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Better Dead

Nothing D.H. Peligro says sounds convincing. He's afraid of each question, perhaps worried that he'll come up empty-handed when asked, "Why?"

Why did he help rob the grave of the dead Dead Kennedys, America's best-loved primordial punks, after a 19-month legal battle during which singer Jello Biafra and his breakaway bandmates Peligro (drums), East Bay Ray (guitar), and Klaus Flouride (bass) trashed their own legacy? Why rewrite history by touring under the old trademark with Brandon Cruz (the all-growed-up child actor who starred in The Courtship of Eddie's Father) in Biafra's place -- something Peligro clearly knows is wrong? Why, why, why?

"Kids with punk-rock record collections have never seen the band live," he hesitantly replies. "So we get to play for them now, and I'm grateful."

But are the kids grateful? Not the ones old enough to know better. Jaded punks are accustomed to seeing idols disavow their old ideals -- but not a band that espoused them as passionately as did the Dead Kennedys, which built its career on Biafra's scathing social criticism. No sooner had the gravy train pulled out of the station last month (heading to South America and then Biafra's Colorado birthplace) than the un-Dead Kennedys ran into trouble. Stories have surfaced describing shaky musicianship on the comeback tour, which Peligro (born Darren Henley) doesn't deny. Crowds have reportedly responded with near-hostility, which he downplays.

"There's a few people who yell things," he admits. "They come with their minds closed." What are they yelling? "Pretty much just "Where's Jello?' -- that sort of thing. But they leave feeling satisfied. I hope. I can't speak for them." His voice betrays a certain lack of confidence in the morality of his endeavors.

Then again, it's only fair to say the conflict is a dream story for music journalists. The Dead Kennedys made themselves into such easy targets that taking swings at them now is patently unsatisfying. The foursome was founded on Biafra's venomous disdain of all things corporate, his desire to kick rednecks and conservatives in the balls, and his plan to actively dismantle authority, religion, and all indoctrinated belief systems. Those ideals seemed to unravel between 1998 and this past December, when a San Francisco judge upheld a jury's decision finding Biafra guilty of defrauding his former colleagues to the tune of nearly $200,000 in actual and punitive damages.

The dispute centered on the Dead Kennedys' six-album back catalog, which was overseen by Alternative Tentacles, the label Biafra has owned since 1986. A bookkeeping discrepancy remained undiscovered for a decade, when a label employee realized the Dead Kennedys, as a collective, had been shortchanged $76,000 in royalties. That employee later tipped off Ray, who, along with Peligro and Flouride, filed suit against Alternative Tentacles in October 1998 for back payment and failing to adequately promote the Dead Kennedys' albums. In May 2000, a jury found Biafra liable.

The cantankerous singer, whose caustic spoken-word albums and Green Party presidential candidacy have kept him (and the defunct Kennedys) in the public eye, lost control of the band's catalog in the settlement. He's also unable to prevent his former chums from rereleasing old live material he's tried to suppress. While Biafra appealed, the remaining Dead Kennedys released what he termed a "poor" live album culled from shows in 1982 and 1986 called Mutiny by the Bay. Then they began performing with Cruz in what Biafra has slammed as "the world's greediest karaoke band."

Formed in San Francisco in 1978, the Dead Kennedys held the title of America's first hardcore band. But unlike the vast majority of its punk-rock contemporaries, the Dead Kennedys never attempted to conquer through sheer amplification.

Peligro joined after issuance of the first album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, which introduced breakneck tempos, slaughterhouse furor, and Biafra's sharp-tongued, anti-yuppie mission statements with "Kill the Poor," "California Über Alles," and "Holiday in Cambodia." By the time of 1982's Plastic Surgery Disasters, the Dead Kennedys, largely due to Biafra's sneering sarcasm and tremulous, histrionic delivery and Ray's art-damaged rockabilly riffs, had tightened into America's finest hardcore export. Indeed, they were one of the most accomplished quartets of all time. Atop it all, Biafra spared no one (not even punk's misguided macho warriors) with the withering "Government Flu," "Terminal Preppie," "Nazi Punks Fuck Off," and "Religious Vomit." The band was as hunted and hated by the Christian Right as it was loved by the nascent punk subculture.

In 1985, Frankenchrist's notorious rant, "MTV -- Get Off the Air," was upstaged by claims that an H.R. Giger poster included in the album was obscene. The State of California even charged the band with disseminating pornography to minors. The band beat the rap on First Amendment grounds, but not before Biafra's apartment was raided by police, and the stress sapped the Dead Kennedys altogether. The final studio effort, 1986's Bedtime for Democracy, pushed for musical innovation with the disturbing "Chickenshit Conformist" and "DMSO." A collection of hits and rarities (Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death) surfaced just after the band's 1987 split, providing a transition into Biafra's increasingly vicious spoken-word world, where he gives liberals guilt for not being liberal enough. When the Dead Kennedys' time expired, "our lives were pretty separate," notes Peligro. "We bonded on the road, but we didn't hang out at home."

After the breakup, Biafra -- raised in Boulder, just six blocks from Jon Benet Ramsey's home -- continued exporting his "double-barreled info-tainment," touring, and recording while overseeing Alternative Tentacles.

Flouride released experimental oddities, among them an evil remake of "Shortnin' Bread." Ray wound up working with Skrapyard, Cell Block 5, Candy Ass, and rai singer Cheika Rimitti. At the end of the 1980s, Peligro briefly joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers. "I'll take complete fault for failing to go along with the program," remembers Peligro. "They just politely let me go."

The Dead Kennedys remained a fading memory until 1998, when the two sides began accusing each other of becoming traitors to democracy and decency. The subsequent slab of legalese that buried the band threatened to inter its legacy too. Biafra probably lost the case because his whiny voice -- which made the band's songs so bilious -- caused the jury to hate him. Additionally, his basic premise (the rest of the group became unfriendly, he says, after he refused to allow "Holiday in Cambodia" to be licensed for a Levi's commercial) was capably refuted by all three members.

"That's bullshit. It's just a bald-faced lie," sneers Peligro. "I assumed Biafra said that just to have the kids on his side." Though painfully acknowledging that the feuding was "hateful and hurtful," he says, "I'm not taking it so seriously anymore." But Biafra is: He recently issued a screed on the Alternative Tentacles Website that raises worthy points about the motives and integrity of the "rogue members." He's also hitting up fans to contribute to his legal defense fund, which riles his ex-bandmates, whose own propaganda takes Biafra to task for living in a $1.1 million home in San Francisco.

"I don't know exactly how much his house cost," testifies Peligro. "But I live in a studio apartment. I don't even have a bedroom. So somebody's doing better than me, and it ain't me!"

A good reason, Peligro figures, to cash in on the cachet of the Dead Kennedys' songs. And it excuses him for bringing aboard a scab singer to rehash old hits.

Ultimately, the opportunism permeating the Dead Kennedys' return stinks like a sewer. At least the Sex Pistols never claimed to be operating on principle, making their unwelcome comeback far more forgivable: Everyone knew it was about the cash. What Peligro, Ray, and Flouride have done is sell the soul of the band and drain its sweat equity, which leaves a rancid flavor on the taste buds of everyone involved, "myself included," Peligro concurs. "It's a real shame it came to that. We started the band so we could work and grow without all the big business influences. It does take away from the music."

Do fans realize this? Are they paying as much as $20 a ticket to show up just to heckle the band? Who can blame them? At the start of this tour, the Dead Kennedys' booking agent sent promoters an old photo of the original quartet -- lending heft to the bait-and-switch charges. Following that flap, the members almost apologetically offered to appear as the DK Kennedys. But the damage was already done, and sealed with shellac.

"I'm kind of pissed about that," mutters Peligro.

He's not the only one.

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton

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