Thursday, January 15, 2009

Punk Rock and Trailer Parks
by Derf

I think the highest praise I can give to Derf’s Punk Rock and Trailer Parks is that, for a book for which I held absolutely no previous expectations, it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable things I’ve read all year. Prior to encountering the book my sole exposure to Derf had been his My Friend Dahmer, which showed up in an anthology I read a while back (almost a decade if memory serves me well), and which stayed in my remembrance not out of any specific merit other than, hey, it’s a first person reminiscence about Jeffrey Dahmer. I didn’t even remember the name of the guy who did it. But I just happened to be in Cleveland over the holidays, and came across this book in Mac’s Backs and figured it might be interesting. I wasn't necessarily that excited about it - the purchase was overshadowed by a pair of rare James Purdy novels I had also found. But lo, those Purdy novels remain unopened these weeks later, but the Derf has stuck in my mind, far more than the slice of "local color" I initially took it to be.

The book is about Ohio - or rather, a specific time and place in Ohio history, the late seventies, Akron. (My girlfriend gives me shit for pronouncing Akron incorrectly - it just seems more logical that it would be Ack-rawn, not ak-run.) I was not aware, but apparently the area was a hotbed of punk - and not the American-born second-wave hardcore stuff, either, we're talking about the real first-wave stuff like the Clash and the Ramones, with strange offshoots like Klaus Nomi thrown in for good measure. Sure enough, it’s the scene that gave birth to Devo and the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu. It seems inexplicably strange to me that such an unassuming place could be so musically savvy - no offense intended to the greater Cleveland area, but it seems quite an accident of history that they were so integral to the American punk scene and not, say, Tulsa or Omaha or Pittsburgh or any number of second-tier Midwestern-or-thereabouts cities filled with industrial blight and restless primarily white surplus youth.

Derf takes the unlikeliness of this historical fact and builds his fictional narrative around it. The story follows the adventures of a small group of high school pals as they fall into the center of the Akron scene. The ostensible "leader" of the group is a strange, extroverted and unrepentant nerd calling himself The Baron. One of the most uncanny thing about The Baron is the way he seems - despite his preposterousness - to be a genuinely recognizable figure, the type of person who I can remember knowing (some might say I had a few of these qualities myself). Despite his outcast status, he nonetheless possesses a healthy dose of self-esteem, supported by his unapologetic embrace of the "nerd" lifestyle - complete with playing trombone in the marching band and quoting Tolkien at length. He doesn't feel the need to hide or justify what he likes or who he is, he just is. He just manages to skirt the edges of self-delusion, buoyed by the fact that for all his seeming geekiness, he is nevertheless more on-the-ball - perceptive, intelligent, courageous - than anyone else around him. For all the elements of wish-fulfillment in such a unique character (wish-fulfillment, that is, for probably the majority of the folks who will read this book), he's nonetheless fascinating. I knew people like this in high school, folks who managed to get through with perfect equanimity despite their seeming status as outsiders, gifted with a preternatural sense of perspective and able to simply ignore (or pretend to ignore) the daily ignominies of teenagerhood.

Therefore, it makes perfect sense that he would fall in with the nascent punk scene, a scene defined not by its commitment to miserable self-laceration but defiant opposition to the norms and presumptions of "square" society. It strikes everyone in the book as more than a little bit amazing that such a fascinating thing could exist in the heart of Rubber City, USA - the manner with which Derf illustrates the juxtaposition of two such unlikely opposites as semi-rural Ohio and the international punk scene is the book's primary strength. The Baron - a lanky denizen of the titular trailer park, probably the living definition of Midwestern "white trash" - soon takes up residency at The Bank, a decrepit, uh, bank that was repurposed as a punk club and became the epicenter of the regional movement. The Baron, despite his humble origins, meets and interacts with everyone who stops on their way through, and again, the seeming preposterousness of the narrative is checked at all times by the simple fact that there really was such a place as the Bank, and it really did provide a showcase for the Ramones, the Clash, the Plasmatics and Klaus Nomi. The Bank itself doesn't exist anymore, it was torn down in the early 80s as part of one or another urban renewal schemes. But simply the fact that it did exist, against all ludicrous odds, in the most ludicrous of places, is the most fascinating aspect of the book.

So you don't really mind when Joe Strummer and the Baron take a quick trip down the road to the local arena - with Lester Bangs in tow, no less - for the purpose of stabbing the tires in Journey's tour bus. The whole point of the book is to spotlight how weird and crazy a time this was. But nostalgia is a two-edged sword - the last page of the book is filled with capsule biographies of many of the musicians featured on the previous pages. Most of them are dead: Nomi, Joe Strummer, ¾ of the Ramones, Ian Dury, Wendy O. Williams, even the Bank itself has been rubble for decades. It's all basically gone, and for all the critical lionizing that has been heaped on punk's first wave, only one Ramones CD ever went gold (Ramones Mania), but Journey have sold 75 million records worldwide.

For all the agonies of high school depicted herein, it's nevertheless a cozy slice of teenaged life. The only person who seems to understand that is The Baron, ready and willing to leave Akron but not before he gets the most out of his high school tenure.

Derf's style owes a lot to Peter Bagge. Every panel is filled with the type of loving detail that makes the pages practically bulge with personality. You can definitely see that Derf has spent much of his career working in newspaper panels: he knows how to wring the most out of every centimeter of space allotted him. For all the seeming modesty of the book's construction, it's really quite an accomplished achievement.

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