Michael Stewart Foley’s Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is one of the newest releases in the “33 1/3” book series, an on-going series of short works each focusing on an iconic record. It is sort of the pantheon of music-geekdom, where the books range from sophisticated analysis to rambling personal recollections. There have been a handful of punk albums covered in the series—such as the excellent Double Nickels on the Dime by Michael Fournier—and they tend to be stand-outs. That remains true with this release, which may now be my favorite in the entire series. There are three factors that make this short book about the Dead Kennedys debut album such a gem. The first is the subject matter itself. In case you’ve somehow forgotten, the DKs’ 1978 debut contains such fantastic songs as “Kill the Poor,” “Let’s Lynch the Landlord,” “Stealing People’s Mail,” “California Über Alles,” and “”Holiday in Cambodia,” to name just a few. You know that even a half-assed book about this album is going to be a great read, especially when much of the material is based on interviews with Jello Biafra, East Bay Ray, Klaus Fluoride and other significant players such as Mike Watt and V. Vale. As Foley argues, “Fresh Fruit was the most important, articulate, and accessible document of dissent to come from American youth in an age when it is generally assumed that American youth had given up. It is a political document for a generation, even if most of the generation missed it because they were still listening to fucking Hotel California.”
As you may have concluded from that quote, the second strength of the book is Foley’s writing style. His tone is pitch-perfect, reflecting both his academic training and his punk rock roots, producing the equivalent of a scholarly spit-ball that complements the pissy intelligence of the DKs’ masterpiece. His writing is effortless, even when he is flexing his intellectual muscles. I’ve never met Foley, but as I read the book I got the strong feeling here was a guy I wanted to drink beer and talk about music with. There aren’t a lot of academics I can say that about.
And that gets me to the third strength: Foley is fucking insightful. That is readily apparent from the way he structures the book. He begins broadly, talking about the context of national politics in the late 1970s, and then narrows the scope with each subsequent chapter, shifting from the national, state, local, and down to the San Francisco punk scene. Each chapter is rich in historic detail and analysis, with the discussions around the intricacies of San Francisco politics—from the tragic assassination of Mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk to the rise of Diane Feinstein and her unsavory allegiance with landlords and real estate developers—being particularly insightful.
I grew up on the East Coast and while I’ve always liked Fresh Fruit, I realize now I never fully recognized what was going on with the album. As I read Foley’s book, I found myself constantly re-listening to the album with fresh ears, my appreciation and admiration of it growing every time. As he concludes: “Fresh Fruit brought outrage and caustic analysis in equal measure, anger, insult, and gallows humor, all wrapped up in a distinctive sonic attack… an honest assessment of the state of the union, free of the bullshit and lies that defined mainstream American political culture.” Foley’s excellent little book has more than convinced me that Fresh Fruit was a vital act of rebellion and a fucking masterpiece. –Kevin Dunn (Bloomsbury, 1385 Broadway, NY, NY10018, bloomsbury.com)