There was a time when it made sense for the Dwarves to exist. Founded in the mid-’80s, they began in Chicago as a brash garage-psych outfit. By then, shock rock was nothing new and the hardcore scene had already formed as a razor-sharp splinter of the punk movement.
It’s easy enough to trace a line—from the antics of Jerry Lee Lewis on through Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper—to the likes of GG Allin, GWAR and Mötley Crüe.
Certainly, Blag Dahlia and HeWhoCannotBeNamed—the two bombastic and button-pushing personalities who have always been at the center of the Dwarves’ ever-rotating lineup—would have been aware of these artists (along with far more obscure musical transgressors).
Even into the ’90s and early aughts—as the Dwarves transmogrified and solidified into a hardcore-leaning amalgam of all their influences; and as the toxic masculinity of rap-metal and screamo swirled about them—it is conceivable to think that a band who would put blood-drenched naked women on the cover of an album titled Blood, Guts and Pussy, and pen a song titled “Let’s Get High and Fuck Some Sluts” would be allowed to exist.
But in 2019? The era of the ultimately woke social justice warrior? No way.
And yet here they are, touring behind a relatively new record, which features cover art that is perhaps even more incendiary than that featured on Blood, Guts and Pussy. The cover of 2018’s Take Back the Night juxtaposes a rallying cry against rape culture with the image of a black man holding a gun over a black woman. She is apparently in distress as she rakes a credit card through a pile of white powder.
But when Dahlia, whose given name is Paul Cafaro, answers the phone from his home in San Francisco—known throughout the world as a bastion of progressive ideals and vilified by conservatives as the epicenter of out-of-control political correctness—he says he and his band are impervious to accusations of misogyny, homophobia, racism and generalized indecency.
“We’re kind of inoculated from it,” he says in his deep, calm voice, noting that the people most vulnerable to the whims of the PC Police are those who make a show of following the rules, but end up on YouTube saying something gauche after too many vodka sodas.
“It’s easy to knock them down. Anything that they do that falls short of glory and perfection is seized upon,” he says. “We’ve always existed so far out of that realm. Where are you even going to start criticizing this band?”
Most who know anything about the Dwarves know that Dahlia is a character and that Cafaro is a well-read, thoughtful and deliberate agitator—not unlike Iggy Pop or Alice Cooper.
As Dahlia, Cafaro says he is often playing the role of a satirist. “We celebrate the foibles of the human race,” he says—ostensibly by inhabiting truly despicable characters: rapists, the sadistic and aggressively violent, irredeemable and unrepentant murderers.
It’s true, what the Dwarves do falls under the banner of artful expression. And yet, with the rise of Trumpism in the United States and an increasingly open embrace of fascism in Western European countries, it begs the question that Dahlia himself asked in a 2014 interview with Vice Media’s music blog, Noisey: “Are we capable of understanding the difference between a song and reality?”
In his interview with Metro he seems to answer his own question, musing that perhaps it is “too much to ask of other people.”
And so, does he ever think he ought to pull back? That perhaps there are some forms of expression too dangerous to be allowed if we want a peaceful and functional society?
His answer is unequivocal: No.
“My politics have always been relatively left wing,” he says. “There are some notable exceptions.” However, one of the biggest problems he sees today is not in people failing to interpret a satirical work correctly—the kind of South Park Republicans who read a sardonic takedown of racism as an endorsement of white supremacy.
Rather, he says, the biggest problem lies in the success that right wing think tanks have had in convincing Americans that well meaning but overstepping progressive activists are equally as bad as the alt-right demonstrators in Charlottesville.
“Being a fascist is much more serious,” he says. “And if we’re going to criticise the PC Police, let’s also criticize those who would hurdle us toward fascism from the right. I don’t think the answer is to shut everybody down. That can’t be the right answer.”
Apr 6, 8pm, $13+
The Ritz, San Jose