“We Don’t Have Enough Data”: Negativland’s “Helter Stupid” 20 Years Later

The following story is true. Except where it’s not. But that’s OK, because the line between fact and fiction, especially in the hands of a compliant media, can be a tenuous one.

Here’s what we know for sure: On the evening of Thursday, February 18, 1988, the bodies of 41-year-old Bernard Brom; his wife, Paulette; 14-year-old daughter, Diane; and nine-year-old, Rick; were discovered in their home in the Cascade Township suburb near Rochester, Minnesota. Searching the basement, police recovered the murder weapon: a blood-spattered timber axe. Two members of the Brom family remained unaccounted for: 16-year-old David, a sophomore at Lourdes Roman Catholic High School, and his older brother, Joe, who at 19 no longer lived at home.

After interviewing students and questioning the elder Brom, investigators turned their attention to his still-missing brother. “One student said he [David] was having trouble with his dad because of a tape he had bought,” Olmsted County Sheriff Charles Von Wald reported, “and he didn’t want him listening to it.” David had last been seen around 5:30 p.m. Thursday evening, shortly before school counselors alerted authorities to potential trouble at the Brom home. There’d been disturbing rumors circulating around campus that day. At 8:45 the following morning, David was cornered at a post office and taken into custody. Newspaper accounts made note of the teenager’s “dyed punk haircut” as a means to explain the contrast between the pleasant, friendly boy described by peers and neighbors and the desperate fugitive he had become.

With its enticing elements of true-crime intrigue, the story broke nationally, and Von Wald’s quote, reprinted in The New York Times, would inspire one of the most effective media hoaxes ever perpetrated by a band.

Roughly a month after the Brom murders, the San Francisco Bay Area-based experimental collective Negativland nixed plans for a national tour to support their Escape from Noise album, released the previous fall. The disc’s controversial highlight was the hilarious “Christianity Is Stupid,” a sound collage of music and a “found” 1967 sermon delivered by the Reverend Estus Pirkle, the thrust of whose cracker harangue was the inflammatory “Christianity is stupid. Communism is good. Give up!” After nearly a decade spent compiling jagged patchworks of voice and melody, often hacked and re-spliced into devastating commentaries on American culture, Negativland were old hands at manipulating the blur between truth and fantasy, which they were preparing to prove on an epic scale.

The band’s reasons for canceling its tour were primarily financial. Ho-hum. But when the Brom story broke, Negativland incorporated its storyline into theirs. With a fanciful flourish and a bogus press release distributed through their label, SST, the unidentified contentious tape described by Wald became Escape from Noise, with an emphasis on “Christianity Is Stupid.” (Interestingly, it was later alleged but never confirmed that David Brom was on SST’s mailing list. Even if true, Brom’s familiarity with Negativland would be pure speculation.) As a result, the group was prevented from hitting the road by a man identified in the release as “Federal Authority Dick Jordan,” pending an investigation into a possible connection between the song and the homicide.

The author in a vintage tee he seldom wears in public.

Naturally, the music press devoured the story, hounding the group for elaboration. Negativland played along but revealed nothing. Most reporters were stymied, anyway. They couldn’t find anyone to corroborate the claims made in the release, in large part because they couldn’t reach “Federal Authority Dick Jordan,” and that’s because “Federal Authority Dick Jordan” wasn’t a real person.

James Walsh, however, was. Walsh was a reporter covering the Brom case for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and not once had he come across any mention of the band. His interest piqued, he began digging, but got nowhere, thanks to a gag order placed on the band by attorney Hal Stakke, who was cut from the same cloth as Federal Authority Dick Jordan. The ruse was becoming complicated; Negativland had to keep making people up.

But despite Stakke’s best nonexistent efforts, the half-baked story just wouldn’t die. The band wasn’t safe from scrutiny even in its own Bay Area home base. Capitalizing on the local angle, CBS television affiliate KPIX contacted the group, which couldn’t resist this level of exposure, and sent field reporter Hal Eisner to conduct an interview. The resulting package maintained the Brom connection and neatly weaved it into the pulpy pantheon of “popular music as manipulator of minds” yarns, equating “Christianity Is Stupid” with Richard Ramirez’s love of AC/DC, Charles Manson’s murderous interpretation of The Beatles’ White Album, and the role played by Ozzy Osbourne’s “Suicide Solution” in widespread teenage self-immolation. The San Francisco Chronicle responded with its own take on the tale, as did The Village Voice.

Meanwhile, in the real world, David Brom had undergone psychiatric evaluation and was sent to the Oaks Treatment Center in Austin, Texas. He waited at this storied facility for troubled youth as the Minnesota Court of Appeals discussed reversing the district court’s ruling to try Brown as a juvenile. The three-judge panel voted unanimously in favor of reversal and ordered the teenager two weeks after his 17th birthday in October 1988 to stand trial as an adult on four counts of first-degree murder. As for Negativland, they had grown weary of the unending media assault. When the Chronicle revisited the scandal, its interview requests were met with the following:

As to our uncertain association with the Brom case, we think it’s foolish and will not comment on it no further. For a while during interviews we made comments to the press and found that we were so misquoted and events were so misstated to fit the editor’s need to grab attention and the editor’s need to abbreviate that we will make no more statements whatsoever. Sensationalism reigns.

That penultimate part was almost true. Negativland did have one last statement to make, in the one form of media they could actually control.

An album.

Released in 1989, Helter Stupid stands, still, as a damning criticism of the popular press, especially its willingness to pursue titillating angles on the flimsiest of evidence with nary a hint of skepticism. It explores the ugly truth beneath that veneer of objectivity: that at heart even those seeming bastions of calm sobriety are human. Like all of us, they too are susceptible to sensational explanations. Certainly, music has the power to move us, to ignite our passions and fuel our wrath. Could David Brom’s relationship with his father have been strained by, of all things, a song? Perhaps, although the rift was likely deeper than a simple generational clash. But could it have driven him to homicide? Probably not. Yet, somehow, that’s a lot easier to accept than something more mundane and messy — that David Brom was a fucked-up kid who murdered his family for reasons we will never fathom, and there’s no real point in analyzing it beyond that, or in trivializing it as a puzzle piece in a dubious cultural narrative.

The album is split into two parts. “Helter Stupid” comprises two tracks and roughly 22 minutes, with the remainder devoted to “Dick Vaughn Presents…The Perfect Cut,” a deliciously cynical skewering of the calculated marketing formulas driving commercial radio, particularly the classic pop/rock formats then assuming airwave dominance, and a slap at how empty consumerism shapes our ambitions (a teenage girl outlines her bubble-headed future in “White Rabbit and a Dog Named Gidget,” over a loop of the Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter 23”). Murder, nostalgia and soulless pipe dreams: Nos. 1-3 with a bullet on the American Top 40.

Despite our self-image as a civilized, evolved species, our appetite for and morbid fascination with violence is frightening. We can’t get enough of the shit, with all of its attendant clichés and voodoo. “Helter Stupid” opens with a tease of backward masking, that supposedly sinister recording parlor trick responsible for sending many a straight-A student with a penchant for W.A.S.P. to the penitentiary or an early grave. A wail of sirens underpins a catalog of songs and lyrics, most belonging to the Rolling Stones, those malodorous masterminds behind “Their Satanic Majesties Request” and other bad-boy shenanigan slabs — and historically charged with malicious intent. Of course, they’re all just songs; we’re the ones who give them their import and heft, and we tend to dismiss the authors’ protestations to the contrary. For whatever reason, our takes are more valid than theirs.

A hoarse voice barks, “Louder and faster! Louder and faster!” between ancient blasts of Lenny Bruce in full holy-roller mode (“Religions, Inc.”). (Curiously, one of that bit’s targets, Oral Roberts, made headlines some three years earlier for extorting millions from his flock on their fear that God would otherwise “call him home.”) Then comes the kicker: a saucy orator devilishly slurping the verbal viscera off a tawdry teaser: “It’s a week of psychopaths, murderers and werewolves! Murdering, marauding maniacs! This marvelous week of murder begins when you’re dead, a malicious tale about a maniac with a deadly eye for murder! All this begins Monday on Channel 7’s 3:30 movie!” Naturally, it makes a sweet sonic lead-in to the played-straight KPIX broadcast, with its authoritative caressing of an equally seamy storyline.

A ringing telephone links the prologue to the meat of the title track. On the other end is a man identifying himself as a Rolling Stone correspondent seeking comment on the Brom case. (Helter Stupid’s liner notes spell his name “Tom Krotenmacher”; a search of the magazine’s online database yielded no articles by anyone with that or a similar name. There is, however, Portland-based writer Tom Krattenmaker, author of the recent Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks Into Pulpits and Players Into Preachers and a former reporter for The Orange County Register and Associated Press.) “Can you tell me, off the record,” he asks hopefully, “is there any backward masking on ‘Christianity Is Stupid’?” What follows is a cool dig at the phenomenon using subliminal messages in advertising; an engineer rewinds a commercial spot for Al’s House of Meat only to hear “Their child is the child of evil!” and “Little David is all grown up. Too bad for the cause of good!” It brings up an interesting point: We’ve known of these ploys for decades, but do we ever hold Coca-Cola or Lipton Tea responsible for corrupting our subconscious?

A ’70s pop-piano hook perfectly mocks the typical stentorian television-news theme, transforming what should be a serious analysis of the day’s events into a freewheeling discotheque of decadence. The question is posed: “Journalism or sensationalism?” And how effortlessly does one bleed into the other? What follows a flurry of sound bites from the late John Lennon, whose own life ended in murder, and Charles Manson, who claimed that Lennon’s band, The Beatles, foretold of a coming race-war Armageddon within the grooves of their White Album, is an expert manipulation of the KPIX story. The segment turns over on itself until anchorman Dave McElhatton hints at his own news team’s complicity: “This isn’t the first time someone has tried to blame a death on [field reporter] Hal Eisner. A Los Angeles couple claimed their son committed suicide while listening to a Hal Eisner story. The judge in that case ruled there was no proof that our report was responsible for the boy’s death.” Negativland strategically stabs the word “stupid” throughout, to reject hoary theories regarding popular music’s role in the instigation of violent crimes.

Twenty years later, the band’s disclaimer within Helter Stupid’s sleeve is as agonizingly true as the day it was penned. “Somewhere beneath the media representation of the Brom murders is an inexplicable human tragedy,” it reads. “Our act of creating a false association with such a tragedy will remain open to ethical interpretation.” I know my own opinion of the record has always been conflicted, although I can’t deny its importance as a cultural document.

On one hand, it’s a flaming evisceration of the news media, using its own commentary to condemn its practices. These figures are worthy of our scorn, for their blind, blown-dried pursuit of a juicy non-story despite its disturbing dearth of supporting evidence. On the other hand, I guess I would have to ask why Negativland would willingly insert itself into such a horrible story to prove a journalistic shortcoming so few of us find surprising. How much of this lesson in morality was fueled by simple opportunism? Did they honestly believe their actions would be received in the same spirit once it ventured past a fan base familiar with their modus operandi? Did they not realize it could be misunderstood by someone in a position to give it mainstream exposure? On the other other hand, my God, man, do your research! On the other other other hand…

Well, one could vacillate like this for decades and never reach a satisfactory consensus. There are no answers, just more questions. Why did David Brom murder his family? I don’t know. How do I feel about what Negativland did? I don’t know. In the end, Helter Stupid is more than a two-sided album, for it deftly captures what most albums cannot: the ugliness of our culture, in an accurate snapshot of America at a very specific moment in history, yet one with sins anyone would recognize as eternal: exploitation, sensationalism, consumerism, and calculated, crass commercialism.

Negativland’s Mark Hosler was still defending the record in 2001, after confronting a Brom contemporary at a party in Olympia, Wash. He wrote:

I did mention to him that as much as we always realized that we WERE exploiting a real human tragedy, we were interested in dealing with how the media works and the media’s *representation* of the events. Not “the truth.” And that good art doesn’t have to be “nice” to be good art. …I am still very proud of that record we made, but this whole discussion was unsettling, to say the least! Did we cross a line we now wished we hadn’t? If not, did we come close? … [I]t was all an experiment in the media to see what would happen — and then when it blew up into something bigger than we imagined, we tried to do something creative and responsible with the unexpected direction the whole thing took.

Perhaps what’s strangest about this strange little tale is the vitality of the experiment. Despite authoring it from vapor, the band quickly lost control of it, and it was soon too powerful to stop. Although they knew no one associated with the Brom murders and had no connection to it in any capacity, they inadvertently joined it forever. As the years have passed, with an ever-growing gulf (where rumor and conjecture take tangible shape) between the tragedy and the modern day, the Negativland hoax has become a twisted version of the truth. In fact, there are people absolutely certain of its veracity. After two decades, its allure remains irresistible.

Negativland continues to record and court controversy. They followed Helter Stupid in 1991 with a release that grabbed even more press coverage than the Brom case: the U2 EP, riddled with enough manipulated samples of the beloved Irish band to prompt a lawsuit from Island Records. More notoriety arrived with 1997’s Dispepsi, a sharp evisceration of soft-drink companies. Their most recent album, Thigmotactic, was issued in 2008, following the savage No Business (2005), which tackled issues of copyright infringement and the music industry’s response to technology, and demonstrated that age had not dulled the Negativland stiletto. According to their Web site, last updated in February (a Myspace page is regularly maintained, but no recent news has been added), the group is touring “It’s All in Your Head FM,” “a two-hour live performance concerned entirely with God, religion and our supernaturally spiced obsessions with both.”

Meanwhile, David Brom remains where he’s been since October 16, 1989, 13 days after being sentenced to three consecutive life terms (one concurrent) on four counts of murder. Known in the Statewide Supervision System as OID 14684, he’s incarcerated at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater. At 38, he’s now spent most of his life behind bars. His boyish good looks have softened into middle age, his face wider, his once fashionably feathery locks shorn to receded stubble atop his head. He wears the disturbing smile of someone oblivious to the pain he caused as a child, when he reduced his family to urban-legend grist and turned them from living, loving beings into true-crime statistics for pulp sheets and bedtime stories. It’s the visage of a man who’s right where he belongs.


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