DEAD KENNEDYS, PORTRAIT OF POVERTY
Graceland, 381-3094, $14 9 p.m. Fri., March 8 Jimmy Z, 1712 Hewitt Ave., Everett, 425-339-2424, $15 Sat., March 9 (call for time)
FAR BE IT FROM Jello Biafra to be caught without a smart-ass remark.
Even when he's devastated. Even when he's mired in legal wrangling for control of the Dead Kennedys, the politico-punk outfit he once fronted. Even when his former bandmates have decided to tour without him, recruiting in his place Brandon Cruz, singer for Dr. Know and onetime child actor best known as the kid in The Courtship of Eddie's Father.
"Maybe this is just the dawn of a whole new frontier of scams," Biafra says. "Think of the other possibilities. That kid from Malcolm in the Middle could comb his hair a little differently and front the Misfits. And you could have Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen in a reunited Black Flag, to be followed by Emmanuel Lewis fronting the Germs."
Over the years, I've had plenty of chances to get depressed by bands I've treasured. I've covered the Stones twice in the post-Wyman era, witnessed Lou Reed twist "Waiting for My Man" into an arena party fist pumper, and watched Chuck Berry refuse to play more than two verses of any song. But the thought of the DKs touring sans Jello is a different kind of downer.
In 1986, with a teenager's fiery self-righteousness, I painted "THINK!" on the back of my jacket in honor of the band who celebrated intelligence. The Kennedys' music was sharp, particularly the spring-tight snaps of original one-name drummer Ted and the sneaky surf guitar of East Bay Ray. But Biafra's lyrics were what set my brain racing. The sarcasm that blazes in "Kill the Poor" proved you could write humanist songs without succumbing to mealy-mouthed aphorisms. Frankenchrist's "Stars and Stripes of Corruption" is one of rock's great rallying songs because it not only rails against America's wrongs, it offers each of us smart solutions as well.
Jello and company's commitment to change went beyond what they were able to do in their own band. The label they founded, Alternative Tentacles, released albums by boundary-crashers like the Butthole Surfers and Nomeansno. When Biafra and Alternative Tentacles were hit with pornography charges over a poster included with Frankenchrist, they battled in court on behalf of all artists. It broke up the band, but they fought the good fight—and they won.
Now, 15 years later, the band is fighting again—this time against each other—and it's not the first time that the band has been torn apart with infighting; in 2000, Ray, bassist Klaus Flouride, and drummer D.H. Peligro won a lawsuit against Biafra over royalties owed the band by Alternative Tentacles (the label has been the sole property of Biafra since 1986). The singer filed an appeal. The band, minus Jello, has since reissued most of the Dead Kennedys catalog, plus the lackluster live album Mutiny on the Bay, on Manifesto Records and has begun playing live with Cruz.
The DKs' most recent outing feels like one of those nostalgic cash-ins that the band once roasted. It's impossible not to think of CCR—that's Creedence Clearwater Revisited, the name Creedence Clearwater Revival adopted to tour without John Fogerty.
"This is different," Ray says. "John Fogerty was the songwriter and a musician; he could play an instrument. Biafra didn't play an instrument."
"Replacing a member is not a big deal," says Totty Vice, a 34-year- old Seattle fan who saw the band in 1985 and who plans to catch the group at Graceland. "Jello, yeah, he was a very different kind of frontman. But I think if people give 'em a chance, the Dead Kennedys are good musicians by themselves."
The new incarnation of the band briefly billed themselves as DK Kennedys but has resorted to the more familiar moniker. "We were the only ones that were calling it that," Ray says. "The fans were calling it Dead Kennedys, the newspaper journalists were calling it Dead Kennedys, the promoters were calling it Dead Kennedys."
Biafra himself calls it a fraud. "People can make up their own mind whether to go to the show or not. They just need to know what it is that they're going to see."