Halfway through Michael Stewart Foley's new book on Dead Kennedys' debut album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, rests a jarring assertion: "By ... the summer of 1978, San Francisco had established itself as home to the most political punk scene in the country." His evidence — a litany of benefit efforts, topical songs, and punks' steady solidarity with other marginalized groups — is solid, so why does the statement leap off of the page?
Perhaps because of how infrequently it's made. The scene that coalesced around the Mabuhay Gardens was well documented by the most robust concentration of fanzines in the country. And yet, the sort of retrospective historical works that would involve a claim such as Foley's are few and far between, all of which underscores the need for this book (which has the same name as it subject). As part of Bloomsbury Publishing's freewheeling and acclaimed 33 1/3 series, the historian takes Dead Kennedys' 1980 debut, arguably the scene's first full-length statement, as the foremost example of a singularly political punk moment precipitated by what Salon.com founder David Talbot dubbed the Season of the Witch in a book of the same name.
Foley doesn't fixate excessively on musical precedents. There's little of the rock-geek impulse to ascribe mythical significance to Jello Biafra's adolescent record collecting in Boulder, Colorado, for instance, or to linger misty-eyed at oft-cited proto-punk inspirations, such as The MC5's Kick Out the Jams. Rather, Foley takes the wide view, carefully considering the indelible cultural and political experiences of a generation that embraced vitriol, black humor, and guitars at the Fab Mab.
"Every song on [Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables]," Foley writes, "accused the American Dream itself of being a lie." Crucial for engendering that outlook, he explains, were assassinations, the shortcomings of 1960s radicalism, Californian austerity measures, domestic terrorists, serial killers, more assassinations, and especially Dianne Feinstein's mercenary tenure as city mayor. Each chapter situates Dead Kennedys as hellions in a grim sociopolitical landscape.
Punk typically professed to hate hippies, but Foley complicates the two countercultural forces' relationship, especially in the experience of Biafra. Born Eric Boucher, he was old enough to appreciate yippie pranks and young enough to watch the broader social movement degenerate. Jerry Brown, governor then and now, embodied Biafra's targets by appearing outwardly enlightened and worldly while proving politically spineless. He's the "Zen fascist" in Dead Kennedys' "California Über Alles," with a platform predicated on perpetuating passivity: Mellow out or you will pay.
Still, Foley points to a fanzine column that Biafra wrote as emblematic of his enduring fondness for yippie-style mischief — and as a manifesto precipitating his protests, both in song and on the street. Biafra's well-known mayoral campaign was dismissed as "political theater" by mainstream commentators who ignored how much alike his supposed "stunts" were to those of the major candidates. Then, performing at the annual "Bammies" award ceremony, Biafra and his band staged a subversive piss-take on the audience's preferred "new wave" dreck by satirizing The Knack's "My Sharona" as "My Payola." Finally, as Foley concludes, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables amounted to a "maniacally graphic" social indictment, one that shared more indignation with the White Night riots following Dan White's sham trial than most histories suggest.
There's no fanatic overstatement in Foley's book, though a couple segments find other figures cut down in a way that appears designed to boost his subject. Namely, Gee Vaucher's artwork accompanying Crass records is dismissed as humorless, "humble collage" in comparison to Biafra's Fresh Fruit album insert design. Vaucher's gouache and collage pieces are, in fact, technically deft and the irreverent humor she displayed in, say, graphically depicting a compromised likeness of Margaret Thatcher is glaring. Also, Foley lightly floats the assertion of many first-wave San Francisco punks that teenagers from the suburbs showed up and ruined the scene, which is an annoyingly apocryphal idea that actually does have a lot in common with hippie myopia.
Foley's observation of the entire San Francisco punk scene's distinct political tenacity is relatively underexplored. A 40,000-word book about Dead Kennedys' debut can't be expected to satisfy that thesis, of course, and so the teeming creative ecosystem that spawned Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables remains to be gleaned from source material — all while the Zen fascist reigns again.