05 May 2006

King Dork-a-thon

I predicted it would become a classic, I can smugly say, but to be perfectly honest, I don't think I expected things to happen so fast and furiously for King Dork, published less than a month ago and already into its second printing. It's been consistently selling among the top few hundred books at Amazon. To put that in perspective, I know quite a few authors, but most of their books have tended to languish down around Number 10,000 or, for that matter, 100,000, so I'm pretty excited to be personally acquainted with a Recognised Literary Figure. If you've not been keeping up with developments, I suggest you hop over to Dr Frank's What's-It right now for a full recounting.

Speaking of hopping, I've been reading a collection of John Updike's Rabbit novels, which I had to buy at the Union Square Barnes & Noble after I was unable to find it at New York's humongous legend-in-its-own-mind Strand Books (a big disappointment: overpriced, too reliant on remainders and overstock, and, locals tell me, they offer only derisory amounts when they're buying your books). While there, I was thrilled to discover a big pile of King Dorks and even saw a) a girl reading one; and b) somebody's mother buying a copy. So enthralled was I, not to mention having to fight off the urge to buttonhole passersby and tell them, "I know that guy!" that I never even noticed that the same Barnes & Noble had a display for the comics journal Mome, which features some brilliant work by none other than my brilliant niece, Gabrielle Bell. Modest woman that she is, she's probably going to get annoyed at my constantly hype on her behalf, but the thing is, it's not hype. She really is that good, and even if she refuses to speak to me again on grounds that I'm embarrassing her, at least I'll have done my best to ensure that the whole world has been made aware of her genius.

Back to King Dork, though: the following is what I wrote about it for Punk Planet. Better you should buy the magazine, but if you can't find it or are just too cheap, I might as well post it here, since I don't it's likely to show up on the magazine's website. It goes like this:
Some will argue the point, but most people who were living in the East Bay in the early to mid-80s would agree that it wasn’t the best of times for punk rock.

A handful of true believers kept forming bands and putting on shows in obscure venues that seemed to close down as quickly as they opened, often because of violence, vandalism, and the resultant attention from the police. The few bands that consistently drew large crowds tended to be of the thrash or speedmetal variety, and their audiences were the most violence and vandalism-prone of all.

Supposedly punk was completely passé by then. Depending who you asked, it died after the Sex Pistols’ last show in 1978, or when the Mabuhay stopped doing shows in the early 80s, or when the scene was taken over by skinny-tied New Wavers with synthesizers. My brother, who’d been one of the first people I knew to discover punk back in 1976, sneered when I’d tell him about some gig I was going to.

“There’s always gonna be a few diehards trying to keep the scene alive,” he’d say, but one day in 1983 or 84 he agreed to come along with me to see if what I said was true, that the scene was as vibrant as ever, just more underground. The show we went to was so violent and so bloody that for once I ended up agreeing with him: if this was what punk had come to, I didn’t want any part of it, either.

Around that same time I stumbled across a new DJ on KALX, our local college radio station. During the late 70s, KALX had been at the forefront of the new music scene, but it had since grown largely unlistenable. Most of the DJs dismissed classic melodic punk as “kid stuff” and had moved on to the new speedmetal sound or to an early version of politically correct multiculturalism, which disdained “white boys with guitars” as the ultimate oppressors.

The typical KALX “voice” was ponderous, sententious, and unbearably condescending, which was why it came as such a surprise when I heard Dr. Frank for the first time. For one thing, he sounded as though he actually was in college whereas most of KALX’s other “personalities” could have been auditioning for the NPR Zombie Hour. His voice dripped with adolescent sarcasm and scorn as he relentlessly skewered the sacred cows of the day and made his amateurism on the mike a central feature of his on-air persona rather than trying to cover it up with false gravitas.

He’d make a mockery out of public service announcements, slip in snide comments about campus events or gigs or bands that he thought unworthy of being taken seriously, and most of all, played the kind of music I loved and which had been largely absent from KALX. My friend Richard, who was playing bass in the punk rock band I was trying to get started, had become a Dr. Frank fan, too, and one day at practice told me, “I went over to Berkeley and met that Frank kid. He’s really cool.”

Not too long afterward, I met “that Frank kid,” too, along with his fellow DJs Kenny Kaos and Jon Von, who together with Frank seemed determined to resurrect or maybe even re-invent the whole notion of poppy punk music. Not content simply to play the stuff on the radio, Frank and Jon Von started their own band, the Mr. T Experience, and it wouldn’t be unfair to say that with their first show in late 1985, they began laying the groundwork for the East Bay pop-punk sound that would eventually become famous around the world.

I was one of the early supporters of the Mr. T Experience, and as such was a member of a fairly exclusive club: at the first show I remember attending, I pretty much was the audience. But they soldiered on, built up a respectable fan base, and in 1986 impressed me immensely by putting out their own record. It gave me the inspiration to try the same thing, and I followed in Mr. T’s footsteps when I started making records of my own, right down to using the same pressing plant, printers, recording studio and engineer.

As it happened, the Mr. T Experience eventually wound up on the record label I co-founded in 1987, and their producer/engineer, Kevin Army, played a crucial role in many of the records we released. The Mr. T Experience, while not nearly as active as they once were, recently celebrated their 20th anniversary as a band, which means they’ve outlived nearly all of the bands they helped pave the way for.

Meanwhile, apparently not content with going down in punk rock history, Dr. Frank has taken up a new career, that of author. King Dork, his first novel, comes out this spring, and while it’s replete with the same iconoclastic spirit that’s always characterized Frank’s work, it’s of a whole other order. Even at its best, the Mr. T Experience was always going to be a semi-underground phenomenon: its style and vernacular located it firmly within the punk rock scene, however unfair that might have seemed at times.

But King Dork, while ostensibly the tale of a preternaturally bright adolescent misfit who clearly has a bit in common with the young (and not-so-young) Dr. Frank, taps into far more universal themes, and as such could (and should) reach an audience far larger and more diverse than any of his punk rock records ever did.

Young Tom Henderson, aka “Chi-Mo” and/or “King Dork,” is a tenth-grader at one of those industrial-grade suburban high schools ruled by “jabbering half-human/half-beast student replicants,” where Advanced Placement Humanities consists of making collages and sampling “Foods of the World,” and messianic baby boomers, aka “The Most Annoying Generation,” endeavor to pass on their grooviness and sensitivity to packs of feral, drug-addled and oblivious students.

He and his best (as in only) friend, thrown together through alphabetical happenstance, take refuge in their semi-imaginary band, which changes names, personnel, instrumentation, album titles and songs on a more or less weekly basis. Through hook and crook the boys get their hands on some instruments and play one tumultuous show that changes their lives forever.

That’s the centerpiece of a plot that also includes, in the narrator’s words, “half a dozen mysteries, some dead people, naked people, fake people, teen sex, weird sex, drugs, ESP, Satanism, books, blood, bubblegum, guitars, monks, faith, love, witchcraft, the Bible, girls, a war, a secret code, a head injury, the Crusades, some crimes, mispronunciation skills, a mystery woman, a devil head, a blow job, and rock and roll.”

But hilarious and enthralling as young Tom’s adventures may be, King Dork’s most vital theme – and the one that should make it an enduring classic – is the challenge it lays down to baby boomer hegemony. “You stuck it to the old man, killed half of your brain cells and dumbed down the educational system: you are the greatest generation,” says Tom; he speaks for everyone who’s sick to death of the self-righteousness and sanctimony of those who would have us believe that all of modern history and culture are but a footnote to the 1960s.

He periodically enlivens his tale with sardonic asides aimed at the Groovy Generation, but turns his full wrath and fury on one of the boomers’ iconic texts, The Catcher In The Rye. It’s “every teacher’s favorite book,” it “changed their lives when they were young,” they “carried it with them everywhere they went,” he notes patronizingly, before adding, “I’ve been forced to read it like three hundred times, and don’t tell anyone, but I think it sucks.”

Apparently he’s not alone. During a recent family visit, my 16-year-old cousin saw my copy of King Dork, and wondered why the cover so closely resembled that of The Catcher In The Rye (it’s actually a defaced version of the original CITR cover). I explained, and asked if he’d ever been required to read The Catcher In The Rye, and he practically spat out, “Man, I hate that book.”

That night at dinner, he said, “Mom, Larry knows this guy who wrote a book that totally bags The Catcher In The Rye. Will you please buy it for me?” Frank is clearly onto something here; in fact, I can easily see teenagers carrying King Dork around everywhere they go and, a couple decades from now, holding it up to their own children as “this great book that changed my life.”

I wonder how Frank would feel if his book became an iconic text for a new generation, if one day kids are required to read it in school as an illustration of changing mores and values in the early 21st century. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if that happens; the book is that good, and the only people I’d like to see read it more than the kids of today are the members of my own generation, the much (and deservedly) maligned baby boomers.

And maybe 50 years or so from now, some kid, sick of being required to read King Dork in his Advancement Placement English class, tired of being told by well-meaning teachers that “this is the book that helped define a generation,” will grow up to write his own anti-King Dork, challenging all the comfortable assumptions and preconceptions will by then have grown up around it. I suspect that for Frank, that will come as the greatest tribute of all.


Wesley said...

Thanks for posting. Mail ordering magazines is such a pain.

Regarding your cousin's comments, I'm thinking Jodie Foster would make for a great back-of-the-book quote for the paperback edition.

Anonymous said...

Of course, you failed to mention that Kenny Kaos was, by far, the most talented of three djs....

Larry Livermore said...

This, I'd have to admit, is probably true.

So we can look forward to your book soon? "KALX's Most Talented DJ Tells How It Really Was"?

Anonymous said...

If I keep up with this "Kenny Kaos was the best punk dj KALX ever had" business, people just might start to buy into it. I'll write a book, go on a book tour, go on talk shows and play records... I'll become so famous that even the Queen will invite me to play records for her.

Anonymous said...

What ever happened to jon von?

Anonymous said...

Kenny, you were pretty much my favorite DJ at KALX. I still miss eating lunch in the studio and pulling records.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous (sp?) - A few years back Jon von moved to Paris, France (not Texas). He is married to Eve, a very nice woman that he met there and is currently in two bands: Les Drageurs, a sixties ya-ya type band that isn't playing much right now and The Four Slicks, a punk band into the '50s and fast cars. He was here visiting a few weeks back and we hooked up for a bbq. He cruised up in a '63 Falcon wagon. You can find Jon von on line at jonvon.com.

Rowan "Math Genius" Rowan? I wasn't "pretty much" your favorite, I was your favorite.