All across the country, punk rockers recognize him. New Yorkers know his byline. But if you're neither, the name George Tabb might draw a blank.
In short, he's the "Professor of Punk."
Keep in mind, the man himself -- dressed unassumingly in jeans and a mustard-colored tee shirt, with cropped platinum hair and blue eyes shaded by tinted, black-framed glasses -- wouldn't tell you that. Tabb can go on and on about how stupid elitism is, and humbly says he doesn't even really think of himself as an author.
But the lofty, even oxymoronic, title is right there, printed on the cover of his brand-new book, and it's in a quote attributed to one of the few people ever truly qualified to make such a grand statement: the late, great Joey Ramone.
So it's a surprise that Playing Right Field: A Jew Grows in Greenwich, Tabb's debut memoir for Soft Skull Press, isn't about punk rock at all. He makes no mention of leather jackets, legendary club CBGB, or Rock 'n' Roll High School. Except for a few journeys into Manhattan's West Village or on Coney Island, New York isn't even a part of the picture.
Instead, Tabb's stories are about his childhood misadventures, and they take place in the wealthy, WASP-y town of Greenwich, Connecticut, where he never fit in. The book isn't his first stab at memoir. Besides playing in a slew of bands -- Roach Motel, False Prophets, Letch Patrol, The Gynecologists, Iron Prostate, and Furious George -- Tabb's claim to fame has been his writing, and like his autobiographical columns for the New York Press and punk bible Maximumrocknroll, these greasy-kid-stuff tales are chatty, sincere, embarrassing, clever, and completely hilarious.
Tabb quickly tears away at the appearance of comfort and privilege to expose a rocky childhood. His parents get a nasty divorce. He meets bullies at every turn -- on the school bus, at camp, in class -- who beat him up for being a runt and being Jewish. And he finds himself in all kinds of literally vomit-inducing situations, from witnessing the crucifixion of a frog to riding a gravity-defying amusement park ride. But Tabb takes the mortifying moments in stride, twisting troubles into small triumphs. In between, he dabbles in BB guns, baseball, wrestling, and fake-playing the trumpet.
"I think the whole idea of the book Playing Right Field is a prologue to punk," Tabb says. "I didn't mention punk on purpose."
He says he wouldn't have reached as many readers if the book delved right into his later years, when one listen to "Sonic Reducer" by the Dead Boys changed his life, and his dream of befriending his rock 'n' roll heroes, the Ramones, came true. "I think the book shows that anyone can become a punk rocker. Punk rock can come from anywhere."
(Tabb's escapades with role model Johnny Ramone, who passed away last week, as well as the late Joey and Dee Dee Ramone, could easily fill another book.)
Sure enough, the making of an underdog is right there in black and white. But the stories don't try to make that obvious point. They feel universal in the way they describe the glory and agony of being a kid. "They could almost be urban legends," Tabb says.
The timing was right for Playing Right Field -- suddenly memoir is big. And it happened to coincide with Tabb's move to Phoenix a little more than a year ago with his wife Wendy, a jewelry designer. He had shopped the book for several years, with no luck.
The Tabbs chose Phoenix after witnessing the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers from the window of their Lower Manhattan apartment, which was within blocks of Ground Zero. "I lost everything I owned in 9/11. The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] threw everything away. When we first tried to move back in, the EPA said, ÔJust dust it off and you'll be fine.' But finally we both got so sick we had to leave," Tabb says, describing how the pollution made their eyes burn and made them cough up blood. "Still, to this day, people don't believe that anything was wrong with the air. The city's in denial."
Getting a fresh start was way overdue.
"When I first got here, my mailman, who's this old Arizona guy who's been here forever, says, 'Don't ruin it for us, all you people moving here from New York,'" he says with a laugh. "I'm telling my friends in New York how great it is here, and they're like, 'Yeah, right, I don't believe you.' But then I realized, why am I telling these people? I don't want them moving here and ruining it."
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Now, Tabb's busy promoting his new book, writing some more, occasionally flying to New York to play with Furious George, and even working on a new band in Phoenix. Driving home from bars -- instead of just hailing a cab -- has taken some getting used to, but he quickly embraced getting more space here for less money. It's a great place to be creative.
"This town's on the brink of something great, I think," Tabb says. "Here, everyone's bursting out with stuff to do, and they want to make art, they want to make music. This is great -- this is where I want to live. This is where people are still enthusiastic and not jaded about what they want to do."
Take it as a lesson from the Professor.