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I got into Dead Kennedys when I was a teenager in the late ’90s. They had a couple songs on Burning Ambitions, theseawesome 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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“I bet you have a lot of great stories about writing that Misfits book,” people occasionally remark, and they’re right.
Here now are those stories, collected in one easy-to-look at PDF. Who was nice / cool to me while I was making This Music Leaves Stains? Who wasn’t? What was the book tour like? Also, selected pieces of Misfits lore deleted from Stains that you might not be overly familiar with. Please, come inside and read You Can’t Come Inside.
If you want to absorb this thing for free, be my guest. If you want to give me money for it, wow, that’d be fucking cool. Think up an amount and Paypal or Venmo jgreenejr at gmail dot com.
The photograph on page 42 was taken by Rob Farren, whose name was accidentally omitted from the credits. James Greene, Jr. regrets this error. James Greene, Jr. also regrets the typos on pages 6 and 14.
“Space Ghost Coast to Coast” put me in absolute shock the first time I saw it. I couldn’t believe a tv show so fluently spoke to the cultural car crash in my head. A fusion of “Batman ’66” and Letterman and punk rock; a post-modern quasi-cartoon rewriting the rules of kitsch; a reverse Roger Rabbit where our dimension is the tiny portion of a surrealist animated landscape populated by exhausted and agitated characters who couldn’t give a tinker’s dam about what anyone else wants, let alone a human. A show about a retired super hero entering the late night wars with two sidekicks he’s imprisoned in his garish studio on an otherwise barren planet.
No other entertainment makes me laugh as hard as “Space Ghost.” It’s so elastic. Clever and cutting one moment, beautifully stupid and nonsensical the next. Long stretches of nothing, then dense clusters of joke upon joke upon joke, like a swarm of bees. Total reverence for a guest that quickly washes into contempt and sarcastic quips. And the full visual trip of live action celebrities being forced to interact with repurposed ’60s animation—what an addictively weird atmosphere.
An enormous piece of the show’s creative heart was animator and voice actor C. Martin Croker, who passed away last weekend. Croker brought to life the titular host’s enslaved sidekicks, band leader Zorak and producer Moltar, who as the show progresses transform from standoffish super villains into disgruntled everyman employees hilariously nonchalant in their burning hatred for Space Ghost. Zorak and Moltar savor each moment their captor stumbles and find themselves in a quiet pain when he succeeds. Naturally, these two have their own issues: Zorak is a pathological liar and cannibal while Moltar seems to be covering up an unsatisfying marriage.
How could I not be in awe of Croker? He drew this amazing show, voiced incredible foils for the main character, and his name’s stately as hell. This guy’s a legend. Everything I’ve read about him away from his work suggests he was cool, generally willing to share a laugh with admirers or do the Zorak and Moltar voices. It’s devastating that he’s gone at only 54 (cause of death currently undisclosed) but I’ll always be thankful for experiencing his talent. It affected me deeply to see that television as bizarre and lawless as “Space Ghost” could not only exist somewhere but thrive. That’s inspirational.
What a fine time to remind you I am the author of This Music Leaves Stains: The Complete Story of The Misfits (not so complete any more), available for purchase here. The Austin Chronicle likes it, saying I “pull no punches” as I “accurately and respectfully” barrel through the group’s saga. Psychobabble claims this volume is “informative” and “thorough” and “pretty much anyone will get a kick out of it.” You know what? I don’t think it’s too bad either.
Here’s something you can do for free: take a look at the online photographic supplement for This Music Leaves Stains and see a wealth of Misfits imagery I couldn’t afford to license for print publication. Imagery like the photograph above. Look at that goddamn punk rocker. He’s sick of everybody’s shit.
If you’re curious how a dope like me wound up writing a book like that in the first place, this interview might help explain a thing or three.
Thank you for your interest and consideration. We remain one thirty eight.
To say anything else may be exceptionally unnecessary. And yet…
It was only a few years ago that I began digging into the Prince catalog. I purposely started with The Black Album, my reasoning being, I know the hits, I know Prince can orchestrate pop perfection, let’s see what it’s like when this guy is stumbling. Prince suppressed Black for nearly a decade because he felt dissatisfaction with it (one rumor suggests a bad ecstasy trip convinced him the album projects too much evil). Yes, I often begin my journey into legendary bodies via a most dubious property. What can I tell you? I’m American, I’m obsessed with failure.
My immediate reaction to The Black Album: if this is Prince at his worst, sign me up. Sections of Black’s malcontent electro funk are misguided, sure, but as with all his work, Prince commits with such totality (even to utter silliness) you can’t deny the sale. You remain absorbed and ultimately feted.
Now The Love Symbol Album and The Gold Experience are go-tos. Bold, decadent, liberating, rich with flavor. I also spend a lot of time getting lost in the grooves and hymnals of Chaos & Disorder. Sign O’ The Times? That thing is a best of / greatest hits unto itself. And of course, the one Prince album I paid close attention to at the time of its release, Batman.
I want to say I understand people who dog the Batman album but I actually don’t. Prince captures the glamor, the restlessness, and the bankruptcy of Gotham City. The music freezes, it bleeds, it works both within and outside the motion picture’s context. I can’t comprehend why “Partyman” and “Trust” aren’t FM radio staples. The balladry avoids being overwrought. What a thrill to have it all culminate in the white knuckle lunacy of “Batdance.”
“Batdance” is on this Warhol level, a gleeful vandalism of Neal Hefti’s 1960s theme, a schizophrenic pastiche of Burton’s film driven by fascist percussion, indiscriminate keyboards, searing guitar, and direct dialogue samples. It’s jarring and insane but again, Prince commits. That’s why the song reached #1; the Artist’s dedication willed this cacophony into something incredible.
It feels strange to comment on all the risks Prince took in his career, if only because he possessed the celestial wizardry to more or less conquer them all. Is there another human being who could have successfully changed their enormously bankable and recognizable name to a singular character of their own invention with no known (or offered) pronunciation? Ricky Shroder has spent decades trying in vain to make people drop the “y.” If he had adopted a symbol we would have sent him to live on the international space station.
Thanks for the fifty-seven years, Prince. You will never be equaled.
Garry Shandling was an innovator who turned a lot of comedy on its ear, but what’s more important to me is the raw, sometimes ugly emotional core of his humor. Fraying anxiety, sizzling jealousy, swampy deposits of depression—all served with flashes of that famous mile-wide grin. We hear Garry could be quite impassioned offstage, in the best and worst senses of that phrase, and that’s no surprise. It’s the nucleus of his work.
I was under ten when “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” was airing, and even though it was difficult to understand what I was watching, I loved tuning in because it was so different. Here’s this quote-unquote sitcom where every plot device and character takes a backseat to Garry’s ongoing conversation with the viewer, a conversation that is basically just, “Wow, look at my show, isn’t it strange?” It’s a minimalist, neurotic “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.” What if your neighbor thought he was on tv all the time but refused to play it up? What if he talked about it like the weather or a bake sale?
Later we got “The Larry Sanders Show,” a transcendent entry, a masterclass of meta comedy streaked with pathos. Garry won an Emmy Award for writing on “Sanders” but he should have received an additional one for acting. When he really wanted to, the guy could get it all into one glance or wordless aside.
Garry pops up in some of the Marvel movies, and that’s deeply satisfying. An entire generation will only know Shandling as the Senator giving Tony Stark what for in Iron Man 2, the same government creep who appears in Captain America 2. I have to admit I was waiting for him to turn to the camera in both films to say, “Can you believe this? Me, a Senator? I know, but listen, there’s some good stuff coming up, so don’t walk out yet.”
I’ll miss the Shand Man. Stormy genius. And funny as hell.
“My dog’s penis tastes bitter. Do you think it’s his diet?”
For a lengthy, uncensored history of the Ghostbusters films, who ya gonna call? A Convenient Parallel Dimension: How Ghostbusters Slimed Us Forever. Available in regular, ebook, or audiobook form. Click here or here!
BRAVE PUNK WORLD
My second book is called Brave Punk World: The Internat’l Rock Underground From Alerta Roja to Z-Off and it is now available for purchase. It’s about the development of punk rock in other countries. All the info you want / need about it is right here (click here!).
The Misfits Book
The soft cover of This Music Leaves Stains is available here. Get that sucker and learn all about New Jersey's greatest punk band! Click here to look at the corresponding photo tumblr and click here for the official F.A.Q.