Highway to Hell:
My Life on the Road with the Dead Kennedys

Amy Linden
Feb 3, 2015 · 9 min read

In 1981 I moved back to New York City after spending four years in San Francisco. I was 22, and a childhood friend and I shared a two bedroom apartment—rent $300 and change—on East 4th Street, just off Avenue A, kitty-corner to the building where Madonna lived back before she actually was Madonna.

One day, I got a phone call from my friend Klaus Fluoride, the bass player for the seminal punk group the Dead Kennedys. During my last 18 months in SF, Klaus, his girlfriend, three other roommates, my boyfriend/we-got married-for-his-green-card husband, and I shared a huge flat in the Mission District. I wasn’t as close to the other members as I was to Klaus; I had spent a decent amount of time with Darren, (a.k.a. DH Peligro), East Bay Ray, and the inimitable Jello Biafra. It was great to hear from Klaus, especially since he had good news—the Dead Kennedys were embarking on their first East Coast tour.

“We’re coming to New York!” Klaus exclaimed. “You should come out on the road with us!” And why not? I could drink all the band’s beer! I could go backstage. And most of all, I could meet cute punk rock boys! Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about giving my boss notice because I barely had a job.

After arriving in NYC, the band took the Amtrak down to Washington, D.C., where the mini-tour was going to kick off. On the ride down, Klaus raised the possibility of my helping out in some way. Maybe I could write up setlists, maybe arrange the guest list, maybe help move equipment, or maybe I could get up on stage and do “security,” which consisted of grabbing the mic back whenever singer Jello Biafra propelled himself into the audience, keeping the flow of stage divers moving at a brisk pace, and tossing—or more specifically shoving—anyone who climbed up on stage and showed little inclination to move.

That I was totally ill-suited to do security for anyone at anytime, least of all for a high-energy aggressive band with high-energy aggressive fans, should have been obvious. Clearly, none of this mattered. Just like that, I was on stage at the legendary 9:30 Club, wearing a short kilt, beat up cowboy boots, and bandanas wrapped around my wrists, looking out at a packed house of pumped up fans, and trying my best to look butch. Pushing sweat-soaked twenty-year-olds off the stage was not my idea of meeting cute punk rock guys.

Arguably, punk rock’s birthplace was New York. However in 1981, D.C. was the epicenter of the East Coast hardcore scene, with much of the momentum coming from a tight knit, committed crew—many just out of their teens or still living at home—who adhered to a DIY philosophy/lifestyle known as “straight edge.” Being down with straight edge meant just saying “no” to liquor, cigarettes and drugs, which at the time were three of my four basic food groups.

The leading lights of the straight edge crew were Ian MacKaye and Henry Garfield. Ian’s resume included Teen Idles, Minor Threat, and later Fugazi, in addition to founding the influential indie label Dischord Records. Garfield, who worked at a Häagen-Dazs in Georgetown, was the front man for S.O.A. In time, he would change his surname to Rollins, join Black Flag, and become a heavily tattooed, singer/spoken word artist and actor. Henry and Ian looked a bit scary, but like most of the D.C. crew, were as sweet and courteous as their music was aggressive. When they weren’t following me around like I was Bo Peep and they were lost skinhead sheep, Henry and Ian took it upon themselves to protect me from whatever it was they thought I needed to be protected from.

By the time the Dead Kennedys finished up the first of two D.C. shows, I was a cross between big sister and mascot, the affection strictly platonic. There may have been lots of unity, but not many of the D.C. kids were coupled up. All of the passion was directed at the “cause.” It was as though sex, like drugs and alcohol, indicated a lack of discipline.

I remember an odd but telling conversation with Henry. He had invited his friends, the DKs, and me to his small apartment in Alexandria, Virginia. He asked me to come to the kitchen. With utmost sincerity Henry, who was at most was two years my junior, said that he really didn’t like girls, but he liked me because to him I wasn’t really a girl. If memory serves, it was then that he opened the freezer and showed me a dead rat. Touched as I was by Henry’s attempt to let me into his world, I let him know that I was enough of a girl to find a rat-cicle kind of gross. Bless his heart, but this whole meeting cute punk boys was clearly not in the cards.

Ian, Henry, and my new skinhead besties traveled to the Baltimore show where they stood in front of the stage, their arms reaching up towards me and sang, “Amy, dance with us!” I might not have been the best security detail but I sure was the most popular. Such displays of affection only served to make my already rocky relationship with Biafra even worse. It was bad enough that Klaus had brought me along, but to Biafra my being serenaded undermined his punk cred, not to mention that he had no interest in sharing the spotlight, especially with some girl in a miniskirt and cowboy boots.

Oddly enough, Biafra’s ire grew even more pronounced when I developed a nasty cough and took to swilling cheap, high-octane cough syrup. Convinced that I would get him sick and that my fits of coughing somehow made the band look lame, Biafra turned mean. He decided that part of my job description involved looking after the equipment, and therefore I had to sleep in the van parked on the streets of the nation’s then-murder capitol. This edict was quickly and angrily squashed by Darren, Klaus and guitarist East Bay Ray, who generally paid me no mind, instead concentrating on picking up women. For the remainder of the tour, Klaus and Darren chipped in for a hotel room and kept Biafra off my case. He was a charismatic front man, but Biafra’s actions further convinced me that he was a dick.

Before heading down to Charm City, we drove out to a farm in Virginia to meet the Bad Brain’s explosive lead singer H.R. The Bad Brains were and remain a sheer force of nature, but H.R. could be, shall we say, strange. His home was a punk rock crash pad/Rasta commune filled with kids, women, the other three-quarters of the Bad Brains and the ever-present smell of weed. The Kennedys were there to finalize plans for the punk pioneers to open up at the first of two upcoming NYC dates. Unbeknownst to us, H.R. was in the midst of a verbal fast, something that he did to cleanse himself of negative energy. Instead of talking, he gestured wildly and occasionally scribbled down notes. The next time we saw H.R. and the Bad Brains, they came “this close” to blowing the Dead Kennedys off stage. In fact, they just might have done so.

We encountered a bit of drama in Boston. The concert tickets and local advertising said “DKs” rather than the “Dead Kennedys.” Was it censorship? Maybe. It wasn’t uncommon to shorten the group’s name, yet it wasn’t lost on anyone that the name change had happened in the home of the actual Kennedys. Looking back, I think that Ray, Klaus, and Darren knew that taking umbrage over the promoter’s decision was not worth the energy. But with his customary lack of concern for anything but his own agenda, Biafra became furious.

Adding insult to perceived injury, Biafra began the set ranting and making snarky comments about imprisoned IRA martyr Bobby Sands, who had either just died or was dying as a result of a prolonged hunger strike. It was not one of Biafra’s most sensitive moments. It was also in Boston that the band picked up Microwave, a good natured, muscley young fan who approached them after the show. Microwave was a far better fit for tossing skinheads and guarding amps than a sleep-deprived and tubercular girl. Much to Biafra’s delight, Microwave took over most of the heavy lifting. Literally.

After six cities in two weeks, the traveling circus ended at NYC’s Irving Plaza. An old Ukrainian theater, Irving Plaza was largest venue, and that night it was packed with hundreds of bodies, including the D.C. Straight Edge Boy’s Choir/Amy Appreciation Society. Even though Microwave was now head punk-in-charge, I was in my customary spot off to the right of the bass amp, poised to help out if needed. The energy level was off the charts and the crowd roared, sang along and danced as the Kennedys tore through songs like “California Über Alles,” “Kill the Poor,” and “Holiday in Cambodia.”

By now I was so in sync with the band’s rhythm that I could almost predict when Biafra would dive into the crowd. And when he did, I ran to the front of the stage to reel him in. Suddenly an over-eager fan grabbed the mic and refused to loosen up his grip. Biafra was floating on top of a sea of bodies, and I had lost control of the mic. A tug of war ensued, and the next thing I knew, the fan got a hold of the mic stand and clonked me. Unfortunately, I was a little drunk; having hit the end of the already-frayed rope, I lost it and tried to kick the fan in the head. Before I could make shoe-to-forehead contact, my opponent put his hands around my left foot and twisted it.

Microwave sprung into action, secured the stand, got the mic and brought Biafra back to the stage as Klaus pushed me behind an amp. The skirmish took less than a minute. As soon as the show ended and the band headed to the dressing room, I became acutely aware of a nagging, swelling sensation radiating from the side of my foot. The pain was intense, so I kept drinking in the hopes that beer would make it all better. I didn’t want to look like a baby or miss the fun—Saturday Night Live’s John Belushi and Mr. Bill were there!

When I was unable to move my toes, it was clear that something really bad had happened. I needed to get it checked out immediately. Ever the gentlemen, Henry and Ian carried me ten blocks down 14th Street to St. Vincent’s Hospital and stayed in the waiting room while I was examined. By now, my foot was completely swollen, and the only way to take x-rays was to cut the boot off, which I begged the doctor not to do. Turned out that I had a severely broken left toe. I was given something a bit stronger than cough syrup, a pair of crutches, and just like that my road trip was over. The Dead Kennedys went back home. I’d had fun. I was littered with bruises but I’d had fun. I never did meet any cute punk rock boys.

All photos by Ruby Ray

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Medium’s Premier Music Publication: An ear for the new, a heart for the classics

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