RENT IN SAN FRANCISCO is skyrocketing, the housing market is tight, artists and musicians are fleeing the city, condos for the affluent are replacing affordable housing, and Jerry Brown is governor of California. Though that sentence could literally apply to the present day, Michael Stewart Foley's 33 1/3 book on legendary hardcore punk band Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, is set in the San Francisco of the late 1970s. More so than even the band, Foley presents late-'70s San Francisco as the book's lead protagonist.
After the hope and promise of the '60s had been snuffed out—by the Vietnam War; the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK, Jr.; the implications of Watergate; the Manson Family murders; double digit inflation; and soaring unemployment—America in general, and San Francisco in particular, had become lost in a haze of disillusionment and idleness. Protest music from the '60s had morphed into '70s disco and soft rock, and youthful idealism and activism had grown into what Tom Wolfe dubbed the "Me Generation," less concerned with bettering the world than with checking out completely.
Enter Dead Kennedys.
Contributors to the 33 1/3 book series on seminal music address their subjects by various means, from the personal to the scholarly to the outright meta. Foley tells the story of Dead Kennedys' debut album from a historian's perspective, himself an award-winning historian and professor of American history at the University of Groningen. But, far from being a dry, academic history book, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is an absorbing look at how the turbulence of San Francisco in the late '70s was ripe for a band like Dead Kennedys. Having gained access to all founding members of the band, Foley relates how these three young men—raised in different parts of the country, but each brought up in liberal, middle- to upper-class, socially conscious homes—came together in San Francisco, with a mission to challenge not only authoritarianism, but the idleness and complacency of their own generation.
Though bassist Klaus Flouride and guitarist East Bay Ray's contributions to the band are given fair mention, Jello Biafra, as lead singer and frontman, was undoubtedly the spokesman and lead provocateur of Dead Kennedys. Inspired by the work and antics of Abbie Hoffman, Biafra followed the example set by the Yippies, to challenge authority by means of street theater, gallows humor, and breaking down the barriers between audience and performer. As Biafra wrote in a column for Damage magazine, "The more you fuck with society, the less society controls you." Foley spends a good amount of time tracing Biafra's development as a political activist, from his early years in Boulder, Colorado, to his quixotic run for mayor of San Francisco in 1979.
Foley devotes much more space to Biafra and the band's development than the recording of Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables; over 100 pages pass before the band first enters the studio. But the buildup is worth it, and the backstory is essential to appreciating the album's impact.
"Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables landed like an indictment handed down by a wickedly demented grand jury," Foley writes. "Every song on the record accused the American Dream itself of being a lie."