Mr. T Experience
Not So "Dumb Little Band": The Mr T. Experience Chronicles
by George Light
Frank Portman, the noted Young Adult author of such zeitgeisty teen angst novels as King Dork (2006), Andromeda Klein (2009), and King Dork Approximately (2009), moonlights as Bay Area punk rock musician Dr. Frank while fronting the long-running concern The Mr. T Experience, or now as longtime fans jokingly calls it MTX Starship, a meta SF Bay Area music joke , mainly at Mickey Thomas' expense. MTX has a new album coming out King Dork Approximately, which can be seen as a soundtrack for the new paperback release of the similarly titled novel. As Frank pitches the re-issue!, re-package! re-package! combo,it's an album for $9.99. The physical book is a bonus, but is also analogous to a record jacket you might have purchased with an LP in days of old, with lyrics and artwork as usual, but also with a whole novel crammed inside as well; the record itself is virtual, but if you close your eyes and imagine a spinning disk, and maybe a few pops and skips, you will be able to approximate the meat space album experience. Then, perhaps, open them and gaze lovingly at the cover. Kiss it. Hang it on the wall. Draw the logo on your math book cover. That kind of thing.Before we get to Record as Novel or is it The Novel as Record--maybe Norman Mailer knows, but he's obviously not telling--we should explore how Dr. Frank (Portman) and The Mr. T Experience arrived at this point.
"Dr." Frank Portman grew up a tail-end Baby Boomer in the Bay Area. He attended Mills High School in Millbrae, where he performed in Bent Nails with bassist Byron Stamatatos. Their single "No More Riots" appeared on the 1982 Maximum RockNRoll compilation Not So Quiet On The Western Front.
He then matriculated at UC Berkeley, became a punk DJ at KALX, and immersed himself in the emerging 924 Gilman Street scene. In 1985 with Stamatatos, fellow KALX DJ Jon Von Zelnitz (guitar and vox), and his younger brother's friend Alex Laipeneiks (drums), he formed the Mr. T Experience and assumed the fronting persona of Dr. Frank. In 1986, they recorded their debut album, Everybody's Entitled to Their Opinion on Disorder Records. This record set the model for their career and all the record they made over the next 30 years: 14 tracks of short pop-punk (none even broaching 3:00) with 9 written by Dr. Frank, 3 by Jon Von, and 2 covers ("Pleasant Valley Sunday," the Goffin/King track made famous by the Monkees and "Surfin' Mozart"). The songs are at once silly while still being filled with a plethora of sharp pop culture references. Two years later, they signed with Rough Trade and produced "Night Shift at the Thrill Factory" with a heavier emphasis on intellectual concerns in such track as "The History of the Concept of the Soul" an 80 second Reader's Digest version of Dr Frank's college thesis plus the obligatory cover, this time around Herman's Hermit's "No Milk Today."
In 1989, The Mr. T Experience released their second record on Rough Trade, the Big Black Bugs Bleed Blue Blood EP, which featured 7 tracks, 5 by Dr. Frank 1 by Jon Von ("The End of the Ramones") and a Sesame Street cover ("Up in the Air"). I first saw The Mr. T Experience around this time at an outdoor "festival" on Mayfield Avenue row off Lausen Mall sponsored by the bros of Sigma Nu (more about those fratholes in a sec); it might have even have been their Sunsplash. I ended up chatting with Jon Von Zelowitz in his platinum blonde crew cut glory, who gave off a vibe that he was THE leader of the pack. I have since been properly disabused of this notion. Also performing were the Comas wrapped in their toilet paper glory like D-Movie Boris Karloff-wannabes, and a cover band comprised of Beta Chi chapter bros. I wrote a short review of said "festival" in the low key summer version of the Stanford Daily, which made a point of dissing the lame ass AOR cover band by suggesting they sounded like a low rent Led Zeppelin with Jimmy Page singing lead. Not getting the joke, said fratholes assumed I didn't know who did what in the Zep and proceeded to make mildly harassing phone calls to my various residences for the next five years (oh grow up), including the first place I moved off-campus with an unlisted number. No one ever said Stanford students weren't resourcefully clever when they needed to be. I'm sure their version of this story is different, but this isn't Rashomon, and that kind of dickish white male privilege needs t be called out for what it is.
I also played the aforementioned EP as one of my records on KZSU's spring quarter album week. The phone literally rang off the hook the whole time it was on-air. So that pop-punk magic spoke to a wide variety of listeners' musical DNA. This is the original vinyl shortie on Rough Trade, not Lookout!'s magisterial 1993 31-track CD re-release. During this era, Dr. Frank used to introduce every song thusly: "This is a song about a girl." So, of course, the Japanese import compilation of The Mr. T Experience was titled Songs About Girls.
This ACTUALY is a song about a girl . . .
This punk rock epic from Big Black Bugs Bleed Blue Blood undercuts the genre's "one chord wonders" aesthetic, with its extended guitar riffing and extremely specific details. She bought records and a pot. And put them in the trunk of her car; let's hope she didn't live anywhere hot, for her vinyl's sake. Specifically, she bought : Naked Raygun and Crimpshrine, Dickies, Rezillos and Aerosmith. This is what she picked and a Lurkers 7". Your average generic power punk rekkid doesn't do this kind of precision and that's one of the thing that makes The Mr. T Experience so exceptional. You might get Danny Bonaduce chock a block with Wittgenstein, astrological and occult esoterica, and punk and post-punk classics like The Descendents' Milo Goes to College and The Soft Boys' Underwater Moonblight.
Portman has a knack for including at least one obviously auto/biographical song on most records. Here it was the short local scene history "At Gilman Street," wherein he discusses the legendary Berkeley all-ages social/music club that spawned such groups as Isocracy, Operation Ivy, Green Day, The Donnas, The Offspring, Rancid, J Church, Neurosis, Crimpshrine, Rancid, Isocracy, The Mr. T Experience, NOFX, The Donnas, and Jawbreaker. The song ends with the following "stanza":it's Gilman Street Radley does the sound Honey watches the door and James McKinney sweeps the floor Isocracy made a mess we demand nothing less and if you've got nothing better to do there's a meeting every Sunday afternoon and you can make a speech you can rant you can rave you can preach at Gilman Street it's democracy it's just one big family it's a bunch of geeks it's a load of freaks it's a club it's a place it's a thing it's Gilman Street.
Professor Dane Johnson (SFSU) outside 924 Gilman with typical show poster
Portman remembers the evolution of the Gilman Street scene:My involvement in Gilman does date from the very beginning because of my band and because I knew the people who ended up organizing it. I wasn't part of the organization in the sense that I didn't do any work. But I was there at the meetings and such, often bringing books and doing my homework during them.
Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes: The Mr. T Experience Line-ups through the yearsEvery year we self-destruct a bit. We break up when our drummer quits. We talk him into doing one more show and then the bass player quits and we break up again.The Mr. T Experience has a revolving door of band members with Dr. Frank as sole unifying presence; see also The Fall (Mark E. Smith) and Guided by Voices(Robert Pollard). The original band which existed from 1985 to 1989 was "Dr. Frank" Portman on vocals and guitar, Jon Von Zelowitz, vocals and guitars, Byron Stamatatos drums, and Alex Laipeneiks drums. The Stamatos quit. From 1989-1992, MTX was Portman, Von Zelowitz, Laipeneiks, and Aaron Rubin bass. Then Jon Von quite. For 1992-3, MTX was Dr. Frank, Aaron, and Alex. Then the drummer Alex quit. From 1993-5, MTx was Dr. Frank, Aaron, and Jym Pittman drums. This was the year when Dr. Frank began jokingly calling the group MTX "Starship." Then Aaron quit.
- The Mr. T Experience, "Dumb Little Band"
From 1995-1999, MTX was Dr. Frank, Jym, and Joel Reader bass. Then Joel quit. From 1999-2002, MTX was Dr. Frank, Jym, Gabe Meline bass, and Erik Noyes, Hammond organ. Then the bassist and organist quit. From 2002 to 2014, MTX was Dr Frank, Jym, Ted Angel guitar, and Bobby Jordan bass. Then another drummer (Jym this time) quit. The current line-up is Dr. Frank, Ted, Bobby, and Jaz Brown, drums.
That's the story of the dumb little band that could, in a nutshell. Of course, it leaves out the hiatus from recording from 2005 to this year, although the band still played shows and Dr. Frank also did some solo gigs, while he mainly focused on a burgeoning YA writing career. Frank released two solo records during this period: a single "Andromeda Klein" paired with second novel and a teaser live CD, The Way It Sounds Like, in 2015, prepping for the 2016 release of King Dork Approximately.
I could do a nifty chart like these for The Fall and GBV, but frankly I have better things to do with my time, like finishing this career retrospective.
Members of The Fall by year
Members of GBV by year
The Lookout Era
1990's Making Things with Light began a long successful collaboration with Lookout! Records that produced 8 albums and 3 EPs. It's 13 tracks featured 10 by Dr. Frank, 1 by Jon Von, and 2 covers (Rachel Sweet's "What's in the Cuckoo Clock" and Shocking Blue's "Send Me A Postcard").
I attended the EP record release for ... And The Women Who Love Them in 1994 at the Bottom of the Hill and had a chance to chat with Frank at the merch table. And yes, another minor calamity. The female bartender tried to double bill me for my drinks but was too stupid not to slightly vary the amount, so she got caught (and, I hope, fired). These things always come in threes. Wonder what ill fate awaits me should I ever manage to catch MTX live again?
Many fans consider 1996's Love is Dead the band's masterpiece. With one exception, all of its songs were written by Dr. Frank, that exception being the lyrics to "Somebody's Song," penned by Dorothy Parker, one assumes over lunch at the Alogonquin Hotel. So whilst a technically, our cover song streak is alive.
On this record, the songwriter's persona has grown up some and the concerns are the adult neuroses we all have surrounding relationship. Topics run the gamut from self-loathing insecurity of the perpetual friend-zoner ("Can I Do The Thing?") to our pill happy, overmedicated society ("That Prozac Moment") to the sheep-like consistency of our hobgoblinly tiny brains ("Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba"), ending in the kind passive aggressive yearning love ballad only a moonstruck nerd could write ("You're The Only One"). The album also supplies this essay with its title from the humble mock irony of the autobiographical number "Dumb Little Band."
Two standout tracks serve as poles on the album between which we can navigate the shoals and eddies of relationship's shifting tides. On the one hand, track 5 "Thank You (For Not Being One of Them)" is a paean to a girlfriend who is true to her own sense of identity. On the other, track 14 ("I'm Like Yeah, But She's All No") lays out in brutal simplicity the difficulties of maintaining relationships between Venusians (girls) and Martians (boys). It really is "like a game of chess."
YA Fame (if not yet Fortune)
At the very moment when the record industry was collapsing (MTX's long-time label Lookout! Records folded for good in 2012 but the die was cast in 2005 when several acts rescinded their master rights over breach of contract for unpaid royalties including Screaching Weasel, Operation ivy, and the elephant in the room Green Day, whose back catalogue was probably worth a small fortune to the indie label), Frank Portman shifted from being a rock front man to an aspiring YA novelist. The last MTX record was 2004's Yesterday Rules half a decade after the prior release, 1999's Alcatraz, whose tour had collapsed.
In 2000, Portman was approached by fan and agent Stephen Malk who suggested he write a YA novel with the sensibility of his songwriting, kind of an angsty 21st century pop-punk revisioning of Catcher in the Rye. On the strength of a 30 page free association draft, Malk sold the novel. Thus King Dork (2006) was begat after multiple drafts; according to a 2014 Publisher's Weekly Q&A, Portman said, "Well, I think I wrote seven drafts before [King Dork] was novel-ly enough to be published." In 2009, Frank followed up with Andromeda Klein (a novel set in the same universe but a different time frame the King Dork). The first two novels were written in public. Portman says, "I wrote most the first two books in public places, Cato's Ale House, Hooters, and McDonalds." His blog, Dr Frank's What's-It, provides ample pictorial evidence of same.
The sequel King Dork Approximately first appeared in hardback in December 2014. It "was mostly written at home in a weird kind of intense stretch of writing where I woke up one morning, opened my laptop, started typing and basically didn't get out of bed for the next five weeks. That wasn't a bad way to do it, and it had a much less expensive bar tab." With the dual "publication" of the paperback edition and the album download, Portman has fulfilled another fantastic dream. Now Frank pursues a trilogy as young Tom Henderson studies in London on an exchange program with King Dork Abroad (forthcoming?). As to whether or not there will be another novel/LP combo pack, that remains to be seen.
The Record as Novel
Unique among The Mr. T Experience's catalogue, King Dork Approximately features a suite of songs written in the voice of a single character, the novel's protagonist Tom Henderson--with the exception of the obligatory cover (a WWI-era ditty Al Dubin and Renny Cormack's "O'Brien is Tryin' to Learn Hawaiian"; Horace Wright's original version peaked at #2 on US song charts in January 1917)-- giving the album a sharper focus than other MTX efforts. It also helps justify why a 50 something punk rock YA novelist is still writing songs about girls and high school life.
The record's opener, "Cinthya (with a Y)" would have been right at home on the new Monkees record. Remember one of their biggest hits, "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone," was successfully covered by The Sex Pistols and Minor Threat.
Portman makes his classic Brit rock love clear on "High School is the Penalty for Transgressions Yet to be Specified," whose title and folk rock intentions suggest Village Green Preservation Society-era Kinks. Here the "social space" being nostalgically "romanticized" might be the high school gym or cafeteria, those sites of so many adolescent dramas. Like the village green, they are loci of personal allegiances as well as memories. Of course, the song's lyrics problematize said nostalgia by suggesting that one never really outgrows the traumas of high school social life, but rather is condemned to repeat them ad nauseam ("the day you graduate you will find my friends that high school never really ends"). The album also offers up two songs in the ongoing King Dork canon, the title track plus "King Dork redux," a shortened version of Portman's original novel as song project from 1999's ... And the Women Who Love Them.
A Basic Mr. T Experience Discography
Everyone is Entitled to Their Own Opinion (Disorder, 1986)
Night Shift at the Thrill Factory (Rough Trade, 1988)
Big Black Bugs Bleed Blue Blood EP (Rough Trade, 1989)
Making Things with Light (Lookout!, 1990)
Milk Milk Lemonade (Lookout!, 1992)
Sturm ünd Bang, Live!? EP (Munster, 1992)
Gun Crazy EP (Lookout!, 1992)
Our Bodies Our Selves (Lookout!, 1993)
…And The Women Who Love Them EP (Lookout!, 1994)
Love is Dead (Lookout!, 1996)
Revenge is Sweet, And So Are You (Lookout!, 1997)
Road to Ruin (Lookout!, 1998)
Alcatraz (Lookout!, 1999)
The Miracle of Shame EP (Lookout!, 2000)
Yesterday Rules (Lookout!, 2004)
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