In 1987, at a family arcade in New Jersey, I’d hoarded enough Skee-ball tickets for a real prize—not just some ratty stuffed animal. I claimed my bounty with fervor: a single-tape boombox small enough to keep under the covers and muffle the sounds of my parents’ endless fighting. In the dark, the volume at just one bar, I’d lie with my ear pressed against the speaker mesh, my index finger poised, waiting to hit record on any of the groups I loved—Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, Exposé, Kool & The Gang. Then I’d spend hours sleuthing out each nuanced lyric, the staccato start and stops, until the vocals faded and the tapes finally gave out.
A year later, in the neighborhood of 3 a.m., I awoke to a smashing sound against the wall I shared with my parents, so I turned to my radio, moving the metal knob an imperceptible hair at a time until I stumbled on the local college station. The sounds I heard changed everything. A baritone DJ yelled, “This one’s for Saddam Hussein. Fuck you!” Then four ticks of drumsticks before the furious guitar of “Chemical Warfare” began. I was so stunned that I didn’t hit record immediately—unblinking in the dark, muscles stiff—but a few bars in, I scrambled to press that red square.
When it was over, I rewound and listened to the choking, screaming song again. And again. And yet again. I broke into a sweat. I had no idea who Saddam Hussein was—or what band had just made that big, big noise—but I was sure of one thing: I was pissed off.
All I could think was an incredulous, where have they been keeping THIS? I’d been playing it musically safe because I hadn’t known punk existed, and not knowing made it feel like a conspiracy—like my parents and friends and every DJ on the radio were in on this grand musical lie. When Jello Biafra urged me to, “Go crazy,” I listened. Besides, I didn’t understand most of the other lyrics. I just knew I needed more.
The next day at school I asked a monitor with a fresh perm for a bathroom pass and stalked the empty halls, my heart walloping as I pushed open the door that lead outside. I’d never left school during the day other than to get my teeth cleaned. A voice asked, “You lost?” What a line. And there he was, sitting on a low brick wall: James W., his head half shaved, one eye patched by a swath of blonde hair, feet capped with ratty Vans, skateboard by his side. According to the unwritten hierarchy of middle school, I had no business talking to him. I was a goody two-shoes and, worse, a cheerleader.
“Not lost,” I said, my voice shaky. “Looking for you.” He was cute in that way I was sure mothers disowned daughters for. I took a deep breath, felt the heat settle on my cheeks. “I, uh, heard a song on the radio in the middle of the night and want to know what it is.”
He shook the hair from his eye with a snap of his neck and smirked. “And why would I know?”
“I don’t know. I just think you might.” I couldn’t bring myself to say, “I don’t know what any of your T-shirts mean, but you seem to have your finger on the pulse of something edgy.”
“I don’t know who sings it—that’s the problem—but it’s gotta be called ‘Chemical Warfare.’” I would have kept talking, offering up the few lyrics I’d managed to understand, but James W. laughed and flipped his skateboard over to reveal, at its center, the “DK” symbol.
“Dead Kennedys, dude. But I doubt your parents will buy it for you.” I pictured my mom in Lycra from neck to ankle, stretching her hamstrings to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” I imagined his mother in an anarchy-patched leather jacket, spikes choked around her neck. Christ. Even his parents were cooler than mine.
“Well, if I give you a tape, could you get it for me?” My first drug deal.
He jerked his hair out of his eye again and tilted his head. “Yeah?”
Later that week I had a copy of Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, an album so short that it fit on one side of the tape. James W.’s pitiful handwriting was scratched into the liner with titles like “Drug Me” and “I Kill Children.” Maybe I’d wandered into territory too dark, dangerous, some nonsense about the Devil that had been deeply engrained in me thanks to the Greek School I attended at our local Orthodox church. I didn’t want to be drugged—or kill children, for that matter. Despite my straight A’s, satire was entirely wasted on me. Concerns aside, I played the tape first chance I got.
The first line of track 1, “Kill The Poor,” began: “Efficiency and progress is ours once more / Now that we have the Neutron bomb.” What to make of that at twelve years old? There’d been no talk of Neutron bombs at school; our history class was still stuck on life in colonial America. The song lurked, its tempo slow before quickening, but it was Biafra’s warble, his ability to stick a ceaseless vibrato on each syllable—even the “e” of “efficiency”—that drew me in.
I liked the opening song enough, but once “Forward to Death” began with its isolated drums, the song’s entirety so much faster than anything I’d ever listened to, I became a Dead Kennedys fan for life. In that magnificent speed I heard an urgency absent in pop music. I heard truth, and I rewound the tape to sing along: “I don’t need this fucking world / This world brings me down!”
My jam, “Chemical Warfare,” was smack in the middle. I listened again and again as the song slowed down to the warped circus melody before the layered chaos started. There were no synths, no harmonizing backup singers, nary a lame sax solo. Just twenty seconds of people choking, babies crying, and one man yelling, “Let me out!” followed by the quick wrap-up, the song pulled back together for the chorus: “Chemical warfare, chemical warfare, chemical warfare, warfare, warfare!” It was three psychotic minutes, a goddamned punch in the face. And I loved it.
I couldn’t wait for my parents to leave, to go anywhere long enough for me to safely blast Fresh Fruit, because I knew I couldn’t play it in front of them—although I desperately wanted to crank it louder than my pitiful boombox could project. Sneaking punk at a low, don’t-catch-me volume is like pounding a case of non-alcoholic beer.
I daydreamed of a professional setup with mammoth tower speakers so that right in the middle of one of their fights, I could bounce and stomp, starting my one-girl mosh pit, belting out the lyrics: “Now I got my own mustard gas in my pocket / Climb on a tree branch and drop it!” And they’d stop fighting long enough to stare squint-eyed, maybe even worry. “So I can watch them die chokin’ and shakin’ in convulsions,” I’d scream, and then I’d direct them just like Biafra that it was time to, “Go crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy!” And bit by crappy bit, I’d destroy the living room: lamps shattered, family photos swiped and cracked, throw pillows punched until their insides bled out, all the while my parents begging me to stop.
I had this fantasy every single day. In class. On the bus. At tense family dinners. I wanted to gut my world. More than once I caught myself smiling at the thought of it. I felt myself slipping away from all of the things I’d once loved: dance, cheerleading, Michael Jackson. I simply couldn’t get enough punk and hardcore. My collection grew to include the standards—7 Seconds, Minor Threat, Black Flag, Bad Brains—but Dead Kennedys remained my favorite. I didn’t know just how badly I’d needed them and their permission. Every time I hit play on “Chemical Warfare,” it was as if Biafra was saying directly to me, Of course it’s okay to be pissed off at your shitty life. Go ahead: get mad.
Sometimes, I still do.