Decibel recently inducted Dead Kennedys’ psych-punk masterpiece Frankenchrist into our Hall of Fame. One of the biggest components of the Frankenchrist story was vice agents raiding Jello Biafra’s home and Alternative Tentacles looking for “harmful matter.” Dead Kennedys included a print of H.R. Giger’s Landscape XX as a poster insert with the album. When the album ended up in a teenage girl’s hands Los Angeles prosecutors got involved.
Author Patrick O’Neil worked at Alternative Tentacles at the time of the raid. The following is an excerpt from his upcoming memoir Anarchy At The Circle K, about his years as a punk roadie in the early to mid-80s. The book will be published by Punk Hostage Press later this year.
San Francisco, 1986: Alternative Tentacles: Clampdown
It’s 10 a.m. I’m late getting to work, and I have to stop to pick up Alternative Tentacles’ mail. The post office is crowded. It’s taking forever. I didn’t have money for the parking meter, and I’m worried the van will get a ticket.
As usual, there’s two large mailbags waiting for me. Every punk in the entire universe sends Jello Biafra mail. To them, he’s the punk messiah. Half our mail is zealot fan letters he’ll actually read and trinkets he’ll cherish. The rest are orders for records and merchandise.
“Goddamn punk kids,” I mumble as I drag the bulging bags across the marble floors and out the polished brass and glass doors of this ornate public building.
A meter maid is circling the van, peering in the window, trying to spy the VIN number off the dash so she can write a ticket.
“Hey!” I yell. Running towards her, dragging the bags behind me.
“I already started writing the ticket.”
“You can stop anytime.” I toss the bags in the side door.
The meter maid walks to the back of the van, hastily jotting down the license plate. I take off, tires screeching.
“Fuck yoooou!” I yell out the window and flip her off for good measure.
Traffic is light. One thing about being late is I miss the morning commuters. I take an illegal left off Mission onto Eighth and head toward the office. I’m a regular working stiff now. The tours are over. Dead Kennedys broke up right before we were supposed to tour Brazil and Japan, which really pissed me off. I’d been scheduled for malaria shots and was brushing up on Yakuza tattoos. T.S.O.L. is in disarray, Subhumans haven’t come back to America, and Flipper, without Will Shatter, is doing shit all nothing. With no income to pay rent and two major drug habits—mine and my girlfriend’s—I start working at Alternative Tentacles as the art department. I’m doing layouts for album covers, ads, and posters, and generally just hanging out for a little over minimum wage.
It’s sort of strange coming to work every day. I still haven’t come to grips with who I think I am as opposed to who I really am. So much of my self-image was wrapped up in touring and working with bands. I feel like I’ve lost something. I’ve gone from the road manager who makes tours happen to that guy that stands in line at a show with all the other civilians. Then again, I’m strung out and a total mess. No one else would actually hire me.
But working in the record business isn’t that bad. I can still say I work in the music industry and leave my inflated ego somewhat intact. I get to work with Winston Smith. I drew the lettering for his Bedtime for Democracy cover. When I’m broke between paychecks— which is all the time—I pilfer petty cash, or steal mail, or a small stack of records to sell. So there are perks.
Of course AT being an “alternative work environment” everyone does several jobs. I pick up the mail every morning on my way to work. Only I’m always late and Microwave and Debbie give me loads of shit. But what they don’t know is I have to score dope, shoot it, then get to work, and some mornings just take longer.
I pull the van into Rodgers Alley and drive to the warehouse’s roll-up door. We share the space with Ruth Schwartz’s Mordam Records, and Leslie Jambor’s Black Wave t-shirt printing. It’s like some punk rock collective, only we’re not that organized. With the door up I back in the van. I grab my bag, leather jacket, the mail sacks, and head into the office—a small walled-in area in the middle of the warehouse that houses the AT staff.
“You’re late,” says Microwave; manager of Alternative Tentacles, and former road manager for Dead Kennedys.
I don’t even answer. What’s the point? I’m always late. His statement is rather rhetorical. I drop the mailbags at Debbie Gordon’s feet, and she looks up and rolls her eyes. Debbie is always rolling her fucking eyes and I’m not sure if it’s because I’m late, that Microwave even bothered to say something, or that there’s the usual ton of mail.
I slip my bag off my shoulder and onto the back of my chair and carefully cover it with my leather jacket. Lately I’ve been scoring dope in a particularly nasty housing project off Potrero Hill, a few blocks from where I live. Even though it’s easy to get in and buy the dope, getting out can be a bit of problem. All the local junkies wait in the shadows and stairwells to rip me off. As a precaution I’ve been carrying an old .38 that I’m hoping works. But I’ve never actually fired the damn thing. All I want the gun to do is scare the hell out of the other dope fiends so I can get back to the van and do my shot in peace.
Still I’d rather not have everyone aware I have a gun, needle, spoon, so I always hide it in my bag under my jacket. Truth is everyone knows I’m strung-out. I’m not fooling anybody. Even though I act like I am. I just have never come right out and said, “Hey, I’m a junkie,” which causes a lot of tension. Leslie in particular is always mad at me. Angry at what I get away with. Debbie tolerates me, and knows I’m totally irresponsible, but laughs at all my jokes. Microwave just accepts this is who I am.
“You live in a barn?” says Microwave.
I walk out the office, past Ruth, who’s always out there counting records, across the warehouse, and pull down the roll up door. It’s San Francisco. No matter the season the warehouse is freezing cold. Leaving the door open lets in a wind that chills to the bone. With a shitload of heroin in me, I can’t feel the cold. But the days when I haven’t been able to score and I’m waiting for my girlfriend to bring me something, I huddle in the corner, my teeth chattering.
“What’s on the agenda?” asks Microwave when I return to the office.
“I thought maybe I’d smoke a cigarette.”
“I need an ad for Maximum Rock and Roll.”
“I’ll get right on it boss man.”
The next hour I’m cutting and pasting a sloppy layout for an ad, sufficiently punk enough in its execution to look the part. As the usual office small talk ensues: what band someone just saw, whose doing what with who, where and what are we going to eat for lunch.
It’s just Debbie and me in the office when Microwave calls out. “Debbie, Patrick, come out here.” Microwave sounds really formal and stiff, which is unusual and weird.
“What the fuck for?”
“Just come out here.”
We walk out into what seems like a million cops, some in plain clothes. A few have guns in their hands.
“Sit,” says a woman cop in uniform. Indicating the couch and easy chairs in the area out front of the office.
“Where are the guns and drugs?” barks a plainclothes detective. A gold shield hangs from a chain around his neck.
Fuck. I’m thinking of the meter maid, the fuck you, and driving off burning rubber. But quickly discard that thought. There are too many damn cops for that to be the reason they’re here. This is for something much more serious.
“There’s no guns and drugs,” says Microwave.
Except there is. In my bag. Under my jacket. On the back of my chair. Right in front of the ad layout I’m working on. It’s not going to take a rocket scientist to figure out whose shit that is. I’m starting to get nervous. I want to take the Xanax that’s in my pocket. Then realize I have a fucking Xanax in my pocket.
I take a nervous glance at all my co-workers and know I’m putting them all in danger. Alternative Tentacles is not a hotbed for illegal firearms or drug sales. In fact, I’m the only drug addict and the only one with a gun. For the cops to even begin there is totally ludicrous and thoroughly indicative of how the authorities really view punks and our music.
“Can I get a smoke,” I ask the room full of cops.
“What’s this all about?” asks Microwave.
The cops are being evasive. There’s a couple of detectives from Los Angeles, some Feds in suits, one in a weird uniform I can’t figure out, a group of San Francisco detectives, and a bunch of uniformed SFPD. While the detectives are busy in the office searching through drawers and shelves, the others keep us sitting and ask questions. The detective with the gold shield hanging from his neck starts taking notes. The other detective asks everyone their names and what their job is. The Fed holds his hand out and asks for our ID’s.
“You work here?” he asks me.
“Doing what?” he says and looks at my driver’s license. “Mr. O’Neil?”
“I’m an artist. I’m the art department.”
“Artist? You draw posters?”
“I’ve done some posters.”
One of the cops comes rushing out of the office. “We’ve got it!” He has an expression on his face like he just came in his pants.
My heart jumps into my throat. I start sweating. My stomach turns. I’m expecting him to have my bag. Instead, he’s holding a handful of negatives. The kind used for printing. Halftones for color separation.
The cops get all excited and go into a huddle.
“I really need a cigarette,” says Debbie. “Can I get my pack in the office?”
The woman cop in uniform gets the okay nod from the detectives and follows Debbie while she retrieves her smokes. When she sits down, we all grab one and light up in unison. Holding the lighter I notice my hand is shaking.
The cop with the gold badge breaks from the huddle and walks over to me. “You ever go by the name H. R. Giger?”
“Dude, I’m not Giger. Giger’s famous. He lives in Sweden.” Actually, I’m not sure where the hell Giger lives. Although, it’s rumored he lives in a brothel in Sweden. But who the fuck really cares?
“So you didn’t draw this?” Holding up the halftone negative for the Frankenchrist poster—the Giger drawing “Penis Landscape” with Winston Smith’s red, white, and blue DK logo border.
The cops are packing up posters, negatives, and halftone color separations into several boxes.
“Are we under arrest?” asks Microwave.
“We’re free to go?”
The main cop, an SFPD detective, is on his radio. He’s talking to some higher-up, and it sounds like they’re coordinating another raid. “Okay, it’s a go,” he says to one of the detectives.
Across town, the cops are storming Biafra’s home—a two-story house in the Mission district with a heavily overgrown yard. Every inch of his house is packed with stuff: records, and posters, Dead Kennedys and Winston Smith artwork, framed and on the wall. Cut out and taped to his refrigerator are milk carton ads for missing children, “Have you seen this child?” The cops take a special interest in these ads—what kind of sicko has missing kids on his kitchen fridge?
All this chaos because a teenage girl bought the Frankenchrist album for her younger brother. The boy opened the record, in front of their parents, and pulled out the poster—and H. R. Giger’s wallpaper-like repeating image of crusty erect cocks inserting into equally grungy vaginas suddenly invaded their lives. The mother was shocked. Shocked enough to call the authorities. The Los Angeles City Attorney charged Biafra and Microwave with “distributing harmful material to a minor” and brought them to trial. A year later, a jury deadlocked, and the judge declared a mistrial.
Patrick O’Neil is a former junkie bank robber and the author of the memoirs Anarchy at the Circle K (forthcoming from Punk Hostage Press, 2022), Gun, Needle, Spoon (Dzanc Books, 2015), and Hold-Up (13e Note Editions, 2013). His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Juxtapoz and Razorcake. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing (Nonfiction) from Antioch University Los Angeles, and teaches creative writing at various rehabs, correctional facilities, institutions, and universities. In the early ‘80’s he was a roadie and/or road manager for Dead Kennedys, Flipper, T.S.O.L., and Subhumans; and he was fired from the first Lollapalooza tour for being “too loaded.”