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Vancouver punk photographer Bev Davies and I are eating dinner at Chutney Villa when colleague Femke van Delft phones me from the venue: we’ve missed the first band, Fuel Injected .45, and now the Subhumans — the Vancouver band, not them British guys — are setting up. We don’t speed up too much: Bev and I are mid-discussion on a project we’re working on, there’s still food to eat, and Femke’s already in place, taking a remarkable series of photographs of Subhumans’ drummer Jon Card setting up his drumkit. (Card, though still “the new guy,” tells me that he is now the longest standing drummer the Subhumans ever had, though lately he’s been pulling double duty to tour with the new line-up of SNFU, who are currently recording). It transpires that Fem doesn’t know the history of Card’s kit, which may inform the loving care with which the drummer treats it; it’s the same one used by Ken “Dimwit” Montgomery, original Subhumans drummer, brother to Chuck Biscuits and also a member of DOA and the Pointed Sticks, whose death of a heroin overdose in 1994 is still much mourned.
“It’s a beautiful kit,” Card tells me. “It’s a Milestone kit with Rogers and Ludwig hardware, so it’s basically custom-made. Dimwit had several different drumkits, and this one was one of the coolest; he ended up trading this one in at Drums Only. When I joined DOA, I had this Ludwig set,” which is what he’d played when in Personality Crisis. “It was a great set of drums, but they were smaller drums; it had a 22” bass drum, and I wanted a 24. Instead of a 16” floor tom, I wanted an 18. I wanted bigger tubs for DOA: big band, big guys, big drums, this is what Joe was saying, and I went along with that. We went into Drums Only, and I see this silver sparkle Milestone kit, and it ends up being Dimwit’s old kit. Boom — I grabbed it. It has a great history, and now it’s been with me for a long time” — over twenty years, during which Jon has played with the Subhumans, SNFU, DOA, Rude Norton, the Frank Frink Five, and his own project the Trespassers (which he describes as “Jerry Lee Lewis meets garage”). He even used it on 1989’s Last Scream of the Missing Neighbors LP that Jello Biafra recorded with DOA, when both Subhumans vocalist Brian “Wimpy Roy” Goble and Card were the rhythm section for that band. As Card puts it — “Let’s just say it’s seen a lot of blood, sweat and tears!”
Curried up, Bev and I make our way to the Rickshaw. The venue has its own interesting history. It’s located in the heart of Vancouver’s downtown eastside, the poorest district in Canada, with drugs, crime, alcoholism, prostitution, and vast numbers of dispossessed, mentally ill, HIV+, addicted and poor-as-hell locals — the “People Of The Plague,” as the Subhumans song goes — wandering the streets, near where skid row intersects with Chinatown. It’s also ground zero of an ongoing gentrification boom, which Jello will acknowledge in his pre-song rant for “Dot Com Monte Carlo,” with galleries, record stores, cafés and clothing boutiques springing up left and right, while more and more Yuppies and artsy types flood the neighbourhood, seeking affordable apartments and creating a bit of a culture clash with the crackheads and drug dealers. The Rickshaw, a former Shaw Brothers theatre, is part of this wave; it stood derelict for more than twenty years, one more boarded-up building in a neighbourhood filled with them, but has tidied up well. With a raised stage, a generous pit, a balcony, and theatre-style seats for non-moshers, it’s become one of the best places to see shows in Vancouver, filling the gap left by 2009’s demolition of Richards On Richards.
When Bev and I get in, we can hear the Subhumans midway through “Big Picture,” and we have to hustle to negotiate our way to the front of the stage. This must be the biggest, most enthusiastic audience the Subhumans have played to in this city since they got back together. While every Subhumans gig is an event for their fans, there’s something about Vancouverites that makes them inclined to take their own culture for granted, and I’ve seen some lame turnouts for this band in the past — a shame, because, at least in my book, they’ve written some of the best songs in the history of punk. Jello — whose label, Alternative Tentacles, has released their last three albums — has done them a solid by having them open; maybe a few Vancouverites will discover them anew. Biafra will remark, in his thank you’s during his set, that he didn’t think he’d ever get to see the Subhumans again, since the band can’t tour the States. I’m happy for him that he did.
The three-quarters set that I see includes bassist Gerry Hannah’s “21st Century,” “Fuck You,” and “Slave To My Dick;” guitarist Mike Graham’s “Behind The Smile” and “Firing Squad,” and Brian Goble’s “Death To The Sickoids.” The only wee glitch occurs when Brian gets briefly lost in Gerry’s immensely difficult lyric for “Moving Forward,” a spot-on critique of US foreign policy off their 2006 reunion album, New Dark Age Parade; he misses the couplet about “Musharraf, Somoza and Pol Pot” during one chorus and instead repeats the one about “Noriega, bin Laden, and Hussein” (which rhymes with “you liked ‘em well enough when they were playing your game.”) I feel for him, because though I can usually remember every lyric to these songs, “Moving Forward” is daunting even for me; how many songs out there mention Uzbekistan, for fuck’s sake? See more on the Subhumans reunion and their re-recording of Incorrect Thoughts, entitled Same Thoughts Different Day, in Big Takeover #66 and #67.
Bev, meanwhile, is having her own experience at the side of the stage. “I was quite anxious to get to the front and get to the pit and take some photographs, and when I got to the front, I was just sort of standing there surveying everything and listening to the Subhumans, and I saw that just to my right, standing there, three or four inches away, was Jello. But I thought, ‘Well, you know, I’m not going to bother him — I’m not going to say, ‘Hi, Jello, remember me?’ in the middle of the Subhumans concert. So I was just standing there, and he reached over and touched my arm and said, ‘Bev! Bev! How are you!’ and reached out and shook hands with me. It was good that he remembered me! I haven’t seen him in a very long time…”
The last time Bev saw Jello was at a spoken word performance at UBC circa 1999 that she attended with local media fixture Nardwuar the Human Serviette; she hasn’t seen him perform as a singer, however, since he was in the Dead Kennedys — which would make it at least 24 years ago, since the band broke up in 1986. She first saw him at a legendary 1979 appearance in Vancouver, with the Young Canadians and Subhumans on the bill, which, it happens, was the last time the Subhumans played with Jello.
Bev remembers the night: “It was on the anniversary, of course, of the assassination of JFK” — November 22nd — “and they hadn’t been able to get anywhere to play in the States, so they came up here.” Bev also saw Jello lead the DKs in 1981 at the much-storied Vancouver punk club the Smilin’ Buddha, “and he had a red and black striped shirt, with sleeves that stopped before the elbow, and then he had shaved the hairs on his arms to match the stripes on his shirt, and I remember being really, really amazed with it as I was photographing him, thinking, ‘what’s that, is that a shadow?’ …I was impressed, I thought it was very funny.” (Those of you with copies of Bev and Nardwuar’s 2007 Punk Rock Calendar, put out by Mint Records, can see a small picture from that night in the back, detailing Jello’s arm hair). “And I saw him in London, when I went over with DOA — I saw the Dead Kennedys at the Lyceum. They had played other gigs by the time we got there, and they were pretty much finished up with England and they were heading into Europe, and they just had that one big show, with DOA and the Anti-Nowhere League. And Anti-Nowhere League wouldn’t let DOA be second bill, because ‘they owned the house,’ so DOA had to open, using the Dead Kennedys’ equipment, then it had to all be hauled off the stage when the Anti-Nowhere League played, then it all had to be put back on the stage for the Dead Kennedys.”
Bev figures she’s seen Jello front the DK’s on a few other occasions, including the “Fall of Canada tour” (in 1984 or 85?) when the band performed at the York Theatre, which happened to be the first punk gig that I ever attended. But old habits die hard: thinking of it as a photographic assignment, knowing that Femke was getting full coverage, and used to being forced — as several bigger promoters in the city require — to stop taking photographs after three songs, it occurred to her, a few songs into Jello’s set, that she could call it a night. This was during one of Jello’s longer political rants, focusing on the environmental devastation wrought by refining oil from the Alberta tar sands, and the “greenwashing” of it in a recent issue of Canadian Business magazine. “I thought, ‘I’ve pretty much got everything that I need, and he’s going to talk forever! I should go’ — and then I looked at the crowd and I realized that I could not get out. So I stayed, and by the time he was doing his second or third encore, and I had completely forgotten that I’d ever wanted to leave. At some point his enthusiasm and his music totally won me over.”
When I encountered Bev at the end of the night she was soaked in sweat and very happy she’d stuck it out. So was I, because she wouldn’t have gotten pictures of Ani Kyd on stage with Jello, doing backup vocals for “Pets Eat Their Master.” “She was so good on the stage,” Bev says of Ani. “I haven’t seen her perform before, and I really liked her. I told her afterwards. She said, ‘finally, Bev Davies took some pictures of me!’ and I said, ‘you were so detail-oriented up there!’ She was standing up there, twiddling her thumbs and looking around, and it was so cute… and the dance thing, where he’s doing the ballet arm-up-in-the-air — I think this picture really captures something about both of them.”
Jello went through a few costume changes during the night, taking the stage in a blood-spattered labcoat, one of several layers that would be peeled away until he performed shirtless. He also spoke articulately, between songs, about various issues in Canadian politics — from gentrification in Vancouver to several shots at the oily Alberta-based Creationist neocons who have wrangled a grip on the country’s government. The set, which opened with “Terror of Tinytown” and closed with “I Won’t Give Up,” included the whole of the new album, The Audacity of Hype. While sometimes moshpits calm down during bands’ newer material, there was no sign of that happening here, even when the band ventured into unrecorded, unreleased songs, the titles of which eluded me.
There was no shortage of classics on hand, either; to my surprise, the band did even more Dead Kennedys’ material than when Jello last played Vancouver in 2005 with the Melvins, doing “California Uber Alles,” “Let’s Lynch The Landlord,” “Holiday in Cambodia,” “Bleed For Me,” “Police Truck,” and “Too Drunk To Fuck.” Lyrics on some songs were modified since they were first recorded — “California Uber Alles” was the Schwarzenegger’d version that appears on Sieg Howdy!, and “Bleed For Me,” updated for the age of Gitmo, changed “keeping down the Russians” to “keeping down the Muslims.” He introduced that song by saying he hoped he’d never have to perform it again, since it was written about death squads and torture in Latin America, and should have faded into political irrelevancy, which it clearly hasn’t, given Abu Ghraib or the horrible story of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen rendered to Syria to be tortured for months as a suspected terrorist when his flight did a stopover in New York. Jello knows all about that, too, mentioning Arar by name during his performance. Jello mimed being tortured with frenetic energy, every bit as animated as when I’d seen him with the Kennedys.
The true measure of his superhuman, Iggylike commitment to performing, however, came with something I thought Jello had given up. He didn’t stage-dive at all during the Jelvins show here; but starting with “California Uber Alles,” he dove into the audience at the Rickshaw at least four times, riding atop them, never missing a word. It was inspiring beyond anything I expected to see the 52-year-old singer — who has endured criminal charges, lawsuits, physical assaults, and much abuse in his time — performing with all the vitality and passion that he brought to the stage in the 1980’s. About the only difference was that back then, his between-song political speeches often seemed cynical or paranoid; these days, things have gotten bad enough that his critiques seem spot on. So, too, were the Guantanamo School of Medicine; guitarists Kimo Ball and Ralph Spight (of Victim’s Family), new addition Andrew Weiss on bass, and drummer Jon Weiss were kind of invisible behind the compelling maniac with the microphone, but sounded fantastic on both new and old material, songs often extending a bit longer to give Jello time to act out his manic routines. After acknowledging his band, Jello also gave one back to the audience, too, saying Vancouver has always been good to him.
My only question: if Jello ever does win office (and given his charisma and dedication it doesn’t seem entirely impossible), will he write a version of “California Uber Alles” about himself? … because that I would like to see.
Read my interview with Jello Biafra about Terminal City Ricochet and The Widower — two Vancouver-filmed movies that Jello acts in and is now distributing via A/T — on my blog, Alienated In Vancouver (October 2010).