“So this was a drive-in restaurant in Hollywood”

The seminal influences on my aesthetic/writerly self are an eclectic bunch, a function more than anything else of who I was at the time I read them (or listened to them, or stared at their art). But thinking this afternoon about the death of Captain Beefheart (who I count as an odd member of my happy troupe), I realized they all shared a certain irreverence that must be their common thread.

When I was a young 20-something imagining becoming a writer, I read the Norman Mailer canon with a depressive zest, trying hard to make him a seminal influence. That didn’t work out so well. Oh my god, what a pretentious dick. I went through Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright and Miles Davis phases, too, trying hard to understand the nature of the fundamental aesthetic and intellectual innovation they seemed to me to have in common. (Do you notice a “pretentious dick” thread here?)

But always, there were a bunch of writers lurking in the corner, cracking wise.

I’ve written before about Vonnegut, who arrived on the cusp of my own teenage wisecracking years. There’s Mark Twain, too, (the Ode to Stephen Dowling Botts never fails to crack me up). And the Pythons (the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch never fails to crack me up).

I’m not sure this hangs together in any entirely consistent way, because there was a whole noir influence as well, which is mostly not hilarious. But I always had the feeling that Raymond Chandler was winking as he wrote those richly bare-boned lines he put in Marlowe’s mouth.

Which somehow brings me to Don Van Vliet, whose death today brought me to ponder some of his wonderful turns of phrase, things that drew me to him in my 20s and which passed the survival-of-the-fittest test in my chaotic and easily distracted brain:

I could just make out Ace as he carried the tray and mouthed,
“You cheap son of a bitch”
as a straw fell out of a Coke, cartwheeled into the gutter.
So this was a drive-in restaurant in Hollywood,
So this was a drive-in restaurant in Hollywood,
So this was a drive-in restaurant in Hollywood.

It’s not like I devoted a lot of time to him, nothing like the effort I spent wrestling with Picasso and the dawn of the modern. But the influences that have mattered the most to me have always been easy that way.


  1. A song and an album by Zappa

    “Toads of the Short Forest”
    “Weasel ripped my flesh”

    A quote from Woody Allen

    “I am astonished at how much my mother resembles Groucho Marx.”

Comments are closed.