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HAIRSTYLES OF THE DAMNED
Joe Meno, the author of the new book "Hairstyles of the Damned", is a very busy guy. At the age of 30, he has completed his 3rd novel, he writes a fiction serial for Playboy Magazine, teaches at Columbia College, and is a columnist for Punk Planet magazine. He has more writing credits than can comfortably fit in a sentence, which in our eyes makes him quite accomplished.
"Hairstyles of the Damned" is a novel that explores racial intolerance, class repression and the pressures of conformity. Imagine your favorite punk record went and grew a paperback cover - that's how this book reads.
Meno's recounting of first concerts, first loves, and the first tragedies of adolescence are awesomely paired with the heavy backbeat of late 80's subculture. The contagious foot tapping that is symptomatic of a good record is the same energy that drives you as you follow Meno's narrative.
Famous spoke to Meno over the phone about his thoughts on writing, music, punk culture and the publishing industry.
FF: Where do you draw the line between fiction and non-fiction? Is there a lot of yourself in the character?
JM:This book is definitely fiction. But it's also pretty much a self-portrait. We all psychologically write about the stuff that piss us off or we love. Some sort of our self is always there.
But as a fiction writer I think you shape events more dramatically. It's all stuff that happened to me, or friends of mine when we were juniors or seniors in high school. The details, the events are real. I really had a friend whose mom got divorced and she disowned him and we got to do whatever we wanted and at first we thought it was totally awesome. But it quickly turned into the worst thing ever.
My high school really did have separate proms.
FF: What made you want to revisit all that stuff - go back to your high school years?
JM: I was writing short stories for different things, about events in high school, music, we had a lot of racial tension in Chicago, I don't know what it's like in Fresno, but if you were white you didn't cross these defined lines. The reason I got out of that, what helped me snap out of it was when I was a junior someone gave me a mix tape.
FF: It was a punk mix tape?
JM:Yeah, It was 7 Seconds, Minor Threat, Dead Kennedys and I loved it. They're all bands that are pushing you into thought or challenging the way you think. They changed my life, the whole DIY aspect of that music had a profound, profound influence on me.
FF: I'm guessing the 7 Seconds show that you write about in your book was a real show. How did you go from there to being a writer?
JM:I was way more into music than Brian, the character in the book. I was actually in bands in high school, I played in bands. And when I was in high school some girl shot herself, a girl who lived in our neighborhood, killed herself. I just ended up writing all these songs and I had a good English teacher and I would take it to class and call it poetry, and then from there I moved into fiction.
I've always felt a close connection between music and writing.
FF: How do you think the punk scene has changed - in Chicago, for example - since the era described in your book? Is it still there? Is it smaller, larger?
JM:It hasn't really changed. There are more "boy band" punk bands. But also there are more underground indie labels and bands that have developed in the last 10 to 15 years. All the bands I love now are on independent labels and here in Chicago we have an independent radio station and venues that cater to it.
The Internet has also changed a lot of things. It has a lot to do with it. You can be some kid in Nebraska now and order a Dischord album. 15 years ago you'd have to drive to a big city to get something like that
But I think essentially kids will always be the same. The subculture never really changes. It's fascinating, I played at the Fireside Bowl, this punker place, and its an all ages venue. And it was bizarre to see these kids wearing the same Ramones and Misfits t-shirts I used to wear - and these are bands that were making music well before they were even alive.
FF: At the beginning of your book there is a warning, a sort of shout out to all the evil publishing houses. What was up with that?
JM:Well, there are 20-30 different publishing houses - mostly owned or in the process of being bought by these huge conglomerates - and they are publishing to make profits - they make books about celebrities or pro wrestlers. 15 new books premiered at a book expo I recently attended - there was one by Bill Clinton, Jamie Lee Curtis, Gene Hackman - the publishers know they will sell. To them it's money and profit over meaning.
It's just like how there are only 5 major record companies and they're all subsidiaries of MTV. And to them it's important for them to know that an artist will sell - I mean, how many blonde female singers can be cloned by the same company?
For example, MTV Books was interested in this book, but they wanted all the music references changed to current bands - do you think that Good Charlotte are writing lyrics that would reverse the mindset of a kid living in a segregated neighborhood? Britney Spears?
They're just forcing out books that sell.
FF: What's the deal with your publisher Akashic? How'd you hook up with them?
JM: Akashic approached me about the book and I was just really excited to work with them. They publish books that are profoundly important. They do books with meaning over money.
And so far, with this book, we've had a really good response.
I mean, corporations will always appeal to the lowest common denominator. It's all contributing to the zombification of America. I'm writing not because I am thinking about money, but I try to focus on what is upsetting and bizarre - like separate proms. It still feels very weird and other worldly to me.
I was watching the news the other day and 10 states, 10 states still had separate proms in 2004, a prom where black kids and white kids have their own dance. And no one, not the parents, the school, will step up and deal with this.
FF: Who else are you touring with and how did you guys come up with the idea of doing a book tour?
JM:Todd Taylor who just put out his book and Mike Faloon who does this zine called Go Metric! - and this idea of indie authors touring is the same thing as the 80's DIY bands. I mean we've got no money, so we're touring our asses off. We can't buy a billboard so we've got to do something to get our work out there.
Meno will be reading from his novel Hairstyles of the Damned on Sunday, August 22nd at the Barnes & Noble in River Park. He will be joined by author/publisher Todd Taylor, who will read from his latest book, Born To Rock, and Go Metric! 'zine publisher Mike Faloon.