Joe Mendelson

My overwhelming passion for rock music began in 3rd grade, although I have a very distinct memory of being completely mesmerized by The Who’s I can see for miles that I heard on my sister’s radio when I was in kindergarten (1969). The thing about 3rd through 5th grades is that I lived in Luxembourg, not the US. My formative rock-schooling came from European Top 40, which was so much different from back home. My early favorites were Alice Cooper, Slade, T-Rex, Suzi Quatro, Sweet, and Slade. Alice Cooper and Slade were my tops, and the first records I ever bought. 

When I returned to suburban San Diego, CA, to start 6th grade in 1976, I really did not fit in musically with my peers. They had never heard of most of what I had in my collection, and I didn’t really like most of what they were listening to at the time. So, I mostly went backwards and heavily indulged in British Invasion and 60s garage rock. Enter now the most pivotal influence of all: my very cool and connected oldest sister who lived post-college in San Francisco. Her then-boyfriend, now husband of many decades, worked in the influential Rather Ripped Records store in Berkeley. My sister and I have always been very close, even though she was so much older than me that I really don’t remember her living at home. She was more like my cool aunt than my cool sister. My mom hated my music but was nonetheless very supportive. My mom figured out that Alice Cooper was playing the Sports Arena and sneakily bought two tickets and flew my sister down to take me. My first concert! That year for Christmas my sister gave me the legendary Nuggets compilation and also Ramones. That pretty much settled my future, right there. 

My mom also started sending me for a week each summer to stay with my sister in San Francisco. They got me into a pre-party at a show by Dwight Twilley Band (great power pop!) where I met the band and a very young Tom Petty, who played a set at the show that night. Most importantly, I would spend my days at the record store and I would carefully clean the used vinyl before it went out into the bins. Great way to peruse the coolest records in the world coming across my table. At the end of the day the staff would “pay my salary” by selecting records that they thought I should have. So, I would come home from my week with X, Buzzcocks, Gang of Four, Stiff Little Fingers, Devo, Dead Boys, Talking Heads, Stooges, and loads of Beatles, etc.

Slowly, some—but certainly not all— of my friends started coming around to this weird music I liked, but mostly we all still were bonded by British Invasion stuff. By around 8th grade a Teaching Assistant at our school noticed my friends and I by our passion and our attempts to start a band. Because he was college-age, he was way more connected than we could be and, of course, he could drive. Our parents trusted him and soon he was taking us to every cool all-ages show that was available and, as we learned, there were cool used record stores in San Diego (they just weren’t in our town, Poway)! Anyone from San Diego back then will remember the Skeleton Club, as well as Monty Rocker’s or Blue Meanie record shops. So, before I was 16 I had seen Alley Cats, Unknowns, Blasters, Go Go’s, Penetrators, Crawdaddies, Plugz, X, Busboys and so many more great bands. I missed Weirdos, Screamers, Germs, and some of the other influential early LA bands.

In 1979 we all saw The Ramones for the first time in a venue called Montezuma Hall on the campus of San Diego State University (where our older friend was a graduate student). Of course, it blew our minds and our eardrums. I failed my first hearing test the next day when the nurse launched a random hearing-test challenge at school. She was very concerned for me, and for good reason as I now have permanent severe hearing loss. Likely not from that singular Ramones show, but certainly from all the other shows and also playing guitar in punk bands for over 40 years now. Oops. An anecdote from that Ramones show was that we saw a long line forming and assumed that was the venue. As we got closer, we got the vague sense that this was not what we thought a Ramones crowd would look like. Turns out there was another show on campus that night, in the very small Backdoor Club. The marquee said it was somebody simply called Prince. Our venue was nearby. So, there were a lot of very lucky music fans at San Diego State that night.

So, my origin story is like so many others. Suburban kids in the 70s didn’t have access to much of anything, so the key to my story (and certainly to the stories of so many others) was having an older relative or acquaintance that was connected. Suburban kids in some cities had access to good radio, like KROQ in LA, but San Diego had none of that. Thank you to my mentors for setting me on a rewarding cultural path for life !

My first punk rock show was Unknowns, Alley Cats, at Skeleton Club, San Diego, CA.

I have played guitar in The Standards (High School: San Diego; 60s covers, plus Elvis Costello, Ramones, Clash, etc.). Heedless Youth Speeding Through Life with the Throttle Wide Open (College: Santa Barbara; Replacements inspired debauchery). Leucine Zipper and The Zinc Fingers (Current: Atlanta; science-based punk rock, mostly originals a few sciency covers like Amoeba or Human Fly). Leucine Zipper & The Zinc Fingers played the 2017 Atlanta March for Science event, and annually performs at the Atlanta Science Festival (a city-wide science outreach education series of events).

As far as the punk rock pen pal thing goes, I met a bunch of punks in Mexico City (I do field work all over Mexico) at the very cool punk/metal  mercado called El Chopo in 1992 and stayed in touch with them for a few years.

These days I’m a research biologist (herpetology; PhD) in Atlanta (17 years now)

You can find out more about Leucine Zipper at www.leucinezipper.com

[8″x11″ watercolor, gouache, ink on watercolor artboard]

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