Nov 11, 2006 - 12:00 AM
Frank Portman, lead singer of the Mr. T Experience, rocks the literary world with his new novel
It's been more than twenty years since Frank Portman went to high school. As he walks into the Capuchino High School cafeteria in San Bruno, Calif, guitar case in hand, he has a flashback.
"I was a weirdo, an outcast, a misfit, an army jacket-wearin'-walkin'-around-doin'-nothin'-kind-of-a-guy. We went around with magic markers, tagging up the school."
He's dressed in old black jeans, a black T-shirt, worn-out Chuck Taylor's and a navy Dickies jacket. He scratches his head and says, "What am I doing here? High school was traumatic for me."
Then students, teachers and parents start filing in to the space. They're shaking Portman's hand and nervously asking him to sign copies of his first book, King Dork. No one's here to antagonize him. They're here to listen to him play his songs. They're here for autographs and digital photos.
A bunch are here for extra credit, too. "I haven't read the book yet, but I'm gonna. My teacher said if I showed up tonight, I'd get extra points. I'm all over it," one student says.
Teachers remind Portman that Capuchino was the rival school to his high school. "I didn't realize my school had a rival school," he says. "My school was my rival school."
Punk rock exploded in the East Bay in the late 80s and 90s and Portman was all over it, sneaking out of his house in 1979 to see The Clash play Kezar Stadium in San Francisco and soon after refashioning himself as "Doctor Frank," lead singer of the Mr. T Experience, the band he played in for more that twenty years.
Then a friend who had seen his band play as a kid and was a fan of the lyrics suggested Portman try writing a book. Suddenly things changed for Doctor Frank. He used to read punk 'zines, sing songs people hated, tour the country, and come home broke. Now he's a sweetheart of the literary press, doing book signings, talking to Hollywood about movie rights, and playing songs in high school cafeterias about suicide and sex, drugs and rock and roll to teenagers, moms and teachers. He recently saw a young woman reading his book and laughing out loud on the train and it made him blush so bad he got off at the next stop.
King Dork is a huge seller on the young-adult circuit, the story of a high school loser who wrestles with social awkwardness and the loss of his father, who makes out with girls and starts his own band. Chapters are short but full of meaning. The writing is crisp. The book is unique and irreverent. I laughed my ass off reading it. It's a contemporary Catcher in the Rye that revels in mocking that coming-of-age book for its cultish popularity.
Indeed, between his home page, his blog site, and his "amablog" for Amazon.com, the world has access to Portman's regularly updated musings, public readings and reviews, an approach to authorship that seems, however consciously, to be poking fun at Salinger, the famous recluse, even as it succeeds at generating a similar cult-following for Portman.
Back at the cafeteria two teenage boys with ill-fitting clothes and splotchy faces approach Portman as he's tuning his guitar. "Can you autograph my book?" one of them says. "I really liked your book, man. It was awesome. Are you like the kid in the book?"
A few nights before, over a beer or three at a Berkeley pub, I asked Portman the same thing.
"I was never that self-aware or that clever," he told me. "I was always sort of middle of the road, like, not totally socially unacceptable, but pretty socially unacceptable. The whole idea with writing the character in my book was to take an attitude and a point of view and go to town with it. [The main character in my book] doesn't want to fit in. He hates people. In the movie Napoleon Dynamite, you do a crazy dance, win a prize and everybody likes you. The real Napoleon Dynamite would have been beat up and pissed on at my school. Pedro would not have won any student election. Those two would have been thrown into lockers, and then they would have fantasized about killing the bullies."
Portman says touring and songwriting for the band has taken a back seat to his writing, which he admits is the best-paying gig he's ever had. He's already working on his second book, Andromeda Klein and he says his reading standards have changed as a result of the work he put into his own book. "I'm a lot less of a snob now," he says. I'm impressed by anyone who can finish writing a book. The Da Vinci Code is not high art, and it has a lot of flaws, but I have to hand it to someone who can create a narrative so many people want to read and can relate to."
Infamous bass player Dee Dee Ramone of the punk rock band The Ramones, who died several years ago, wrote about drug use and supernatural powers in his book Chelsea Horror Hotel. I ask Portman if there are any similarities between the two novels.
"I think a lot of people are surprised at how much my book doesn't suck," he tells me. "I'm about as unlike Dee Dee Ramone as possible. I love The Ramones, but I am not one."
Still, there is a distinct punk style, even a punk politics that informs the worldview of Portman's protagonist. I ask him about Bay Area politics in the broadest sense, the culture that he grew up in and that is also the setting of the book. He naturally starts with music.
"What is San Francisco known for? The Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Dead Kennedys and Green Day," Portman says. "The only one I can whole-heartedly endorse is Green Day. Culturally, when you grow up in the Bay Area, you feel personally and collectively better than everyone else. The only way that's true is our weather! Everything else is overblown. The music scene here is not all it's cracked up to be.
"[When we started] bands could not get legitimate shows and we had to book our own. We took over the world in '95," Portman says. "Punk rock in '79 was colored by hippie politics. San Francisco punk was not great rock and roll. Rock's not about getting out the vote."
For the more than 200 teens, teachers and parents at Capuchino High, Portman belts out "I Want to Ramone You," a song referenced in the book. It draws cheers and applause.
"What does it mean to 'Ramone' somebody?" one girl in the crowd asks.
"Well, uh, it means I want to have sex with you," Portman blurts out, to the shock and joy of the students and to the chagrin of the adults. It's a punk rock moment, dorky and totally loaded, another shot in an endless revolution.
Gary Moskowitz plays trumpet for the hip-hop/reggae band Bay Root. He likes to talk shit with other musicians on his blogsite, Blogowitz.
Nathan Weyland is a freelance photographer.