what I've said will have to do.

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis

Backing up a bit to the year before college, there was Dobie.  That's right: in the middle of Twin Peaks, I would watch this sit-com on Nick at Night every night.  A lot about it was appealing.  Dobie reminded me of myself.  The character was about the same age as me, he was girl-crazy, his friends were a little nutty, his dad was a grocery store guy, he was a thinker, he was a bit self-centered but nice, there was the whole weird magical Zelda thing.  Dobie would talk directly to the audience in a way that made you really like him while telling you about all the stupid stuff he did with the girls he was in love with, which was pretty much my formula for writing short stories for at least the next ten years, though I've only just now made that connection.

There were a series of episodes in particular when Dobie was deciding where to go to college.  He ended up going to a liberal arts college in order to study "truth and beauty," which sounded really good to me.  I'm not about to tell you that I majored in English and specialized in creative writing because of Dobie Gillis.  I'm sure I would have anyway.  But when he made his decision on television, I remember that it helped solidify my decision in my life.  It was like a friend telling me that what I was doing was right.

There was also the time in eighth grade when I made a romantic decision based around an episode of The Wonder Years, but I'm not going to tell you about that.  I've said too much already about this ridiculous thing called television and will seem like a fanatic no matter how much I defend myself.

Rheostatics: Whale Music

My second year of college, I picked up some random CDs at our campus radio station during one of their fundraisers.  One of them was Whale Music by the Rheostatics, a Canadian band I'd never heard of before.  In addition to demonstrating to me once again the importance of random events (since I can't think of an opportunity when I might have eventually heard of the Rheostatics if it hadn't been for this day), this band opened up my way of thinking about music and began (sort of) my indiesplosion, several years later than for the really cool kids.

I liked the album (and, eventually, albums) so much that I wrote the band a fan letter, something I'd never done for anyone.  They wrote back with super-niceness and I made them my first popular web page (which runs to this day) and met many very cool people in the process.  The internet, of course, was a huge life-changer for almost everyone, and the Rheostatics (and college life) was very tied into it for me.

There's a lot I could talk about concerning the Rheostatics; I've only hinted at things above.  One thing I'll leave with concerning them is that listening to their musical felt like an active thing.  It wasn't just background noise to be enjoyed.  It was complicated and smart and affected my body and mind in weird ways and prepared me for more smart music to come.

The Magnetic Fields: "100,000 Fireflies" and "Born on a Train"

It could have been almost anything by The Magnetic Fields, but these songs -- "100,000 Fireflies" from Distant Plastic Trees and "Born on a Train" from The Charm of the Highway Strip -- were the first two I heard.  An internet friend of mine named Amanda made an amazing tape for me that introduced me to (among others) Robyn Hitchcock, Morphine, Guided By Voices, Superchunk, Sebadoh, Pavement, Lois, Ani DiFranco, The Halo Benders, and of course The Magnetic Fields.  All at once!

You’ve gotta understand that in 1995, in spite of (and somewhat because of) my newfound love for the independent Rheostatics, I was by no means an indie rocker.  I didn't know that Beat Happening had been around for ten years already.  R.E.M. was my favorite band and were also, by that time, pretty much the most successful band in the world.  Even They Might Be Giants were on a major label by this point.  But I'd also kind of given up on rock music for the most part.  My big guy from the end of high school to this point?  Andrew Lloyd Webber.  He never changed my life forever, but he did occupy five good years of it, or at least of my CD player.  I still like Webber, but not nearly as much.  I also listened to more classical music, including -- you know -- stuff like PDQ Bach's classical parody music.  I liked lots of Queen, lots of ABBA (like them even more now, actually), lots of Disney soundtracks, lots of late-era Beatles, lots of things that were produced.  I wasn't a fan much of rock music anymore so much as heavily-produced recordings, including the Rheostatics.

Then I heard this indie rock tape.  I told Amanda that all the songs sounded like demos, that they might be good if someone would go in and record them for real.  She was one of the first "MTV sucks" people I knew.  She went to Vassar and started a homemade 'zine.  She was just a lot cooler than me; what can I say?

The first couple of songs, however, on the tape that crept out at me were the Magnetic Fields tracks.  I never disliked those or thought they sounded like demos.  Even when my ears weren't quite prepared for them, they did something to me.  The more I heard them, the more they appealed to me.  Eventually I became addicted enough to these songs that I had to go out and get a Magnetic Fields album, a big deal at the time since they weren't readily available in Mississippi and I still barely trusted internet shopping.  But somewhere -- in Memphis, I think -- I found the double album Distant Plastic Trees / The Wayward Bus and heard for the first time what I, even at the time, thought was about the best music ever created.

My friends and everyone else around me didn't much like them, which made me feel like an alterna-boy for the first time again since before R.E.M. "sold out" (as hipsters stupidly like to say).  Eventually, the other stuff from the tape interested me as well, especially Morphine, Superchunk, Sebadoh, Pavement, and The Halo Benders.  Soon I added Built To Spill, The Folk Implosion, The Sea and Cake, East River Pipe, The Mountain Goats, and Lambchop to my roster.  Those were the first in this new music life for me.

But in addition to changing my musical tastes, The Magnetic Fields changed the way I wrote and recorded music.  I'd been recording music for five years already, but Stephin Merritt -- like Charles M. Schulz, Prince, and David Lynch -- was someone who did everything more or less by himself and his methods really made sense to me and were what I wanted to be doing.  I formed my rip-off group The Mnemonic Devices which emulated his music and aesthetic.  It's grown into my own thing over the years, but the first album or so was a pure homage and the group was (and is) one of my most successful efforts as a results.

Just like it's difficult for me to explain how David Lynch movies affect me, it's difficult to explain what Stephin Merritt's music does to me.  One night I was listening to his song "Take Ecstasy With Me" on headphones and listening to just one percussion instrument rolling around in my ear and it did indeed make me feel ecstatic.  His lyrics are next to perfect, and lyrics are something that not many people are very good at in my opinion.  And, since I was a fan of production, I paid attention to that with the Magnetic Fields and realized that -- even more than the over-produced stuff I'd previously loved -- this particular lo-fi approach had a quality that couldn't be matched by anyone.

I guess it's normal to think the music you loved at age twenty is still the best music.  Which isn't to say that I haven't found new stuff, because I have: that's part of the point.  But, ten years later, The Magnetic Fields are still my favorites and I can't imagine anyone replacing them anytime soon.


Do I expect anything else in media to change my life?  Maybe, but probably not.  Werner Herzog or Lars Von Trier might eventually if I let them.  Belle and Sebastian, Will Oldham, and The Frogs had a good shot.  Maybe another book will come along that will do something to me, since writing is still the medium of adults (though it's being quickly being replaced by serious movies as writers puss out more and more).  I'm kind of on the lookout for a new phase, to be honest with you.  Whatcha got for me?

Copyright © 24 Apr 2007 We Like Media.
You may email Rusty W. Spell.