Michael Stewart Foley - Dead Kennedys: Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (33 1/3) [Book] (Cover Artwork)

Michael Stewart Foley

Dead Kennedys: Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (33 1/3) [Book] (2015)

Bloomsbury Publishing

The 33 1/3 series takes a pretty simple idea and executes it with perfect music nerd aplomb. A writer picks one album and fills around 150 pages with whatever that album inspires them to do. Some are personal recollections of their experience with the record, others are more straightforward, offering an oral history of the record. The series offers the writers a chance to be pretty experimental as well (John Darnielle's edition on Master of Reality readily comes to mind). With 33 1/3, the concept is more important than the record itself. For instance, there are (as of 2015) 110 entires in the series, but obvious choices like Sgt Peppers and Thriller are nowhere to be found. With Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, historian Michael Stewart Foley offers up a portrait of San Francisco in the late 1970s, detailing the hectic and violent events that influenced the band to create such a classic record.

"Fresh Fruit was the most important, articulate, and accessible document of dissent to come from American youth in an age when it is generally assumed American youth had given up." Here, 6 pages into his introduction, Foley lays out his plan for the book. He argues that the punk movement in California was (and still is, retrospectively) generally seen as an obscene group of people making loud music and telling tasteless jokes. The political aspects and fights for civil rights are forgotten, as if protesting ended after the 1960s, when hippies made their slow, grotesque transformation into yuppies.

Foley, who has written other books about American political activism and Vietnam war draft resistors, backs up his claims with incisive research and interview quotes (both old and new) from those involved in the band. For the book, Foley interviewed band members Jello Biafra, East Bay Ray and Klaus Flouride (drummer Ted declined to participate) as well as peers like Mike Watt, Geza X, V. Vale, and Penelope Houston. It's obvious that Foley didn't just ask the musicians about their raucous live shows or the other bands of the era, but dug deeper into their political development and personal experiences in 1970s San Francisco. His research digs into back issues of the San Francisco Chronicle as well as long out of print punk zines (like Creep and Slash). Crucially, Foley treats both as equal references, using them to point out San Francisco's rising tensions.

With insights into the amount of serial killings prevalent in California at the time (Al Ennis of MRR apparently referred to the 1970s as "the golden age of serial killers"), Foley offers a glimpse at the inspiration for songs like "I Kill Children" and "Funland at the Beach." Detailing former San Francisco mayor/enemy of the outsiders Diane Feinstein's real estate past sheds a whole new light on the lyrics of "Let's Lynch the Landlord." The events surrounding Dan White's murder of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone (as well as the Jonestown massacre led by San Francisco resident Jim Jones) make a huge dent in the album as well. The riots taking place after White's sentencing (manslaughter instead of murder) resulted in the burning police cars that grace the album's cover. The lyrics on the album were seen as bids for shock value by the political right, but could they really have been that shocking amidst such turmoil?

While Foley makes sure to credit the political consciousness and flat out musical talent of members East Bay Ray, Klaus Flouride, Ted and 6025, a lot of the focus here is understandably on Jello Biafra. His mix of gallows humor and dead serious political points is essential to the band's effectiveness and Fresh Fruit's longevity. In both his lyrics and his infamous mayoral bid, Jello decisively saw both the right and the left as satirical targets, reserving his most pointed material for those in the middle favoring complacency. Foley also offers examples of counterpoints, detailing that some felt Jello's humor gave newcomers an excuse to write the Dead Kennedys off as another tasteless band with a tasteless name.

Anyone interested in the band, counter culture, or American history would be advised to pick this book up. It's not just a simple play by play of the album's production (which, honestly, would have been fine), but a detailed account of a specific time in history. With this informative (if short) book, Michael Stewart Foley details a band who didn't want to "make it" in the usual sense. They just wanted to make a loud enough noise that people turned around and paid attention to what was going on around them.