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The top 8 influences on my early life

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I am who I am because of who I was in my formative years, and who I was has been the result of strong influences on me. I suppose I was born with certain innate traits, but the following eight influences—seven humans, one technological—from the “outside world” formed me as certainly as did the genes I inherited from my parents.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that all eight influences were from the world of media and entertainment. My generation was the first to grow up in front of the T.V. set. I don’t know if that was bad or good, but it’s the way it was; and so many of my influences came through the small screen. So I’m listing television itself as my first influencer.

  1. Television. We got our first T.V. when I was about four. I can remember to this day the small sofa I sat on watching Kukla, Fran & Ollie, Howdy Doody, Andy’s Gang (a truly bizarre show), Rootie Kazootie and I Love Lucy while mom made me a big glass of milk with Nestlé’s Quik. Television was my principal window on the world in the 1950s; the real world by comparison seemed boring. It surprises me how little thought my parents gave to this new obsession of mine, which to use a current adjective was enormously disruptive to the established order. Probably they were grateful that television kept me occupied and quiet.
  2. Elvis Presley. I was just ten years old when The King made his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and so clear is the memory that it seems like it was only yesterday. The buildup of hype was tremendous; it was the biggest event in television’s young history, and I was transfixed. Of course, they didn’t show Elvis below the waist, but despite that, his tremendous sexual physicality oozed from the tiny 12-inch black-and-white screen. What mesmerized me about Elvis was, of course, that primitive sexuality: the sneer, the menace. It didn’t hurt that he was gorgeous. Elvis established the template of handsome crooners as rock gods that was to dominate popular music ever since.
  3. Leonard Bernstein. The Maestro was a hero in New York City of the 1950s, especially among Jews. Lennie had already become the most famous American conductor in history, and he was one of ours. I used to go to his concerts in Lewisohn Stadium, and his Young People’s Concerts on T.V. were my introduction to classical music. Although I didn’t then know that Lennie was gay, he had a sort of feral omnisexuality that provoked me into a deeper understanding of my own budding sexuality.
  4. John F. Kennedy. Speaking of omnisexuality! Kennedy was something no politician had been before: young, handsome, smart, funny, liberal and thoroughly modern. After the dullness of Eisenhower, he was perfect. His charisma leaped from the T.V. screen. What F.D.R. had been to my mother, J.F.K. was to me: the pre-eminent politician, the model for all (Democrats) who were to come. He still has never been beat in that department.
  5. Andy Warhol. I knew quite a lot about him even in the late 1950s and early 1960s, first because he, like Lennie, was a New Yorker, and secondly because I attended the High School of Music & Art as an art major, and so was exposed to Warhol and his contemporaries in the New York Pop Art movement. Andy fascinated me from the start, with his weirdness, his crazy hair, his sheer talent. Later, when his homosexuality was an open secret, he became another role model. To me, Andy Warhol’s esthetic defined the post-war years in America.
  6. Bob Dylan. Another New York Jew. By 1962 he was famous among young people in the city for his folk songs, which inspired a generation of civil rights and anti-war activists. My friend Judy Francis turned me onto Dylan during his acoustic period, but it wasn’t until he went electric, which coincided with my drug-taking days, that I turned into a huge Dylan freak. Bob Dylan has been part of the soundtrack and drama of most of my life, and helped shape my weltanschauung and the very way I think.
  7. The Beatles. My friend George turned me on to “With the Beatles” in the Fall of 1963, at virtually the same time J.F.K. was assassinated. I shall never forget, could never forget, George’s amazing prescience when he told me, “This band is going to change the world.” How right he was. Going through the Sixties with the Beatles by my side was the privilege of a lifetime.
  8. Timothy Leary. Okay, I wasn’t exactly young anymore when the guru of L.S.D. came into my life. But his “turn on, tune in and drop out” credo was exactly what I was looking for in the mid-1960s, and it was he who, metaphorically, sent me to the East Village in the summer of 1965 looking to score some acid. Dylan had first alerted me that the reality inside my head was as real, maybe realer, than the publicly agreed-on reality outside, but it was acid, and Dr. Leary, who opened up that reality to me and guided me through it. Lots of people put Leary down these days, but to me he was one of the creators of the age.

It’s weird that there are no actual humans who were physically present in my life on this list. There were certainly individuals I knew, including my parents, grandparents and certain teachers, who had long-lasting impact on me, but nowhere near the level of these celebrities. I guess that says something about our culture. Or about me. Or both.

  1. Love the way you write, your reflections. How come I never ran into you in NY? So many of the same thoughts and reflections. Dylan was my absolute favorite.

  2. Dylan is amazing. To be honest, I’m not in love with his stuff of the last 15 years. But he was our Shakespeare in the 60s and 70s.

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