Montreal-born filmmaker returns
home with punk-rock novel

1980s-era N.D.G. teens play central role
in Matt Bissonnette's first book

by BRENDAN KELLY, The Gazette (Montreal)
April 14, 2008

Matt Bissonnette has written the great Montreal punk-rock novel.

I know, I know, you didn't even realize the world was waiting for such a thing and, frankly, many will be turned off by Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock, the Montreal-born-and-raised, L.A.-based filmmaker-turned-novelist's no-holds-barred chronicle of five N.D.G. teenagers growing up in the '80s, doing lotsa dope, having lotsa meaningless sex and blowing out their eardrums to lotsa what-they-certainly-thought was pretty meaningful punk and post-punk rock.

Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock is published by Exile Editions, the publishing house founded by author Barry Callaghan, and it hits bookstores across the country this week.

Many Montrealers might well recognize themselves and their friends in this totally engaging tale of a gang of not-necessarily-so-loveable West End losers hanging out at The Bar (which sounds suspiciously like legendary St. Laurent Blvd. alt-rock watering hole the Biftek), getting into fisticuffs with drunken Bruins fans after yet another epic Habs-Bruin game at the old Forum, and belly-aching about how the franco nationalists have ruined their city.

On the phone recently from his home in Los Angeles, Bissonnette said he wrote the novel eight years ago, around the time he was making his first film, Looking for Leonard. He then forgot about the book and focused on filmmaking, writing and directing a second feature, the Genie-nominated Who Loves the Sun, which came out last year. Then Callaghan at Exile Editions got a hold of the manuscript, loved it and signed on to publish it.

Bissonnette is not sure he would write the same book today, now that he's married (to actress Molly Parker) and has a 17-month-old son. Those punk-rock years may be but a hazy, distant memory now for the new-mature Bissonnette, but almost a decade back, he simply wanted to capture the zeitgeist of that era.

"I spent the summer re-visiting the material and it was interesting to go back and see it, and try and approach the material in a respectful way, and not change the whole thing," said Bissonnette. "When I wrote it, I was very interested in trying to, not factually, but tonally, re-create a certain time period in my life and my city's life. I wanted to record the warts-and-all version of that, capturing the carelessness and lack of decorum (of teenage life)."

But does he cringe at some of the less-than-savoury things his characters do in the novel?

"Yeah there are certain parts, where I say, 'Sure I wish people hadn't behaved in that manner.' Or you think, 'Some of your friends might've been a little more sensitive.' I find (teenagers) to be fascinating and wonderful but they can also be real bullies or just odd and different. You can't ignore that. There is no point in pretending the teen years are any different from what they are."

Like the characters in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, Ryan, Henry, Stephen, Frances and Bug try to make sense of their lives with a little help from their rock 'n' roll idols and, in this case, that's alt-rock pioneers like the Replacements, Guided by Voices and Black Flag.

"I generally as a rule don't like books that have too much music in them," said Bissonnette, who spent his formative years in a social circle that included the extended anglo Montreal punk family revolving around bands like the Doughboys and the Asexuals.

"It's like you're trying to attach a sort of coolness to yourself, to give yourself a certain kind of cachet," said Bissonnette. "But on the other hand, when I look back on that time, the music was so integral to what was going on and to how people saw themselves. So to not mention it is kind of to duck this whole portion of that culture."

Bissonnette has no intention of giving up his day-job as a filmmaker - he is set to shoot a low-budget flick in Los Angeles next month. Passenger Side will star his brother Joel and Adam Scott, who co-starred alongside Parker in Who Loves the Sun.

In fact, these look to be busy times in the Bissonnette-Parker household. He'll be filming in L.A. while Parker heads to Pennsylvania to appear alongside Viggo Mortensen in the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock will be launched in Montreal with a reading by Bissonnette at Bar Blizzarts, 3956A St. Laurent Blvd., on Mon. April 21 at 9 p.m.