Professor Bunkum Matriculates With The Mr. T. Experience
Professor Bunkum here coming out of retirement to advocate on behalf of the Mr. T. Experience show this Sunday, November 13, at the Redwood Bar & Grill in Downtown LA. If I were you, I’d be there; by way of analogy, I’m me, and I’ll be there. I first encountered MTX in earnest in 1988 or 1989, with an Asian philosophy seminar as the backdrop. I was sitting next to Aaron Rubin, a long-suffering compadre from the mad dorm room days. Somewhere in class between Confucius and Mencius, he announces he taking the semester off to tour with MTX, who just lost their bassist. Given what we were enduring once a week for three hours, taking the semester off to sweep floors at a peep show would have been a viable option, so I completely understood his decision. Going out with a punk band? A no-brainer.
At that time, I had heard of MTX, but I hadn’t gone out of my way to hear MTX. I quickly remedied that and realized what I’d been missing, i.e., witty, melodic, observational power pop punk that might make you grab for a dictionary now and then, all delivered by Dr. Frank, who is MTX the way Lemmy was Motorhead. There’s never going to be a trademark battle over right to the MTX name. The album that came out thereafter, “Making Things With Light,” cemented my affection for the band, with such upper-middlin IQ ditties like “The Girl Who Still Lives At Home” and “What Went Wrong.”
When considering MTX, one needs to remember they were melodic punk way before it was cool. We can look back now and tell the happy tale of Gilman Street, Green Day and Operation Ivy, but at the time, the end of the story wasn’t so clear. Ask the guy from Rancid who was temporarily doing hip hop.
In 1987, playing melodic punk rock in the East Bay was as much of a sure bet as deciding to start a Garth Brooks tribute band in Compton would be today. Back then, testosterone reigned in punk and metal. Corrosion of Conformity were a “crossover” band. You could take four buses to South Francisco to see some version of the Adolescents. Obviously precious, smart bands like Camper Van Beethoven were around for the Maoist set. Maximum Rock n Roll was being taken somewhat seriously. It was not cool to be emulating the Kinks and the pre-1980 Ramones at the same time. It definitely was not cool to be singing about heartbreak and girls, like a contemporary Jonathan Richman doused in a wide reading of the then-derided Western canon and more than a passing familiarity with guilt and frustration. But that’s what Dr. Frank was doing, much to my delight.
The next record, “Milk Milk Lemonade” kept the brains alive with musings like “I”ll be your co-dependent/ You’re my cute little enabler” or “There’s something wrong with me/ And I hear it in/ The way you say/ ‘No really, it’s ok.’” After that disc, second guitarist Jon Von left the band, and like any great band, MTX flourished as a trio. They could loosen up and stretch out a bit more. The releases that followed (the “Gun Crazy” single, “Our Bodies, Our Selves” and “… And the Women Who Love Them” were high points for the band, in my worthless opinion).
As the 90’s took hold, it was clear that something was afoot in the East Bay, and it wasn’t punk funk. Green Day broke out. Somehow, MTX got left behind, but there can be no doubt that those guys newly famous guys were taking cues from Dr. Frank at some point. Around that time, I moved to Boston for a while and remember attending a near riot when Green Day played a free show downtown; I quickly realized that in the East Bay, I had been at ground zero for something pretty cool that didn’t exist in every city, and maybe Ian Faith was right: Boston is “not a big college town.”
Somewhere toward the end of my parole in Boston, I got a little discman and spent a lot of time listening to Slayer’s “Divine Intervention” and MTX’s “Love Is Dead” on headphones at maximum volume. Add in long winters, and that’s a recipe for a fragile psyche. And “Love Is Dead” contains the immortal “Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba,” which is one of the greatest tunes Dr. Frank has written. He probably gets tired of it, but Lemmy got tired of singing the Ace Of Spades too. Great songs happen and can become a burden on their creators. But, on balance, it’s better than them not happening.
As Dr. Frank watched the one-time stoner kids from Pinole Green Day vaulting to zillionaire status, songs like Dumb Little Band (“They’re taping their live album at the Hollywood Bowl/ We’re taping our flyers to the telephone pole”) were amusing, but there was deeper sense of loss in Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba:
“So maybe you know/ Somewhere people like us can go/ Where we won’t get kicked out/ ‘Cos we got a lot to talk about . . . The things that we used to do/ Have been turned into a zoo/ By people who say all the things that we used to say/ And if we say them again, we’re gonna sound just like them.” Listening to that tune, I get the sense of Frank looking back, realizing that sitting drunk in a Winchell’s at 3:00 a.m. after a Fastbacks show with two or three other similarly-positioned misfits may well have been more than it was cooked up to be. At least then you knew who your friends were.
So you are probably thinking “this is an underground metal blog, what do we care about pop punk?” First off, we write about whatever we want here, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Second, MTX is a metal band at heart. Yes it’s true. I remember seeing the Celibate Rifles (another metal band – I swear -- with punk affectations) with Frank and Aaron once, and Frank’s main concern was getting in the right position to hear Kent Steedman’s solos. If you don’t know what I’m on about, look them up, they’re worth it. Also at a book store last year, Frank described to a room full of pre-teens and their moms how “Cat Scratch Fever” formed the basis for at least two of his touching new songs of teen angst. Next, the guy is a genuine Judas Priest fan, apparently taking even their recent records seriously and waxing particularly poetic/nostalgic about “Screaming For Vengeance.” Finally, Frank comes out of the non-San Francisco-proper stew of the NWOBHM Bay Area. This is where Cliff Burton was from. People from that time and place are metal; they can’t help it. A childhood spent on KFRC was a gateway drug to KRQR and Krokus.
And rumor is Frank can hold his liquor like a champ.
Meanwhile, in the midst of more MTX and solo discs, Frank actually wrote a novel, “King Dork”, which was picked up by a major publisher and has received plenty of happy criticism. That’s a huge accomplishment. Everyone knows someone who has “taken some time” to write a novel. Some of those novels are good. Almost none gets published by somebody who isn’t the author. Frank followed that up with “Andromeda Klein” and now “King Dork Approximately,” which also comes in paperback with a companion download of songs about/inspired by the book. Somehow, Dr. Frank is putting together a living out of all this. During a reading at a store last year, some rabid fan asked when the MTX stuff would be reissued or remastered or whatever. He didn’t know and didn’t care. His position was: what’s the point? It gets stolen, or even if it is paid for, the artist rarely sees any money.
Yea and verily, here’s a guy who was at the forefront of one musical tidal wave and then has the brains to write a book that actually gets published and distributed. I don’t know the man personally, but I assume he’s not rich, and he deserves to be at least comfortable. People pay hundreds of dollars to go to Coachella or tick Guns n’ Roses off their “bucket list.” But when it comes to the bands of their youth that really gave them something to hang onto, they balk at paying a few bucks for a gig or they want to be on the guest list or want a complete cd box set for $15. What is the point indeed.
So if you can, get out and support MTX in their Southland jaunt this weekend. Somewhere, a heartbroken introverted kid needs the affirmation that keeping MTX viable will provide. Appearing at the Redwood on the 13th. In Santa Ana at the Constellation Room (http://constellationroom.com/event/mrtexperience) on the 12th. The book and compatible download album are available here http://www.soundsradical.com/. See ya there.