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Today is the day to engage in petty theft and vandalism.
It's no secret I like to interview Chicago kids done good. Today's interviewee is the author of the acclaimed book Hairstyles of the Damned, a semiautographical book about growing up punk on the city's South side. He has also penned two other books and currently teaches at Columbia College, when he's not editing Punk Planet magazine or just generally rocking.
The Joe Meno Interview: Slightly Less Than Twenty Questions
Would you say that there is a particular Chicago literary style?
I don't think there's a particular Chicago style and I'm glad about it. What makes it so exciting to be here in this city right now is the strange variety of amazing underground writing that's happening, from zines, online magazines, self-published work, things like The 2nd Hand and Lumpen and Punk Planet, which are all very individual but also very audience-oriented. What I like about the writers I know in Chicago is that what to be understood, they have something to say and want to be heard. There's no pretension, no condescension. It's writing that functions the way music does, it's writing that has a purpose, whether it's political writing or fiction, it is not a literary or academic exercise. It's very accessible and very inviting.
What about a punk literature genre? What style of writing does that consist of? I assume that you have to have an extensive knowledge of punk music in order to write it?
I don't know if there's a punk literature genre--I hope not because it sounds very exclusive and limited. I wrote a book, hairstyles of the damned, based on my experience in high school getting into punk music, so yeah, I had a knowledge about the subject, but it's first and foremost about the characters, who just happen to, occasionally listen to punk. The book, I hope is about a lot more than that. Like my first two books and a lot of what I write, the book was a response to a kind of music I found really important and inspiring. I think there are some novels that try for that thing, try to be "punk" and they just come off as very narrow and uninteresting. I think the success of hairstyles is that you don't have to know anything about punk and you can still get it. Lots of kids, I mean like fourteen or fifteen and lots of people in their later years, NPR listeners and the like, have been buying the book and I think that's the reason.
Are there literary genres for other styles of music?
Um, I dunno. I hope not. Like I said, it seems way to be record store clerky. I mean I guess you could see how jazz influenced Kerouac and James Elroy, but I don't think they'd call their work jazz novels. I hope they wouldn't. Like all writers, you just take from what excites you and try to make it make sense on the page.
Who are your favorite music writers?
I like Jim Derogatis a lot. He's excited about the bands he writes about the way your pal is when he passes you an album to listen to. I am so fucking sick of people glorifying Lester Bangs, who was one of the shittiest, self-aggrandizing, self-referential snobs ever to write about rock. Here's my deal: I have a limited space in Punk Planet, I can only write so much about a band, so why not write about something I really love instead of trashing some band I hate? It's fucking childish. Just because I think Britney Spears is shit doesn't mean some eight-year old girl is moved by her. It's like anything in art, it's all based on opinion and I'd rather use my little bit of space to write about what I love.
Do you think 'music snobbery' is something that's more inherently male?
It seems like it, but there's some snobby gals at record store counters all across the world. Everybody wants to feel special and smart and cool and it happens in every job. I consciously try to avoid being so goddamn provincial and snobby and try to remain open to different opinions, but Jesus, hearing the shit on the radio, it's hard sometimes. There are Star Trek snobs and comic books snobs and film snob and sports snobs and fucking wine snobs. People like to feel smart and sometimes it gets shitty when they do.
Do you try to write humor or does it just come out in the writing?
Honestly, I don't ever try to write humor into the story, it's got to happen naturally or it comes off forced or uninteresting. In that book, hairstyles, there's parts that are funny, usually because they're so sad or geeky or awkward. It's funny because it's a very human moment you relate to and you're kind of laughing at a memory of yourself, which is nice and special, but I don't think it's a conscious effort. It comes from writing shit that's very personal and allowing myself to take a risk and write that way.
When something is semi-autobiographical, how do you decide what to take from life and what to embellish?
It's all fiction in the end--nothing in the book happened exactly the way it was described. Most of the characters are complete fiction. What I usually draw heavily from is place, a neighborhood or job or school or something like that, and also events--the segregated prom in the book, for instance, or the basement show, or Brian's parents divorce. I'm just thinking what are the big dramatic moments of this kid's life? I think it's impossible to write autobiography--the words you choose, what you put in, what you leave out, it all gets changed into something more than memory, which is where I begin thinking about stories.
Your book was compared by some to Catcher in the Rye. Did that book make
a large impact upon you when you were growing up, or not so much?
I love that book so much, it's not even funny. I went to an all boys Catholic school and I remember Holden complaining about the phonies and feeling like someone had written this book about my life. The language, the unfolding, naturalistic plot, the sense of loneliness and sense of humor, that book has affected me as a writer and almost anyone who has ever read it, I bet.
What have you been listening to lately?
I have the greatest job in the world--I get paid to write about music. These tiny, underground record labels send me music, to my house, and I listen to them all. Most of them are pretty decent and there's almost always something amazing. Top of the list right now: The Like Young, PAL, Baby Teeth, Hot Snakes, The Bananas, Scotland Yard Gospel Choir.
What is the best concert you've ever attended?
Oh, wow, that's tough. I just saw the Coctails at a reunion show and they were amazing, so talented and interesting and charming. The Hot Snakes show this year was pretty great, too. I got to say Rocket from the Crypt--they are masters at the live show, big band, horn section, you can't help but dance.
What's your favorite place to see shows in Chicago?
It used to be the Fireside before it closed but now I've been seeing a lot of shows at the Bottom Lounge, where all the underground bands are being booked. It's small enough to see the band and the sound is pretty decent.
Did you write much as a teenager?
Yeah, I wrote about like ghosts and demons and horror shit. I was reading like horror books and watching horror films and so that's what I was writing. I was in bands so I was writing songs, too, which actually got me writing fiction in the first place.
What's going to happen to the mix tape now that tapes, and soon CDs, are practically obsolete?
Mix tapes will be remembered with eternal fondness because they're obsolete, just like vinyl and 8-tracks, that's what's so wonderful about them. They only had like a lifespan of ten years or so, and for those of us who grew up in that era, it's a common experience, a magical object we can all think about and remember. For most of us, it's so connected to our youth, too, which again is kind of special, this object which operates like a sound photograph of who you were.
Does your wife share your taste in music?
I'd say we like a lot of the same stuff. She got me listening to the Smiths--that band terrified me in high school because they were obviously very intelligent and sensitive and I wasn't either at the time. Now I like a little more punk or rock type stuff that she doesn't usually listen to, but we both love a band like Belle and Sebastian or someone like Ted Leo. In our relationship, I feel like it's my job to bring in records and get her to listen. She does practically everything else.
Are there any other Chicago writers or books based in Chicago that you're a fan of?
Anything by Nelson Algren , of course, but recently John McNally who grew up on the southside as well, his book, Book of Ralph is tremendous. Elizabeth Crane, who's a transplant from NYC, she's amazing as well. Todd Dills who writes tons of short fiction and who runs the 2nd Hand. Isaac Adamson, who's also hilarious and very fun.
Are you conscious of yourself becoming more of a 'grown-up' when you
see young punks around the city now? I know I resist the urge to pinch their
It's funny how I find myself rolling my eyes a little and at the same time I want to hug them and say, "It will be awesome, it will all be OK. I know you're getting shit at home and at school and you think you will be alone and miserable forever, but just keep doing what you're doing and you'll find your way. Now go wash your face."
You teach, you play music, you write; are there any other projects or goals you have for the next year or two?
I've got a short story collection coming out in the fall and so that needs a little attention. Other than that, just doing what I do. I'm going to be doing some touring for the collection and heading over to Europe where the hairstyles book is coming out in translation.
How does it feel to be the 116th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
It's a dream I've had for awhile but I have to wonder, now what? Where do
I go from here?