I recently reviewed poet Gerry LaFemina’s debut novel “Clamor” for Chamber of the Bizarre. Drawing on his own background in the punk scene, Gerry crafted a complex portrait of a middle-aged punk rocker that I found refreshingly free of the kind of clichés you usually find in stories about musicians. Gerry agreed to talk a little bit about his personal history with punk, and about “Clamor.”
Q: Could you talk a little bit about your background, and your involvement with punk rock?
A: I started going to punk shows when I was 14/15. I was an outer boro kid—a Staten Islander—and didn’t really fit in with my peers. I had access to a lot of counter culture music from my older sister, mostly Zappa and Neil Young and the Dead, as a kid, but it wasn’t my music. I discovered the Ramones and Bowie and the Clash when I was about 13 and then Kraut, a band from New York, on MTV (was it the Basement Tapes?) at a friend’s house. Then it was onward to the Dead Kennedys and Bad Brains, etc. I joined my first band with that same friend when I was 15, but really didn’t do anything as a hardcore musician until I was 16 and founded Expletive Deleted. We eventually played with a ton of great bands, starting with our first show ever, opening for Suicidal Tendencies at CBGB.
Q: What drew you to punk rock in the first place?
A: I didn’t fit in anywhere. I was one of the few kids at my school whose parents were divorced. I loved books and music and just kind of had my own private life. Punk allowed me to reject mainstream values in an environment where rejection was not only accepted but encouraged. It felt safe at a time when I was looking for safety. That said, it didn’t take me long to realize the inherent limitations of punk as a cultural philosophy—nihilism was never my bag, nor was conforming even to a brand of non-conformity.
Q: What inspired the book, and what were you trying to accomplish?
A: “Clamor” started at a family party: I was looking at my older sister and brother and tried to imagine what it would be like to turn the volume of our personalities up to 11 as it were. I mean, those characters aren’t us in the least, but that’s how it started. Then I had to think what was going on. I don’t write with an outline or an agenda. Once I figured out that the father had died, I had some sense that this was a kind of Prodigal Son story, but that’s not enough to go on
What’s funny to me is that one of the most interesting characters in the book, for me, is Jessica — Johnny’s niece. She didn’t even exist as an idea when I first started writing. That’s all it took.
Q: Is there anything about the punk rock scene that you consider to be widely unknown or misunderstood?
A: When I was shopping the book I had one agent ask me to make it more “punk rock” — by which he said he wanted “more heroin or cocaine and some more sex.” I wanted to avoid these clichés. I was much more interested in the family dynamic that exists. This is a family drama. The drugs, the fighting, all that, that’s a very young take on punk. The fact is when punks survive into their thirties and forties, their concerns are adult concerns — paying the bills, raising the kids, living a life. Touring, writing new music, maybe some sort of secondary income source, all of that is real. Being a punk musician is a job at that point.
Q: Do you have any new projects in the works?
A: Always. I’m working on the fourth draft of a new, untitled novel. I’m playing around with a few short stories, and maybe I’ll eventually have another story collection. But it always comes back to the poems. I’m working on a new book of poems that is tentatively titled “The Story of Ash” but that’s still at least another year from being finished. My first book of essays on poetry, “Palpable Magic,” comes out in early 2015. And musically I’m working with a band called The Downstrokes.