Echoes and Reverberations: Dead Kennedys “Rock Against Politics”

Rocking against Regan in 1984. (John Spath)

This week's Echoes and Reverberations installment comes with an accompanying slideshow courtesy of John Spath. Check it out here.

In the spirit of the presidential election, let’s reflect upon that memorable week when radical protest art and conservative politics collided on the streets of our hometown.

All eyes were on Us: It was August of 1984 and The City That Killed Kennedy was once again the center of the American socio-political universe. For years we had been sweating bullets at the scene of the crime; the complicity of proximity had shameless conspiracy theorists making money hand-over-fist by preying on our misfortune.

Ronald Reagan was channeling John Wayne and Dallas was host to the Republican National Convention. The local city government was doing what it could to ensure that we put our best foot forward. It was implied that we needed to regain the trust and respect of the rest of the country.

This right-wing pep rally was seen a real chance to leverage the media spotlight and establish the brand of the city as a safe haven for the old money Conservative Elite. For two decades we had been unfairly burdened with the horrible memory of what happened that November morning in 1963. Twenty-one years later, a punk rock band called the Dead Kennedys was coming to town to lead a political protest rally only a few blocks from JFK was assassinated.

Say what you will about DK’s bandleader Jello Biafra, but the guy has balls the size of Jupiter.

Studio D founder Frank Campagna was Biafra’s underground connection in Dallas, but he initially wanted no part in helping Biafra orchestrate the performance.

“Sometime in June of 1984, I was contacted by Jello and asked to assist in putting together an event called ‘Rock Against Reagan’ outside the Dallas County Convention Center," says Campagna, now the co-owner of the Kettle Art Gallery in Deep Ellum. “Without a second thought, I told him ‘no’--an answer that he wasn’t used to getting. He asked ‘Why not?’, reminding me of the various successful shows we had done together in the past at Studio D.”

These gigs had included a number of shared bills with Butthole Surfers, Stickmen With Rayguns and the Hugh Beaumont Experience. Like many artists, Biafra was imperious and occasionally demanding, often motivated by random things like superstition.

“He actually postponed a show on me one time because it fell on Friday the 13th,” recalls Campagna, who booked the band’s early '80s shows at Studio D. “At another one of the earlier performances, Biafra didn’t want to have local punk band The Assassins open the show--merely because of their name. The idea of a band called ‘The Assassins’ performing with a band called Dead Kennedys in Dallas was just too much for him.”

Campagna’s primary motivation to pass on promoting the RAR protest show was based in a responsibility to protect our own community.

Anti-and-drugs. (John Spath)

“I responded by telling him that there was going to be tons of people here from out of town, and that all it would take was one dumbass to start a riot,” Campagna says. “I couldn’t predict how the Dallas Police Department would react to a gathering like this. Above all, I didn’t want the blood of my friends on my hands should anything go wrong.”

Biafra took Frank’s position into consideration, then moved forward with planning the event without Campagna’s assistance.

“The ‘Rock Against Reagan’ show was actually produced and promoted by the Yippie activist group; they had reached out to a lot of the hard core groups at the time. The Dicks, MDC, The Crucifucks and a lot of other bands were all part of that,” Biafra says now..

It was 1984 after all, and we all had a case of Orwellian political disgust to process and project. Part of that was showing up wherever large groups of people were gathered to make noise and bitch about shit.

For Jello, part of it was just being in the right place at the right time.

“We were actually out on tour anyway, and we told them that we would be open to doing certain key dates,” says Biafra, who obviously wasn’t a fan of the Democratic Party at the time, either. “In fact, we did both the Democratic Convention and the Republican Convention. During the Democratic Convention, we walked out on stage wearing white KKK hoods, and then as soon as we started playing, we ripped those off and had on Reagan masks underneath.”

Not sure if their performance was on the official agenda for the DNC that year, but that sounds like something that might rally the troops.

Meanwhile, word about the Rock Against Reagan show quickly spread 'round town. Was mainstream Dallas ready for something like this? How do you prepare for a riot? Would the Cowboys make the playoffs this year?

Campagna describes the effect the news of the upcoming show had on the local community: “The big punk club in town at the time was The Twilite Room, which was located at 2111 Commerce Street; just a block away from the police station and right across the street from the old Dallas Observer offices and KLIF building.”

Paranoia set the tone for the weeks leading up to the event.

“There were rumors going around town that the CIA had camped out across the street and were taking photos of all of the punk kids in some kind of an effort to build up a database of information," Campagna recalls, " case anything went wrong on the day of the show.”

In retrospect, Biafra thinks it was more likely the FBI: “I can’t imagine the CIA bothering with teenage punk rock kids,” he muses. “They’re more geared to do stuff outside of our borders. If anybody was spying on the kids at the Twilite Room, it was probably the FBI or Secret Service.“

I wasn’t in any of those surveillance photos, mostly because I wasn’t one of those kids who had dedicated my entire life to the world of punk rock. My primary motivation for attending the Rock Against Reagan event was more driven by Capitalism than anarchy.

For those still following along at home, here’s why: At the time, my father was the VP of Public Relations at Southland Corporation (7-11’s original parent company) and was a proudly dedicated Republican. After Watergate, he had become disgusted with Richard Nixon and that fat batch of crooks, so he took the opportunity to print up thousands of red, white and blue bumper stickers which read “VOTE THEM ALL OUT”.

Since this was well before he had the Internet to use as marketing tool, Dad didn’t have much luck selling many of the bumper stickers at the time. We got rid of a few dozen at the Canton “First Monday Trade Sale,” but other than that, boxes of them sat neglected in our garage for over a decade.

When Ronald Reagan brought the Republican National Convention to town 12 years later, the bumper stickers were suddenly relevant once again. Time had once again caught up with the message.

I loaded up the back a friend’s El Camino with my recycled propaganda contraband, and we headed for the protest site to try and make some fast cash. My intuition told me that it was the right thing to do.

It didn’t tell me that I might end up in the slammer.

Jason Cohen, the former owner of Forbidden Books and Video store in Expo Park, was warned about that same risk: “My most vivid memory from the 1984 Rock Against Regan was the words my father gave me as I walked out the door: ‘If you go down there, you will end up in jail.'”

Outside the Convention Center, a fenced-in area had been designated as an official protest area/free speech zone. Smelly, shirtless people on unicycles weaved in and out of the wandering foot traffic. No one was really going anywhere specific.

“When I got to the event I was amazed by the amount of people that were in attendance,” recalls Cohen. “I remember being surprised that there were so many proactive protesters in Dallas, only to find out that most of them were out-of-towners. Busloads of punks arrived from California--much more politically minded than the Dallas punk crew.”

Deeper inside the rebel inner sanctum, a sign above a makeshift booth offered “Interest-free $100,000 Loans -- Apply Here.” Just for kicks, I stepped up and asked for my loan. Clad in a powder blue bathrobe, the Joe Cocker look-alike replied, “Is your name Ed Meese?” I told him “No”, and he quickly replied that I didn’t qualify.

Of course, I had no earthly idea who the hell Ed Meese was at the time.

I spent the first three or four hours swapping my Dad’s bumper stickers for weed, pocket change, T-shirts and pizza. One guy bought 50 stickers for 20 bucks and then proceeded to cover his entire body with them; he was briefly interviewed on ABC Evening News later that night.

Campagna describes the surreal scene in the protest area: “The site was packed with people; there were police dressed in riot gear standing on a hill overseeing the area, and also lined up all around the perimeter of the protest site. Dallas artist Greg Metz had made this giant papier-maché head of Ronald Reagan that bobbed up down over the heads of most of the people in the crowd.”

I wasn’t the only kid there from north of Mockingbird Lane who listened to punk rock and still actually knew how to operate a bar of soap.

“I was 18 and had recently returned to Dallas after being in school in New England,” recalls George Baum (aka former KNON DJ “Chicken George”). “I was by myself and a bit out of my element as a prep school kid from Highland Park, but I had a good time wandering through the mix of punks, hippies, cops and the generally disgruntled.”

Seemingly every fringe-element contingency was well represented; you had Commies, Yippies, Vegans, skinheads, atheists and agnostics, gun nuts, ACORN, drag queens, and dopers--all jockeying for position in front the myriad TV cameras pointed in every direction.

Shit was straight bozo.

Roving gangs of hooded lesbians splattered fluorescent paint on our gleaming downtown office buildings. Cops on horses chased kids on skateboards through the back alleys of downtown.

All bets were off. The inmates had escaped from the asylum. Evangelicals cowered in their homes and took local news accounts of the demonstrations as a sign of impending Armageddon.

These ragtag groups of motivated activists were clearly agro-hyenas from Somewhere Else. It was quite the street-level counter culture clash of ideas. Our local jail was soon filled in no time with rebel twerps, mohawked non-bathers and penniless anarchists.

Campagna saw worlds on the verge of colliding: “The tension built as Reagan supporters, media folks and politicians worked their way towards the convention center while being taunted by protesters, punks, wannabe punks and curiosity seekers.”

Like a kid sticking his finger in a light socket, I was right there in the middle of the dystopian psychosis, baked on bunk weed and plastering Dad’s bumper stickers on every available surface.

It’s a miracle that I didn’t end up in jail myself. Some of my friends from J.J. Pearce High School weren’t so lucky; one of those people was former Mel Coolies guitarist and Slacker cast member John Spath. (His photos accompany this story.)

Jello Biafra, sporting a ragged cast on his left leg at the time, picks up the story: “In Dallas, I remember the rank-and-file of the Republican Party started filing out of the Convention Center, and we turned around and started a chant of “Fuck Off and Die!” just so they could see exactly what they were in for."

Chicken George was diggin’ the scene--up until that point, anyway.

Flag burning. (John Spath)

“Before the Dead Kennedys started, there were a few random flag burnings, but the crowd really got enthused when the band started playing,” says Baum. “They put on a fantastic show while railing against the Republicans between each song. Then the convention let out and Jello started the crowd chanting 'FUCK OFF AND DIE!' to the conventioneers as they walked by. I thought that was kind of counterproductive, so I decided to leave. “

Even with the rampant conflict dynamic, Baum still considers it a formative experience. “In spite of the odd chant at the end, it was a great event and one of the most exciting things that I had experienced in my young life up until that point.”

One of those flag burners was a kid named Greg Johnson, a self-proclaimed member of a group called the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade. He was arrested and charged with the desecration of a flag.

This singular incident ultimately overshadowed the rest of the festivities in the national press. Five years later, his case had been appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was finally decided in his favor.

Did Jello Biafra look at it as an act of courage to come to Dallas and confront the Republican Party face-to-face?

“We knew that by going into Dallas we were right there in the belly of the beast, so to speak, but we were also in the middle of our own tour at the time, so we didn’t have to time to freak out on what might happen at that one show,” he says.

Call it what you will, but an oblivious reaction to fear is usually a crucial element of having the courage of one’s convictions.

“I’m not sure it was so much courage, because we had already had lots of experience with violent police actions at our shows in San Francisco,” says J to tha ‘ello. “We did outdoor protest shows there all the time. And we also had a similar situation when we played in Houston that year. Maybe we would have had more fear of the possible consequences if we hadn't of already had so many close calls with the law.”

The rogue wave of anarchy washed over Dallas for four days. After the "Rock Against Reagan" event, there were numerous subversive protests, including the "War Chest Tour" and an organized cannabis “smoke out” the next afternoon.

Some might even venture that the protest rally actually kick started an ongoing subversive DIY music and arts movement just outside downtown Dallas.

Russell Hobbs is the owner of The Door in Deep Ellum. At the time, he was just starting a new DIY arts venue called Theatre Gallery. Hobbs was also in attendance at the “Rock Against Reagan” rally, and came away with the ultimate keepsake from the experience: the very stage on which the Dead Kennedys had performed.

“Yeah, we actually disassembled the stage that day and loaded it up on the back of a truck, then brought it down to 2808 Commerce and then put it all back together,” says Hobbs. “We rebuilt it and made it a little bigger. But for the most part, that was same stage they used that day.”

Years later, acts like Bad Brains, Husker Du, Jane’s Addiction, Butthole Surfers and Meat Puppets would all perform on the same stage that the Dead Kennedys had christened that August evening.

Hobbs was amazed by the enthusiasm of the crowd that day: “The main thing I remember was the chaos in the audience. This one kid climbed up on top of one of the PA stacks and jumped off into the mosh pit, but everyone kinda moved out of the way and he just landed flat on the concrete. That had to hurt.”

Jason Cohen thought that whole weekend was a gas: “Most of my memories revolve around the ‘War Chest‘ tour that followed the concert. Several hundred crazed punks rampaging through downtown Dallas stopping at every large corporate headquarters, vandalizing stuff and ranting about the social injustices of each company. At one point, as we were running through the Plaza of the Americas hotel building, [and] I remember seeing some punks grab food right off the plate of Walter Cronkite, who was there eating lunch in the atrium at the time."

Hello there, Walter. And welcome back to Dallas.

“It was great to hear Jello belting out 'Kill kill kill the poor!' as the motorcades of delegates were passing behind the stage. I think Old Ronnie even passed by as MDC was playing!”

Cohen, like John Spath and nearly a hundred other rather outspoken individuals, ended up spending the night in a cage.

“As the entire tour ended, we were in front of Dallas City Hall swimming in the fountain and having a great time as hundreds of Dallas police in riot gear surrounded us and proceeded to arrest everyone, including myself, “ says Cohen. “Oh well, my Dad was right!”

Back at the North Dallas homestead, my Mom had no idea what I had taken part in, but she sure was glad that I managed to somehow get rid of those freakin’ bumper stickers that had been taking up space in the garage for all those years.

And while I didn’t burn any American flags, pee on anything expensive or vandalize any corporate property weekend, I still felt like we were all part of something historic and raw.

Obviously, nobody took the ancient bumper sticker’s re-gifted advice back in 1984; the geriatric Republicans certainly weren’t voted out of office that year.

On Tuesday, expect the electorate to finally fulfill the prophecy of my Dad’s bumper stickers. Last week, he sent me an email letting me know that he already voted early for Barack Obama.

It took a while, but it looks like we’re finally gonna vote them all out, Pops. --Jeffrey Liles

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Jeff Liles