Jello Biafra, singer for the Dead Kennedys, whose debut album in the wake of the Moscone/Milk murders lambasted San Francisco's new liberal elite. (Courtesy Alternative Tentacles)
In the fall of 1978, the San Francisco punk scene was thriving. Shows occurred at least once a week at the Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino supper club in North Beach, and satellite venues such as the Deaf Club and 330 Grove opened and closed amid police harassment in other parts of the city.
But there was something different about San Francisco's strain of punk. According to historian Michael Stewart Foley, San Francisco boasted the most politically active punk scene in the country. Bands such as The Dils parsed tax policy in underground rags like Search & Destroy, Crime satirized authority in cop drag, and groups including the Avengers and Mutants rallied to support striking coal miners in Kentucky.
A new group called the Dead Kennedys courted controversy by booking a show on the November anniversary of their namesake’s assassination, provoking the ire of San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. But then fresh tragedies seized the headlines: a mass murder-suicide on Nov. 18 in Guyana, killing more than 900 followers of onetime San Francisco political darling Jim Jones, followed nine days later by Dan White’s slaying of his former Board of Supervisors colleague Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone on Nov. 27.
The deaths of progressive Moscone and gay rights icon Milk, which occurred 40 years ago this week, created the political landscape lambasted on Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, the Dead Kennedys’ debut album and arguably the city’s first punk full-length. Dianne Feinstein succeeded Moscone as mayor, inaugurating a developer- and police-friendly administration. White, a scion of old San Francisco and former cop, was sentenced to seven years in prison. He served five. “I fought the law,” sang Dead Kennedys bandleader Jello Biafra, “and I won.”
Foley’s book on Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, published in 2015 as part of the 33 1/3 series, contextualizes the Dead Kennedys’ landmark album in this dark, tumultuous period.
Foley, a scholar and researcher who’s published books on draft resistance and student activism, is currently working on a broader history of 1970s San Francisco punk. Below, in an interview edited for length and clarity, he discusses the effects of the deaths and trial on the scene.
How were Harvey Milk and George Moscone connected to the city’s punk scene?
Many of the punks from that time have nice things to say about Moscone. They remember his daughter, Jennifer, coming to shows at the Mabuhay. And Milk did go to the Mabuhay for a benefit for the No On 6 campaign, the anti-Briggs Initiative. [The failed proposition would’ve banned gays and lesbians from working in public schools.] It was headlined by Crime, and Milk was the MC. We know he appreciated punk's political engagement with the Briggs Initiative.
How much overlap was there between the city’s punk and LGBTQ cultures?
There’s incredible overlap, but it’s complex. You had gay punks who lived in the Castro or spent time at the clubs there, and some knew Harvey Milk. When [415 Records cofounder] Howie Klein moved to San Francisco, Milk loaned him a camera and gave him free darkroom time. But there was also a younger LGBTQ community that didn't feel so welcome in the Castro. Some of them, gay men I’ve spoken to, refer to the Castro clones, who were kind of upwardly mobile or more respectable. So there’s tension, but people move between the disco and punk scenes, too.
Moscone's murder leads to Dianne Feinstein becoming the mayor of San Francisco. After she assumed power, how did the police department’s approach to the punk scene change?
In the memories of nearly all the punks that I've spoken to, there's an almost immediate change in the police's handling of crowds outside of the Mabuhay. They're rolling up, harassing people, arresting people. There's a kind of raid on the club, in which even Ness Aquino, the owner, is arrested. That’s a week or so after Feinstein takes office.
And then she’s blamed for the police preemptively shutting down an Avengers show, right?
Right. The Avengers and the Mutants were going to do a show at the Art Institute in February of ’79, and the show posters used bondage imagery and partially naked women. Feinstein’s papers aren’t open for research, so I still have questions, but the word was that she took offense. The posters were all over North Beach, and maybe up closer to her home in Pacific Heights.
So the police padlocked the venue the night of the show. Eventually there was a makeup show, with alternate versions of the poster criticizing Feinstein for censorship. There was a definite sense by that point that as part of cleaning up San Francisco, she had it in for the punks.
Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is arguably the San Francisco punk scene’s first full-length statement, and Feinstein is sort of the album’s antagonist, right?
She’s certainly the antagonist. She’s the target in "Let’s Lynch the Landlord." The song could’ve been called "Let’s Lynch the Mayor." They felt contempt for her as a landlord mayor, married to a real-estate developer, and as a mayor friendly to the police. Jerry Brown is also present on the album, in "California Über Alles." There’s a consistent thread of criticizing liberals on the record.
We’re also talking about the wake of Jonestown, this tragedy overseen by someone who was closely tied to the city’s political establishment. Do you think Jonestown connects to the punk scene’s disenchantment with the city’s more traditional sort of progressivism?
It’s a good question. I only get vague answers about the scene’s interaction with Jim Jones or the Peoples Temple, although it was next door to Temple Beautiful, which had a lot of punk shows. To them, Jonestown was at least confirmation of certain pathologies in American society, but not something they associated necessarily with a liberal political regime.
How does Fresh Fruit’s cover reference Dan White?
The verdict in his trial began the White Night riots. Punks participated. A couple people have told me they were among the first to throw bricks through the windows of City Hall. They were definitely among the first to set police cars on fire, which show up in these iconic Examiner photos and then on the cover of Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. Paired with the font of the band’s name, it has this kind of Kristallnacht look, which was a deliberate provocation.
Did other local bands address the killings?
Yeah. There were benefits for punks arrested during the riots. Tuxedomoon is a good example. Steven Brown from Tuxedomoon was a fiercely political guy and also gay. He had moved to San Francisco from Chicago, where he was involved in a lot of student activism. When the White trial was taking place, they did these performances of ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’ where they read testimony from the newspapers. They also did ‘(Special Treatment for the) Family Man.’ Like the Dead Kennedys version of ‘I Fought the Law,’ it was specifically about Dan White.
Another Tuxedomoon song, which has never been released, was called, ‘Dianne, Your Slip is Showing.’ It basically suggests what a lot of punks have relayed to me over the years: that the killings seemed like an orchestrated conspiracy. Most of them consider White killing Moscone and Milk, the verdict, and Feinstein’s rise a win for cops and landlords, if not a right-wing coup.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.