First appeared in The Woolf
Tales from the Pit no. 1
Dispatch: Dead Kennedys
The river is too high, pocked by a splat or two of drizzle, a few leaves, belly up, and debris that looks suspiciously like garbage. Even the swans know better and stay downstream, away from the community center where American punk legends Dead Kennedys are set to play.
It’s time, I tell myself, to catch the band behind the timeless singalongs ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’ and ‘Holiday in Cambodia’, which I first heard on late-night radio in high school. Whether it was the shuddering bass line, shrieks of guitar or one-two thump of outrage, I had no choice but to listen – stunned, admiring and a little bit scared.
In front of the venue, a small crowd savors the fresh air and one last smoke. I spot the arrival of the original guitarist, East Bay Ray, and longtime drummer D.H. Peligro. The two stand off to the side, Ray’s striped umbrella cinched and dangling from his wrist. A minute later, he twangs, “Let’s do this thing!” and disappears. A couple of students approach Peligro and are rewarded with a long chat.
They seem relaxed, even nonchalant, until the drummer heads inside. The one in dangerous boots starts fanning her face in between deep, calming breaths. I extend a buttery smile, warmed by her respect of our rock and roll elders. Behind me, a gentleman in a top hat burps for a full count of five.
TOUCH ME AGAIN, AND I WILL FUCKING KILL YOU. Ren, lead singer of the warm-up act, Petrol Girls, just wants to make sure that those who only half-listened to her preamble are now clear on the concept of consent. For three blistering minutes, she stomps around with a death grip on the microphone, elbow brandished like a blade. When she doubles over to scream “Touch me again…” for the last time, I think: This is punk. This is what it’s for. A woman half my age is my teacher. And she didn’t come here to dance.
In the break, I speak to her at the merch table. This is easier than it sounds because off-stage, she is friendly, almost soft. The best I can do is to thank her for coming and burble on a bit about favorite punk heroines. One of the friends I bumped into earlier does a better job, peppering her praise with a handful of socio-cultural asides. I vow to learn more about ‘raging feminist post hardcore’, stuff a band flyer into my pocket and focus on a more pressing matter. In the end, I opt for the Dead Kennedys guitar pick.
A few bars into the romp of ‘Police Truck’, the first crowd surfer rises from the floor. Others follow, grazing the foam panels that hang from the ceiling. The space is more tube than room, and the moshers hardly have to move to get what they came for. Between songs, Dead Kennedys’ current frontman, Skip, quips, “I’m not feeling claustrophobic at all.”
My view is compromised by the XXL back of someone twice my height, but when the crowd lurches I catch glimpses of Ray and bassist Klaus Flouride. Despite the bite of the lyrics, the music sparkles and I can’t stay still. I bob up and down, in search of the right way to move and ride the wire between my civic duty – to process the deeper message behind every spat-out caustic send-up – and the urge, far less heroic, to dance.
Halfway through the set, Skip takes a moment at last to mock the looming U.S. presidential election. “Let’s Make Switzerland Great Again,” he sneers, right before barreling into the absurdist punchline that is ‘Kill the Poor’. But that was two weeks before the vote, when we could still afford to laugh.
The concussive waves of the mosh pit hit harder and something primal kicks in. I burrow my way out of the crowd a minute before it breaks loose. My friends join me at the bar, where we sip reasonably priced drinks that feel earned. The bartender sports a t-shirt that welcomes the refugees some people and countries won’t. It’s cool, we agree, the shirt and the sentiment, and we find out where we can get one, too.
Conversation stops on the opening rumble of ‘Holiday in Cambodia’. It is as menacing as I remember. For the next four minutes, we honor this up-tempo indictment of the outside world by dancing in place.
My friend turns back to the bartender’s shirt, a bit troubled. “But wouldn’t it—” he starts, as if thinking aloud. “But wouldn’t it be better, instead of buying the t-shirt, to take the money and donate it to an organization that actually supports refugees?”
And for a moment, even with Dead Kennedys thrashing through the encore one room over, I swear I hear nothing else.