22 May 2008

Little Al And Jello B

I thought for sure I'd told this story here before, but a quick search turns up no evidence of it, so here goes. If you've heard it already, sorry. Maybe you shouldn't pay such close attention to what I say; that way it'll still sound semi-fresh when I repeat myself.

I first met Little Al near the end of the summer of '69 (laugh all you want; I've actually never heard more than a brief snippet of the song), just after I got back from Woodstock. He, his girlfriend Val, and about 32 other hippies, one of whom was my younger brother, lived in a ramshackle two bedroom house just up the street from me in Ann Arbor. They called themselves the Congolian Maulers, and were meant to be Ann Arbor's "other" revolutionary commune, the White Panthers/Trans Love Energies house being of course the first.

Despite their fierce-sounding name, I never knew the Maulers to do any mauling or much of anything else apart from get stoned and talk a lot, i.e., just like pretty much all the hippies I knew, myself included. Little Al, who'd been one of my brother's best friends since high school, was particularly disdainful of the revolutionary rhetoric floating around, and was far more interested in music. Shortly afterward I took off for California and didn't see Little Al again till I came back for a visit in the summer of 1970. Walking up Oakland Street in search of the most recent address I had for my brother, I heard a deafening cacophony emerging from the tower room of an old rambling house. It sounded like half a dozen chimpanzees were committing mayhem on a kid's drum set, but Little Al stuck his head out the window and shouted, "Hey Larry! I'm learning to play the drums!"

The learning process was slow and painful, especially for those of us living downstairs, but eventually Little Al got good enough to play in bands, and eventually he hooked up with a semi-professional (as in they apparently made some money at times) outfit in Colorado called the Ravers. I never saw them, but I knew they toured a lot, and even had a roadie, so I reckoned that made them bigger time than most bands I knew.

That was in the mid-70s; by 1977 or 78 Al had turned up in San Francisco, where he joined an excellent new wave/power pop band called the Pushups, who came very close to making it big before they broke up over the usual issues of conflicting ambitions/egos/drugs type issues. But I think the Pushups were still together that fateful day when my brother, who was crashing at Al's apartment in the Mission District, answered the door and found the Ravers' old roadie from Colorado, a skinny kid named Eric. He'd just dropped out of college, he informed my brother, and hitchhiked up to San Francisco with the intention of starting a punk rock band.

Within a few months Eric had morphed into Jello Biafra, lead singer of the Dead Kennedys. I saw them play a few times in 1978 and 79, but never actually met him until the autumn of 1980, when Little Al asked me to drive him and his drums down to a warehouse in Hunters Point, where he was going to try out as the Dead Kennedys' new drummer. I'd been up on a three or four day coke binge, so I immediately fell asleep behind Klaus Fluoride's bass amp while they ran through a few songs. Maybe not totally asleep, but I remember it being very restful.

Then they brought in the other contender for the job, Darren Peligro, who'd been turning up at a lot of the same shows and parties my girlfriend and I were at. I later came to realize that this was no coincidence, but that's neither here nor there: the relevant point is that it was instantly obvious that Little Al was not going to get this gig. He was a good solid drummer, albeit a bit pedestrian - but in a good way; he often reminded me of Ringo Starr - but Darren was a raging powerhouse and a perfect fit for the DKs. Afterwards I talked to Biafra for a while, and was surprised to find that despite all the screaming and ranting I'd seen him do on stage, he was pleasant, personable, witty, and an all-around nice guy to shoot the shit with.

The 80s weren't kind to Little Al. He never got another solid musical gig, and drugs, which had always been around, started to play a bigger and bigger role in his life. I wasn't exactly a poster boy for clean living myself, but I remember being shocked and a little frightened the first time I saw him cooking up free base in a dingy little flat on Waller Street. I only saw him a few times after that. He put on a lot of weight, spent much of his time hanging out drinking in bars, and finally dropped dead of a heart attack.

Meanwhile I was getting more involved in the music scene myself, first with my band and then with a record label as well, which meant crossing paths with Biafra more frequently. His label, mine, and Maximum Rocknroll magazine were all distributed through Mordam Records, and this produced some, shall we say, lively discussions, often with Biafra and myself on one side and MRR's Tim Yohannan in vociferous opposition. Once I left the record business and California, I no longer saw much of Biafra; the last lengthy conversation I had with him must have been sometime in the late 90s when Trust magazine's Dolf Hermannstädter and I ran into him on Valencia Street right about the time that whole lawsuit business with the other three Dead Kennedys was erupting.

Biafra seemed saddened and outraged in equal measure. He wasn't even going to consider compromising with his old bandmates; when I (and, I think, Dolf) pointed out that there was a fair chance he might lose the lawsuit if it went to court, he said, "Well, then I'll write an article for the local papers exposing them for what they really are." I didn't want to point out that this wasn't the old days, where an indignant letter or column in MRR could play havoc with a band's career, so I wished him luck, and apart from brief hellos at a couple of shows, I haven't really seen him since.

The lawsuit did end badly, and my impression was that Biafra was pretty upset over it, but he seems to have recovered pretty well, and has kept busy with a host of projects in addition to his long-running record label, Alternative Tentacles. And now I see, thanks to the Bay Guardian, that he's about to turn 50, and will be celebrating with a couple of shows at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall.

And it may not come under the heading of best birthday surprise ever, but today's Chronicle brings the news that talk show host Michael Savage (né Michael Weiner) is apparently a closet DKs fan. Savage/Weiner, who's about as far right wing as Biafra is left, plays the Dead Kennedys track "California Über Alles" and enthusiastically recites all the lyrics. The point, apparently, was to mock Senator Ted Kennedy's most likely fatal brain tumor, but Savage got in a few kicks at the "Zen fascists" as well. Which just goes to show... Well, I'm sure it shows something, but I'm too sleepy to think of what it might be just now. Happy half century, Jello B!!!


Anonymous said...

Long Live Jello!

I never would have suspected that he'd be one of the few remaining punk rock stalwarts who kept his head on his shoulders and resisted the social forces that turned others similarly situated into complete fundamentalists like Tim Yohanan or into leftist neo-cons like, ahem, Larry Livermore, and a couple others.

"Where d'ya draw the line?" indeed.

Anonymous said...

hrmmm, yes, Dead Kennedys, what had they been up to lately, cough cough

Brody said...

Thanks for telling that story, very interesting stuff! By the way, if you haven't already I suggest checking out Jello's latest band the Guantanamo School of Medicine. Good stuff.

Anonymous said...

I was one of the Congolian Maulers.
It was an interesting time. I knew Al Leis if that is who you are referring to as Little Al. He was a good friend. I found his obituary on the net, but no cause of death. Just an old faded photograph. Thanks for the memories.