‘I’m just glad I’m alive and not in jail’: Punk poet Paul Dickinson shares mobile memories in ‘Junker Dreams’
by Youa Vang
May 24, 2019
Paul Dickinson is Minnesota's premier punk poet, frontman of Frances Gumm, co-founder of Dead Media, and former proprietor of the Speedboat Gallery — a St. Paul art space with a literally underground music venue where Green Day once played for $100. He certainly puts the “auto” into his new autobiography, Junker Dreams.
The memoir brings us along for the ride as Dickinson details vignettes of past lives, past loves, and the 20+ cars he owned and operated from the late ‘80s to the early 2000s. Drawing on his poetry background, Dickinson romanticizes his early 20s, performing in bands and weaving outside the law.
Readers will find themselves holding their breath hoping for the best for the protagonist as he makes his way from point A to point B by piecing together rides to work his way back home. If you enjoyed Jessica Hopper's Chicago chronicle Night Moves, you might get into Junker Dreams.
Dickinson celebrates his book release with Mary Mack and the Fires of 1918 Friday night at the Hook and Ladder.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing for a long time, but mainly I’m a poet. I write poetry; I have two books of poetry that have come out. I used to run this thing at the Turf Club called the Riot Act Reading Series. For years I’d have these poetry readings in the Clown Lounge. I still do it occasionally, but I do it at Dead Media now, a book/record store in Minneapolis. This is my first book of prose; it was a challenge for me as a poet to have to write longer than a page.
It took me ten years to write this book and almost that many years to get it published. There were a lot of rejections. Life got in the way. There’s parts of times where I just hated it. I wanted to burn it. I’d come back to it and say to myself, “How can you do this?” It was emotionally tough to go through all of that stuff. I had to soldier on, thinking, “Who cares?” I had my own battles, which creative people do.
Being a poet, I never took a fiction or prose workshop, so I really struggled. I did have a lot of people read it for me; that was helpful. I would read parts of it for the Riot Act to gauge reactions. What’s interesting about reading live is you’ll say, “Oh, I’m not gonna say that line.” But you have to be in front of people and do this editing in front of people that you can’t force until you’re in front of them. That clues you in. I would leave stuff out and say, “Why did you leave that out?”
What prompted this book?
A good buddy of mine in St. Paul, who was in my first punk band, passed away in a terrible accident. That got me thinking of all of the fun times we had. Then I realized, more than most people, I’d been through a few cars. I got this idea of all of these adventures I’ve had. The book’s kinda weird. It’s not chronological, but it’s what happened in all of these cars. It got me thinking — as I walked through the streets and alleys I used to share with my friends — of all these past times. It really takes place from the mid ’80s all the way to 2001. It’s a broad expanse of time.
What also prompted it was this urge to capture this truly alternative lifestyle at the time — living off the fat of the land, not really having a job, just hustling and playing music. It was a lot of stuff that you can’t get away with anymore. I wanted to capture that.
Do you feel you can’t get away with it, because you’re older with responsibilities?
It’s the responsibilities and the cost of rent. We ran this art gallery on Selby and Dunlap, and we had rock shows down there. We were 22. We had no insurance; it’s tougher now. I think there are young people who are doing great experimental things now; I do believe that, but we got away with it. I’m just glad I’m alive and not in jail. That’s part of the book. We made it — some of us, anyway.
There’s a lot more regulations now. Also, this was pre-computers. You found out about a show because you put up a flier on a telephone pole. It was a little more underground; things aren’t really underground anymore. Now you want everybody to know what you’re doing, but things are a bit more restrictive. It’s easier to keep track of things. There’s a little less room for chaos; I like a little chaos myself.
The book spans about 20 years. Why did you have so many cars in that time?
I always liked cars. I had a mantra of never having to pay more than $500 for a car, because of financial reasons, and because we just wanted to tink around with them. The getting away with not having a car payment. No one would give me a car loan. I have this fascination with machines — getting something that was pronounced dead running again, but it was also a way of life, because I would buy the cars really cheap and fix them up and flip them by selling them to people. This was before donating cars.
What was it about junker cars? What if you had just saved up money to buy a new car?
That’s good wisdom that I didn’t have when I was 20 years old. Once you got into it, you were able to tinker around. I’m not a real mechanic. I learned a few things about survival, but now the new cars are so computerized, you can’t fix them yourself. I was drawn to bringing things back to life, and it was a part of the getting-away-with-it scene. It was too tempting to pass up. It did get ridiculous at times; I had about four to five cars, and I didn’t know if any of them would start.
You talk a lot about the places you grew up as well. Would you say this book was somewhat a love story about the Twin Cities?
I would agree with that. I feel very lucky to have grown up in St. Paul. Traveling around to other places made me appreciate it even more. Even though I love to travel, I wanted to make specific references that I think we can all relate to in the Twin Cities.
Would someone outside of the Twin Cities be drawn to this book?
I cared about the universal appeal when I was writing. A lot of people, when I was talking about this book, would immediately start in about stories of their cars. I can’t change where I’m from, but I was trying to be unemotional and objective as possible. That had me naming places to help me remember the process, which was sometimes a challenge. Naming and locating helped me draw a picture. If I read something about New Orleans, I would want to go there. Minneapolis/St. Paul is not big. It’s not New York and maybe not the most exciting place on the planet, but I'm hoping people are curious about what’s going on here. I do like regional differences. That’s where I’m coming from.
You write a lot about past loves.
That came out from looking for love in the wrong places. That was part of it. If I was trying to be honest, I had to go back to what was happening when I had certain cars. Of course your trials and tribulations came out. I had a lot of people read the book, and they said, “Yeah, this book isn’t about cars at all.”
Life, as you go through it, is just stumbling around, which I certainly did a lot of and still do. It was an excuse to write about these other things, but it started out with a car. I could pretend it wasn’t emotional — that it was about a Dodge Colt — but that’s where the whole idea came from. I’m gonna talk about what happened inside the car and where the car brought me — literally and figuratively.
Do you feel that not being a mechanic and trying to figure things out yourself is a parallel to your relationships?
Yeah, it’s totally a parallel, because you have to relate to others, but you’re trying to emotionally survive. The car staying running is trying to find true love, because there’s a lot of straight up old fashioned romanticism, too. A lot of the the conflict of the book is all of this crazy stuff is happening, but I’m not really a player. Relationships are me not really being in control. Love can be a thunderstorm. It’s really a parallel of me trying to make things work.
Did you have a favorite car?
I guess my favorite car was my ‘82 Volvo Sedan. It got really broken and taken away from me. I really miss that car. I miss them all. We had some arguments, but that Volvo was pretty slick.
Do you think you were an insurance company’s best client or worst client?
I don’t know. I went through this whole period where I was almost prohibited to get insurance, which was counterintuitive. Those people are all vampires and thieves, as far as I’m concerned. I do have a relatively clean driving record now. I drive a very boring car now: a 2009 Subaru Outback.
Does that mean you settled down in life?
I’m incognito. I won’t get pulled over. I’m hiding in plain sight. Nobody knows my dark secrets when I’m in my little car. I’m always looking around. I want to get a pickup. When I was editing the book, my publisher noticed that I wrote in the present tense a lot. Even though it was in the past, I still think like that person.
You had a lot of brushes with the law.
Having a beat-up old car, you are a target for law enforcement. I also had a bad attitude. It happened. I never really planned it. I’m not burning tires in the street. I’m not looking for trouble. We weren’t looking for trouble. We were just living our lives. We were punk rockers; punk rockers don’t have good relationships with the police. I was playing a lot of punk shows. Later in life, we had the gallery. It wasn’t until we looked that that we realized we were actually doing something for the community — but for a long time, you had to look over your shoulder.