The Danger of Influence

From time to time I’ve included some of my influences here. Whatever your creative outlet, if you get any good at it someone is bound to ask who your influences are. Sometimes the answer is insightful, but it can also be frustrating and embarrassing. And of course the danger of influence is obsession.

There is no denying that The Smashing Pumpkins were a profound influence on me when I first started playing guitar, and yet I never look forward to revealing that. When I first really discovered the band during the advent of their third album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, I was fourteen years old. The first song I heard was “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” while running laps in gym class. In an earlier post I mentioned the moment I decided to take up guitar, it was while listening to that album on cassette tape through headphones on a generic walkman that was held together with duct tape. But my obsession did not end with the music. Anyone that went to my high school can tell you I had almost enough Smashing Pumpkins shirts for every day of the week. They were the first band in which I could name all the members. I could tell you what Billy Corgan’s guitar amplifier was (Marshall JCM 800 2303 modified to take KT-88 tubes instead of EL84s), what kind of pickups were in his Fender Stratocaster (Lace Sensor Red, Blue, and Silver in the bridge, middle, and neck position respectively). and owned a well worn VHS tape of their guest appearance on The Simpsons Lollapalooza episode.

On the guitar I cut my teeth learning to play many of their songs, but thankfully my songwriting never really took after their style. Oddly enough a lot of my visual art borrowed cues from their videos and album artwork or other wise made homage to the band. As much as these facts make me cringe now, I can acknowledge that a lot of creative folks go through this. Austin Kleon discusses the phenomenon briefly in his book Steal Like An Artist.

It took a fellow fan, artist, and college alum to finally tell me that I needed to find my own voice in my art and he was right. Of all the goofy little ways I snuck Pumpkins references into some of my early works, there is only one that I’m really pleased with, a 23-minute video which features the outtakes compilation, “Pastichio Medley” in full.

Some people really do have an undying love for a band, movie franchise, or writer. However, I’m relieved to have grown out of my obsession with the Pumpkins. No group or artist has come nearly as close to occupying my time as much as they did. Some of it is getting older and more mature. Some of it is finances. I would love to be a Vault Subscriber of Third Man Records; I love everything Jack White has done (three bands, a solo career, and 13 total albums and counting since 1999) to the point that I sometimes have to remind myself to dial it back and say, “No, I can’t really afford a $20/mo music subscription right now.”

Regular readers here will know that I’ve talked up a number of Chris Guillebeau’s books here. I’m a fan of his writing and can’t deny some amount of influence, but one of my favorite passages is in the postscript from his first book, The Art of Non-Conformity which reads as follows:

Someone once unsubscirbed from my blog and left a note that said, “Thanks for everything, but I need to go it alone now.” I don’t like losing readers, but I instinctively understood what that person meant.

Whatever your creative outlet is and whatever your influences are, don’t forget to go it alone from time to time. I don’t regret the time I spent sucked into The Smashing Pumpkins landscape. I look back on that time fondly, when it seemed that nothing mattered except loud rock and roll music. Even though I’ve gotten away from that it will always be a learning experience that is a part of me and to this day I can’t plug in my electric guitar without playing a good bit of “Silverf*ck,” which is what I’m going to do right now…

On a related, yet deeper, note, check out Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and The Danger of A Single Story from TED Global 2009.

EDIT: See, I didn’t lie.

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