To celebrate the upcoming release of our 105th 33 1/3 on Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, author and historian Michael Stewart Foley will discuss the archival research involved in writing about the San Francisco punk scene. Each day, he’ll be highlighting one amazing hidden source, and so, today, we bring you the very first installment of Dead Kennedys week!
I’m a historian, so I like digging through old stuff. Doesn’t matter what it is, really – old newspapers, postcards, photos, LPs, clothes, furniture, spice tins… hell, I’ll spend a couple of hours trying to figure out how some old farm equipment works, if that’s all you’ve got. Really, I could have been one of those guys on American Pickers.
But few things are as satisfying as working in a well-run archive. Sifting through acid-free boxes and folders of documents left behind by presidential administrations, city councils, governors, and legislators is one of the historian’s great pleasures.
I’ve been fortunate to work in a lot of fine archives and with some amazingly helpful archivists, but when you do the kind of work that I do – on grassroots social movements and underground subcultures – you learn to rely just as much on the equally indispensable scattershot archives held by amateur archivists. I could not have written my first book, on the draft resistance movement during the Vietnam War, without access to previously untapped personal papers that more than a dozen activists had held onto for decades. Sometimes someone had just an envelope bulging with documents; others had five or six boxes of stuff up in the attic. Sounds nerdy, but this is the scholarly equivalent of finding buried treasure.
So, nerd up, punk! My research for the 33 1/3 book on Dead Kennedys’ Fresh Fruit LP (as well as for the larger project on the political culture of early San Francisco punk) has depended, in large part, on the same nonlinear process of archival discovery. As with draft resistance, finding the right primary sources for my projects has not been so easy.
Although there are many, many zine libraries in the world, not all of them specialize in punk, and those that do, often have a local focus – at least at American libraries. (In the UK, one can find punk zines at major repositories like The British Library or the Victoria and Albert Museum, as well as the Jon Savage Archive at Liverpool John Moores University.) One exception is the Factsheet Five collection at the New York State Library, with 150 cubic feet of zines from 1982 to 1992, but those dates are too late to be of much use to my project. The San Francisco Public Library’s San Francisco History Center holds a growing punk collection that has proven immensely helpful, though its run of various zines are often incomplete and they’re not organized as a collection unto itself. One can also head over to The Magazine on Larkin Street or Goteblüd on Valencia, and lay down some cash to buy primary sources.
Lucky for me, though, the punks themselves have been the best source of print, photo, and video material. The legendary V. Vale, who published Search & Destroy and founded RE/Search Publications has a mountain of print sources, some quite rare. Mickey Sampson, editor of CREEP (when he went by Mickey Creep) and Jello Biafra’s roommate during the recording of Fresh Fruit, has so much amazing stuff that his house has a dedicated room to hold it all. Fellow punk historian Dewar MacLeod, meanwhile, totally saved me by arranging for one of his students at William Paterson University in New Jersey, to scan and send to me dozens of pages of zines that covered the San Francisco scene – including Damage, Slash, and New York Rocker – from Dewar’s private zine collection. (Check out Dewar’s awesome book on the LA punk scene here). In another context, you might call this “hoarding.” I call it “historic preservation” with a DIY punk twist.
Of course, the historian in me wants to see all of these personal collections land in a proper archive one day, so that it can be cared for by professionals, in perpetuity, with fire, flood, and earthquake protection. Right now, though, I’m so grateful that punks had enough sense at the time to recognize the historical significance of their rebel culture and to save evidence of it. What would we do, for example, without the invaluable video library that Joe Rees of Target Video has accumulated over the decades? Back when video was new and cameras weighed a ton, Joe recorded damn near every band that played the Mabuhay Gardens. He’s got a warehouse full of tapes, only a fraction of which have been digitized (In fact, Joe is looking for an institutional home for his videotapes – before they decay – so get in touch with him if you know a good place).
And let’s not forget all of the amazingly talented photographers that punk produced – folks who have been carrying around thousands of negatives for thirty years or more, curators of an indispensable visual record! Some West Coast photographers, like Jenny Lens and Chester Simpson make a living in part by selling their art from the late 1970s. Others, like Ruby Ray and James Stark have published beautiful books with samples of their work from those days. Meanwhile, deep in the depths of his 100,000 image music archive photographer Richard McCaffrey found the only photos I have ever seen of Dead Kennedys performing live at the 1980 Bammies award show (check out two of them in my book).
The point is that a lot of punks have their own archives, and maybe you do, too. Don’t underestimate their importance to scholars. Consider depositing yours in a central place where others can make use of it – and where you’ll still always have access to it. And there are scholars who are willing to help. Led by Matt Worley and Lucy Robinson, the Interdisciplinary Network for the Study of Subcultures, Popular Music and Social Change – we’re nerding up now! – is working on a project to facilitate the gathering and depositing of punk archives. Check them out on Facebook and contact Matt at email@example.com.
In the meantime, as an homage to punk hoarders – er, archivists – everywhere, I’ll use Dead Kennedys week on this blog to provide a few examples of the kind of punk primary source gems that one can find only in personal collections or the rare archive. I hope it will make clear just how much fun this process of discovery can be but also how vitally important are these unconventional sources.
I’ll leave you with a teaser. Check out this flyer:
In the summer of 1978, in the aftermath of the passage of the tax revolt ballot initiative, Proposition 13, Republican state senator John Briggs pushed for another initiative that would ban openly gay men and women from being hired in California’s public schools. It was commonly referred to as Question 6 or the Briggs Initiative, and it provoked a fierce “No on 6” campaign. But going into the autumn, despite the best efforts of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk – the most prominent gay public official in the country – it looked like the initiative would pass.
In the midst of this drama San Francisco’s punks rallied to the No on 6 campaign with a benefit concert at the Mabuhay Gardens. Harvey Milk was Master of Cermonies in this dingy punk club on the seedy side of town, far from City Hall. Of course, it got no coverage in the mainstream press, but reports showed up in the zines. Most important, this flyer – a copy of which I got from the Readymades’ guitarist Ricky Sludge (who has an amazing personal collection of SF punk flyers) – was stapled all over the city. I say again: all hail the punk hoarder/archivists!
Ultimately, in November, the Briggs Initiative went down in defeat, but a few weeks later, a former cop and city supervisor named Dan White murdered Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone in cold blood. More on that from the punk archives tomorrow.
– Michael Stewart Foley