by Chris Randle
During my transition from a teenager who played competitive Magic: The Gathering to a teenager with dubious facial piercings, I rode the subway downtown to a cavernous vintage store on Queen Street West. The scruffy nave of local music and art in the 1980s, that neighbourhood has since become almost totally gentrified, but it felt like Weimar Berlin after coming from my leafy, ultra-middle-class corner of Toronto. The thrift shop clung on – still does – by hawking beat-up trenchcoats and black punk-band shirts. My favourite T circa Grade 10 featured a militaristic, sinister-looking emblem in lurid colours. The stark text “DEAD KENNEDYS” soon appeared in its owner’s passport photo, although that was a dumb oversight on my part rather than an attempt at radicalizing airport security.
I don’t remember exactly when I became a fan of the band, but I do remember how: “California Uber Alles.” The menace created by East Bay Ray’s guitar (surf rock for the sharks) and Jello Biafra’s manic sneer of a voice was intoxicating. I didn’t follow all the lyrics – I understood they were mocking some long-gone California governor with New Age leanings. Surely he must have been better than Reagan? But I got the joke. The notion of a serenely Zen fascist leader was just plausible enough for its indelible absurdism to work. Hippie hatred unites punks and neoconservatives like nothing else. It only serves the interests of the latter.
Jerry Brown, the DKs’ day-glo Fuhrer, made an unlikely comeback as governor of California this week. My teenage self probably would’ve been nonplussed, but now the news is a delight. That doesn’t have much to do with policy proposals (though Brown will be far, far better on that score than the billionaire cipher he defeated), and it doesn’t make up for the depressing loss of Sen. Russ Feingold in this grim midterm vote. Brown’s return appeals to me on a symbolic, even sentimental level. It implies that hopeless eccentrics can still get elected in a major U.S. state. The governor-to-be has never lived his life as if worried about potential attack ads.
That notorious oddness is sometimes exaggerated, and not just by a certain hardcore anthem. Brown acquired the inescapable nickname “Governor Moonbeam” when he suggested launching California’s own communications satellite – a crazy-sounding idea in the 1970s, a visionary one now. (Like Tony Benn on the left of Britain’s Labour Party, Brown was a starry-eyed futurist.) He did appoint a Beat poet to the California Arts Council, though, and espoused Buddhist economics, and lived in a commune for a time after leaving office. Later he interviewed Noam Chomsky for Spin: “The economists have a word, ‘autarchy,’ which they use to denigrate the notion of local self-reliance.”
It’s not surprising that Jello Biafra praised Brown’s insurgent campaign against Bill Clinton in the 1992 Democratic primary, lamenting the caricature he’d helped create. They had way too much in common. (Maybe Biafra also realized that some conservatives would take the idea of “liberal fascism” all too seriously.) The ’92 Moonbeam backed campaign-finance reform and condemned free-trade deals. If indie rock was succeeding punk as a centre of countercultural attention, he knew the kids better than Jello did; Brown stumped econo, refusing to take contributions higher than $100. Most came through a 1-800 number. He would hold it up during debates, deadpan, like he was selling OK Soda.
This lefty populist nonetheless championed a regressive flat tax designed by supply-side guru Arthur Laffer. That wasn’t especially surprising either. Brown has always been slippery ideologically, yet his weird mysticism makes the fluidity seem authentic, the core of his aura (in Walter Benjamin’s sense). As one right-wing admirer put it: “Nearly every politician dreams of being all things to all people; Brown found a way to treat that inconstancy as an Aquarian virtue.”
He was a contradictory governor of a contradictory state. California, epicentre of the New Left, is also distinguished by the virulence of its right. In Before the Storm, his book about Barry Goldwater and the American conservative movement, Rick Perlstein notes that Orange County alone swelled to 38 John Birch Society chapters, plus a Bircher congressman. When he ran for re-election in 1978, Jerry Brown carried Orange County.
“California Uber Alles” kept moving too. Dead Kennedys recorded an angrier version about Ronald Reagan in 1982, calling it “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now.” That could almost pass for contrition by hardcore standards. Numerous covers followed, each one diminishing the original’s effect. Biafra himself remade the song after the recall putsch of Governor Arnold, comic-Nazi accent and all, but Schwarzenegger lacked the earlier targets’ surrealism or extremism; he was just laughable, a celebrity feebly pantomiming the big persona, kind of like Jello Biafra.
I don’t mean to pit one subculture against another, hippie politician versus punk warbler. That game is boring. (We won’t even mention the H-word.) Fraught, tangled lineage is a more accurate framework. My friend Jonny Dovercourt once argued that indie rockers hate hippies because “they remind us of our embarrassing younger selves…Indie kids are descended from punks, who are descended from hippies.” A “crushing sense of disappointment” has been passed down through each semi-failed movement. Maybe he was right. What else could Dead Kennedys’ name signify? Groovy RFK, tribune of the ’60s New Politics, bleeding out at Nixon’s victory party.
During his rambling acceptance speech this week, Jerry Brown said: “While I’m really into this politics thing, I still carry with me that missionary zeal to transform the world…I’m hoping and praying that this breakdown that we’ve been witnessing paves the way for a breakthrough.” I could close by quoting my blog comrade here: “Punk is easy, adulthood is hard.” But I’ll be mercurial and cite Crass instead: “I’m the same old monkey in the same old zoo / Same old message trying to get through.”