I first met Dr. Frank over 23 years ago, in 1991, outside 924 Gilman in Berkeley. I was an avowed fan of his pop-punk band, the Mr. T Experience, but my purpose in talking to him was more immediate to my everyday reality: I wanted to know, for a series of band interviews I was conducting on the subject, his thoughts on high school.
“High school,” he opined, “would be better if it were more school and less high.”
He spent the next hour telling me about his own high school, Mills High in Millbrae—about the kid who died playing chicken; the valedictorian who used his speech to wish, in Latin, for a larger penis; and the day he was reported to the FBI for passing out hammer-and-sickle armbands to the marching band.
It'd be years before Dr. Frank, born Frank Portman, would call me up to play bass in his band. It'd be even more years before he would write his first Young Adult novel, the massively acclaimed King Dork. But I knew right then and there that I had an ally in the demeaning experience known as the American public school system.
Now, with his third novel King Dork Approximately, out this week and celebrated in a free book-release show on Dec. 7 in Oakland, Portman continues to display a perspicacious grasp of the teenage years that's simultaneously eloquent and hilarious. The sequel picks up with King Dork's hero Tom Henderson, his conniving sidekick Sam Hellerman, his band (which has just changed its name from Encyclopedia Satanica to I Hate This Jar), and a rotating cast of weird teachers, even weirder baby-boomer parents and, weirdest and most mystifying of all, the school's female population.
Last week, after having not seen him for eight years, I caught up with Portman at Sparky's in Oakland, down the way from the same apartment he's called home since 1993. In trademark black band T-shirt, jeans and Converse, he really hadn't changed much—except that now, instead of soundchecking, tuning his guitar and writing set lists, he's on a tour of press interviews as a published author of teen fiction.
Well removed from high school himself, Portman credits songwriting with helping him maintain a teenage mindset throughout his 20s, 30s and 40s. The process of creating characters for Mr. T Experience songs, he says, isn't unlike writing a Young Adult novel. “You very deliberately take a conventional topic, a conventional conceit, and then try to see what you can do to it to make it justify its existence by being different enough from all the other iterations of it,” he says. “That's not every song, but it's a lot of rock and roll—which is the mind of an obsessed teenager, writ large.”
And, of course, there's Portman's chosen lifestyle. “It helps that I never grew up. I don't have a lot of hallmarks of adulthood. I don't have kids. I don't own anything,” he says, not at all ruefully. “I've only got massive debt. I guess that's an adult thing, right?”
The East Bay punk rocker who "never grew up" actually did undergo a significant turning point into adulthood, however. In the mid-90s, Portman's father died of cancer. And on his hospital bed, he issued to his son, then working a day job at UC Berkeley, an entirely unexpected bit of advice: to quit the job and keep playing punk rock.
“It was the sort of thing where we were discussing what's important in life,” Portman recalls. “And I had—it wasn't much—but I had this thing I was doing that only I could do. That was the premise of the conversation: If I didn't do it, no one was gonna do it, whatever that thing was. And there were a lot of people in bands, but then there was my particular screwy version of it.”
Shortly thereafter, the Mr. T Experience released its highest-selling album, Love Is Dead, rife with Portman's clever, smart songs that precede King Dork Approximately's themes of alienation, self-doubt, unrequited love and being bullied. There's even a hint on the record to Tom Henderson's predilection for bygone cultural markers—Bye Bye Birdie, Big Bill Broonzy, Brighton Rock and a host of others—in the form of Dorothy Parker's “Somebody's Song,” set to breakneck distorted guitars.
For a while—including the two years I played alongside him, touring around the country and Europe and drinking more gallons of beer together than possibly fathomable—the Mr. T Experience sustained Portman's modest lifestyle. But after the band's last album, 2004's Yesterday Rules, and after its longtime label Lookout Records folded, Portman embarked on writing King Dork. He sold the idea to Random House, got an advance, and for months, while he went around telling people he was writing a book, he kept a Word file on his laptop titled 'Novel.doc,' which contained just one sentence: “There is no way I could ever write a whole novel.”
But finish the book he did. King Dork went on to receive raves, from USA Today to Entertainment Weekly, and has even been optioned for a Hollywood movie by director Miguel Arteta. After a second novel, Andromeda Klein, which featured a female protagonist, it only made sense to revisit Tom Henderson's world of blood, guitars, the Bible, rock 'n' roll, and a vehement hatred for Catcher in the Rye.
King Dork Approximately's engaging strength is in Tom's running inner monologue; indeed, at least in the first half of the book, there's not much action. “A lot of a teenager's life doesn't involve doing a whole lot,” Portman explains. “There are exceptions, but the kind of world that Tom lives in, which is the kind of world a lot of us grew up in, all the interesting stuff is happening inside his head.”
Much of this running monologue consists of Tom's distrust of teachers, of parents and of the school system in general. To those familiar with Portman's relatively conservative position in the notoriously leftist East Bay punk scene, this aspect of the book might seem like a flowering of his anti-establishment side. But Portman contends it's always been there.
“I remember talking to [MaximumRockNRoll founder] Tim Yohannon once,” he says, “trying to basically explain to him my weird particular version of contrarianism, which is that no matter what subculture it is, there are people in charge of it who are kind of dumb.”
It's the same with high school, he continues: “Where, you know, you just go along with everything, and then one day you wake up and you say, 'This is all stupid. Why are they making me do this? Who made this up? Why are we doing it?' That's a very important thing. If you don't go through that questioning part, then you can't meaningfully participate in the world when you re-join it.”
In King Dork Approximately, Tom continuously questions everything, from why the marching band has to wear silly berets to why his English teacher's reading list includes A Farewell to Arms. Meanwhile, he receives long rambling notes. He practices with his band for a benefit concert for the International Ted Nugent Center for the Promotion of Recycling. And yes, he ends up with the girl. I won't say which one.
There's an added bonus this year for Mr. T Experience fans: for the first time in 10 years, the band in its current incarnation re-entered the studio to record the “title track” of the book. It went so well, Portman says, that instead of recording two songs as planned, a full-length album is emerging.
At the book's release show this weekend, Portman will play an amplified set with special guests, along with music from the Bye Bye Blackbirds, Chuck Prophet, Victor Krummenacher from Camper Van Beethoven, John Denery from the Hi-Fives and more. Jack Boulware, founder of Litquake and author of the seminal Bay Area oral history Gimme Something Better, will read, along with others.
And after the album of King Dork Approximately songs is recorded, Portman says he's already got another album written and ready to go.
“I forgot how great it was to play in a living band,” he says, with a noticeable twinkle in his eye as our lunch winds down. “It was something I'd lost track of, a little bit. Now, it's just like going back to the conversation I had with my dad, on his deathbed: there's this thing, that for better or for worse, for good or ill, this kind of songwriting I do, I'm the only person that can do it. So I'm giving it a shot at existing.”
And as for what his dad might've made of his newfound writing career?
“Oh, he would have been very tickled,” Portman says, “at the idea of me being an author.”