When I was in junior high, seventh grade, I think, so 1985 or so, I took shop class. It was taught by the stereotypical shop teacher, an older, conservative man. I remember one day him dressing down another kid in the class--don't remember his name--who had patches of the bands he liked sewn onto his denim jacket. One was "Dead Kennedy." The shop teacher kept asking him if he thought that was a good name, if he was happy that Kennedys had been killed, how he thought the Kennedys themselves felt, It was an awkward moment.
This story would probably be better if it was me he was dressing down, but it wasn't. I knew who the Dead Kennedys were. I'd grown up in San Francisco and was by this point living in the Central Valley. I'd heard of them, but they didn't speak to me. I wasn't angry enough to hear what they were saying. Yet. At the time, and even later as I have reflected on this weird moment, it seemed just another minor skirmish in the generational wars that have gone on since Abraham tried to kill Isaac.
Michael Stewart Foley's book makes me think there was something deeper going on, or more specific. It wasn't just another case of olds hearing the youngs music and dismissing it as a noise. The Kennedys offered a voice for a specific generation, dealing with specific problems. Jello Biafra and the other members of the group were critiquing an American dream that had curdled since the Kennedys were killed.
Foley makes his case by situating the Kennedys and their first album in national, state, and local--San Francisco--context. The wheels had come off the bus. (Looking back, this seems to have occurred around 1970, when real wages stopped growing.) The revolution promised by the 1960s and the hippies had not came off--and the hippies had become the establishment. San Francisco, in particular, home of the Summer of Love, was on control of what historian Kenneth Starr calls the Provincials--the landlords who were remaking it to stamp out the islands of diversity that had sustained the counterculture.
This is an interesting interpretation of punk rock. It is is obviously not applicable to the entire movement, which Foley somewhat admits, but adds an extra dimension on to what has been written about punk rock before. As he sees it, punk rock was not a rejection of 1960s idealism, but frustration that the revolution had never happened, had, instead, become part of the mainstream. The Kennedys wanted to shake up the power structure. One way was through shock--that name. But there was also humor, and Foley makes the case that the Kennedy's lyrics are not as straightforward as detractors think, but relay on unreliable narrators. (Rap has been defended on similar grounds.)
What makes the 33 1/3 series so great, is that writers are seemingly given carte blanche in how to approach the album about which they are writing. There are intensive looks at the music and lyrics, ore meditative contemplations on what the music meant to the listener, and then books like this one that give a historical context. Indeed, this kind of essay is one of my favorite styles: authored by a good writer--there's a little hunter S. Thompson in Foley--who is aware of the critical and academic literature on the subject but does not feel constrained by it; a writer who wants to interpret, but is not approaching the subject merely as grist for some larger point. He genuinely likes the music, has hard and arbitrary rules--as we all do!--about what works and what does not. It made me think of Erin Smith's Hard-Boiled, in that way.
But the book's strength is also its weakness. While the book is excellent on the cultural and political context--I was also reminded of Michael Azerrad "Our Band Could Be Your Life," which similarly covered the growth of independent music in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, focusing on the bands as people living in specific conditions--the band itself is hard to see, the record more so--it doesn't really appear until the last chapter--and the music itself almost completely missing. (It's different from Azerrad's book in that way, which never forgot the music.)
As I say, though, that's the strength of the series, having smart and interesting writers try to explain some bit of music. The approach is never the same, but the journey has its definite rewards. You might even learn something about yourself.