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.

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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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