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 second installment of Dead Kennedys week!
1978 is appropriately regarded as one of the darkest periods in San Francisco’s history. As I describe in my 33 1/3 volume on Dead Kennedys’ first LP, one of the band’s early notorious episodes was playing the Mabuhay Gardens on November 22, the 15th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. But what is often missed in the telling of either the band’s history or the city’s history in November 1978 is that that performance took place just days after the Jonestown massacre and just days before the execution-style assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk. I try to correct that failing by folding the city’s punk scene into the city’s history in that insane year – a year that is at the heart of what David Talbot calls San Francisco’s “Season of the Witch.”
Related to this, my goal in today’s blog post is to show how a primary source from an understudied punk zine reveals one way in which San Francisco punks were so deeply engaged in the city’s political struggles – including political struggles not generally considered to have any relevance to punk.
The article below is from the first issue of CREEP, a zine co-edited and produced by Mickey Sampson (who went by Mickey Creep at the time, but also wrote under the byline Mick McCarthy), a one-time and long-time roommate of Jello Biafra’s. The article offers a rare analysis of punk participation in and assessment of the White Night riots – the riots that followed the conviction of former city supervisor Dan White, the murderer of Moscone and Milk, on a lesser manslaughter charge instead of first degree murder.
In the usual telling, gay San Franciscans turned up at City Hall by the thousands and, instead of demonstrating silently and peacefully (as they had on the night of the murders), started a riot – throwing rocks through the windows and doors of the building, burning police cars, and otherwise scrapping with the cops.
The article below tells a different story. It shows that the thousands of demonstrators were more diverse than is generally understood, that they were venting their anger not only at the insane verdict, but at a mayor – Dianne Feinstein – who, as Board of Supervisors president, succeeded Moscone, and at a police force which, at the mayor’s direction, seemed bent on sweeping the streets of minorities of all sorts. The verdict, then, prompted the spontaneous outpouring of anger and frustration on a host of issues. As we have seen in recent days in Baltimore, riots always have deeper and more complex origins than those reported by the mainstream media.
For me, this article is but one bit of evidence that helps me make a case for punk as a legitimate vehicle for political expression and experience. While historians tend to ignore subcultural politics altogether, and cultural studies scholars tend to privilege the more abstract forms of subcultural resistance to the dominant culture, I am interested in, among other things, the ways in which punks challenged those in authority through more “recognizable” means – in this case, in the streets. And this is but one example; there are many more in the sources that spill out of punks’ personal archives.
– Michael Stewart Foley