A few days ago, I decided to introduce myself on the About page of this site properly. I explained that I enjoy sharing my opinions and enlightening readers on the things I love, primarily movies, music, and television. Although I have yet to post about them, books of all kinds are high on this list also.
Upon writing this, I began to ponder why pop culture and these categories, in particular, mean so much to me. I believe it’s because throughout my years I have used these things as an escape, therapy, education, and as an outlet for every single human emotion. When my life was chaotic, and there seemingly wasn’t anyone to rescue me from it, I could get lost in the stories artists told through their chosen medium.
It was a lesson I began learning at age 4 from my mother, Saundra. While she was responsible for the turbulence in my formative years, through her manic depression diagnosis and the choices she made because of it, she also equipped me with the tools I needed to survive. Tools I still utilize today. Music, movies, television and books.
One of my first memories is of music. My mother’s side of the family was and is naturally inclined in the musical arts. My grandmother played piano by ear, and her brother, Hank Hankins, was the guitar player in Bill Black’s Combo. There were impromptu jam sessions at my grandparent’s house all the time. I have an old home movie of me standing up in my playpen when I was barely a year and a half old, hopping up and down as the adults sang and danced around in the living room.
My mom took me to my first concert at 2 years old to see Blue Oyster Cult with Alice Cooper and the Chambers Brothers. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know where I was or who I was seeing. But I remember being there, feeling the energy in the room, and how happy and full of life my mother was.
My first favorite song was ‘Radar Love’ by Golden Earring. At the age of 3 or 4, I knew the song backward and forwards from hearing it countless times in the back of her green Pinto. Mom took me to see the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at 7, and my first proper concert experience was in 1981 at 11, when she got us tickets for Rush’s Moving Pictures tour.
She also took me to see Quiet Riot, AC/DC twice, and The Charlie Daniels’ Band, all before turning 12. I had free reign to listen to her diverse album collection, and she bought me my first brand new record for Christmas, The Game by Queen. Music was always playing in our house.
My love for movies also stems from her. 1974’s Benji was the first movie I ever saw in a theater, and I still remember both of us sobbing uncontrollably when the bad guys kicked Benji’s little girlfriend. She took me to Star Wars in 1977 and checked me out of school on my 11th birthday so we could see the Flash Gordon movie.
She also took me to the Midnight Movies for AC/DC’s film Let There Be Rock when it was released in 1980. I was 10, and I loved it. Some of her favorite movies she shared with me when I was younger have now become some of mine; Murder by Death, Young Frankenstein, and Little Big Man are just a few. Watching her favorite films as an adult has given me a new lens to see her through.
Movies were more of a special treat when I was a kid in the 70s, but there was no shortage of television. From the time I could sit still, TV has been a constant presence. My mom tells me my first favorite show was Lassie. She said I used to cry when the end credits started rolling every show as Lassie waved goodbye. I also loved Star Trek and, of course, cartoons.
But my mother also let me watch television that wasn’t made for children. I got to see Soap, WKRP in Cincinnati, SNL, Barney Miller, and the occasional episode of Dallas. She introduced me to Battlestar Galactica and even talked my stepfather into letting me have a night off of being grounded to my room so I could see the Donny & Marie Star Wars Special.
When there were no movies, television, or music, I always had books. My mother always encouraged me to read and helped me to learn by age 4. I was reading everything I could get my hands on and wanted more. Shortly after I learned, she bought me a Captain America and the Falcon comic book that you could read along with a 45rpm record.
It was my first exposure to comic books and superheroes – a love that started that day and endures – and to mature themes. Throughout the book, Cap is haunted by survivor’s remorse and feeling as he is, a man out of time. The villain is the son of a villain Cap defeated in the war, who is consumed by revenge and seemingly dies an awful death. Heavy stuff for a 4-year-old, but I loved it. I grew into a voracious reader, and my mom made sure to keep books always within reach.
After her fourth marriage, her life, and mine, started to change. When her father died, she succumbed to medicating her manic depression and grief with IV drugs. Through it all, I kept a level head and excelled in school mainly by escaping into books and music. Nights spent in a car driving around trying to get money, then going to buy and fixing up somewhere else; I was in the backseat, reading by the passing streetlights.
The time spent at home while I stayed with my little sister Brandy was consumed by reading, drawing my favorite comic book characters, and listening to the radio. Richard Adams, Wolverine, the Fantastic Four, U2, and Van Halen kept me grounded and sane until my mother got clean and moved us to Heber Springs, Arkansas.
The move was good for mom, but Heber was no picnic for me. I felt like it was 1000 miles from what I was used to in Memphis and that it was populated by people I didn’t understand. I turned to music during those years and movies on cable, which I used to remind myself there was a world outside my rural surroundings. Mostly John Hughes and hair metal, but it worked.
Pop culture helped me find peace when I needed it, a glimpse of how beautiful life can be, and that I’m not alone no matter what I’m feeling. It came to define who I am and introduced me to friends I’ve had for 30 years. It saved my life and helps keep me grounded and sane today. And it helped save mom’s life too.
My mother gave me this defense mechanism at an early age by sharing with me what she loved. Whether it was riding around singing to songs in her car, laughing hysterically at something on the television, weeping at a movie, or raving about the latest book she was reading, it was infectious. She also gifted me with the desire to share what I enjoy.
I have a good relationship with my mother, and I talk and/or text with her daily, and most of the time, it’s about movies, music, or TV. She led her life, and while not all of it was good for my sister or me, it was hers, and I don’t resent her for it. Without her and that life, I wouldn’t be who I am.
Because while she, or perhaps more appropriate, her disease, was responsible for some of the upheaval and chaos in my life, she was also the one that gave me the life preserver. The one that both of us still cling to tightly, finding enjoyment and riding the waves together as long as we can.
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