I have this thing now, it’s called exerting the least possible effort in the fight to save publishing and support independent houses and bookstores. So at least once a month, I buy a book at a local indie shop. I know — I’m a visionary.

A month or so back I bought Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, a memoir by Frank Meeink, a former racist skinhead and recovering addict from Philadelphia, “as told to” Jody Roy, PhD. I chose it for a couple of reasons:

  • I am somewhat fascinated by the white power/patriot movement/far-right-crazies
  • I lived in Philly for awhile and I was always running into those fucking assholes
  • I like French flaps

I will now reveal my own bigotry: I hate the City of Brotherly Love. In 1994, taking some time to “reflect” on what I wanted to do with my life (i.e., trying to pull my shit together after what had been an unexpectedly bad year of college), I lived in Philly with two friends of mine, on a cute little dead-end street in Center City. And I hated it. I hated its bizarrely parochial and stupid citizens, its attitude toward cyclists, its cops, its crustpunks, its Krishnas, its lame music scene, and its seemingly uniform, deep-rooted racism. (And yeah, I do recognize the fact that this was fully 15 years ago and things have <facetious>almost certainly</facetious> improved since then. But my memories of Philly are like a prehistoric creature encased in amber. And I would fully endorse that as an urban initiative.) I had jobs in a couple shops on South Street, selling band t-shirts and rings with dolphins on them and Manic Panic and clove cigarettes to 13-year-olds. And, most annoyingly, I regularly dealt with the skinheads who trolled South Street. They would invite me to come “hang out.” (Blond hair, blue eyes…I guess it was enough to overlook the other, quite obvious signs that I was not an ideal candidate for the white power movement.) And what did I do every single time? I’m embarrassed to admit that I merely politely declined. Because I am the biggest wimp in the world, and these dudes — whom I’d have laughed or snarled at if they’d only been a bunch of your standard Philly inbreds — were indeed kinda scary.

So now that I’ve gotten that out of the way: the book. You know what? If it helps just one person realize that Racism is Bad, then that’s great. I wish Meeink well; I hope he stays sober and keeps doing what he’s doing and running his youth hockey program. But this memoir left a lot to be desired. It plodded, it meandered, it repeated itself. And in trying to capture Meeink’s voice, Roy manages to fill page after page with some seriously hokey metaphors and language (I mean, c’mon: “ain’t”? Listen to the Fresh Air interview linked below and tell me how many times he uses “ain’t.” ). And it simultaneously offers too few compelling details and too many unnecessary details. There are dozens of instances in which he recalls the picayune — the precise number of pills he took or how much something cost or an entire headcount at some meeting, for example — yet neglects to recount the important details, like what people looked like or the conversations he had. This book would have benefited from more guidance (and a hell of a lot more editing). What should be a compelling look inside the mind of a legendarily violent skinhead and how he ultimately came to question everything he believed is, instead, an endless saga lacking the elements of passion or introspection the story deserves.

You can hear his Fresh Air interview here. I found listening to him talk about his life far more interesting than reading his memoir. He says something interesting, that as an angry teenager, he could’ve easily fallen in with any group; the skinheads just happened to be the first to get to him. In high school, I often wondered about some of my friends in the hardcore scene — clambering for the mic at shows to sing anti-homophobic anthems, they seemed like they’d have been just as comfortable if the lyrics had been about putting gays on an island and blowing it up.

Speaking of: I know I mentioned this already, but I’m fascinated (though unsurprised) by the recent murders of white power movement leaders. And I think both stories are entirely plausible. Have you ever seen a skinhead rally? It’s basically a codpiece and a full set of teeth away from a goddamned Pride march. And there actually are gay “racialists” out there. I had an issue of MaximumRockNRoll that had an article on the topic of gay skins and the MRR archives are pointing me to an article from 2002 but I’m pretty sure I read it in the early 90s–if anyone has a scan of it, feel free to email me at [email protected].

Weak ending, I know. I had a whole ‘nother section about the hardcore movement and its thuggishness and misogyny (what a treat!), but that’s just going to have to wait until later. I started this post a month and a half ago and I don’t feel like waiting another month and a half to publish.

[edited to add: In thinking about it some more, I feel like I’ve been a little mean to this book. It has messages that will resound with some people — one being that fucked-up parents beget fucked-up kids, a very popular memoir theme these days — but the (unintentional) volleying between the banal and the ultraviolence and the prodigal-son-returns stuff just didn’t appeal to me. But you know what? I hated Soul On Ice too. I think I just must have a problem with men!

Oh! And! Another thing that creases me is that Meeink speaks about racism on behalf of the ADL, a group I am not particularly fond of, because I also have a problem with assholes.]

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