Around 1980, sitting in the high school cafeteria, I told my friend Joey Flynn that the new cassette of Electric Light Orchestra sucked and I thought rock ‘n roll had grown boring. This was the “progressive rock” era, and classmates were claiming bands such as Kansas, Boston and Styx were awesome. I did not feel the same way. ELO was the worst though, big orchestra sound fused with what was supposed to be rock ‘n roll. I could not get excited about these emerging album rock bands. The next day, my friend Joey gave me a cassette tape of the Ramones. I was awed. This was stripped down three chord rock. No insufferable horn section. No wanky guitar solos. No pretentious lyrics. Two minute songs that blistered the soul. These songs were like the early Beatles, but simpler, faster and funny.
Two years later in college, I was reading classic short story collections. I tried to read at least one short story a night no matter how exhausting the day had been. I had recently finished John Cheever’s red book. Now I’m not comparing Cheever’s prose to ELO here. I liked Cheever and the other writers I’d been reading. I appreciated these artists, but as a young reader I sometimes thought the prose was over the top. I wanted to find and read powerful haunting stories without long guitar solos, violins or trumpets.
On the first day of Creative Writing Class, my professor Harry Hume sat down at his desk and read aloud Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” I was enthralled at this sketch of a story. The characters weren’t even named. They weren’t given lavish descriptions. In the story, an unnamed man has placed his furniture and belongings in his driveway. A young couple shows up thinking they’ve stumbled onto a yard sale. The interaction between the three characters is brief but startling. At the end of the story, the girl, haunted by the experience, tries to explain the incident to friends but finds she can’t and eventually “she quits trying.” We never learn what domestic turmoil led the man to place his belongings out in the driveway. The backstory is left to our imagination. In my opinion, not knowing made this story more powerful. I became an instant fan.
For years, these two moments of discovery — the Ramones and Raymond Carver — shared one common theme in my mind. The artists stripped their work down to the essence. They cut the art form down to the marrow. Of course, we’ve come to learn Gordon Lish played an overreaching role in editing Carver’s manuscripts down. Lish’s impact can be saved for a different post. But, just like the Ramones inspired thousands of kids to pick up guitars and play, Raymond Carver is now noted as the most influential short story writer of the past fifty years. Sure, there are a lot of differences between the two as well. But both made a unique mark by cutting down the excess in their art form. While Carver died in 1986 and The Ramones disbanded in 1996, their works and influence have endured well beyond the end of the century.