Darren Henley aka D.H. Peligro, June 2014 (Scott Legato/Getty Images)
The longtime punk icon died from trauma to the head caused by an accidental fall
D.H. Peligro, Dead Kennedys longtime drummer, has died. The band confirmed the news on Instagram, writing, “Dead Kennedys’ drummer D.H. Peligro (Darren Henley) passed away in his Los Angeles home yesterday, October 28th. Police on the scene stated that he died from trauma to the head caused by an accidental fall. Arrangements are pending and will be announced in the coming days. We ask that you respect the family’s privacy during this difficult time. Thank you for your thoughts and words of comfort.” Peligro was 63 years old.
Peligro’s contemporaries eulogized him on social media. Flea took to Instagram, saying “The first time I saw you play with the DK’s in ‘81 you blew my mind. The power, the soul, the recklessness.” Superchunk’s Jon Wurster posted a video of a Dead Kennedys set in San Francisco from 1984 with the words “D.H. Peligro has left the building. One of the absolute greats.”
Born Darren Henley on July 9, 1959 in St. Louis, Missouri, Peligro began learning how to play the drums at a young age. During junior high, he fell in love with rock music in particular thanks to Kiss, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and Black Sabbath. He moved to San Francisco as a teenager and lived on the streets in a van where he was introduced to artists like Television, the Ramones, Devo, and the Go-Go’s. Once he met the members of S.S.I. and joined the band, he felt like a new world opened up to him. “They told me about thrift store shopping and clubs and punk gear,” Peligro later recounted in an interview. “It was actually quite exciting, when I think about that time, because people were accepted. It was my first introduction to gay people and different-colored hair and mohawks and people just living free, like everyday was Halloween!” He became a fixture of both the San Francisco and Los Angeles music scenes while playing with S.S.I., most notably for melding his drumming style to blend punk rock, hardcore, metal, and reggae.
Dead Kennedys formed in June 1978 in San Francisco with singer Jello Biafra, guitarist East Bay Ray, bassist Klaus Flouride, and drummer Bruce “Ted” Slesinger. After recording their first demos, Dead Kennedys released their debut album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, in 1980. Slesinger left the band the following year to pursue an architecture career, and D. H. Peligro stepped in to replace him on drums after earning the admiration of Biafra at S.S.I. live shows. Peligro quickly helped Dead Kennedys evolve into a more steadfast hardcore punk sound, utilizing an aggressive, relentless drumming style that would go on to help influence the wave of crossover thrash that followed. “I just pushed as hard as I could push,” said Peligro. “I’d get a little guff from Ray because he wanted me to slow down a bit, but I just kept going and I kept that pace up. Everybody got used to it.”
Peligro made his recorded debut with Dead Kennedys on the 1981 EP In God We Trust, Inc., which famously marked the band’s first of many references railing against President Ronald Reagan. The record also includes their iconic hit “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” Peligro’s hardcore drumming style continued in a modified form on the band’s sophomore album, 1982’s Plastic Surgery Disasters, and on through their next string of records: 1985’s Frankenchrist, 1986’s Bedtime for Democracy, and the 1987 compilation album Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death.
Following Dead Kennedys break up in December 1986, Peligro briefly joined Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1988. The band was in need of a drummer after the departure of their original member Jack Irons. As a longtime friend of the band and former bandmate of Anthony Kiedis and Flea in their joke project Three Little Butt Hairs, Peligro happily stepped up to the plate. He performed with Red Hot Chili Peppers and contributed to the songwriting process for several tracks on their fourth album, Mother’s Milk. Peligro was also responsible for introducing Kiedis and Flea to then-teenager John Frusciante, who joined as their new guitarist shortly afterward. In November of that same year, Peligro was fired. Red Hot Chili Peppers replaced him with Chad Smith several weeks later.
In 2001, Ray, Peligro, and Flouride reunited Dead Kennedys with Brandon Cruz replacing Biafra. Apart from a one-year absence to address health-related issues, Peligro was a part of the band’s entire reunion effort, from multiple tours on through to live album releases like Mutiny on the Bay, Live at the Deaf Club, and DK 40.
During the later years of his career, Peligro performed with other artists both live and in the studio, including Moby, Feederz, the Aliens sans Roky Erickson, and Nailbomb, among others. He also formed his own band named Peligro, which released a self-titled album, Welcome to America, and Sum of Our Surroundings. Additionally, he fronted the bands Reverend Jones and the Cool Aid Choir, the Hellions, and Al Sharpton’s Hair.
Peligro was an early Black icon in the punk rock scene and was frequently outspoken about his experiences with racism while touring, including being denied entry into clubs his bands were scheduled to play. “Music would take me to places I wouldn’t normally go, and it’s fine while you were onstage, but when you got off, they’d get drunk and call you all kinds of names,” he told LA Weekly. “You go down South, you go across the Midwest, then people were thinking that it was music for white people, or I was the janitor or security or something. You got to experience the racism firsthand, because everybody wasn’t as open-minded as they were in San Francisco. It’s a bit more open and accepted today, but there’s still pockets of people who want to use punk rock to create hate music. That angers me to no end.”