It had to happen eventually; no one wanted American Idiot to be the ultimate cultural triumph of the mid-90s California popcore boom. I don’t even think Green Day wanted American Idiot to be the ultimate cultural triumph of the mid-90s California popcore boom. It’s been years since anyone could comfortably call Green Day popcore, but the bands roots are firmly entrenched in the East Bay scene surrounding Lookout! Records, and their early records are totally genre pieces. And popcore has never leant itself to grand political arena-rock monoliths like American Idiot; the music has always been so isolationist and willfully geeked-out that the Green Day of 1993 would almost certainly consider the Green Day of 2006 to be their enemies-for-life. The music has always firmly based itself in sugar-rush harmonies and rudimentary bashed-out riffs and bitterly sardonic lyrics and a sort of joy in its own awkwardness. None of the singers could sing and none of the players could play especially well (or at least none of them did), but the songwriters could really write, especially in a pop-culture-addled self-deprecating self-pitying high-school-loser sense. Take Boris the Sprinkler frontman Rev. Norb, for instance, who was from Wisconsin but whose music fit the California popcore mold perfectly. Boris the Sprinkler was never a great band or anything, but Norb’s column in Maximumrocknroll every month was just a furiously great explosion of obsessive-compulsive comic genius, and I can just imagine that guy looking at circa-2006 Green Day like they were aliens. If the whole popcore aesthetic was ever going to make the leap into pop culture at large, you’d think it would be in the form of an alienated-young-adult novel, not an arena-rock opus. Which is exactly what’s just happened.
It’s absolutely wrong to call the Mr. T Experience a mid-90s band, since they formed in 1985, but the mid-90s were when I first heard them, so that’s what I’m doing. They were a great popcore band, unceasingly funny and clever and biting and often just gloriously catchy. They also released nine albums over twenty years, which means that it was way too easy to take them for granted, to forget all about them for years at a time and only remember how much you loved them when you saw a copy of Love is Dead buried in a box of your old crap. That’s what kept happening with me, anyway. The band must’ve had a dedicated fanbase or else they never would’ve been able to keep touring and recording for years and years, but they never got much attention from critics or the media in general. MTX is one of those bands where it’s a firmly ingrained part of their identity that they’re criminally underappreciated outside a tiny little sliver of subculture, and that never seemed like it would change. I certainly underappreciated them criminally. If I’d paid them the attention they always deserved, I probably would’ve assumed that they’d stick around until group frontman Frank Portman (a.k.a. Dr. Frank) decided to quit and become an evolutionary biology professor or a 7-11 cashier or whatever. So it was pretty gratifying to learn that he hasn’t given up on any of the things that made his band great. Instead, he’s found away to translate them into another medium, and now he’s exponentially more successful than he ever was with music. Funny how things work out.
Portman wrote King Dork, a great little coming-of-age novel about a Tom Henderson, a social-reject teenager in late-90s California with an encyclopedic knowledge of 70s rock and a turbulent home life and an extensive backlog of cringeworthy high-school humiliation stories. On the bus ride from New York to Baltimore this weekend, I was really glad to have it around. It’s not a perfect book; there’s a subplot about Henderson deciphering the scribbles on his father’s old books like they were The Da Vinci Code that I didn’t like much, and some of the high-school cruelty stuff somehow manages to be over-the-top enough to be unrealistic, which is a first. But it’s warm and funny and observant and engaging, and it would’ve been one of my favorite books in the world if I’d read it in high school. The book also finds a new context for the sideways sarcasm and careening cleverness of MTX, and it’s almost a shame that Portman hasn’t been writing books like this for the past twenty years while he was in the band. The book was released last month, and it’s already racked up a towering pile of rapturous reviews. It’s selling well, and there’s already talk of a movie version. Portman is working on another book. Portman’s blog is a tremendously fun read, a document of a guy who’d gotten used to being ignored but who has suddenly become an honest-to-God celebrity. The King Dork movie is going to be roughly one kajillion times better than American Idiot. He’s won, and that’s cause for celebration.
Download: The Mr. T Experience’s “King Dork”