The Dils’ New Deal

Chip Kinman said no to a Dils reunion for decades. Then he said yes.

By Chip Kinman’s account, The Dils did not undergo some brutal punk scene excommunication circa 1979.

He would know. He was there, after all, bouncing between San Francisco and Los Angeles as one-third of the seminal punk outfit he’d started with his brother Tony. In his telling, The Dils were invited to open for The Clash at the band’s upcoming Santa Monica show. They said yes, of course, as they’d met Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Topper Headon during the Bay Area sessions for The Clash’s 1978 album Give ‘Em Enough Rope. Before the Clash returned to England, they gave the brothers the stereo they’d been using in San Francisco. (Charles Kinman, Chip and Tony’s older brother, reportedly still has it.)

When word broke that tickets to the Santa Monica show were $10, it didn’t exactly sit right with everyone. The Dils had been diligent about keeping prices down, part good punk praxis via low-hanging leftist fruit, part a simple acknowledgement of the reality that punks are cheap.

Most people, Kinman remembers, didn’t care. But a few did.

“Of course, we got blamed for it,” Kinman says. “The Dils did, because we were the ones that put our foot down and said, ‘If it’s more than $10, we’re not going to play a nightclub show.’ So fair enough, we got some blowback.

“We didn’t really let it affect us,” he adds. “We knew that any band would have given their eye teeth to have had that gig.”

But hindsight is 20/20, and the gig went poorly. The members of The Clash altogether avoided socializing with their opening band backstage.

“I remember being mad at The Clash because we took all this shit for the door, and then we come out to play and they don’t even talk to us, and then we play and we suck,” Kinman says. “So I’m standing on stage when The Clash go on and I’m thinking, ‘Man, I really hope they suck. I really don’t want to like them.’ And they were so fucking good. I was tortured.”

The next day, Kinman asked his father what he thought of The Clash.

“He [said], ‘Well, I thought they were a second-rate Dils.’ I never forgot that,” he says. “I know he probably thought, ‘They cleaned your clocks.’ But still.”

The Dils would call it quits by the end of that year — well more than a decade before the opening of Bottom of the Hill, where they play on Saturday, July 20. They weren’t wholly ostracized by external forces, but simply content with the realization that writing punk songs as The Dils had run its course. Kinman moved to New York, eventually landing in Austin and starting proto-cowpunk band Rank and File with Tony and Nuns drummer Alejandro Escovedo.

But before it all ended, The Dils were proper first-wave San Francisco punks, de facto luminaries in the blink-and-you-missed-it, late-’70s Bay Area scene. Tony and Chip Kinman moved to San Francisco in 1978 from Carlsbad, where their career marine father had chosen to retire after Vietnam. The only proper ’60s child of the bunch, older brother Charles managed his siblings’ musical education in The Animals, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles (supplemented by a trip to the drive-in when A Hard Day’s Night opened). Like all punk kids of a certain era, Chip and Tony admired Lou Reed, New York Dolls, and David Bowie, and loathed Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

The brothers formed the Dils for something to do, figuring it out as they went. Tony’s Marxist politics manifested in hammer-and-sickle imagery and lyrics about class warfare and hating the rich, delivered with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball crashing into a burning building. Chip was less of a true believer, but he enjoyed the red scare provocation. When Stalinist and communist organizations asked to set up booths at Dils shows, he told them to get lost.

“We weren’t Stalinists. We were mostly just loudmouths and troublemakers,” Kinman says. “Shit-stirrers.”

Chip and Tony were also California punks at the right time, bouncing back and forth between San Francisco and Los Angeles alongside their peers: F-Word, The Avengers, The Nuns, The Zeros. They managed to record a handful of 7-inches: 198 Seconds of the Dils became their post-mortem calling card. It features the frenetic “Class War,” now something of a political punk touchstone. (Just before recording it, the band booked a two-set show at a pizza place in Orange County. No one came to see the band or eat pizza, so they spent both sets playing the song 15 times in a row.)

When it was over, it was over. No reunions. Onto the next thing.

Then Tony died in May 2018 — albeit not before giving Kinman permission to “rattle my bones to sell some records.” When The Casbah offered Kinman’s band Ford Madox Ford a slot at the San Diego venue’s 30th anniversary party, his 23-year-old son, Giuliano Scarfo, suggested he play a Dils set instead. The idea of saying yes after 40 years of saying no appealed to Kinman. Scarfo enlisted his friend Brian Melendez on bass, thus reforming a new, multi-generational Dils.

To Kinman, it still feels right. His politics and penchant for shit-stirring have admittedly mellowed. But, like wealth inequality in this country, the songs have managed to hold up decade after decade.

“I’m a 61-year-old man now. I don’t really hate anybody and I don’t want any war,” he says. “But [the songs] are fun, they’re fantastic. They’re really great to listen to.”

The Dils, Saturday, July 20, 9 p.m., at Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., $12-$15,


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