Former Dead Kennedys leader Jello Biafra was watching the Fixtures play at Berkeley’s Gilman Street club on May 7 when he was knocked down from behind. His leg shattered. Biafra struggled to his feet only to be pushed back down and repeatedly struck in the head by five thugs. His original attacker, a guy nicknamed Cretin, laughed at Biafra’s attempts to settle the incident without calling the cops, saying "Well, you’re such a rich rock star, you can deal with it yourself." As Cretin’s crew was wailing on Biafra, they repeatedly shouted: "Sellout rock star, kick him!"
"It may well have destroyed my chances of performing music live the way I want to," Biafra told Rolling Stone. "If I can’t get the knee to come back, I don’t just want to stand there and bore everyone to death."
But the meaning of this incident goes beyond Jello Biafra to the wrenching transformation punk is going through.
Punk began as music for outsiders who railed against a smug and seemingly secure society that laughed at punk’s Do It Yourself philosophy. In self-defense, punkers developed networks of bands, independent labels, venues, and publications. Their orientation couldn’t help but be "us against the world."
But hidden by the thrall of the Reagan years, punk was overflowing its own banks despite itself. Part of the process was musical--punk’s noisy fury and wild tempos found a growing audience as the dictatorship of blues-rock was finally overthrown. Politically, as millions began to go without homes, jobs, and education for the first time, punk’s lyrical themes hit home with people who at one time considered themselves insiders in the social system punk skewered.
Many in punk's infrastructure are unhappy about the music’s evolution and are doing awkward mental gymnastics to try to confine the punk phenomenon to a time that has passed.
Jello Biafra is labeled a "rich rock star" even though he let his band be destroyed in order to stand up to the government during the Frankenchrist trial and runs a record label, Alternative Tentacles, that distributes all its profits to its artists. But it isn’t just the thugs who crippled Jello Biafra who look at the world through cracked lenses. Maximum Rock & Roll, the world’s most influential punk publication and an invaluable source of information, won’t take ads for Alternative Tentacles artists because they "aren’t punk," nor will it cover any band that has ever had anything to do with a major label.
But the wall between major and indie isn’t always there. For example, Chris Applegren of Lookout Records told the LA Weekly’s Johnny Angel that "Green Day made more cash as an indie... As a Lookout act they got 60 percent of the profits of their records, but with Warners they might get a fraction of that." Keith Clark, drummer for the Circle Jerks, told Angel the band came back from tours with $20,000 apiece in their pockets, which is better than a Top Ten act like Counting Crows does. And what about Bad Religion, attacked by punks for signing with Atlantic last year? The band’s rhythm guitarist, Brett Gurewitz, still owns the Epitaph label on which Bad Religion made its mark, and that label has sold hundreds of thousands of units in 1994 on new bands such as Pennywise. Which part of Brett Gurewitz is true to the cause and which part is a sellout?
It’s time to ask different questions. For instance, will punk find ways to actually fight for a better life for its adherents? The arguments over what is and isn’t punk will continue, which is fine as long as they don’t escalate into assault and battery. But nothing can change the reality that the punk genie is out of the bottle and it ain’t going back in.
Rock & Rap Confidential / 1994