Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I recently picked up David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas (for The A.V. Club’s online book club) and knew after 20 pages that it was going to be one of my favorite books ever. (The rest of the novel did not disappoint.) My question is: What book, movie, musician, etc. did you know would be one of your all-time favorites after only the briefest of encounters? —John Nosal
There are few feelings on earth I savor more than that moment at the beginning of a film or book or album that I haven’t read much about in advance, where something about the style or the content hits with an almost palpable rush, and the thought surfaces, “Wow, this is really trying to do something powerful and ambitious, and if it succeeds, it’s going to be terrific.” Three of the times I’ve experienced that, off the top of my head: The black-and-white slow-motion opening to Tarsem’s labor-of-love movie The Fall, which is ridiculously pretentious, ridiculously beautiful, and a teasing mystery, as Tarsem invites viewers to try to figure out what the hell is going on and what it means. I wasn’t fully convinced until the first elaborate story-in-a-story sequence kicked in, but those first two minutes told me that whatever I was about to see would be unique, and I was almost certainly going to love it. Years ago, having never heard The Decemberists, I picked up The Crane Wife on the recommendations of friends. Those first strummed guitar chords from the first track went straight up my spine and lit up my brain, and by the time I got to the end of the first mournful chorus, I was sold on The Decemberists. I pretty much lived inside that album for the next several weeks, and I spent the next few months buying and absorbing all their albums, more or less on the strength of that one song-suite. And while the idea of a film adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are sounded ridiculous, it was one of the few cases where I saw the trailer and said “If that movie is anything like that trailer, I’m going to love it.” And it was, and I did.
Music became my “thing” when I was a child, rocking my “Cum On Feel The Noize” 7-inch on my Fisher-Price turntable, but I fell in love, hard, with bands as a teenager. I distinctly remember being at my friend TJ’s house when I heard “Want” by Jawbreaker for the first time: I was heading out the door when its unmistakable bassline stopped me dead in my tracks. Another time, we were sitting in TJ’s car in our high-school parking lot when Superchunk’s “Seed Toss” came on his stereo. Just like the bassline in “Want,” the guitar in that song has a hook that grabbed me and burrowed deep. Finally, I remember riding home with TJ, and just as we turned on the exit ramp from the Sam Houston Tollway to 290, ”I’m Not Afraid” by Face To Face started playing. Among all of these moments, that one hit the hardest, because I was a Face To Face superfan by the time TJ dropped me off at my house a few minutes later. That song flipped a switch in me; it’s one of those rare moments in life I can honestly say changed me. I became so crazy about Face To Face’s debut, Don’t Turn Away, I actually quoted it in an college-application essay. It was my life. Eighteen years later, I still love that album and revisit it frequently. Who says love at first sight doesn’t last? (Hey, TJ, by the way: Thanks.)
For the most part, I’m anti-love-at-first-sight when it comes to my entertainment. I perversely enjoy growing to love things I at first don’t like, or at least feel skeptical about. Being won over in spite of myself makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something. The best exceptions I can think of are Stanley Kubrick and the Coen brothers. Until I saw The Shining, and then Fargo, I’d never really thought about movies or music that much, other than in passing. Moving on from Fargo to the likes of Barton Fink was maddeningly gratifying, but exploring Kubrick was a tougher slog. The Shining made me so curious about Kubrick that I even subjected my 15-year-old attention span to three dreary hours of Barry Lyndon (poorly VHS-taped from a movie channel), and convinced myself that I somewhat understood what was going on in 2001. Come to think of it, maybe those initial difficulties, and the fact that they turned out to be rewarding, are why I like to mess with my own first impressions now and force myself to just be patient whenever possible.
Some of my favorite bands—The Clash, The Birthday Party, Palace, Ted Leo And The Pharmacists—didn’t do much for me when I first heard them. In fact, I think I perversely enjoyed the act of acquiring those tastes as much as I did the actual music. (Although it’s hard for me now to imagine not liking The friggin’ Clash.) Maybe I was just being cautious; I was an avid music fan for a good 15 years before I became a critic, and I’d been caught up in (and let down by) hype just as often as the next drooling consumer. With that in mind, it’s a little ironic that a band I instantly, inescapably fell in love with is The Strokes. Granted, I wasn’t aware of any hype surrounding the band when I first heard them. I was clerking at a record store at the time, and a coworker and I were unpacking a box of import 7-inches to price and put in the bin. We popped open a box, and it was full—entirely full—of 30 copies of one record, The Strokes’ debut EP, The Modern Age. This was a small, mom-and-pop shop we worked at, so we couldn’t believe one of the store’s buyers had screwed up and ordered 30 copies of a 7-inch by some band we’d never heard of. Curious, we threw it on. It all hit me at once: I heard Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Guided By Voices, Orange Juice, The Wedding Present, and probably a bunch of other bands that The Strokes may or may not have even been aware of at the time. It didn’t matter. I was hooked. My coworker and I stared at each other, grinning at the sheer swagger and outrageousness of it. There was something magic there, without a doubt. It turned out, of course, that the 30-copy order was no mistake; within weeks, the band was buzzing on this side of the Atlantic, and we sold out of those suckers pretty quickly. I got to see The Strokes at a packed, mid-sized theater just before the U.S. release of Is This It, and although the band looked tired and stunned, they played fantastically. I’m still a fan, and I have to admit—it’s kind of refreshing that they never turned into the next U2 or whatever the music industry thought was going to happen to them. And come on, be honest: Even when eaten with a side of hype, Is This It still slides down smooth and easy.
The artist who leaps to mind regarding this question is Al Green: My mom put on his Greatest Hits shortly after buying our first CD player, and I ran into the living room immediately to find out who it was. That’s because of the horn hits on “Tired Of Being Alone,” the lead-off cut. In other words, I fell for Al Green’s music before I even heard him sing—but of course, once I did, I was sold for life. A couple of years later, I picked up My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, hoping that in some way, it might actually live up to that pink-and-red-saturated, blurry cover photo. I figured if the album had half of what that cover had, it would be worth the 10 bucks I’d dropped on the tape. It took about the same amount of time as Al Green—under five seconds—to have a similar effect.
Oh, there’s so many of these! I fall in love too easily, as any number of the women in my life can testify, and this most certainly carries over into the arts. It seems like music and film are pretty well-covered in this question, so I’ll stick to literature: While it’s true that you can’t judge a book by its cover, the equally hoary cliché, that the first line of a book can mean the difference between gaining a reader for life and losing one, is equally true. There are a bunch of writers who had me at hello; I’ve been captivated by the very first words I ever encountered by some of my favorite writers. To name but a few: “Money…?, in a voice that rustled,” the first lines of William Gaddis’ JR. “This was the year he rode the subway to the ends of the city, two hundred miles of track,” the beginning of Don DeLillo’s Libra. “The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of the Dancers,” the start of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. I could easily name a dozen more (the opening lines to Kathy Acker’s Blood And Guts In High School, Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, Faulkner’s The Sound And The Fury, John O’Hara’s Appointment In Samarra, and Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts all leap to mind), but if you give me a good opening sentence, I’ll give you at least a book. Make it a good book, and I’ll give you a career.
Like Leonard, I fall in love far too easily. But I stay in love for far longer than is strictly necessary as well. I am often too forgiving of my favorites, the last one at the party when everyone else has packed up and left. So while I get that everybody loves Pixar, when a friend quibbles with one of their films, it’s like said friend is stabbing me in the face. I saw the first Toy Story by myself in a theater in Mitchell, South Dakota, at age 15. I was seriously depressed. I was skeptical the film would work for me. But somehow, it did, and I spent the next 90 minutes as a happier version of myself, a version I remembered but had misplaced somewhere along the way. Since then, Pixar has had me in an almost wholly irrational way. Ten years from now, when the studio has irritated everyone else, I’ll be singing the praises of Cars 5.
I think music has this power more than any other medium. I’ve been won over by opening lines and opening shots, but never so instantly as with a song. Sometimes it’s the sound of a bigger world opening up. I didn’t grow up in a house that welcomed rock ’n’ roll. My mother remembers calling her friends in horror when The Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan. That was a decade before I was born, and not so shockingly, neither she nor my father embraced rock music in the intervening years. When I first started to listen to music, I did so in the most under-the-radar way possible, asking for a radio, and later, a tape player with headphones. Top 40 came first. This was in 1985, a year after Born In The U.S.A. and Purple Rain dominated the airwaves in one of those rare moments when what was popular and what was great overlapped pretty heavily. Pablum had washed back in, and even though there were still some Springsteen and Prince songs getting a lot of airplay. I wasn’t quite ready for those. So I mostly coasted on the hits of the day—I considered buying a Mr. Mister album, but restrained myself—and didn’t really sense I was missing that much. Then, one night after Z93’s “Top 9 at 10”—a nightly roundup of the day’s (allegedly) most-requested songs—the DJ dug deep into the vaults to play The Pretenders’ “Back On The Chain Gang.” It’s a timeless-sounding pop song, but the feelings of loss, regret, and defiance in Chrissie Hynde’s voice grabbed me. They were emotions I was too young to understand, but maybe I was sharp enough to sense I’d experience them someday. It’s a song with hooks and weight. I knew right away it was mine.
When I was in high school, I had a buddy who’d loan me albums by bands he wanted me to check out. Typically, I’d pop them on my turntable when I got home, give them one full listen, then go back through to pick out the songs I liked enough to tape. But there were two times I changed up the ritual: when he loaned me The Replacements’ Let It Be and Meat Puppets’ Up On The Sun. In both cases, I got about two minutes into the first song before I lifted the needle off the record, put in a blank cassette, and started the record over again, with the tape rolling. And really, I didn’t need to hear more than the opening seconds of “I Will Dare” and “Up On The Sun” before I knew I was listening to albums that were going into heavy rotation. And 25 years later, both albums still are.