"Fat" Mike Burkett built a legitimate interest in politics among apolitical punk listeners, but who'll carry that torch in 2008?
Sunday, May 27, 2007
"Fat" Mike Burkett never was a typical political organizer. Not many Beltway types refer to themselves as "a drunk." Or rain as many f-bombs into casual conversation. Or say they never voted until 2000. Or, perhaps most galling of all, try to politically organize a constituency that not only mistrusts politicians but also mistrusts organizing.
Yet four years ago, the San Francisco resident was sitting in a 500-seat auditorium in New York City, a few seats away from the provocateur filmmaker Michael Moore and near "An Inconvenient Truth" co-producer Laurie David. Nobody was dressed like Burkett, in a powder blue suit and spiked hair.
But in that room of liberal organizers, power-brokers and opinion makers, few were more in touch with their core constituencies than the 40-year-old "Fat" Mike, who is really more of a Slightly Zaftig Mike. And few commanded as much respect in their communities.
During the previous two decades he had made a healthy living from Fat Wreck Chords, his punk rock record label that's housed in a dingy South of Market office. Burkett himself has produced 30 punk records, and his label has 40 bands under contract, including two of his own: NOFX, and Me First and the Gimme Gimmes.
While his bands' record sales are modest compared with those of mainstream chart-toppers, he has made enough as an independent label chief to afford a home for his wife and young daughter in an upscale San Francisco neighborhood (that he requests remain unnamed). Despite most of Fat Wreck's bands getting next to zero coverage in the mainstream media and no major radio airplay, their shows cater to an intensely loyal crowd of young punk fans who pack 500- to 2,000-seat venues and festivals around the world. NOFX, which has sold 6 million records in its 24-year history, earned a gold record for 1994's "Punk in Drublic," but has never been interviewed on MTV; the network said a couple of NOFX videos were briefly in a limited rotation.
As described the band's journey on his label's Web site, www.fatwreck.com, NOFX didn't make more than $200 for a show until 1989.
But "10 records, and about 15 world tours later, we're still here, and happier now than ever," Burkett wrote. "Now we can afford the best drugs and booze, and we get comped on tons of great golf courses all over the country. We don't make videos, we don't do interviews, and we only play shows in warm months, (good golf weather)."
With that spirit, Burkett had garnered two lifetime's worth of credibility in a subculture that politicians don't just ignore, they never even consider. Punk rock fans don't vote, much less write checks to political campaigns, the feeling went, so why even try to reach out to them?
That was why Burkett was sitting in that New York auditorium. He was there representing the then newly formed PunkVoter, an attempt to get the people in his community -- punk rockers and their fans -- to pay attention and vote.
The suits in the room were certainly paying attention to him, at least visually.
"People were surprised to see me there," said Burkett, flashing a knowing grin. But few approached until Harold Ickes, the former Clinton White House aide, "came over to me and said, 'This is what we need -- people like you to get into this.' "
And so he did. PunkVoter eventually raised more than a $1 million in the 2004 election cycle. Burkett broke an eight-year vow of mainstream media silence and talked with everybody. He appeared on Howard Stern's nationally syndicated radio show and sparred with Dennis Miller on his since-canceled TV program. His band opened for some of Moore's speaking tour engagements. He attended Democratic National Committee meetings and even met the Democratic nominee himself, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
More important, he recruited more than 200 punk bands to perform in multiple Rock Against Bush tours across the country and created two Bush-bashing punk compilation CDs that sold more than 650,000 copies -- thanks to Burkett asking for original material from chart-topping bands like Green Day and other punkers he had cultivated relationships with over the years. The organization was blessed and partially funded by Andy Rappaport, the Silicon Valley mogul who has used his wealth to fund progressive and youth voter participation efforts.
At its peak, punkvoter.com was getting 15 million hits a month, and even the most dubious Washington cynic couldn't help but notice that Burkett had tapped into an audience that had never heard someone it trusted -- a fellow punk -- talk about the need to get involved in politics. Sure, punk had always been political. The Clash was railing against police brutality and U.S. foreign policy 30 years ago, and former Dead Kennedys' front man Jello Biafra is still an incendiary spoken-word artist -- 28 years after he got 3 percent of the vote when he ran for mayor of San Francisco in 1979.
But few have connected punk's lyrical passion to the stodgy world of national electoral politics like Burkett.
"In 2004, "Fat" Mike played an important role not just in inspiring his fans to get involved, but in making it OK for a lot of people in his genre to speak out about politics," said Molly Moon Neitzel, president of the board of Music for America, a progressive organization that tried to connect political activism with music fans of all genres. "There's a feeling within the punk rock community that's anti-establishment and against the political system.
"What "Fat" Mike said in 2004 was that you can be anti-establishment and still be involved," Neitzel said.
Now the 2008 presidential campaign is underway, and young voters are connecting through online social networks such as Facebook and video-sharing sites such as YouTube in ways that were untested in 2004. So with all of the political capital Burkett built four years ago -- in both the punk and electoral circles -- what does he plan to do in 2008?
"I would say we're on a vacation now," Burkett said in a subterranean room at the South of Market club Slim's before a San Francisco concert earlier this year. "I want to keep PunkVoter going. Put news stories up there. I will always be politically active, but not like I was in 2002 to 2004."
"I don't really enjoy politics," he said. "I was flying across the country going to different radio stations, different DNC meetings. I met (wealthy liberal funder) George Soros. I met John Kerry. I did Dennis Miller, I did Howard Stern, I was really active. And you know, it's not fun.
"I'm a musician, I'm not used to hard work," he said and laughed.
"I think this country is going in the right direction now," Burkett said, referring to Democrats winning both houses of Congress last fall. Well, he said, it is going in a better direction than before the November election. "I mean, to some extent (it is). Democrats are not the dream party.
"I did my work. I did my job. But politics is not my career. I have a record label, a recording studio, a magazine, two bands, a daughter. And a poker and golf habit. And maybe a TV show (a reality program he's pitching based on the band's current world tour). I definitely don't need to be taking on any other responsibilities."
He says this without a hint of malice -- just fatigue.
The story of Burkett's rising and waning interest in being at the forefront of the politicization of America's punks is a personal one that has larger implications. It is illustrative of how political movements, especially youth-oriented ones, surge and ebb with the presidential cycles. Part of the challenge is keeping the momentum going in the non-presidential election years when funding sources -- and interest -- dip.
Yet before there was MySpace and Facebook, there was Burkett. He became the human hub of a social network for the politically anti-social.
Four years ago, thanks to efforts of organizations like PunkVoter and Music for America, which talked to young voters in clubs and bars and at music festivals where they hung out, the number of voters between 18 and 29 years old increased 9 percent from 2000. That's 2 1/2 times the increase in the number of people older than 30 who voted.
While candidates are reaching out to young voters through social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, studies done after the 2004 campaign said that what young voters responded to most was an old-school political tool: a personal appeal.
"I really hope someone picks up where he left off," said Joseph Patel, a producer at MTV News, which covers a mix of politics and music. The network's Choose or Lose voter-education campaign has long tried to use major-label pop stars to goose young people into political participation. But Sheryl Crow isn't going to get punk rock fans or hip-hop fans to register to vote. She's too mainstream.
"With subcultures as divided as they are now, you need someone to lead these niche movements who has the trust of the people in those movements. And he (Burkett) was definitely the right person for that," Patel said.
Burkett didn't start out to be a political activist, much less a political leader. Born and raised in the Los Angeles area by his mother, he moved to San Francisco in 1985 to attend San Francisco State University. He earned his degree in social science while playing music on the side. In 1987, he began putting out early NOFX efforts. After graduating, he went to real estate school and thought about returning to Los Angeles until the market collapsed.
"I wasn't going to quit my band," Burkett said. "But being in a punk rock band in the 1980s wasn't a career option. It was a hobby. Finally, when Nirvana broke (in the early 1990s), that changed."
He started his record label in 1991. "It was an easy opportunity" is how he describes it. He had been distributing NOFX records for years, "so I knew how to do it. And we'd be on tour, and I'd see a lot of cool bands, and there weren't a lot of labels in 1991. We'd do a six- or seven-month tour and started producing bands along the way."
NOFX cultivated a reputation as a fun, good-time party band. But in the late 1990s, Burkett started getting upset by human rights violations and the power of the gun lobby and conservative fundamental religious activists. In 1999, two months after the Columbine High School shootings, NOFX recorded "The Decline," an 18-minute opus that was not only a departure from the flippant tone the band had mined for years but also a sonic marathon in the punk world of three-minute sprints.
On the back of the CD cover is written, "I pledge a grievance to the flag of the United States and to the blah blah blah." The song's lyrics address a growing cynicism Burkett wanted to turn around:
And so we go on with our lives
We know the truth but we prefer lies
Lies are simple
Lies are bliss
Why go against tradition when we can admit defeat
Live in decline
Be the victim of our own design.
What further transformed Burkett's growing rage into political activism was the disputed Florida vote count that decided the 2000 presidential election. If only every NOFX fan -- every punk fan -- in Florida had voted for Vice President Al Gore, he thought, this election wouldn't have been that close. At the age of 33, the 2000 election was the first time Burkett voted, and he knew he wasn't the only nonvoter in the punk community. Three years later, when the next presidential cycle got rolling, Burkett birthed PunkVoter.
"I just thought somebody in my music scene, the punk rock music scene, had to step up," he said. "There's too many people in rock 'n' roll bands who don't want to go out on a limb, because they'll get Dixie Chicked. You might say something and lose a lot of your audience," Burkett said.
He hired Scott Goodstein to help him navigate the completely foreign world of political organizing. The onetime musician had kicked around the Washington, D.C., music scene as a performer and promoter in his early 20s, and had spent the past several running grassroots and Congressional campaigns. Most important, he was a Burkett and NOFX fan.
"The credibility that Fat has in the punk community, people in the political community could only dream about," said Goodstein, who left Punk Voter a few months ago on good terms with Burkett to join Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign. He stressed that his comments were his own and was speaking in retrospect on PunkVoter and not on behalf of his current employer.
In hindsight, Goodstein acknowledged that there were some awkward moments in trying to blend punk ideals with those of the political world. There was the breakfast fundraising event where the host neglected to put out two chairs -- the ones assigned to Burkett and a bandmate who were patiently waiting nearby. Political insiders frequently asked Goodstein if Burkett was for real.
After the meeting of liberal players in New York, Burkett and Goodstein visited several record labels to ask for contributions to their cause. Nobody gave. (Although eventually a member of the Offspring gave $10,000.) The process made Burkett very uncomfortable, as it was contrary to punk's core ethic: DIY -- do it yourself.
"My political adviser (Goodstein), he went with me, and he said, 'This is what we do. We go out and try to raise money.' I always felt, I have money. And we're going to raise money by doing these compilations. I don't want to go begging people for money. It was always weird to me. I'm not that kind of a salesman.
"After doing that, I realized I'm not going to ask bands for money," Burkett said. "I'm going to ask bands like Green Day for a song -- which is worth a lot of money. Green Day gave me an original song. That's how bands can relate. They don't like to part with their money. Because they don't really understand why they're making so much and -- it's weird -- it's almost like not making an honest living. You work an hour and half a night and you get paid so much. Musicians don't know what to do with their money."
Once Burkett put the call out for songs and bands to tour, the offers came forward. After 20 years of touring and producing punk bands, his credibility was strong.
"He's like the godfather to a lot of bands," said Tim McIlrath, a member of the 7-year-old punk band Rise Against, which is one of the more politically outspoken. Burkett asked McIlrath to go to the 2004 Iowa caucus with three other musicians to represent PunkVoter; McIlrath had voted only once before. After meeting Kerry, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, McIlrath saw that "these guys were just human beings. They were not just some faceless Big Brother people telling us what to do."
Soon other bands jumped on the political bandwagon.
"Mike was always the goofy punk rocker, hilarious onstage, telling fart jokes and stuff," McIlrath said. "When people saw that Mike was serious about this stuff, that he was cutting into his fart joke time to talk about politics, then people got serious, too. He wasn't above anybody. He said to his audience, 'I am just like you. I was clueless about this stuff. But now I'm learning about it and it's time to get involved.' "
Some of Burkett's bandmates in NOFX, longtime apolitical types, felt re-energized.
"For a long time, even though it wasn't necessarily true, we were kind of known as a goof-around band, have a good time, yada yada yada," said drummer Eric "Smelly" Sandin. "But there was always a lot of serious business behind what Mike had to say in his lyrics. So this just kind of gave him a serious platform on the stage to talk about the f -- hypocrisy that was going on.
"I'm just the stupid drummer, and I just show up and hit things when I'm supposed to hit things, but (PunkVoter) gave me a sense of awareness that I wouldn't have had if it hadn't been for him. And it gave me a sense of purpose. I'm telling you this, it worked for me, because I never voted prior to that," Sandin said. "And I have voted in every f -- thing ever since that."
Burkett looks on, surprised at how his longtime bandmate felt. He adds, "I felt like we were doing something besides entertaining kids."
Yet he felt a backlash from other punkers. They'd ask, "Why should I listen to you? You're just a drunk." Burkett said he'd respond, "Yeah, I'm a musician. I'm a drunk. I'm a golfer. I'm a father. I'm a regular person.
"You need to listen to house painters and waitresses and people at bars and everyone who has a f -- opinion. If you leave political discussion to politicians we're all screwed," Burkett said.
The media swarmed, as it swarms over a fresh face -- fresh to them at least. Especially Burkett, who doesn't speak in over-rehearsed sound bites.
"It was perfect," Burkett said. "I hadn't done an interview in eight years, and a lot of these bigger magazines and newspapers wanted to do interviews with NOFX, and I had a reason to do interviews. I had a political agenda and it was perfect timing. S -- , I can use all of this punk rock ... what word is it ... it's a word George Bush uses ... capital ... punk rock capital."
But it was draining. The interviews, especially. Musicians aren't wired to wake up at 4:30 a.m. -- shortly after bedtime -- to do a round of morning shows on the East Coast. And a few moments of light stage banter is one thing, but talking about politics onstage is another.
"We had Jello Biafra on tour with us on the Rock Against Bush tour, and the guy definitely knows his s -- ," Burkett said. "He'd talk for a half hour between bands. One night he couldn't show up and I had to fill in for him. Whew, that was hard. I didn't have anything written. I just riffed for 15 minutes."
Thus was born Burkett's "Animal House" political analogy.
"I was kind of making comparisons between how the Bush administration was Omega House and Donald Rumsfeld was Neidermeyer," Burkett said. "Jello Biafra wouldn't take it that way. He starts telling stories about Walter Mondale and Dianne Feinstein and the audience is like, 'Who the f -- is he talking about?"
Despite Kerry losing, Burkett felt satisfied that he made a difference in his corner of the world.
"I feel it is the most important thing I did in my life. I also never tried to do anything so hard, either. I'll spend some time trying to write songs or whatever, but everything is at my speed. I really pushed myself for about a year and a half.
"I really, really made a huge effort and I'll never make that effort for anything that hard again in my life, probably.
"I feel that we made it OK to talk about politics again in the music scene. A lot of bands were doing it. Bruce Springsteen. Dixie Chicks. But our music scene, which had always been political, hadn't been in the last 10 years. Now Green Day is political. Blink 182, the most pop band ever, was stumping for John Kerry. A lot of bands were scared at first, but a lot of bands joined forces. That was the most important thing that we did. We got a few hundred punk bands to make the same stand against the Bush administration.
"We got the ball rolling and that's all I wanted to do in the first place. Organize all the bands I knew to take a stand. And now everybody is. So what's my job now? I believe I accomplished everything I set out to do."
Now he's off on a new project, one born of band members turning 40 and realizing they can't be touring punkers for the rest of their lives. So for much of the next year, the band is trying to play all the countries in the world where they can get a gig, no matter how small, no matter where. Tours in South Africa, Israel and Russia are planned.
In April they were touring Bali and Jakarta and a recent posting on NOFX's Web site said, "They totally let us into China, f -- !" A film crew is along to document the ensuing chaos -- there were two riots at the 10 shows they played in South America recently -- and the result may be pitched as either a reality show or a feature film.
The political elements Burkett includes in shows these days are through his songs. He often ends shows with "The Decline." It's much easier that way.
"It's a lot more poignant, too, when people figure out what you're saying, instead of saying it to them directly," he said. "It kind of ruins the vibe of a fun show when you're preaching at people."
He answered his critics in a 2006 song called "You're Wrong."
You're wrong about virtues of Christianity
And you're wrong if you agree with Sean Hannity
If you think that pride is about nationality, you're wrong
You're wrong when you imprison people turning tricks
And you're wrong about trickle down economics
If you think that punk rock doesn't mix with politics, you're wrong
As for politics, Burkett is confident that the seeds he planted three years ago will germinate. Burkett likes to tell the story of a 15-year-old he saw during a PunkVoter tour. The kid worked at KFC, and even though he couldn't vote, he told Burkett that he got 16 of his co-workers to vote.
If PunkVoter did its job, that teenager will be voting this year. And bringing his friends.
And at least one of the musicians involved in PunkVoter is getting ready for the presidential campaign.
"Mike took on a lot -- I don't even know if he realized what he took on," said Rise Against's McIlrath. "He got the ball rolling. But what a lot of us realized is that it doesn't take a lot to get the ball rolling. Even if he's not around to lead it, there are people around now who know what it takes.
"We just started talking about that now: What are we going to do next year?" McIlrath said. "We've got some ideas."
E-mail Joe Garofoli at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page CM - 6 of the San Francisco Chronicle