Total Eclipse of the Punk Heart

In the ten years since he founded the Mr. T Experience, singer/songwriter/guitarist Dr. Frank has caught a lot of crap from his punk-rock peers. His smart-assed novelty songs and forthright examinations of love and heartache were deemed L-7 almost from the get-go by an audience more interested in power-chord manifestoes extolling the virtues of anarchy and rebellion and expounding on the horrors of war and vivisection. His band was once run out of town by some politi-skinheads in Muskegon, Michigan, who took offense at the Experience's variety of what the band called "pussy punk." Through it all, the Berkeley-based group has survived at least five breakups, the dissolution of their onetime record company, and, most recently, the repeated jabs of fanzine writers who have denounced them as an oldies act simply because they've committed the ultimate punk-rock sin of sticking around too long.

Now, following the mainstream breakthrough of their pop-punk pals in Green Day and Rancid, the time may finally be right for Dr. Frank's decidedly apolitical rock and roll. "My whole life in this band has been spent trying to figure out what to say when people yell at us to play faster or tell us to write songs about how pissed off we are about El Salvador," says the 31-year-old Frank during a phone interview from the offices of Lookout Records, the Berkeley label his band has called home for the last six years. "I kind of feel like now our side has finally won. It's about time that actual rock and roll is getting heard by people again. There were so many years when punk was just completely nowhere, so I guess I'm not surprised that those bands have found a larger audience -- their music deserves a larger audience. I am surprised that it's happened in my lifetime, though."

Frank's thumbs-up sentiments concerning punk's commercial breakthrough fly in the face of the underground backlash surrounding bands such as Green Day, the Offspring, and Rancid A the members of which all learned a lot about punk through, in part, Bay Area bands such as the Mr. T Experience. The group was an early player on the Berkeley scene of the mid-Eighties that centered on the Gilman Street Project, a warehouse club that provided both a home and a creative outlet for the city's coterie of idealistic punks. Although the Experience's pop-laced three-chord romps were always out of place among the issue-oriented bands of the time, Frank loved the atmosphere of the dingy warehouse and toasted its importance in 1989 on the poignant "Gilman Street," from the Experience's EP Big Black Bugs Bleed Blue Blood.

On Love Is Dead, the group's seventh and most recent album, Frank returns to the club once again on "Dumb Little Band," possibly the greatest punk-rock autobiography since the Replacements' "Talent Show" from '89. Addressing with generous amounts of self-effacement the success of the bands he helped inspire, Frank has concocted what may be his greatest -- surely his funniest -- song: "Our friends are all busy with their own affairs/Becoming punk rock millionaires/They're taping their live album at the Hollywood Bowl/We're taping our flyers to the telephone pole."

Despite the song's acidic commentary and unabashed cynicism, Frank is sincere when he commends the bands who've grown beyond the boundaries of the Gilman and bristles when asked about the backlash against the scene's most famous sons. "There were some knee-jerk reactions that Green Day had sold their souls to the Devil and predictions that they would someday be sorry," notes Frank, a verbose and often eloquent spokesman for all things punk. "I think the moral dimensions and pretensions of that mindset are a little weak, but I don't think it's gonna last long because [Green Day] is good; no one can say that Dookie isn't a great album. We're in a special position, though, because we alienated those people a long time ago, so now they think we're way past redemption. When we started putting out records, these people would assume that I was writing pop songs because I was trying to sell out and didn't care about exposing the gritty truths of reality and the hell and horror of the American government. They just couldn't believe I was writing those kinds of songs simply because I liked them."

Certainly even the staunchest punk purist would have a hard time accusing the Experience of selling out. Their 1986 debut album, Everybody's Entitled to Their Own Opinion, was issued on the band's own Disorder imprint, and they've since released a slew of singles, EPs, and albums, all on independent labels, including the now-defunct Rough Trade. The Experience has never made it onto the cover of Spin, Rolling Stone, or Alternative Press, nor have their videos graced MTV's 120 Minutes with any regularity. And though Frank and his bandmates A drummer Jym and bassist Joel Reader A have recently quit their day jobs, they still trek across the country in a small van, lugging their equipment from gig to gig to bash out a brand of hook-laden punk that's steeped in the love-and-laughs tradition of such old-schoolers as the Ramones and the Buzzcocks, rather than in the agitpop sloganeering of Naked Aggression or Millions of Dead Cops.

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