Everyone remembers their first love, even if they soon discard the relationship. There's something about that intoxicating rush of emotion, something that lodges inside and never truly goes away. Timing is half the magic, those half-formed love stories coming on the cusp of adulthood. Timing makes it a formative experience, but it's not the only love experienced at that age, and it's not necessarily the one that has the biggest impact.
My artistic tastes were formed somewhere between my mid-teens and early twenties. That's not to say they haven't continued to change and expand, but the depth of feeling I have for the bands, books, and films discovered in that period remains untouched. Another milestone caused me to reflect back on this. Certain ages come with undue significance no matter how stupid it seems. Reaching thirty appears to be one such instance.
What happened, without me entirely realising, was a period of rediscovery as I returned to my large collection of CDs (oh pity the poor generation born after the elegance of LPs and the DIY romance of mix tapes, and before the ease of digital) to dig out old favourites. The significance of this I didn't entirely twig until finishing Iain Banks' final novel a few weeks back. I'd left The Quarry sitting on top of my unread books pile, afraid to start the last work from an author who's been with me for so much of my life. It wasn't that I worried about disappointment: even at his worst he's always readable. It was more the sense of finality that came with knowing it's the last thing he'll ever write.
Spread across various shelves (and my parent's attic, much to their chagrin) lie a large number of his books. 24 to be precise. I still have a few left to go, and now I imagine I'll delay reading them for a while to hold back the inevitable. Knowing there will be nothing more left me irredeemably sad; in much the same way Elliott Smith's passing did in 2003. All art is personal, both in how it's created and received. Skimming through my CDs and thinking back on Iain Banks I realised they meant something to me in a way that probably won't be repeated.
Trying to disentangle why this is; I discovered I don't just remember my favourite books, films, and records in intimate detail; I also remember when I first discovered them. In the case of Iain Banks it was a family holiday. We were driving somewhere in Somerset and I was listening to Feeder. I'd recently purchased the one and only copy of SFX magazine I ever owned. Buried in the reviews I found Look to Windward, by an author I hadn't heard of. The following week I wandered into WHSmith to find it.
The same process of carefully maintained memories applies to everything that formed the foundations of my cultural interests. None more so than Elliott Smith, an artist I love to the extent I sought out the wall in LA that formed the front cover of the last album he released before his death. A Surrey cinema brought him to me. I remember going to watch The Royal Tenenbaums. There's a bleak moment when Luke Wilson's character tries to commit suicide. The scene is underscored by Elliott's "Needle in the Hay." I'd never heard the song before. I'd never heard of him. I went home that night and found more, sparking an obsession. Maybe some of it rubbed off on the film, or maybe I just genuinely love Wes Anderson's third feature, but I still think of it highly and often.
The pattern repeats. I remember hearing a song used to advertise cricket. That led me to Badly Drawn Boy's The Hour of Bewilderbeast played for the first time on the tinny CD player in my miniscule bedroom. I remember wandering around Sainsbury's looking for a copy of The Strokes' debut. When I dragged the album out the other week it still has an orange Sainsbury's price sticker on it. I remember reading a review of Sufjan Stevens' Illinois, listening to a few tracks online and ordering it express delivery. I even remember the intense frustration when it turned up two days later than expected.
It seems to happen more often with music than anything else, though literature features frequently, as do films. LA Confidential became an unexpected festive tradition when I caught it on Christmas Eve one year with my father. The hallowed Xmas Radio Times gave it 5 stars. We sat in a room lit only by Christmas lights and watched a brutal opus that I've returned to many times since. The cross-pollination, much like it did with The Royal Tenenbaums, occurred again, leading me into the dark, twisted world of James Ellroy.
What is it about these people, and these works that made them matter so much to me? Why do only certain art forms feature in my memories? I love going to the theatre but I don't hold it in the same reverential esteem. The same goes for whole genres of music I listen to avidly today. Or the small handful of painters I'm finally getting to grips with after years of under-appreciating their work? Why do Caravaggio or Dickens mean comparatively little to me compared to Modest Mouse or Beauty and the Beast?
Timing is the key. I discovered all these things as I was breaking away from childhood and into a life of my own. They were the start of something. A decade or so later and my tastes continue to evolve. I find new styles and I add and subtract from what went before, but it had to start somewhere. My initial musical experiences fell into that hideous catch-all of indie rock; the books I read were somewhere between middle-brow literary fiction, popular history, and high concept science-fiction. Were all of these classics? Definitely not. However LA Confidential might stack up against Citizen Kane, I will always love it more. Nor for that matter is the book War and Peace but I know which I'd choose.
Some of the things I found back then are genuinely brilliant, others merely good. Some aren't even that. My brief flirtation with the over-produced country-pop stylings of Shania Twain is not exactly a proud moment, yet the fondness remains. Art, like love, has the power to sweep you away or plunge you into despair; it can transport you to a different world or ground you deeply in the one outside you hadn't noticed before. Looking back I see my foundations, and as I continue to add to them, there they lie, underneath it all. Some of these early passions burnt out, some stayed the course, but it's certainly love.