Mike Penner (1957-2009), a friend in deed

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pennermugI spent Saturday revisiting the Mixtape That Changed My Life, teetering between tears and the urge to fly into a stereo-smashing rage. The 110-minute cassette is titled “KPEN 1992,” and it was a gift from my friend and former colleague Mike Penner.

Penner, the Los Angeles Times sportswriter who made headlines in 2007 when he declared himself transsexual, was found dead on Friday. Suicide is believed to be the cause. I do not know, nor can I pretend to comprehend, what demons laid siege to him at the end, but like anyone who knew Penner for his crisp intellect, big heart and cross-cultural passions, I wish there could have been some sort of intervention. In our case, I wish we could have exchanged one more mixtape.

When I met him in the early 1990s, Penner was a rising star in the Times’ Orange County Edition. He could turn phrases more adroitly than the Angels turned double plays; his lyrical wit was equally capable of calling out underachievers and illuminating on-field heroics. Outside the pressbox, he was an an astute purveyor of all things cultural, especially rock ’n’ roll, having been reared in southern California with his ears and mind wide open. Music was more than a salve for our day jobs, pock-marked as they were by intense pressure, petty grievances and nightly deadlines. Music was important, for many of us in ways we could not articulate.

kpen2001In his circle of friends – most of whom couldn’t even spell Husker Du, let alone correctly pronounce it – the Penman became the arbiter of good rock ’n’ roll, committing his favorite songs of the year to mixtapes he named for his own mythological radio station, KPEN, and gave out as holiday cards. The one he gave to this lowly sports deskman in 1992 began my transformation from enthusiastic-but-casual music fan to indefatigable music geek.

Having lived in five cities in four time zones in the seven years before I met Penner, I’d missed a lot of music. I was the kind of guy who had strong visceral reactions to what I heard on radio but was too wrapped up in the sports biz to seek anything beyond. “KPEN 1992” introduced me to the likes of Ride, Catherine Wheel, Buffalo Tom, James, Kitchens of Distinction, Pavement, Sugar, PJ Harvey and Utah Saints – and that glint in the mixmaster’s eye that said, “Wait, ’til you hear this …”

kpen2002As least as memorable as Penner’s selections were his annual liner notes – I always thought it was criminal he never wrote about music for the Times. His intro in ’92 took SPIN magazine to task for naming Nirvana band of the year (they were so 1991 by that point) and fawning all over the Northwest music scene:

“Seattle is a good place to get a cup of coffee, a plate of salmon, a pair of galoshes and a ‘Californians, Go Home!’ license-plate holder, but as a mecca for The New Rock, the alternative sound that is going to save us and lead us into the 21st century, you’d be better off mucking around Stockton. Once you get past Nirvana, what is there? Pearl Jam? A lot closer to Foghat than Fugazi, if you ask me. Soundgarden? Led Zep ripoffs. Mudhoney? Sonic Youth ripoffs. Screaming Trees? Alice in Chains? What the world needs now is a dozen Axl Roses.”

Even as we traded mixtapes for the next 16 years, we bonded over 1992. Kitchens of Distinction, the most literary of shoegaze bands: He found a KOD T-shirt somewhere in London and brought it back for me one year. Ride: He gave me the you-shoulda-been-there pat on the shoulder when he told me about seeing them in concert. Catherine Wheel: We fairly body-slammed at the Troubadour as we witnessed the majestic opening chords of “Black Metallic.” James: When “Born of Frustration” turned up in a television commercial, we yelped. And Buffalo Tom, oh, Buffalo Tom … We pogoed the three times we saw them, even as oldsters (and with my friend “Christine Daniels” in heels) in 2007.

kpen2005We were not the closest of friends, but Penner and I had a lot in common – Libras born a year apart, we each married sportswriters, never had kids, were weekend warriors (a soccer devotee, he was player-manager of Scribes FC), cherished our outsized record collections and relished poring through the used bins at Fingerprints in Long Beach. We’d stop in the hallway at work to chat about music; he’d stop by my CD-riddled cubicle to offer encouragement when I started writing Buzz Bands in 2002; we’d get together for an occasional show or to collaborate on cover artwork (often themed, based on the big event in his life that year) once the KPEN mixes graduated to annual CDs. When I moved to L.A. County in 2002, he delivered a mix CD titled “Glendale Calling” – all songs about moving, houses and homes, naturally, courtesy of people like the Clash, the Members, Siouxsie & the Banshees and House of Love.

He backgrounded me on the L.A. punk scene. He needled me for my power-pop fetish. He played a bit in a band called the Dead Coyotes, which, I think, derived their name from our newsroom’s old (and prone-to-crashing) Coyote computer terminals. At least, if that’s not where the name came from, it should have.

I also remember how hard he took the death of Joe Strummer.

Which brings me to how I feel now, absent someone who had a small but profound effect on my own direction. Kitchens of Distinction had a song on that great “Death of Cool” album called “When in Heaven” that supposed all the happy things Marilyn Monroe found in heaven. Likewise, I hope Penner finds a great soundtrack to whatever life he chooses, not to mention a healthy dose of crisp centering passes.

Penner would smile knowingly whenever I effused over the years about the staying power of that Buffalo Tom selection from 1992. “Taillights Fade,” the Boston trio’s epic anthem of anguish and isolation, embodied that vague sense we had of the inevitability of sadness – but with a cathartic roar that made us hungry to embrace the next moment. When they lower me into the ground, I remember telling Mike Penner with a wink at my own mortality, this is the song I want them to play.

The liner notes to “KPEN 1992” captured the song in six words: “A suicide note set to guitar.”