BY ARTHUR SHKOLNIK In 1978, three budding musicians (and one complete lunatic) began playing casual punk shows throughout San Francisco’s North Beach area. That band was The Dead Kennedys and little did they know the music they produced would propel them down a long and arduous path to worldwide notoriety. The DKs officially broke up a year before I was born in 1986, when creative disputes between vocalist Jello Biafra and guitarist East Bay Ray led to a split between the musicians and Biafra, who served not only as the primary lyricist and voice of the band, but also as the core personality, always putting on the villains mask and playing out a part.
To complicate things even further, the band, led by East Bay Ray, sued Biafra for, among other things, a failure to promote the band’s catalog of songs and albums. This begs the question: Who is to decide if the anti-corporate, underground punk band was being marketed properly? A jury? The idea of a bunch of punk rockers taking each other to court over royalties seemed a little ridiculous and still does today. Biafra lost on almost every count. He not only had to shell out several thousand dollars, but lost nearly two decades of work from an age where written contracts were scarce and those that did exist were written in legalese, which most anti-label, anti-establishment punk rockers aren’t fluent in.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Biafra; it was at the First Unitarian Church with The Melvins in 2005. How can I describe the spirit of the performance? I saw in Biafra a showman who feared no one’s judgment as he tied the microphone wire around his neck like a makeshift noose, or contorted it into a whip which he fiercely swung. Somewhere in the midst of the set, a middle-aged Biafra fell to his knees, tore off his soaked shirt, and held it over his head as he rung sweat out all over his face. It was raw, unpredictable, and just the right amount of crazy.
I never got the chance to see the Dead Kennedys perform live with Biafra, but throughout my adolescence up to today, I’ve been living off of their scraps, buying old CDs and rare vinyl, and catching an aging Biafra whenever he comes to town. Imagine my surprise then, when I heard the Dead Kennedys were playing the TLA on October 17th. What could be better than hearing all of those songs that I grew up listening to, the music and lyrics that once hit me with an unexplainable energy and truth? Jello. There’s always room for more Jello. To be fair, I’m not sure what to expect. When it comes right down to it I just want to revisit those perfect moments in time when those songs were made, but the band has, in many ways decayed, and I’m preparing myself for the possibility that what’s left might be disappointing while hoping for the best.