A preview of The Dead Kennedy’s remastered release of “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables.”
What could be more American than the desire to shop for collectible items, to own a satisfyingly big box suitable for self-gifting? A box? What’s in it? Let’s unbox it! Anyone who has ever walked the aisles of a liquor store knows that quality and luxury are signaled by the mass and weight of excessive packaging. By their cases shall you know them.
Later this year Cherry Red Records will be releasing another remastered version of The Dead Kennedy’s 1980 debut album “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables.” The year it came out I was twelve years old and listening to Kenny Rogers sing “You Decorated My Life” on WINX AM radio, too timid to even sing along. Punk was a one-two punch, first the snotty British lads with waxed-up mohawks and safety pin flair on their vests and then the puritanical American hardcore that quickly followed in its wake. In retrospect hardcore stole the mantle so that its precursors don’t really sound punk anymore.
The DKs were smarter and funnier than the rest of the class. They were distinguished from their joyless strident brethren by catchy surf rock riffs and even solos, as well as a vocalist who at times sounded like a psycho clown on helium, spicing up his shouts with quavering trills that bordered on yodeling. Beneath that was the standard bed of grinding rhythm guitar, bass, and drums pulsing in unison, the noise of the industrial world, nickel made to growl like a muscle car engine or a riding mower.
Some of the targets of their satire were spectator sports, jogging, celebrity activism, Buddhism and Jazz, as well as born-agains, country club wives and fat kids enjoying their ice cream cones at the beach. But listening to it today it is clear that the deepest source of their irritation was the California liberals that surrounded them.
The key trope of the DKs is ironic ventriloquism, a reversal that attempts to coopt the vitality of your opponent. It is a strategy used in our time most notably by Stephen Colbert impersonating a right-wing news anchor. It is not accidental that their better songs take the enemy’s side. For mysterious but definite reasons a song about lynching your landlord doesn’t produce the same zing as a song that cackles about killing the poor.
America can only counter its daily brutal national violence with an even more animated mimicry of violence. It responds to tragedy with travesty. The nascent school shooter mentality is on full display on three different tracks of this album. America can’t say we were wrong and Vietnam was right and we are sorry. It can only say I love the smell of napalm in the morning.
To be clear, I am not saying that the Dead Kennedys are right-wingers. I am saying that they are anti-left-wing because that is where the energy is. Like the creators of South Park, they have been painted into a corner by a lack of options and they come out with guns blazing against both sides.
Punk has always flirted with fascism. Its concerts are like rallies complete with simulated skirmishes, a shirts-versus-skins scrimmage for the benchwarmers. You see this in The Ramones and in early U2 live at Red Rocks. I saw it at Rock Against Reagan where the punks taunted the hippies for having long hair and screeched at the pot smokers to go away. “Holiday in Cambodia” is actually a very patriotic song; it could just as easily be called America, Love It or Leave It.
To me it seems undeniable that the rotting vegetables in question is the audience, the fans, the punks themselves and that the album’s title is the same kind of biting the hand that feeds you that Pete Townshend and then Kurt Cobain did. Everyone knows that the biggest audience for ska and reggae and punk and gangster rap was always white suburban boys with allowances, but in order to escape the trap of ‘authenticity’ we must restate this not as a one-upping criticism but just as a simple, neutral fact. Punk, like most art, is an imposture, a game of dress-up. It was born as a fashion fad and a marketing label. Any mass-produced individuality inevitably winds up as a new conformity. This is unmistakable when two style buddies show up for a punk concert dressed in the exact same uniform.
Maybe punk only truly died in 1994 when ABC’s “My So-Called Life” used “I Wanna Be Sedated” or maybe that was when it came back to life as a zombie in pop form, as unkillable fun. Punk is decoration. It decorated my life and I am grateful. It gave me the courage to sing along to the radio even though I don’t have a good voice. Rarely if ever did its gestures of rebellion attain the complexity of what any newspaper-reading adult would call politics. At best it is an anti-politics, no better than the self-satisfied obliviousness it desperately aimed to skewer.