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A Child And His Lawnmower
I got into Dead Kennedys when I was a teenager in the late ’90s. They had a couple songs on Burning Ambitions, these awesome punk rock compilations recommended to me by Dave, my local record store guru. Around the same time my pal Joe dubbed a bunch of their stuff onto a cassette for me. Even for punk, Dead Kennedys were warped. They played this dark, inward style of surf music where the guitar sounded like it was dripping with acid. The singer’s insane helium voice had to be a put on. Who sounds like that? Tiny Tim? Mickey Mouse on crack? It was demented, but I loved it. And the songs were these caustic, astute, invigorating, and often very funny diatribes railing against everything wrong with society — wealth disparity, suburban sprawl, nationalism, the military industrial complex, pollution, corporations, religion.
Thank god someone is saying all this shit out loud!
Cut to 2001. I was struggling to finish college. The struggle got even harder when I was struck by the calling to write a book about Dead Kennedys. Part of it came from reading Our Band Could Be Your Life, which was published that year. Each chapter in Our Band is devoted to a different underground group of the ’80s. Dead Kennedys are referenced often throughout the text but they didn’t receive their own chapter. That seemed insane. Man, when are these guys gonna get their due? A scrapbook was floating around back then called Dead Kennedys: The Unauthorized Version; it has a lot of cool pictures and quotes but that’s it. Someone’s gotta write a real book about these guys, one that really gets into how important they are. Why not me?
A good answer would have been, “Because you have zero experience.” I’d never written anything professionally. My career consisted of a Geocities website where I posted pea-brained opinions on records and movies. Hey, everybody has to start somewhere, and I liked to dream big. So suddenly I was pushing everything aside to figure out a Dead Kennedys book. I sat in my classes furiously scribbling in notebooks, working under the assumption that I could just bribe my professors into giving me passing grades.
I didn’t want to write this book without the help of every Dead Kennedy, so I wrote them all letters asking if they’d like to participate. This is probably the craziest part of the story — since I couldn’t find exact addresses for most of the band members, I just wrote their names and “San Francisco, CA” on the envelopes. Like I was writing to Santa Claus. One small caveat: I had to fax my letter to singer Jello Biafra. An associate explained that he preferred to receive correspondence that way. Okay, sure, you got it.
By this point, it was no secret that Dead Kennedys had fractured into two very embittered camps. A lawsuit over royalties and catalog control shattered any illusions about brotherhood. Let’s see how succinctly I can explain this fight. Dead Kennedys started their own record label in 1979 called Alternative Tentacles. After the band broke up in 1986, Jello was granted sole ownership of Alternative Tentacles. Ten years after that, the label’s GM discovered that the other Dead Kennedys — guitarist East Bay Ray, bassist Klaus Flouride, and drummer D.H. Peligro — had been stiffed on royalties to the tune of six figures. The instrumentalists claimed the GM blew the whistle on a coverup where Jello was going to disguise the missing royalties as brand new profit. Jello said he and the other Dead Kennedys were trying to solve everything amicably until they got mad that he wouldn’t agree to license their song “Holiday in Cambodia” to a Levi’s commercial.
Ray, Klaus, and D.H. sued Jello for fraud. The case went to trial in 2000; Jello was found guilty. As a fan, I didn’t know what to think. Who was telling the truth? All I knew is it would make a compelling portion of my book. So I sent my letters off, assuming they’d come right back or get lost in the mail. This was in August of 2001, I think. Then I caught some news that made me wish I’d never sent Dead Kennedys any letters in the first place. Ray, Klaus, and D.H. were reforming the band with a new singer for a national tour. What a crass, capitalistic thing to do — exactly the type of thing this band was always against. Who could replace Jello? No one. I was so pissed off I peeled the Dead Kennedys stickers off my car.
I was trying to forget about all this when an e-mail from Klaus Flouride hit my inbox in February 2002. It said something like, “Hi James, we got your letters. We’re playing in Jacksonville soon. Isn’t that close to where you are? Let’s meet up.” I spent a few minutes staring at this e-mail, trying to find any sign that it might be a prank. Eventually I realized it wasn’t. Hmmm. Well, I guess I’ll write a Dead Kennedys book after all. Honestly, I was shitting my pants. I still loved every Dead Kennedys record and this felt like an incredible break. Not that I was in any way prepared for it, or deserving of it.
A week later, there I was, face to face with Klaus Flouride in a Jacksonville parking lot. He had a kindly, measured demeanor, like that of a trusted uncle or neighbor. “Another writer recently contacted us about doing a book,” Klaus told me. “But you sent us actual letters, and that impressed us.” I still couldn’t believe the letters didn’t wind up in the trash. Klaus took me into the club to meet Ray, whose light blue button down shirt tucked into khakis was a more conservative look than I was expecting. We engaged in some polite, friendly small talk. Then, suddenly, Ray took a firm tone. “Could you go back outside? As I’m sure you know, anything I say can and will be used against me.” Okay, so this guy’s a little paranoid. Back in the parking lot, D.H. Peligro was doing pull ups on a portable workout rig. He did more pull ups in two minutes than I’d ever done in my life. “So, you’re the author?” he inquired with a sly grin.
Later on I re-entered the club to watch soundcheck. For the first couple of minutes, Ray, Klaus, and D.H. didn’t really have it together. They sounded like high schoolers picking their instruments up for the first time. Then they went into “Life Sentence” and it was like bam, that classic Dead Kennedys sound. Just like the record. Afterwards, Ray’s guitar tech invited me and my traveling companion Chris (also a massive Dead Kennedys fan) to dinner. It was fascinating watching the guys who recorded Plastic Surgery Disasters wander around downtown Jacksonville on a Sunday night, tying to figure out where to eat. We ended up at a Firehouse Subs. They had “Futurama” on a television inside the Firehouse. I will never forget laughing like a hyena at something Bender the Robot said and Klaus Flouride whipping his head around like he’d heard a car crash.
Brandon Cruz, the singer substituting for Jello, was pleasant but we didn’t talk very much. It was definitely strange watching him onstage with the rest of the band. As I recall, the original plan for this iteration of Dead Kennedys was to play one surprise concert to celebrate their legal victory against Jello. They started rehearsing with different singers but word got out. It didn’t take long for crowds to start forming outside their rehearsal space. So they decided to book a tour. And they hired Cruz, a former child actor who more recently sang for Dr. Know.
I had this idea that after they played I’d spend a little time interviewing each Dead Kennedy but I only got to speak at length with Klaus that night. We sat down at the bar and he immediately opened up about all this strife he’d had with his father. Not in an intense way. He was just telling it like it was. That conversation wrapped up and the evening ended with a semi-circle in the parking lot. The Dead Kennedys and I agreed we were gonna do this book. They gave me their phone numbers. I apologized to them if I had been too intrusive at all during our visit.
“Well, you followed us to dinner,” Ray said. “That was weird.”
“Your guitar tech invited me.”
Insecurity started to get the better of me so I offered another apology. This one was kind of rambling. Ray and Klaus looked uncomfortable. Suddenly D.H. let out a huge cackle. “Oh my god, James! Don’t worry! It’s all good!” He stepped forward to give me the hand clasp half hug that men give each other to emphasize that it is, in fact, all good.
So I went home. And I spent the next five or six months interviewing Dead Kennedys for my book.
I had standing dates every week (every other week?) to call Ray and Klaus and chat for an hour or so. Communication with D.H. was more sporadic. I’m not sure if he was just busy or if he changed his mind about getting involved with the book. Klaus also put me in touch with a handful of shadowy figures from the band’s history, like their first drummer Bruce Slesinger (a.k.a. Ted). Bruce was fired after the first album because his relentless teasing drove Jello nuts, leading to “either he goes or I go.” It was kind of refreshing how divorced Bruce was from this chapter of his life. He seemed to view Dead Kennedys like a high school science project.
“Well, I guess I can help you,” he finally sighed into the phone. “I just don’t know who would really care at this point.”
Winston Smith, the artist who created all the imagey for Dead Kennedys’ albums, was much more enthusiastic. He wrote me novel length e-mails about what life was like way back when, detailing all sorts of funny stories. I was still living with my parents when all this was going on and I remember Winston calling my house once when I wasn’t home. My mom answered and they apparently had a long, lovely conversation about god knows what. My mother raved about it. “What a charming man!”
As I was working on my book about Dead Kennedys I spent almost no time wondering why this legendary punk band agreed to get on board with me, a no name writer. Maybe they figured I was going to write the book regardless so they might as well have their say. Maybe they thought an amateur drip like me could easily be swayed to only tell their side of the story. In all the hours I spent interviewing these guys, I never felt like they were trying to manipulate me. That said, I was 23 years old, this all took place two decades ago, and I haven’t listened to the interviews since I taped them. Ray had a persistent hacking cough for a while when we were talking, and it crossed my mind that he might be dying. Oh god, what if that’s the reason all this is happening? Is that why he’s weird and cranky about certain stuff?
Even though Ray and Klaus won their lawsuit the wounds had yet to heal. They would only refer to Jello by his last name, and it seemed to physically hurt them every time they said it. Clearly some of that went back to the glory days. Jello was never the chummiest guy, they explained, and he completely walled himself off emotionally after his wife left him in the mid-’80s. I’m not sure when that happened in relation to the obscenity trial they went through with 1985’s Frankenchrist but those are the events that exacted the final toll. I was interested to learn Ray was the first to announce he was quitting Dead Kennedys. That was right before they recorded their swan song, Bedtime For Democracy. “When we were making that album, Biafra would only address me as ‘the bass player,'” Klaus said.
I should force myself to listen to the interviews because I’ve forgotten more than I remember. Still, there are a handful of anecdotes from this project that remain indelible. If you have Give Me Convenience or Give Me Deat you’ve heard the recording of Dead Kennedys at the 1980 Bay Area Music Awards playing their anti-industry screed “Pull My Strings.” I asked Klaus why they didn’t get the plug pulled during all that; he said nobody in charge of sound that night was paying attention to content. ‘They were just getting high and watching the the levels, like, [imitates hitting a joint] ‘The kick drum sounds a little hot!'” The story with their rhythm guitarist Carlos (alias 6025) wasn’t as funny. Carlos did brilliant work for the band but he was also struggling with mental illness. He’d try to describe concepts the rest of the group couldn’t understand, and the disconnect set off his frightening temper. Carlos left Dead Kennedys around the same time as Bruce.
In July 2002, I finally heard back from Jello Biafra. He sent me a handwritten reply. “Dear James, Thank you for your offer, but as far as I am concerned, the last thing the world needs is a book about Dead Kennedys. Why not let the music speak for itself? Plus I have no interest in rehashing all the ugly gossip surrounding the other 3 ex-DKs’ vicious ugly lawsuit. I am sorry I can’t be more helpful, but I don’t really have the time for this anyway, let along the interest. Sincerely, Jello Biafra.”
I called Ray after receiving Jello’s letter. “Are you still gonna write the book?” he asked. “Of course,” I lied.
A year later, Jello Biafra showed up to do a spoken word event at my college. I went to it because part of me felt like I had to show myself or “confront” him or something ridiculous like that, but when he made himself available before the show to meet fans I just stood there. I couldn’t approach him. What do I think I’m gonna say here? The whole thing’s over. The most memorable part of Jello’s lecture happened when someone’s cell phone went off. Immediately his body recoiled like he’d stepped barefoot in dog shit. Then he started shouting, “OKAY, who’s the CELL PHONY?”
I fell out of touch with Ray, Klaus, and everyone else, and I don’t remember hearing from any of them after I wrote an abbreviated version of this story for Crawdaddy! that was published near the end of 2008. I bet they were on tour. Improbably, Dead Kennedys remained a fixture on the reunion circuit. They were also on their fourth singer. Brandon Cruz quit in 2003. Then they hired Jeff Penalty, who did it for six years before things went sour. Jeff published a memorable resignation letter citing “arguments about splitting money equally, arguments about how the band should be run, arguments about the wisdom of hiring a band manager whose other star client was a Christian folk artist, arguments about whether we should or shouldn’t go on MTV, and arguments about many other wretched things.” Dead Kennedys hired Skip Greer from the Winona Ryders to replace Jeff. He’s been with them ever since.
In 2019 I interviewed Jeff Penalty for Hard Noise. I thought maybe enough time had passed and he’d be willing to get into the details about his exit from Dead Kennedys. I was wrong. Jeff didn’t want to go on record about any of that stuff, but he did tell some interesting stories about how he wound up in the band in the first place and how he approached this endeavor artistically.
There still hasn’t been a book dedicated to telling the entire story of Dead Kennedys. Maybe one day, right?
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