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Recording Mythology, Pt. 35 / What Do You Mean, “Who Are My Influences?”

Let’s be honest, one of the most loaded, yet hard to answer questions that anyone can ask is the one that people will ask the most often.

Whenever inquiring minds ask,”Who are your influences?” I inevitably answer with the question, “How much time do you have?” I mean, is this a rhetorical question, or do they really wanna know? If they’re looking for a brain-dead answer like, “Oh, I was really influenced by the Stooges.” they’re in for a surprise.

I wonder how many people can really recall their influences or even realise what they consist of. I don’t think that ‘influences’ are always indicative of another band or musician; maybe it was a girl who was seen sitting in a passing bus. Perhaps the influence wasn’t even a ‘who’, rather a ‘what’. Maybe it was vanilla ice cream in a waffle cone.

You want influences? I was born to the smell of coal fires the same week Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog hit number 1 on the charts. I was influenced by Wilbert Harrison who was carrying on about Kansas City when I was two years old. I had a fever, and the only thing that could cure it was fat, hardcore saxophone. I didn’t know what all of the hollering was over, but I wanted to go to ‘Kansas City’ and find out.

How about the time Roy Orbison began singing Oh Pretty Woman on the radio? I was only about four at the time, and was chewing Juicy Fruit chewing gum. There were grown-ups in the room when the song came on. I was afraid that they could read my mind. Roy was talking dirty about something, and although I didn’t know what the hell it was, I felt the lingering desire in his voice. I had the entire scenario in my little brain, and it was an embarrassing thing for me to endure. It is a scientific fact that the brain is sometimes incapable of differentiating between fact and fantasy.

How about the first time I ever smelled a skunk? I was listening to the Percy Faith Orchestra doing Theme To A Summer Place. To this day, I love string sections, french horns, and the scent of skunk.

There was the time that I was playing beneath an open window and heard The Rooftop Singers doing Walk Right In coming from a portable radio inside, and I consciously realised 1) that The Rooftop ‘Singers’ couldn’t sing, and 2) that heavy metal riffs shouldn’t be attempted on acoustic 12 string guitar.

And then there was the time I heard Skeeter Davis singing The End Of The World, and it almost made me cry. I’m willing to bet that most of you aren’t aware that Shelley Fabares was singing to me when she did Johnny Angel. I know this because later, she did a song entitled Johnny Loves Me. That meant that she got my letter.

Sure, there were the Beatles with Twist And Shout, but I only perceived them as more or less an exciting event. The Beatles were always a little too far ahead of me. Penny Lane is my favorite song.

Then there was my fifth grade music teacher, Ms. Seiters. My gracious, she had curvature, she was a young blond, and she wore some heavenly kind of ‘good enough to eat’ perfume. With that, and Paul Mauriat’s Love Is Blue 45 rpm record that she played for us in class one day, she quite unintentionally turned me into a little man.

Or the time that I heard Steppenwolf’s The Pusher coming from the other side of my sister’s closed bedroom door. Actually, that didn’t influence me; it was obvious that she was simply trying to 1) be part of the ‘counter-culture’, and 2) piss off our parents. Later, though, I heard the B side tune – Jupiter Child, I think – and it did influence me.

I remember driving home in the rain one evening in 1975 after giving a girl a lift to her house. Her name was Rita, and Barry Manilow’s Mandy was playing on the AM radio in my Ford Pinto. I never saw her again.

I recall that when I was a teen I’d sat out back late one night and smoked a joint. I quietly came inside and switched on the stereo just in time to hear Dylan sing Tangled Up In Blue, once again, but for the first time ever. Gateway drug, my ass. Music was my gateway drug. I learned to play guitar to tunes such as Eric Clapton’s Let It Grow from 461 Ocean Boulevard. From the sweet aroma of Gonesh incense and Brook Benton singing Rainy Night In Georgia, or the Ozark Mountain Daredevils doing You Made It Right, to Leo Kottke’s tormented acoustic guitar on the LP Greenhouse, all of these things made definite impressions, some more than others, and this did not go unnoticed by me.

These are what I call creative influences. I think that these are as important in our musical growth as anything else. If we don’t acknowledge these influences, we cannot grow as songwriters and musicians.

I’ve only got but a few literal influences, and their influence isn’t reflected in the style of music that I play. It is reflected in the fact that I still play music to this day, and attempt take my skills to the ‘next level’. These influences are the ones who inspired me to grow outside of those individuals and bands who I ‘idolised’ as a kid. This list is much shorter and extremely precise. These people are responsible for rearranging the way that I think about, listen to, and approach music. Thanks to guitarists extraordinaire Elliott Randall and Don Felder, music became a voyage into the unknown. Thanks to songwriters Joni Mitchell, Dan Fogelberg, Tom Waits, and Aimee Mann, painting with words became a reality. Aural craftsmen Todd Rundgren, Jeff Glixman, and Alan Parsons proved that when you follow your Muse, every tune can be a beautiful experiment, regardless how silly, bombastic, or unorthodox the approach.

I became aware that some tunes contained an emotional element that I could not isolate. I found that many pieces of music were capable of causing me to weep quite uncontrollably. Be it a somber Chopin nocturne or William Ackerman’s The Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter, I felt a certain ‘presence’ that was not present in other work. I am almost always moved to tears upon hearing David Gilmour’s pleading lead guitar work in Comfortably Numb.

The Muse is, by far, my greatest inspiration. If you don’t understand what I am referring to when I use this term, then you cannot, by default, be musically whole. I’m not saying that you can’t write and compose primitive crap like, ‘Baby, baby, oh baby’ or violent rap lyrics, but what I am saying is that you aren’t following anything except a trend. In other words, you are just writing stuff from a cerebral function. Hearing the Muse is akin to hearing something that is almost foreign to the ear. It is at once clear, yet vague, and it is fleeting. It cannot be put off, nor made to wait. It cannot be ‘willed’ into action. The Muse is a Eureka! moment. If we wait and listen, rather than inundate ourselves with other dreck every waking moment, we will begin to hear the Muse. It can be recognised as being completely different, yet it is easily overlooked as being somewhat ‘trivial’. At first, it is hard not insert oneself, or ‘modify’ what one hears (and I cannot overemphasise how disastrous this can be to the process). The Muse is not generally interested in how ‘accessible’ a piece is, or whether it will bring us capital in the form of a ‘hit’. Translated accurately, and with substitutions used only as a last resort, the Muse will always reward one with a unique piece of art.

Somewhere along the way, I realised that everything that I was ever going to be capable of was already there, and all I had to do was work, Practice, and be properly prepared for the eventuality of the coming of the Muse.

Many of my tunes come to me while I’m whistling. I’ll be cooking, cutting the grass, or sweeping and I’ll whistle some …thing. Suddenly, I’m all ‘Oh! Oh!’ and off I go running to the studio. Sometimes I’ll awaken to a full composition in my head, playing along without me, and I’ll be jumping over my own knees to get a handle on it before it leaves me forever. These ones can be especially frustrating to lucubrate because sometimes I can barely discern where to begin on account of the polyphony. Remember, I am not a musician, so I have to figure all of these parts out.

I pride myself in struggling to do whatever needs to be done in order to achieve the required effect. I don’t give a damn how cheap or downright stupid something looks, or even sounds, if it gets results, I’m all over it. Real results aren’t had in ‘ready-made’ presets, plugins, nor through more expensive instruments, hardware, or software. Results come from inside, not outside. I try always to start over completely with each tune that comes to me, and to never become rooted in a ‘mindset’. I don’t have my own ‘tone’ or a particular ‘style’. I don’t ‘do’ anything besides follow the freaking Muse.

In a Q&A forum with Alan Parsons, everybody was asking him questions like, “How did you do Dark Side of the Moon”, or something equally, from my point of view, idiotic and virtually unanswerable. When I asked him what the cheapest stunt that he ever pulled in the studio was in order to get the desired results, he grew loquacious. “Interesting question. Ah, there were several, actually. But I recall that once, I needed to get a ‘big booming sound’ that we just were not able to nail with regular percussive devices. Finally, I directed several of the studio crew to don headphones so that they could monitor the piece, and then position themselves outside the studio along the length of a wooden staircase. Then we miked the stairs. On que, everyone pounded in time on the treadboards and voila, I got the sound that I needed.”

A man after my own heart.

Now….who, or what, are your influences?


About Johnny Nowhere

Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter/composer and owner of Hell Paving Company, music publisher. Johnny doesn't really exist outside of the music industry and Facebook. He is simply a figment of my imagination.

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