The Ghost of Jello

The year 2003 brought twin milestones for the Dead Kennedys: the band's silver anniversary and a $200,000 legal defeat for former front man Jello Biafra. The following year, the California Court of Appeals removed custody of the Dead Kennedys' catalog from Biafra's Alternative Tentacles label. When guitarist East Bay Ray commented later that Jello's suing to remove his likeness from unapproved releases was “not the most mature position in the world,” it seemed to highlight the aftertaste of bitter divorce. The six-year, five-suit legal war between Biafra and the remaining band members—involving issues of royalties, creative control and marketing—has left an ugly mark on the Dead Kennedys' distinction as the first and best American hardcore punk band. Yet on one point, both sides seem to agree: as far as the public is concerned, Jello is the hero of this story.

Ray, bassist Klaus Flouride and drummer DH Peligro decided to resume the band without their front man in 2001. Three years in, the reunion is still hard to digest. The Dead Kennedys without Jello seems somehow far less conceivable than the headless Misfits or Doors. Although Biafra is often lauded as a first-rate lyricist and live performer, he is often overlooked as a vocalist. Some of the more esoteric moments in the trial(s) concerned Jello's status as a musician: 68 of the band's 76 recorded songs credit him as either lyricist or composer (certain melodies were hummed into a tape recorder and presented at practices). But because Biafra plays no instruments and reads no music, the court found him legally unrecognized as a musician. It was an absurd ruling. That rich vibrato, rarely heard in the rougher subgenres of popular music, raised the bar for an entire medium, offering new directions for a profoundly limited art form (although the Bad Brains' H.R. and Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker both possess this vibrato, neither are able to summon the same degree of theatricality; the late Ol' Dirty Bastard came closest).

All this avoids a certain reality: the implausible has already happened, the Dead Kennedys have reunited, and they will be playing Anaheim this week. The realpolitik of the situation forces a re-assessment. That the band needs no introduction runs counter to the logic of their reunion: “One of the reasons we're touring,” Flouride says, “is because there are a lot of people that never got to see us the first time around.”

The conversation with Flouride also has the feel of a re-assessment. Having once accused this man of turning “evil” in the new millennium, I find myself disarmed by a quick and pleasant conversationalist, one who uses phrases such as “what the heck” and “I tell ya.” Already in his late 20s when the Dead Kennedys formed, Flouride had been playing in everything from “surf bands to folk to R&B” since the Kennedy administration (including time alongside Billy Squier in pre-Bowie glam act Magic Terry and the Universe). Having gone from a formative political hardcore band to indecipherable electronic music and back again, Flouride's perspective has far more depth of field than most aging punkers. On the sensitive subject at the heart of the reunion—the missing family member whose absence one feels they must tiptoe around—Flouride is diplomatic to a fault: “We don't want somebody up there trying to be Biafra. You can't. It just wouldn't work.”

But audiences are still skeptical, he says, and skeptical in this context means hazardous. Death threats have been made, and pickets have occurred. To the band's credit, picketers have been met as potential allies: “Basically, we'd say if you wanna come in, you're on the guest list; make up your mind for yourself. Most of the people came up afterward and said, 'Wow, that was fantastic.'” Flouride laughs, wondering if he is encouraging picketing with free tickets.

“The thing is, unfortunately, Biafra's gone from telling people to think for themselves to telling them what to think. And that's a shift in the paradigm we're uneasy with.”

This is a soundbite, one Flouride has repeated in other interviews. Is the band adapting to the media-savvy methods of their former front man? Intentions are hard to read. On the larger matter of the reunion, one has to rely on a similarly blurry indicator of intent: Are their hearts in it? The band swears in interviews that yes, their hearts are in it, that they believe in these lyrics as strongly as ever. The commercial-jingle licensing alleged by Jello has yet to occur. The Dead Kennedys catalog has been reissued on Manifesto, an independent label. Former reunion front man Brandon Cruz has since left the band to spend more time with his family, and Jeff Penalty, a virtually unknown singer from Philadelphia, has been brought in as the second replacement. Penalty's musical career started seven years after the Dead Kennedys ended, but his heart seems to be in it as well.

Are our hearts in it? The president in “when Cowboy Ronnie comes to town” (from “Bleed for Me”) may have been updated, but the parallel is tenuous. George W. Bush won re-election with 34 electoral votes; Reagan had 512. The sense of subversive conspiracy that coursed through the 1980s hardcore scene has evaporated. To perform anti-establishment songs in the '00s is to run the risk of having millions and millions of people agree with you. All political punk bands of the past four years have been subject to this law. Their best and brightest is no exception.


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