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April 12-19, 2006

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No Room for Jello

By Bill Forman

For Jeff Penalty, ascending to the role of Dead Kennedys vocalist is "the realization of a dream I never dared to have." For me, the idea of some punk pup standing in for Jello Biafra sounded more like the realization of a nightmare I never cared to have. But after dropping by the Catalyst last Friday in time to catch Holiday in Cambodia, Viva Las Vegas and—ya'll ready for this?—a punk-rock cover of Outkast's Hey Ya, I have to say I was nearly won over.

Porter isn't much like his immediate predecessor, Brandon Cruz, whose legacy as Bill Bixby's former sitcom son just about guarantees he'll one day share both a detox unit and a reality show with Danny Bonaduce. While Cruz would make a point of smashing microphones against his forehead until it bled, Porter doesn't seem particularly interested in proving he can outpunk Jello. (Besides, masochism was Iggy's shtick; Jello was more inclined to pour a pitcher of beer on any audience member who didn't look like they'd beat him up.) Porter appears content just to sing and jump around onstage with his heroes Klaus Flouride, East Bay Ray and D.H. Peligro (who, by the way, sound much better instrumentally than the band did in its early live days).

Of course, there are those who will cry sacrilege and, for them, it most likely is. But I'm not one of them, and I'll tell you why. Last year, I went to San Francisco's Bottom of the Hill to see Gary Wilson, an obscure cult artist from upstate New York who was experiencing a minor revival three decades after the release of his self-pressed album. The evening began with a documentary about Wilson—whom the filmmakers found working the graveyard shift at a San Diego porn shop and playing in lounge bands—and was followed by a reunion gig featuring Wilson and his old band.

Afterward, I was talking to Wilson about his hometown Endicott—I'd gone to college the next town over—when Jello stepped forward carrying an album he wanted signed. "So Gary, what have you been doing all these years?" he asked. Having just had his entire life laid out on film, Wilson mumbled something noncommittal as Jello carefully removed an album from its collector's sleeve. Asked how he ever found the record, Jello explained that he'd written to Wilson's father in upstate New York, who'd graciously sent him an album his son had left behind for free. Wilson held the album and examined it. "Wow, I wish I had a couple of these," he said, shaking his head.

The story I'd like to tell would end like this, with Jello saying, "Hey, Gary, this copy was yours in the first place, why don't you take it?" Instead, Jello missed his cue, gave Wilson a pen and showed him where to sign.

So is Jello a bad guy? Who knows? But watching his old band mates onstage, clearly basking in fan admiration after finally winning a lawsuit that claimed he'd denied them their livelihood for decades, I found myself thinking, hey, why not? And if members of the Cars, whose names few of us can remember, get Todd Rundgren to stand in for a reticent Ric Ocasek, more power to them.

It's gotta be better than some guy coming up to you and asking what you've been doing all these years.

Dead Kennedys
Gary Wilson
Endicott, N.Y.

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