Columnist Michael Ventura, who writes the excellent Letters at 3AM column for The Austin Chronicle (and used to write for the L.A. Weekly), suggested this ‘exercise in know thyself’ for the New Year: “List the Top 10 cultural artifacts that shaped you most. Be honest and unembarrassed. That’s the dare.”
Here’s mine for the first 25 years of my life:
10) MAD MAGAZINE “The usual gang of idiots” introduced me to the wonderful world of parody at an impressionable age (9-14), and showed me how to laugh out loud at the absurdities of the world and the way people behave. This was the earliest influence on my satirical brand of humor, and I have done my part to ‘pay it forward’ ever since, with no sacred cow un-tipped.
9) PERU Okay, not technically a cultural ‘artifact,’ but definitely a cultural experience that changed my life. At 17, I left a very coddled home life to spend several months as a foreign exchange student in Peru living with a family that spoke no English and lived in conditions Americans (but not Peruvians) would call poor. Not only did it open my eyes to the wide world out there, and how other people live, but it proved to me that I could live away from home, adapt, survive and seek adventure (I spent two weeks hitchhiking through the Andes with my Peruvian mother just to go 500 miles from Lima to Cuzco and Machu Picchu). When I got back, I knew I would leave my hometown and ultimately seek my fortunes and adventures … out there.
8. STANLEY KUBRICK’S “A CLOCKWORK ORANGE” I saw this (also at 17) just before going to college at the University of Miami and it cemented my direction toward a career in film. As cinema art, this film was the perfect combination of bold story, stunning cinematography and awesome music. The fact that it was about a 15 year-old gang member who terrorized future London with acts of rape, murder and ‘ultra-violence’ shocked audiences so much that it was banned in England for 20 years, and I remember people angrily storming out of the theatre at my first viewing. But that only inspired me more to believe in the power of film to go beyond mere entertainment and provoke a visceral response, even if it was disturbing. Now, if I had only had the good sense at the time to realize it was an extremely poor choice for a ‘date’ movie, I might have gotten luckier earlier.
7) TRAMPAS ON ‘THE VIRGINIAN’ Trampas, as played by Doug McClure on the mid-Sixties television series The Virginian, became one of my earliest role models. He was a hard-working cowhand on the Medicine Bow ranch in Wyoming in the late 1800s, but as hard as he worked, he played even harder. His joy for life was infectious, and the fact that he maintained an innocent spirit in the face of every obstacle or adversary was somehow even more appealing. I wanted to BE Trampas. Imagine my thrill when a mutual friend introduced me to Doug McClure (and his fifth wife) 18 years later at his Beverly Hills Four Seasons suite and I discovered … he WAS Trampas. We hung out and he wanted to party non-stop, and he had the attention span of a kid desperately seeking the next distraction. It was exhilarating at the time, but at a burn-out pace, like a ride best enjoyed in short bursts – but that was how he was 24/7, and no doubt what contributed to his early death. So, in life, the experience that was Doug McClure totally matched Trampas. But it also taught me the potential costs of just living to do as you please from moment to moment without ever thinking about ‘the big picture.’
6) MARVEL COMICS ‘SILVER AGE’ These were the great titles from the Sixties, where Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, the Avengers, and Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos were first introduced and became the heroes of my childhood reading. These superheroes differed from their DC counterparts like Superman or Batman because Marvel heroes had hang-ups and were emotionally vulnerable to their situations. They were more like the angst-ridden teenagers we were all becoming. My mom would stop at the local Drug Fair every week on my way to get an allergy shot so I could pick up the latest issues at 12 cents each. I collected almost every title from number 1 to number 50. This was before collecting comics in preservative bags went mainstream and rendered comic collections ever since not worth much (because they just aren’t as rare). I had X-Men No. 1, which eventually reached auction prices up to a staggering $18,000. I sometimes wonder what my entire Marvel collection would have been worth today and where I could have retired comfortably to for having sold them now. But I sold the entire collection for about $400 during my freshman year in college to buy an awesome pair of speakers … which I still listen to today. So, at least in some way, though I’ve grown past my comics age, they are still entertaining me.
5) PLAYBOY MAGAZINE At the same time comics began losing some of their steam, my libido was quickly swelling with it. I can still remember buying my first Playboy at the Aspen Hill 7/11 at age 15. To accomplish this extremely intimidating feat at the time for an underage kid, I also purchased a comic book for me … and a “To Dad” birthday card. It was a brilliant strategy. And Playboy offered the ultimate male fantasy of life that every James Bond-loving teenager could imagine; filled with high tech gadgets, sexy cars and naked women. And since this was before video, you had the advantage of never having to listen to these bimbos actually speak to ruin the fantasy. The very first writing job I was ever paid for in Los Angeles was creating potential cable television specials for Playboy Enterprises. What a fantastic gig! I even ran out and bought a great silk bathrobe just like Hef would wear. But then I found out I was not to be invited to the Playboy Mansion because the 50 year-old has-been actors who hung out there didn’t want any competition for the 22 year-old playmates from guys the same age as the girls who could relate better and keep their ‘attention’ up longer. Now that I’m in my 50’s, the invention of Viagra doesn’t make that predatory scenario any more appealing or less creepy. But Playboy and I were both born the same year, and it still holds a nostalgic value for what I yearned for as a horny young kid, and what I’ve evolved to be as a horny old man. But if Playboy ever wants to get its former readers back, it should stop featuring playmates shaved bare, which makes anyone lusting after them feel like a pedophile.
4) EDGAR ALLAN POE Long before there was Playboy (around age 7), there was the melancholy of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories and poems. Maybe it was the women of Playboy that later cured this melancholy. But I believe every young kid is either born with, or experiences a period or tinge of melancholy. Perhaps when we first discover that people – and people we know or love (such as ourselves) can actually die. Or maybe it’s just genetic. But Poe speaks to that dread in all of us in a language dripping with melancholy in all of its manifestations – and perhaps helping us to purge some of it at the same time. I can’t say I was obsessed with Poe as a young reader, but I read everything he wrote many times, and I knew that he died and was buried in the very city (Baltimore) that I was born. So I rode that tenuous connection through a lonely period of my youth where everything unspeakable and unfathomable to what my normal Leave it to Beaver home life was really like, spoke to me from the other side.
3) “ROCKET MAN” BY ELTON JOHN/BERNIE TAUPIN If there is a song that best describes that melancholy born of the ultimate aloneness we all … share, it has to be Rocket Man; which, to me, in 1972, was an instant revelation of what a fantastical mood, melody and lyric could produce. What budding creative artist would not feel an affinity to the metaphorical lyric of being a space explorer as your regular gig, nine to five? Of sometimes feeling like you’re ‘burning out my fuse up here alone?’ I heard Elton sing that one phrase over and over again as he improvised his way through a stunning, extended version of the song live at the L.A. Amphitheatre in 1979, and the autobiographical depth of the song hit like a ton of bricks. Elton may be gayer than Richard Simmons with a pink curling iron at a hair salon, but never forget that hetero cowboy Bernie Taupin writes the lyrics. Elton is merely the melody, and he always does melancholy better than anyone (just start with Candle in the Wind, Funeral for Friend, Daniel, and Sacrifice for beginners). Taupin articulates the mood by writing the lyrics first, and Elton later interprets it to a melody. My mom’s generation had Rodgers and Hammerstein for this perfect synergy of talents. We have Reg Dwight and Bernie Taupin.
2) THE OUTER LIMITS While we’re on the subject of melancholy and outer space, how about the most original and never equaled version of gothic horror science fiction to ever air on television? This show has influenced more creators in the field of science fiction media than anyone (except perhaps number 1 below). James Cameron copped the episode “Soldier” to create The Terminator. Alan Moore’s Watchmen stole the whole premise from”The Architects of Fear” (but at least acknowledged it). This show terrified me for the two meager seasons it aired from 1962-63 (and my son 47 years later), and I adored every minute. So much so that I later wrote the writer Joseph Stefano to thank him for his fantastic work and influence, and I even called the composer Dominic Frontiere in his Beverly Hills home from my college apartment in Miami to rave to him about his beautiful, haunting themes. Skip the revived version of the show that could never capture the perfect B&W film noir of the original, which added to the mood. But remember the ‘control voice,’ which reminded us over and over that our very next experience would be beyond our control. Shit, was he ever right.
1) ROD SERLING AND “THE TWILIGHT ZONE” Okay, so I watched a lot of television as a kid, and still do. But here was the single greatest inspiration for me to pursue a career in writing for television or film. Rod Serling wrote about soulful, important, moral issues with an unbridled imagination that often disguised their target or impact but, ultimately, never their human message. These 156 timeless episodes of The Twilight Zone are nothing more than the Aesop’s Fables for our generation; the moral nuggets covered with a chocolate mystery surprise that delight our taste buds, but also nourish our souls. Who else in 1962, before the Civil Rights Act was ever passed, could get away with a story on national television where a black man unjustly convicted is to be hung at dawn … and the sun never comes up? Or my favorite episode, Walking Distance, where a super-stressed man from now somehow takes a train ride back through time to the idyllic town of his youth, confronts the trouble-free kid version of himself, tries desperately to reconnect to him on a carousel and stumbles, is warned by his own father back then that there’s “only one summer to a customer,” and returns to the present newly crippled from the experience. Nostalgia CAN cripple our ability to live in the now and to look forward in our lives no matter how hard we want to avoid the stresses we face every day. But every once and a while, like this list or yours, we just need to go there.
Later … Top 10 for the Next 25 (the grown up years)
– A. Wayne Carter