By the time I heard the Dead Kennedys for the first time, I had already seen a couple of local punk bands playing somewhere in Houston. So it’s sort of interesting for me to note that my first real exposure to punk rock was on a local live scene. No one that knew had Sex Pistols or Dead Kennedys records. I didn’t know who they were.
But I can say that really punk just seemed like noise to me until I heard this song. I didn’t really get it. The whole intentionally sounding disjointed and almost bad was something that I couldn’t stomach. I was only 13, so the idea of sound as artistic metaphor was fairly removed from my white suburban outlook on the world. And I was a couple years into playing the guitar at this point and my motivations for playing the guitar had everything to do with the guitar gods of the 70’s. So the onslaught of noise and deliberate debasement of music was something I found rather insulting.
Then I heard Holiday in Cambodia. I think it was my friend Spong who was in a punk band and a couple of years older than me that played the record. And it’s likely that he played it over and over again until I heard. Until I suddenly had to know what Jello Biafra was saying.
As a kid, I was unusually politically aware. I don’t remember seeing anything on television around the Watergate scandal. I was only 4 when that happened. But I do remember people talking about it. And I remember the end of the Vietnam War. The last of the American troops left Vietnam in 1975 or 1976. John Lennon and Yoko Ono bought ads on billboards welcoming the troops home. And I remember the election of 1980. I was 10. I dreaded the inevitable election of Reagan. Then John Lennon was killed and Reagan was shot. We moved to Houston.
The state of the world seemed so unfair and cruel. Nothing in popular media seemed to acknowledge this as the truth of the human condition. I found this very confusing. Even liberal ideology seemed misguided to me. More about self than it’s advertised selflessness. The Cold War seemed misrepresented, and while I wanted to be patriotic having been interested in the founding of the country, I found the contradictions hard to ignore.
The Dead Kennedys were a revelation to me. Here they were with this deliberately offensive name delivering this cynical message that seemed more realistic than some hippie fantasy.
“So you been to school for a year or two, and you know you’ve seen it all.”
Where was the peace? There were only power vacuums and powerful players trying to exploit the helpless.
“It’s time to taste what you most fear.”
Even today listening to this song, I get in touch with my own foolishness in my faith in progress. The assumption that our leaders are well-intentioned and the powerful are benevolent is misguided but pummelled into us with propaganda from the moment we are born.
“It’s a holiday in Cambodia. It’s tough kid, but it’s life.”
How is it so easy for us to recognize the propaganda in other cultures but so hard for us to see it in our own culture? So hard for us to see us creating our own propaganda to convince ourselves that we are doing the right thing? We get older and we do our best to justify our position in the world. Whether it’s on top or on the bottom, we spend a whole lot of time creating the propaganda of our own self-righteousness.
“You’re a star belly sneech. You suck like a leach.”
How is it so hard to see that we are set against each other to keep the focus off of the people that are really causing the problems?
“Kiss ass while you bitch. So you can get rich. But your boss gets richer off you.”
And fast forward 30 plus years to the members of the Dead Kennedys suing Jello Biafra in court. All of them in court with lawyers suing each other. It was some kind of terrible joke on all of us. The members of the Dead Kennedys in court suing each other. Fuck you! Fuck all of you! You weren’t supposed to grow up and become part of the same system that exploits me. The same system that I grew up enough to use to exploit other people.
“It’s a holiday in Cambodia. Where you’ll do what you’re told.”
I better get my propaganda machine cranked up. I don’t know how we’re going to justify this one to ourselves.
“Pol pot. Pol pot. Pol pot.”