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Riff Raff 

Flipper's a Cover Band Now, OK?

Wednesday, May 31 2000
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All reports to the contrary, the recent Dead Kennedys vs. Dead Kennedys lawsuit wasn't about royalties, or even preserving some amorphous concept of punk "integrity." Keeping in mind that the battle between Jello Biafra and his former bandmates wasn't just the best press but practically the only press the group has had in ages, the suit was mainly about trying to figure out how to make the legacy of an increasingly irrelevant catalog of music relevant today. That's not to say the Dead Kennedys were a bad or uninspiring punk band, just that the bulk of their songs were so closely wedded to their place and time (San Francisco in the early '80s, kids) that the strongest impact their music makes today is a nostalgic shrug -- and isn't that what the Dead Kennedys were fighting against in the first place? The court's ruling that Decay Music can make band decisions by a majority vote -- not a unanimous one -- means the group's three ex-members can ignore Biafra's protests and do whatever they like with the music, which at the very least will probably get us something like Kill the Poor and Lynch the Landlord: The Dead Kennedys Anthology on Rhino Records sometime soon.

One of Biafra's complaints was that the other members wanted to sell "Holiday in Cambodia" to Levi's, but why not go further? Hell, sell "Straight A's" to Kaplan Learning Centers, license "The Man With the Dogs" to Pets.com, pitch the band's Milk-Moscone rewrite of "I Fought the Law" to Hostess, and see if MTV can't spin some more institutionalized irony out of "MTV Get Off the Air." It won't matter -- the Dead Kennedys' rep won't be hurt a bit. Nor will Biafra's; his work as a populist commentator and anti-censorship advocate is current and admirable, and his comments on the latest No WTO Combo album, recorded at the Seattle protests, find him as lucid and forthright as ever. But, really, Dead Kennedys records are, sonically and lyrically, getting dated. We don't need to impeach Reagan anymore.

So it's hard to get too excited about this particular bit of news: Last month, all the members of Flipper who haven't died of heroin overdoses (i.e., half of them) booked time at Hyde Street Studios and recorded covers of Nirvana's "Scentless Apprentice" and Metallica's "Sad But True" for a pair of tribute albums. As yet untitled, the tribute discs are slated for release in the fall on Los Angeles-based Cleopatra Records, which does brisk business strip-mining pop history -- celebrations of the oeuvres of Garth Brooks, Prince, Guns N' Roses, Tupac Shakur, and others are available, though Cleopatra's also responsible for the new electronic music documentary Better Living Through Circuitry. Flipper drummer Steve DePace now works as a band manager in L.A. (one of his clients: Dead Kennedys drummer D.H. Peligro's band, Peligro), and has a relationship with Cleopatra General Manager Brian McNelis. So when the opportunity presented itself, DePace said yes, with little hesitation -- though that meant getting hold of the other members, who've harbored ill will toward each other in the past and scattered away from city. Bassist and singer Bruce Lose had moved to Humboldt County in the past year, and guitarist Ted Falconi had always been tough to find, jumping from place to place in the East Bay.

"I'm the guy who always tried to keep track of those guys," says DePace, ever the straight-laced guy in a punk band that was always about feeling fucked-up: Slow, dirgelike, hypnotic, and noisy, Flipper's bass-driven songs were punk not according to the strictures of louder-harder-faster but instead the sensibility of an S.F. punk scene that believed something genuinely confrontational was something true. Which is why, in the long run, Flipper's music will likely matter more than the Dead Kennedys' -- if the Dead Kennedys were pointed and topical, Flipper songs were usually in some way about the meaning of life, which makes them eternal. And that's probably what the band meant when it spray-painted its infamous slogan on the side of its touring van: "Flipper suffered for their music -- now it's your turn."

You can see that van on the cover of the group's second album, Gone Fishin', and good luck finding it. Like most of Flipper's music, the record's languished in the hands of American Records' Rick Rubin for years and has never seen CD release, though the classic debut Generic Flipper is available (as is the horrid 1993 "reunion" disc, American Grafishy). So, today, if you do a Web search on the band, the bulk of the sites will mention Flipper only in grisly databases of rock star overdoses, making special mention of singer/bassist Will Shatter, whose death in 1987 essentially shuttered the group creatively. DePace says he's still actively pursuing the matter of reissues and hopes to have it resolved soon; there's a whole album's worth of music from the Gone Fishin' sessions, and he'd like to see that come out as well.

As for Falconi, he's just happy to be playing. In his time after Flipper, he's been working in computer animation, working on cars, and trying to find a place to settle in -- he recently got evicted from his apartment in Oakland. Falconi was often fingered as one of the hardest-living band members -- a Vietnam vet and the only member who looked like he'd happily beat the crap out of you, he's eased into a relaxed, if somewhat haggard, middle age -- his long hair is worked into gray dreadlocks, a few teeth are missing, but he speaks mainly of getting out from the heroin cycle that took down his bandmates. "I've got too many friends who are dead now," he says.

Send Bay Area music news, band stories, or petty gripes to Mark.Athitakis@sfweekly.com, or mail them to Riff Raff, c/o SF Weekly.

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Mark Athitakis

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