From Political Punk Rock to Politics 

Jesse "Luscious" Townley likes to provoke onstage, but hopes to unify dueling factions as a member of Berkeley's City Council.

Jesse Luscious seems a little wiped out. Sitting in a living room dominated by crates of his LPs and his wife's collection of secondhand deer heads and antlers, the punk singer and KALX DJ is resting up after his Saturday morning game as a street hockey goalie. His voice is soft and hoarse from his band the Frisk's show at the Bottom of the Hill the night before, but he has a lot of talking yet to do today. There's a meeting this afternoon at 924 Gilman Street, the punk collective where he has served as secretary for the last decade, but he has to go out and knock on doors instead, because Jesse Luscious is running for Berkeley City Council.

Or rather, Jesse Townley is. He may be best known by his longtime nom de guerre on college radio and in a string of local bands: Blatz, the Gr'ups, the Criminals, and now the Frisk. But as a dark-horse candidate in the city's fifth district, whose rep Miriam Hawley is stepping down, the challenges he faces have nothing to do with his punk pedigree.

Because Berkeley's biggest political battles are almost always about rent control, development, and property taxes, a 33-year-old renter from the southern tip of the homeowner-heavy North Berkeley district has his work cut out for him. Hawley's anointed successor, Realtor and Zoning Adjustment Board Commissioner Laurie Capitelli, has racked up additional endorsements from Mayor Tom Bates, state Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, and Councilmembers Gordon Wozniak and Linda Maio, and more than $16,000 in contributions. Also running is Barbara Gilbert, a former aide to ex-Mayor Shirley Dean and longtime council gadfly who is appealing directly to overtaxed Berkeley homeowners in her campaign literature.

As an outsider, Townley has done pretty well for himself. While his contributions to date total a modest $7,500, he has been endorsed by the Alameda County Green Party, Councilwoman Dona Spring, Berkeley School Board President John Selawsky, and San Francisco Supervisor Matt Gonzalez. Even while remaining Luscious, Townley has long been involved in civic life as the former executive director of Easy Does It, an emergency services agency for the disabled, and as a member of the city of Berkeley's Disaster Council.

Townley's radio show has had to go on hiatus for the duration of the campaign because of FCC equal-access regulations. "If I do a 6 to 9 a.m. shift on KALX, they have to offer Laurie Capitelli and Barbara Gilbert 6 to 9 a.m. shifts on KALX," he explains with amusement. But he continues to work behind the scenes as a producer. Then there's his day job at Alternative Tentacles, the record label run by former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra, who ran for mayor of San Francisco back in 1979. Townley insists that, unlike his employer, he isn't running just to make a point. "I'm not running to lose," he says. "I'm running to represent my district."

He also is running as a "pragmatic progressive," resisting attempts to affiliate him with any one political faction, and instead casting himself as the fresh-eyed mediator. "The amount of polarization in this town is ridiculous," Townley says. "Because when it comes down to it, the moderates and the progressives are politically really close."

Councilwoman Spring, for one, would be thrilled to have a fresh perspective on the panel. "I think he's one of the most exciting young people to get involved with Berkeley politics," she says of Townley. "He's not driven by the old factions and business-as-usual-type politics."

Spring says she feels candidate Gilbert is too conservative for District 5. Capitelli is laudable and involved, she says, but mainly on land use, and he comes from the perspective of a real-estate developer. "We have a very pro-development city council, planning commission, zoning board," the councilwoman says. "It'd be nice to have a little of the nuance that Jesse Townley's going to be able to bring from the perspective of neighbors who are concerned about overly big developments."

Concerned neighbors, in fact, were what brought Townley into local politics in the first place. After moving to Berkeley from Philadelphia at age eighteen, he got a crash course in mediation on the numerous occasions the kids of 924 Gilman mobilized to protect their club's existence amid police crackdowns and a 1999 attempt by neighboring DiCon Fiberoptics to shut it down. The collective managed to work with its neighbors and officials to find compromises to keep their club open, a feat venues such as the Berkeley Square have failed to accomplish under similar circumstances.

And like many local politicos, Townley received his education on Berkeley's development process by stepping up to oppose one. In that case, it was 1995, and the Gilman crew was feeling threatened by new neighbor, the Pyramid Brewery. "When Pyramid was proposed, right across the street from 924 Gilman, it was presented to us as a fait accompli," he says. "You'd think that putting a huge bar across the street from the only all-ages, drug- and alcohol-free venue in the city is not the best idea. We organized our patrons, organized our patrons' relatives; we packed city council meetings, we went to the Zoning Adjustment Board, we went to Design Review Committee meetings. And we ended up working together with Pyramid. Now we're steadfast allies."

If it seems a long road from getting naked on stage with Blatz to haggling about things like culvert repair, Townley has found that the two sides of his public life aren't that hard to reconcile. "You know, we've done a couple of shows since I've become an official candidate, and I was actually nervous before the first show, which is pretty rare for me," he says. "But coming from such a political subculture of the music scene anyway, it's just a natural outgrowth. I've always been a political person, my lyrics have always had some sort of political content, some more puerile than others, but I try to raise the bar of intellectualism with each band."

The Frisk was absent onstage at Townley's recent Ivy Room campaign benefit, which a casual passerby would never have pegged as a political fund-raiser -- not with platinum-wigged Space Vacuum (from Outer Space) singing in blasé faux-Teutonic accents about space monkeys. If you looked closely, you might have noticed some audience members wearing pink-on-black "I'm Jesse's Girl" T-shirts, irrespective of gender, but the crowd was largely the same young people you'd see at any happenin' local rock show. At least Cat Five's night-ending set was noticeably political, with three punky young gents on laptops interspersing beats with George Bush and Bugs Bunny audio samples while video remixes of CNN Iraq footage, Bruce Lee clips, and educational films on radiation poisoning played on a backdrop.

On city issues, Townley has tried to be, well, pragmatic: Berkeley needs to keep key services such as libraries and schools afloat, he says, but the burden shouldn't always fall upon property owners. And the city needs to get all the stakeholders together to tune up the Creeks Ordinance so that it respects the needs of homeowners while still working to repair culverts and restore the city's creeks.

He is vehement, however, about the need for public financing of campaigns and instant-runoff voting. "The city council put on the March ballot a measure that I really, really opposed," Townley says. "Before, you had to get twenty signatures from any registered voter to be on the ballot. Now there's a fee, and you have to get twenty registered signatures from your district. I was at the council meetings, and I remember the mayor saying we need to make the ballot more restrictive so that we only have 'viable candidates.' I thought that was kind of sad. Of course, I come from a collective background, so I'm not afraid of different voices."

He'd better hope his district's voters are so open-minded. This is undoubtedly the first time Berkeleyans have been asked to elect a candidate who has performed such ditties as "The Angry Ouija Board Has Sent Us to Destroy the City of Berkeley, California, So Run for Your Fucking Life." Townley laughs at this reference, insisting that he has no such agenda -- that song was in fact penned by one of his fellow Criminals, although Townley did co-write Blatz' memorable hometown rant "Berkeley Is My Baby (And I Wanna Kill It)," which boasts the couplet: Berkeley is my baby but I should've aborted it/Had some doubts in the waiting room but now I'm stuck with it.

Okay, that was more than a decade ago -- back in the days when you could've crashed some West Oakland squat-house party and witnessed Jesse Blatz singing through someone's crappy guitar amp, his thrift-shop Members Only jacket dripping with audience members' spit -- an honor he would, of course, reciprocate. "I'm not someone who's going to say, 'Oh, I was never in the Gr'ups,'" Townley says. "I would definitely say there's context involved -- there's artistic statement, there's shock value -- but I'm not ashamed of it."

In fact, he has parlayed it into some campaign assets. While about half the contributions listed on Capitelli's campaign disclosure statements are from real-estate agents, contractors, attorneys, and architects, Townley's contributors include the publisher of Amp magazine, the bookkeeper from Think Skateboards, punk-rock booking agent Stormy Shepard, and musicians such as AFI's Adam Carson, Blag Dahlia of the Dwarves, Eric Boucher (you know him as Jello Biafra), and NOFX singer Michael "Fat Mike" Burkett. The Frisk scheduled a campaign benefit at 924 Gilman on September 11 -- don't read anything into the date, Townley says -- and there's another one at the Starry Plough on September 17.

Fat Mike, who owns the hugely successful SF punk label Fat Wreck Chords, is pushing Townley's campaign via his dual get-out-the-youth-vote efforts, Punk Voter and Bands Against Bush. The Frisk, meanwhile, contributed a previously unreleased song, "Basket of Snakes," to Rock Against Bush, Vol. I, a compilation released this past spring on Burkett's label. If any newly activated punk voters in District 5 draw the connection between Townley and the Frisk frontman, the all-out effort to unseat President Bush may play in Townley's favor. On the flipside, in a city where the political factions are Less Left, More Left, and Way Out in Left Field, local anti-Bush fervor may not benefit Townley any more than his rivals.

And yet getting a new generation to step up to the plate is ultimately what Townley's campaign is about. "If the younger communities don't get involved, then it will stay the status quo," he says. "You will have more establishment candidates who are either wealthy or retired, because traditionally those are the people who can afford to run. They represent people who need to be represented, but there's a whole swath of people who aren't represented."

Townley is here and ready to represent. Berkeley is his baby, after all. And he wants to govern it.

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