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It's the Economics, Stupid

What could Bruce Springsteen and the Dead Kennedys possibly have in common?

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Dead Kennedys

Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables: Special 25th Anniversary Edition CD + DVD

(Manifesto)

Bruce Springsteen

Born to Run: 30th Anniversary 3 Disc Set

(Columbia)

It's a little jarring to be reminded now that these two era-defining albums--which seem to lie on either side of a generation gap the size of Snake River Canyon--came out only five years apart. But if you were at an impressionable age in 1975, when Bruce Springsteen released Born to Run, or in 1980, when the Dead Kennedys put out Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, chances are those five years made all the difference in the world. Relative age matters more the younger you are. I mean, do you feel the same way now about dating someone five years older as you did when you were 15?

I turned 6 and 11 the years they were originally released--my dad even bought the Dead Kennedys record, bless him--and caught up with them both around the same time, so they occupy similarly exalted places in my consciousness. To my ears Jello Biafra's declamatory braying is an endearing minor irritant, and no more compromises Fresh Fruit's brilliance than the Boss sinks Born to Run with his rambling beat-poetry riffs on "Jungleland" and "Backstreets."

Jon Landau, the former Rolling Stone writer who went on to serve as Bruce's producer, manager, and Svengali, famously called Springsteen rock 'n' roll's future back in 1974--but neither of these records was ever the future of rock. They were its present--and in listener land, where there aren't any critics digging for the next big thing or record labels marketing fresh trends, they still are. Somebody somewhere in the world is hearing "Holiday in Cambodia" for the first time right now. Somebody is listening to "Thunder Road" in her car, rolling down the window and letting the wind blow back her hair just like Bruce is telling her to.

In the past few weeks both records have been reissued in special anniversary editions, and so the natural thing to do is compare them--which isn't just an apples-and-oranges proposition. It's like trying to choose between Guernica and Michelangelo's David. But they do have something in common: though they have yet to inspire an upwelling of fellowship between Bay Area punks in bondage pants and New Jersey jamokes in denim jackets, they both speak to the frustration and despair of the working class in ways that have yet to grow old.

The differences, of course, are many, but perhaps the most important is that only one of these albums has made a shitload of money. This class distinction is instantly apparent in the packaging of the reissues. On one hand you've got a tony-looking box set with a lovingly remastered version of the record uncluttered by outtakes or alternate versions, a slick photo book full of shots of Bruce at his sexiest and hairiest, a 16-song DVD of a November 1975 live set in London, and a second DVD with a documentary on the making of the record. On the other you've got a pretty perfunctory double Digipak with a bare-bones discography on the inside and a reproduction of the original insert--a punk-ass black-and-white photocopied collage salted with pictures of John Wayne Gacy, Ronald Reagan, Travis Bickle, and Howdy Doody. The DKs release does come with a DVD of its own, which contains six songs' worth of live footage and a decent documentary on the band called Fresh Fruit for Rotting Eyeballs. But my opinion--that these records are classics of roughly equal stature--is obviously not a universal consensus.

Springsteen, with or without the E Street Band, continues to make a shitload of money. Last month senators Jon Corzine and Frank Lautenberg, both Democrats from New Jersey, sponsored a resolution to recognize the Boss for his contributions to American culture. Even though Republicans killed it, no doubt to remind everyone that not even rock stars are allowed to back John Kerry and escape retribution, can you imagine anybody so much as mentioning the Dead Kennedys on Capitol Hill? (I'm not even sure they came up during the infamous PMRC hearings in 1985, since the Frankenchrist obscenity prosecution didn't kick off till '86.)

Needless to say the DKs never achieved Bruce's iconic status or pulled in the rock-star bucks, and that's no doubt added rancor to the squabbling over money that kept the band in the news in the late 90s. East Bay Ray, Klaus Flouride, and D.H. Peligro have accused Biafra of sitting on years of royalties rather than disbursing them, hiring a lawyer and manager to steer cash to himself, and attempting to take sole songwriting credit on tunes the band wrote together, among other things. If you actually look at the amounts they're fighting over--the disputed royalties were about 80 grand--well, would that cover even one tour bus for the E Street Band?

I don't mean to imply that Bruce and his buddies would've been at one another's throats if they'd had to struggle to make rent, but poverty rarely helps a band's long-term prospects. Money is a great oppressor when you have to think about it all the time, and Springsteen and the DKs both knew it. Born to Run romanticizes the mortal fuck out of the obsession with escape, ultimately passing through that sentimental haze and lying exhausted and almost lucid on the other side. (A critic whose name escapes me once said that Springsteen's early music is to rock 'n' roll what West Side Story is to real gang warfare.) Fresh Fruit takes the Jonathan Swift approach, gleefully and repeatedly assaulting some of the last real social taboos in America (don't talk about money in polite company, don't acknowledge that the class structure even exists) with all the crass, bad-boy bonhomie of Jim Morrison dropping trou.

If the passing decades have been kinder to one of these albums, it's Fresh Fruit, probably because youthful bitterness ages better than youthful romanticism. The DKs' music doesn't sound groundbreaking or outre today--for Christ's sake, the guitar solo in "Let's Lynch the Landlord" is pure surf--but the tunes have the timelessness of great direct rock 'n' roll, in the tradition yet not bound by it. The political themes in the lyrics are as relevant and urgent as ever, and their snarky outrage still falls on fertile ground. (You could make a good case that "California Uber Alles" just keeps getting more dead-on as the years go by.) Born to Run is slightly harder going for me now. The DKs for sure never said in eight minutes what could be said in one--and if these albums were all I'd heard by either artist, I know which one I'd pick as the more likely singles act.

Granted, "I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight in an everlasting kiss" is more acceptable as a "deep" sentiment than "I'm looking forward to death," but both feed on the same heady, adolescent emotional fatalism--in this appealingly nonspecific ethos, death is almost always the big ooga-booga climax to something or other, an irresistible vortex tugging on all those young people who can't imagine a future they'd want to live through. Faith in love--or the scornful spurning of that faith--becomes a social signifier, so that you might as well be wearing your preference like a costume in a remake of The Warriors set in a record store. If you were paying attention when Fresh Fruit and Born to Run came out, where you stood probably mattered a lot, but now it's hard to entertain the notion that such a conflict means anything. No matter which side you choose, yin or yang, you're part of the same structure of belief. Those distinctions ultimately fall away and leave the music to stand on its own, ready to be heard again as if for the first time.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Cunningham.

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