Dr. Frank Approximately : The Works of Frank Portman

Originally written for a class on Young Adult Literature in my library science school at Rutgers.

HOLDEN / ELVIS, TOM, FRANK, & ANDROMEDA

If we were to compare YA lit to rock & roll, The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield would arguably be its Elvis Presley: the charismatic young rebel whose restless, hormonal angst resonated so profoundly with American postwar teens that any history of the genre would absolutely have to include him at some early and pivotal point.

Tom Henderson, the narrator of Frank Portman’s 2006 novel King Dork and its 2014 sequel King Dork Approximately, thinks The Catcher in the Rye sucks. Plus, he’s ever eager to tell you why he thinks everyone who loves that overrated book is a dumb hypocrite. He’s a lot like a late-seventies punk rocker. He’s a sardonic & antisocial misfit, though not violently so; he’d far more likely be the victim of a senseless beating than the instigator. Because, you see, he’s also like a sensitive and cerebral kind of late-seventies punk rocker, the kind who prefers wryly subversive songs of alienation & romantic dysfunction over righteous, riotous protest anthems. 

In fact, Tom’s not just a punk rocker for the purposes of our YA / rock and roll analogy. He actually sort of is one, even though his story starts in 1999 during his sophomore year of high school. Like so many sardonic & antisocial misfits, his weapon of choice in the rebellion against the conjoined-twin evils of conformity and cruelty is the power of rock and roll. He talks about it to an obsessive degree, and plays in a punk-spirited rock band with his best friend, Sam Hellerman– that is, when he’s not obsessively thinking about girls, or obsessively trying to solve the mystery of his dad’s suspicious death. 

In our extended YA / rock and roll analogy, Tom Henderson may not have a match quite as congruent as Holden / Elvis.  (Granted, the histories of these two artforms, despite being geared toward the same age group, have rarely been congruent, each one ebbing and flowing to its own rhythms. So it’s hard to find many congruent pairings at all beyond Holden / Elvis. For example, the rock and roll equivalent of the Harry Potter series, which brought fanatic mania and blockbuster fantasy to YA lit at the turn of the 21st century, would probably be the so-called “British Invasion” that began with The Beatles in the ‘60s and ended with Led Zeppelin in the ‘70s.) You might say Tom is a bit like another Elvis (Costello), a bit like Joey Ramone, a bit like Pete Shelley of The Buzzcocks, and a bit like Dan Treacy of The Television Personalities

If you’re familiar with any of those names, you might know that numerous histories of rock and roll have been written with little or no mention of them. But any such history that does include the likes of them is going to be way more interesting and kick way more ass than those that don’t. 

The same could be said about YA lit and Tom “King Dork” Henderson. For that matter, the same could be said of YA lit and Frank Portman himself, who also created a timelessly archetypal yet fascinatingly unique teenage character in the eponymous protagonist of 2009’s Andromeda Klein. (Andromeda Klein, however, has no rock and roll counterpart, though not because she’s unworthy of one. It’s more like rock and roll isn’t worthy of her. Like Tom, Andromeda is a precocious and introspective outcast obsessed with investigating the life and untimely death of a departed love one– in this case, her dear friend Daisy who died of leukemia. But Andromeda’s pet preoccupation is occultism, not rock and roll. She copes with the chaotic iniquities of the universe by casting spells and reading Tarot cards, she idolizes dead magicians like they’re rock stars, and she can’t stand any music that isn’t by 14th-century ars nova composer Guillame de Machaut.) 

And of course, if we wanted to find the perfect rock and roll counterpart to YA author Frank Portman, it would have to be none other than Frank “Dr. Frank” Portman, from a little band called The Mr. T Experience.

Continue reading “Dr. Frank Approximately : The Works of Frank Portman”

Mutant Eternity

Vinyl Record GIF by Laurène Boglio

For the latest issue of ➰➰➰ (aka Many Loops), I reviewed Mutant Eternity, a highly addictive album that remixes itself with each new spin:

In all my years of listening to and writing about music, I never thought I’d declare something as hyperbolic as this, but if I could listen to only one album for the rest of my life, it would absolutely be Mutant Eternity. It’s basically a cheater’s choice. From what I can tell, Mutant Eternity is never the same album twice. I don’t mean this in a metaphorical way, like when Heracliltus said, “No person ever steps in the same stream twice, because it’s not the same stream or the same person” (although that’s somewhat true with all albums, because even if the music recorded on an album remains exactly the same, both we and the times are no longer the same when we listen to it later). I’m talking about an album that literally remixes itself every time you listen to it.

Read the entire review at Many Loops.

The Aura of the Flapper in Question

BADMOTORFLAPPER cover + Jessie Janeshek's faceI am enormously flattered that Jessie Janeshek, my favorite living poet, really grokked my debut poetry collection BADMOTORFLAPPER, & wrote a very kind review of it, which you can read in full on the instagram feed of Really Serious Literature.

I’ve talked about conceptual aspects of the collection; O’Brien’s craft is also strong. I love their flexibility with and careful use of form to suit both the aura of the flapper in question and the song that she’s paired with…

BADMOTORFLAPPER – Now on Sale

Transparent Anatomical Flapper; thanks to In Utero, The Saturday Evening Post, & William BlakeMy debut poetry EP, BADMOTORFLAPPERis now on sale! It’s a 10-track collection of poems I wrote as tributes to some of my favorite women of the 1920s + music of the 1990s. Some of these poems have been previously published in places like Yes, Poetry and Rag Queen Periodical, but some are exclusive to this little booklet.

Print Copies are $4US via PayPal (shipping in US only)

Digital (PDF) copies are $2US via PayPal

Track Listing

  1. DOROTHY PARKER will have her revenge on Manhattan
  2. GRETA GARBO behind the counter in a small town
  3. Sometimes ZELDA FITZGERALD gives the creeps herself
  4. JOSEPHINE BAKER ain’t nuthing ta fuck wit
  5. CLARA BOW is in your face but you can’t grab her
  6. THEDA BARA with butterfly wings
  7. LUPE VELEZ is a hot spitfire fit to burn
  8. Got them Down-in-a-hole BESSIE SMITH Blues
  9. ANNA MAY WONG’s gonna break this rusty cage
  10. Last Dance with LULU BROOKS

“Buddy Holly” in Many Loops

Today marks the launch of Many Loops, a fascinating new online publication obsessed with recursion. It includes “Buddy Holly,” which is a thing I wrote in 2018 about my nostalgia for Weezer’s 1994 video “Buddy Holly,” which was nostalgic for the 1970s sitcom “Happy Days,” which was nostalgic for the 1950s. It’s pretty much the most Joe O’Brien thing I’ve written to date.

This is something I’ve been writing called “Buddy Holly,” but it’s not really about the late preppy-nerdy rockabilly musician with the thick-framed glasses. It’s about a music video for a fuzzy-yet-sleek new wavy power-pop song called “Buddy Holly,” which isn’t really about the musician Buddy Holly either, it’s about how the song’s singer, Rivers Cuomo, resembles Buddy Holly.

This is something I’m writing in the year 2018, looking back affectionately and obsessively upon a music video I fell in love with when it first aired in 1994. Directed by eventual Oscar-winner Spike Jonze, the video features Weezer, a pop-rock band formed in the 1990s, playing their song “Buddy Holly” as if they were characters on Happy Days, a fondly-remembered sitcom from the 1970s that looked back warmly on American life in the 1950s.

This is about 2010s nostalgia for 1990s nostalgia for 1970s nostalgia for the 1950s. Nostalgia kinda like those Russian Nesting Dolls, or matryoshka.

[read the whole thing here]