New graphic memoir shows how punk rock helped a young black man find his identity: NPR

James Spooner’s graphic memoirs are The High Desert. He tells how he discovered punk rock and how it helped him find his belonging and his identity.



(SOUNDBITE OF GORILLA BISCUITS SONG, “DEGRADATION”)

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For James Spooner, punk rock is more than just a genre of music or a look or even an attitude.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE SONG, “DEGRADATION”)

GORILLA COOKIES: (Singing) Tell me who’s pure. Tell me who’s right. Tell me the last time you fought fair.

CHANG: In fact, it permeates a large part of his life. He is a tattoo artist and he made the documentary “Afro-Punk” in 2003, exploring the roles of African Americans in the then predominantly white punk scene in the United States. And he co-founded the AFROPUNK festival. Now he can add a graphic memoirist to that list. His new book is “The High Desert: Black. Punk. Nowhere”. As NPR’s Mallory Yu reports, he recounts how he discovered punk music and, through it, his identity.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE BLACK FLAG SONG, “DEPRESSION”)

MALLORY YU, BYLINE: There’s a scene early in James Spooner’s memoir where he’s alone, surrounded by boxes in his new room in a new town, feeling especially sorry for himself. So he puts on a tape.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE SONG, “DEPRESSION”)

BLACK FLAG: (Singing) Depression has taken hold of me – depression.

YU: As he looks at a photo of the friends and crush he left behind, the lyrics to Black Flag’s “Depression” splash across the panel.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE SONG, “DEPRESSION”)

BLACK FLAG: (singing) I don’t have any friends of my own. I’m just sitting here alone.

JAMES SPOONER: There are no girls who want to touch me. I don’t need your sympathy, you know? And of course, that’s going to resonate with a 13-year-old.

YU: Especially as a teenager who had just transferred to Apple Valley, a small town in the California desert, finding himself one of the few black kids in his high school, a misfit.

SPOONER: I had the typical teenage angst that is common to most kids, but there were underlying things going on in my family. My parents were divorced. You know, I grew up witnessing abuse. And just stuff that I probably kept bottled up, punk was a great soundtrack for that.

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “I DON’T CARE”)

BLACK FLAG: (Singing) I don’t care.

YU: Spooner was mostly estranged from his father, and he was starting to resent his mother, who, as a white woman, was well-meaning but couldn’t quite understand her son’s experience as a black teenager.

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “I DON’T CARE”)

BLACK FLAG: (Singing) I don’t care. Well, you’re screwed anyway. Do not worry. It’s gonna mess up anyway. Do not worry.

YU: On his first day at his new school, Spooner meets Ty. Ty was black, like him, and a punk rocker.

SPOONER: The first punk I met was black, but he struggled with some of the same identity issues as me because we lived in this small town with so few people of color involved in anything. ‘alternative.

YU: Spooner says befriending Ty gave him a kind of permission to be himself. And the book follows that transformation – when he shaved his head to a mohawk, went from wearing skater t-shirts and sneakers to leather jackets and combat boots, picked up a guitar for the first time . Spooner says it was fun but a little superficial.

SPOONER: I wasn’t political. I was just, like, a stupid 80s kid wearing those clothes because other kids wore those clothes. And I was tearing up my T-shirt because I saw it on any video that was available to me at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF FISHBONE SONG, “GHETTO SOUNDWAVE”)

YU: Eventually, though, he started to hear more.

SPOONER: The things that really, like, got me excited after the initial shock of, like, a mohawk wears off was the politics.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE SONG, “GHETTO SOUNDWAVE”)

FISHBONE: (singing) Another bourgeois politician hears our pleas but doesn’t listen, never, never, never…

YU: Then he went to New York for the Christmas holidays and found a whole new kind of punk scene.

SPOONER: I started meeting really smart kids who got involved in Riot Grrrl or took me to the communist bookstore sharing zines with me.

YU: They talked about feminism and denounced racism and homophobia, introduced her to veganism. And some of them were even black like him.

SPOONER: Meeting black punks who didn’t compromise their blackness for their punk, it blew my mind. I just needed an example, you know? It really, like, forged the path that my whole life took from that point on.

YU: The punk subculture helped James Spooner find his place and his politics. And he hopes his book will also help other misfits find their people.

SPOONER: I think what they’ll get from this book is a celebration of, like, otherness, a celebration of feeling validated and not alone. So you can kiss it too.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE SONG, “THE CHILDREN OF THE BLACK HOLE”)

TEENAGERS: (Singing) House of destruction where prowlers roamed, house that belonged to all the homeless children, children of the black hole.

Yu: Mallory Yu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEENS SONG, “KIDS OF THE BLACK HOLE”)

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Diana J. Carleton