Sharing my byline and other adventures in punk rock
October 1, 2014 § 2 Comments
I gingerly slid the disc into my car CD player and braced myself against the steering wheel for the anticipated onslaught of noise. Instead, a voice, rich and smooth like molten chocolate, began to pour. With that, my introduction to The Offspring’s multiplatinum album “Smash,” and punk rock in general, began.
Up until that point, I had never listened to punk rock. But I had gotten myself into a situation where I needed to know enough about the genre so as not to embarrass myself.
The situation was a year in the making. Geoff Hunt, ASBMB’s public outreach coordinator, had told me and Angela Hopp, ASBMB Today’s editor, about punk rockers who had science backgrounds. I had never heard of the musicians or the bands, but I love writing about people with off-the-beaten-path life stories. I grew excited at the thought of telling the stories of punk rockers who doubled as scientists.
But Geoff, a hardcore punk rock fan, threw me. “I’ll write the profiles,” he said. “I know the music.” Then he walked out of my office before I could speak up. As a journalist and writer, it’s my business to learn about new things and to quickly become expert enough to write stories that are in context and accurate. Geoff, I felt, was underestimating me.
A year went by, and Geoff, swamped with his many outreach projects, didn’t get the time to write the profiles. One day in early April, when I had just finished an intricate science feature and was ready to sink my teeth into something new, I pointed out to Angela on a whim that the punk rocker profiles still were waiting. “Geoff’s had a year, and he’s not done them. I can do them,” I recall stating brashly.
Angela went to see Geoff. I don’t know how the conversation went, but all I know is that Angela walked past my office later and said with a grin, “You two are going to co-write those profiles.”
My earlier brashness was now trumped by panic. I don’t mind feeling like an unsteady toddler when launching into a story in unfamiliar territory. But co-writing with Geoff meant that I had to be on par with him from the get-go, and, for the sake of my ego, I preferred that he not see my ungainly struggle with learning about punk rock.
I turned to Wikipedia (yes, that’s precisely how little I knew) and started to read about The Offspring, Descendents, and Bad Religion, the three bands whose lead singers are trained in science. Even the Wikipedia entries left me bewildered. I had to admit that I needed some guidance. A bit sheepishly, I asked Geoff if he could give me CDs to listen to while we waited for responses to our interview requests.
So that’s how I ended up with the CD of “Smash” and several others by Bad Religion and Descendents in my car. The CDs mingled with my own collection of the Beatles, Queen, Adele, P!nk, Motown, and my all-time favorite band, Duran Duran (a band that makes Geoff cringe). I was not exposed to punk rock while growing up in the Middle East. My Western pop music education was based on pirated copies of albums by top-selling mainstream artists and the British show “Top of the Pops.” I assumed punk rock to be like heavy metal, which I never found to be melodic. In my head, punk rock consisted of angry yelling into a microphone by a beefy guy with spiky rainbow hair and clothes with studs against the backdrop of thrashing drums about to go up in flames.
The musicality of “Smash” surprised me. In particular, I found myself drawn to the song “Gotta Get Away” and actually caught myself humming the tune. Bad Religion’s lyrics made me pay close attention and think. And as a singer, I loved Descendents’ Milo Aukerman’s vocal fry.
I wasn’t sure what to expect during the interviews with the three singers. I am a savvy interviewer of scientists, but this was my first time interviewing musicians. It didn’t help that I was dogged by the perception of the meathead punk rocker.
But I was so wrong. Aukerman was thoughtful and articulate. The Offspring’s Dexter Holland was charming and funny. Greg Graffin of Bad Religion was eloquent and sharp and insisted you choose your words carefully when speaking. All three were equally comfortable conversing about music and science in depth.
Truth be told, Geoff’s presence made all the difference during the interviews. He is steeped in the bands’ music and fan folklore, so he was able to ask questions that never would have occurred to me. Thanks to him, we got Holland to regale us with the story of how the hook “Keep ’em separated” in the song “Come Out and Play” came from a moment in the lab. That story turned into the lede of the profile we wrote about him.
But the co-writing process was bumpy. I had to bare my writing soul, which was very uncomfortable.
I am a firm believer in what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts” in her book “Bird by Bird”. When beginning a fresh piece of writing, I do a brain dump of everything I know about the topic and then slowly begin the innumerable rounds of writing, cutting, rewriting and editing.
But Angela, knowing me all too well, warned me not to steamroll Geoff in my single-minded quest to get the final polished pieces. She specifically instructed me to give him room in the writing process. This, I realized with horror, meant that he was going to see my first drafts. Until this point, no one had ever read them.
Self-doubt is always a devil on my shoulder. I feared that Geoff would call me out as a lousy writer. I knew I could do several rounds of rewriting before giving him a draft to work on, but that would shut him out of the organic process of shaping the stories, the very thing Angela warned me not to do. When I hit “send” on the first draft about Holland, a small part of me died.
Naturally, quibbles flared up. Geoff was prone to references that only diehard punk fans would understand. There was a spat over whether the average ASBMB Today reader would understand a reference to The Ramones (it got to stay in the Graffin profile). Geoff disliked my terse news reporter style of writing; I pruned back his literary and long sentences. “There is so much tension in the writing!” Angela complained at one point, exhausted with having to referee two strong personalities.
With time, I grew comfortable writing with Geoff. I knew he was a reliable writer and, most importantly, a voracious reader. (I belong to the school that a good writer has to be a reader first.) But I was surprised at exactly how adept a writer he was. He shook me out of my own writing process, which had become more habit than craft, and forced me to experiment with language again. Playing with language reminded me afresh why I had become a writer in the first place.
Our profiles of Aukerman, Holland and Graffin went into a bigger series that we called, after much debate and some eye-rolling, “Defying Stereotypes.” The irony of the series name didn’t escape me. I had entered into this project with a set view of what punk rock was all about and what a punk rocker was supposed to be like. By introducing me to The Offspring, Descendents and Bad Religion, Geoff forced me to reevaluate my long-held perceptions.
Geoff even acted as my guide at my first punk rock concert this summer, when we went to see Bad Religion and The Offspring in Baltimore. But he may have regretted that one. On our drive back to Washington, D.C., after the concert, I burst into a mashup of the choruses of “Gotta Get Away” and Duran Duran’s “Rio.”
To read about Geoff’s take on writing the three profiles, go here. Also, speaking of the life-changing moments brought on by this experience, I would be remiss not to mention that I became acquainted with, and then seriously addicted to, Dexter Holland’s hot sauce, Gringo Bandito.