Dead Kennedys Week – Day 4: Damage

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 fourth installment of Dead Kennedys week!

Damage coverBy the time Dead Kennedys’ Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables came out in 1980, some of San Francisco’s original punks were mourning the passing of the scene – a scene that had crystallized only in 1977 and 1978. Two, maybe three years and, for some, it was done. It’s easy, talking to punk veterans from those years now, to start an argument over how to define the first, second and third “waves” of SF punk bands or when to mark the scene’s death.

To outsiders, such talk may seem trivial or pedantic, but it fascinates me because these individual conversations about “waves” or when the original scene died say a lot about the speaker’s experience at the time. In my current project – a book on the political culture of early San Francisco punk (which grew out of the 33 1/3 research) – I am conducting dozens of interviews, mostly because the primary source base is too thin. Even with all of the personal archives held by punks in their basements and attics all these years, there are important questions that cannot be easily answered without poking at the imperfect memories of the folks who were there.

Still, those hard-to-find primary sources are indispensable in helping me to shape the questions I ask in interviews. The article below, an editorial from the January 1980 issue of Damage is an excellent example. Written by editor Brad Lapin (who went by Brad L at the time), it is an assessment of the state-of-the-scene, but also a call to action. It’s the kind of source that – like the article and interview I posted from CREEP and Search & Destroy over the last couple of days – sets my dorky historian heart racing.

The context is important because Lapin’s end-of-year editorial statement spoke directly to this question of when the scene died (or didn’t) and how we might now think about the various waves – successive chapters in the short history of early San Francisco punk.

By the end of 1979, Search & Destroy had closed up shop, in part because Vale felt like the original punk scene was dead or dying. He wasn’t the only one. By 1980, a group of punks central to the infrastructure of the scene – zine editors, band managers and members, radio show hosts, record store owners, gig promoters, etc. – started holding what were effectively punk summit meetings at the Target Studios loft on South Van Ness to discuss ways to preserve the integrity of the “scene” or “movement” (the terms were sometimes used interchangeably).

As Brad L’s editorial statement below suggests, punks worried about what the music’s growing appeal would do to their community. It was one thing to fight back against a repressive police force and a landlord-in-chief mayor, but how to confront corporate sharks trying to coopt the music for profit? What to do about the “former disco trendies and suburban suzy & billy homemakers” who had turned into weekend punk poseurs?

Punks lost this war against cooptation and dilution – check out this new Diesel jacket which you can buy for a few thousand bucks at Saks Fifth Avenue – but they went down fighting.

When I asked Brad Lapin about using this piece for the week’s blog entries, he re-read it for the first time in decades and immediately made self-deprecating fun of it. “Talk about florid. Talk about flaunting it,” he wrote to me. “Yikes.” But whether or not it is overly florid and whether or not he was flaunting “it,” is not as important to me, the historian, as is the obviously earnest and serious intent that anchors the piece. It is, at root, a serious call to action – to defend the prefigurative community punks had built over the past few years. Punk politics, so easily ignored or dismissed in the prevailing historical interpretations of the 1970s and 1980s, is shown here to be reflective, smart, and for Damage readers at the time, I daresay moving.

Punk had its own intellectuals, and Mickey Creep, V. Vale, and Brad L – the three responsible for the unconventional archival pieces I’ve posted here this week – were (and are) representative examples of San Francisco punk’s sharpest minds.

For more on Brad Lapin, check out MONDO X: safe as milk

– Michael Stewart Foley

Damage editorial

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