When Californians need more water, they take it from their neighbors. Image credit: Robert Goldstrom
February 2002 Issue
Just in time to usher in the Reagan years but unlikely to play the inauguration, Jello Biafra and the rest of the Dead Kennedys joined the San Francisco punk scene in 1978. Biafra's name (he was born Eric Boucher) juxtaposes the ridiculous and the tragic, a sensibility he honed over his years as the lead singer-songwriter of the now-disbanded political punk group. Today, he extends that sensibility as a prolific spoken-word artist, roving activist, and all-around firebrand.
For years, he has been condemning what he calls "corporate feudalism," and one way he broke out of it was to set up Alternative Tentacles, an independent label he and the Dead Kennedys started in 1979. He has never taken a salary, calling himself an "absentee thoughtlord" at the diverse label that prides itself on allowing artists creative freedom and concentrates on "quality and controversy."
A champion of First Amendment rights, Biafra fought a 1987 court battle over charges that the Dead Kennedys' Frankenchrist album (specifically, Swiss artist H. R. Giger's artwork entitled "Penis Landscape") constituted "distribution of harmful matter to minors," a case that resulted in a hung jury. He also joined with other musicians to resist the Parents' Music Resource Center, a group led by Tipper Gore that successfully lobbied the recording industry for "Parental Warning--Explicit Lyrics" labels on albums.
A prankster, he ran against Dianne Feinstein for mayor of San Francisco in 1979 on a platform that included banning cars from city limits, making police run for reelection in the neighborhoods they patrolled, and establishing a "Board of Bribery" in an attempt to set standard public rates. He came in fourth out of ten. In 2000, Biafra was drafted for the Green Party Presidential primary and chose Mumia Abu-Jamal as his running mate. He ended up encouraging supporters to vote for Nader, and he got the concept of a "maximum wage" debated on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. He says his mission is to help "bring the spirit of punk rock and roll into the Greens--make the party rock."
I caught up with Jello when he was in Madison in early November. After an inadvertent 1p.m. wake-up call ("Rise and shine, Jello." "Can I call you back in an hour?"), we went to lunch, then headed to the offices of The Progressive.
We talked for several hours until he had to leave for his speaking engagement on the University of Wisconsin campus. I drove with him, and getting the tape recorder back was not as simple as one might think. While in the car, he grabbed it and spoke into it like a teacher trying to make his way through a semester's worth of material in one class period.
Question: Who was the first musician to influence you?
Jello Biafra: I got turned on to rock music almost by mistake when I was seven years old. In 1965, my father was just twirling the dial of the radio to find something that would make me go to sleep, and as soon as I heard rock and roll there was no stopping me. It was during the height of Beatlemania and the British invasion, but I gravitated toward the harder, heavier music going on then, you know, the early Rolling Stones, the good Rolling Stones, and Paul Revere and the Raiders, who don't get the credit they deserve for spearheading the American '60s garage sound.
Growing up in a family that listened to almost nothing but classical music had its effects, as well. "California Über Alles," the first Dead Kennedys single, was inspired musically more by Japanese Kabuki than anything else.
In many ways, I have no idea what would have become of me if punk hadn't happened, because the '70s turned out to be so stale, and so boring, and so backward compared to what had come just before. We were too young to have fully experienced the '60s and the fervor of the anti-war movement.
And some of the people who had caused so much trouble for what used to be called the establishment were opening overpriced hanging plant stores on the downtown mall and becoming the early versions of hippie capitalists.
Then punk happened. And I saw the Ramones, early on at a country-rock palace in Denver. They were opening for some record-company band, so the local music establishment, and I emphasize the word "establishment," was there in force, and the handful of us who knew the Ramones were up in front. And half the fun was, you know, not only were the Ramones the most powerful band I had ever seen at that point, but they made it look so simple--that anyone could do it, hell, even I could do it. This is what I should be doing.
Q: So what did you get out of this realization?
Biafra: What I got out of that immediately was that now, all of a sudden, rock music had become a spectator sport, that corporate labels and their bands were the new establishment, and punk was there to fight them the way the activist hippies must have fought what the establishment must have been ten years before. And it was interesting to see the reactions in different parts of the country.
In San Francisco, most of the older activists, especially at Berkeley, were very hostile towards punks. The music, certainly, wasn't nice and mellow for them, and neither was our look or our attitude. While in Vancouver, the two most important early punk bands, D.O.A. and the Subhumans, were both managed by former yippie activists, who saw this as a logical extension of what they were already doing.
Q: There's always been a strong element of theater in your work. You've mentioned that you're trained in method acting. Do you use any of those techniques today?
Biafra: I've used it in more ways than I first realized. A lot of the best acting training I had was in junior high and high school. We had very demanding directors and did real plays. You put our plays up against any theater troupe of any age, and they usually did pretty damn well.
I later used that in acting out different characters within the songs. From the beginning, there was so much pressure in the early San Francisco punk scene for everyone to be different than everyone else, to flaunt your intelligence and insights instead of every band sounding alike, like what plagues punk music in particular today.
Method acting has had a major influence both in writing through the eyes of other people, and seeing through the eyes of other people, trying to address different ideas in a way that would go beyond preaching to the choir.
Also, looking back, I didn't realize until years later what a huge influence Red Skelton was in my stage demeanor with the band. I mean, I always liked things that were funny, and later I realized that having a sly sense of humor was a way to get attention and even respect in school. And so I guess there's been a strong influence of different comedians: Red Skelton to Bullwinkle cartoons, and later on George Carlin, who's still pretty good.
Q: Finish this sentence: I was the kid in class who ...
Biafra: I was the kid in the class who was looking for the angles to question things or make wise-ass remarks, not knowing enough to be afraid of being myself or showing intelligence. But I wasn't the only kid like that in my classes because of where I grew up. I'm really thankful I grew up in a town where there were a lot of other mutant kids. I'm from Boulder, Colorado, which went through a lot of dramatic changes when I was growing up. But because there was a university there, plus several scientific research centers, there were a lot of professors' and scientists' kids, who were very intelligent, very questioning, and often a little odd.
When my sixth grade teacher opened the class with subtle praise for the guardsmen shooting four people to death at Kent State, I'd given up arguing with her by that point. But I was very riled up inside and vowed that I would never forget that.
Things like that happened in class every day. In the early part of the year we were drilled on why America is such a great free country, and the Chicago riot conspiracy trial--Chicago Eight, later Chicago Seven--was going on at the same time. So me and another person in the class were saying, hey, but wait, but wait, the police are not always our friend.
Finally, the boyfriend of the student music teacher came in: "Hey, kids, this is a real Air Force pilot." I asked him something to the effect of how it felt to be dropping bombs on children in Vietnamese villages. And it got very icy in there all of a sudden, and finally the teacher said, "Oh, well, Eric reads a lot of newspapers. Next question."
Q: How old were you when that happened?
Biafra: Eleven. Another part of what gave me a questioning, rabble-rousing, activist heart and soul is that when all these heavy events went down, my parents did not shelter the kids from it. I'm appalled at how many people my age, or even five or ten years younger, have no tangible memories of important history that happened when we were growing up.
I was born in the late '50s, was a child of the '60s, then the '70s, then the '80s, then the '90s, and I have mental fingers in all those pies. News footage came on the TV during dinner of bloody bodies coming back from battle in Vietnam, or the race riots in the South, people getting hosed in Selma, Alabama, or the Biafra war, where I got my name. In my household, it was explained and discussed with the children, as a way of educating us from when we first started grade school why racism and war were wrong, what this all really means.
Q: There's a school of thought post-September 11 among child psychologists that a child's television viewing should be kept to a minimum. What do you think?
Biafra: The problem is they've already seen it; it's already being discussed in schools, and who knows what kind of exaggerations and horror stories are taking place? It's important that all issues like this be right out in the open. It's very irresponsible as a parent to follow Tipper Gore or the Religious Right's advice and just take the offending CD or game away from the kid without discussing it. It's better to just sit down and discuss the offending item person to person. It means there's much more open dialogue and closeness within the family, instead of creating all these artificial divisions.
To this day, we get letters at Alternative Tentacles from young teenagers who hide their Dead Kennedys albums behind their mirror or in the mattress of their bed. Wouldn't it be better if the parents just discussed this with the kids instead of creating this culture of sneaking and dishonesty within the family? The moral of the story being, you don't hide reality from your kids because then they grow up to be smarter, more aware adults.
Q: Would you describe your work as poetry, commentary, theater, performance art, or all of the above?
Biafra: I would say all of the above. I realized very early on that, sure enough, I wasn't much of a poet, but people were really zeroing in on my sick sense of humor and all the buried information I was weaving into the work. Such as the early piece "Why I'm Glad the Space Shuttle Blew Up," which, of course, was a deliberately shocking title to put the value back into shock value.
The point I was trying to make was quite serious, in that the next shuttle scheduled to go up would have had over forty pounds of plutonium on it, and if that one had blown in the same point in the atmosphere that the Challenger blew, there would have been enough, according to the literature I was reading at the time, plutonium dust in the atmosphere to kill as many as several billion people, not to mention an awful lot of critters.
Q: Shock Value. What is the value of shock?
Biafra: The value of shock is to stir the sediment in the brain, and wake people up. All my different kinds of artwork have been designed to inspire people to think. They may not always agree with me, but at least they will have some feelings and some passion about whatever it is I'm bombarding them with at the moment. I also think there's plenty of room, even in the most serious activist circles, for humor. Humor can be very effective both to inspire, and as a weapon. Just ask Frank Zappa and Charlie Chaplin.
Q: Do you see any artists today who are, as you once said, "slipping inside the villains"?
Biafra: I don't know whether I see it as slipping inside the villains, but part of what makes Ralph Nader and Michael Moore such effective speakers and communicators is that they know how corporate culture works, how our lawmaking bodies really work, and where the bones are buried.
And in the case of Michael Moore, having a deep, I'd even say passionate, understanding of other types of people in America who might be progressive thinkers without even realizing it. They see the same things we do from a very different lens. I suspect even a large part of Rush Limbaugh's audience buys into what he says because it's the same basic frustration that forms this wedge of discontent in this country called "Why can't I put food on the table?"
Q: In 1997, the ad agency FCB Worldwide approached the Dead Kennedys requesting permission to use "Holiday in Cambodia" in a Levi's Dockers commercial. What was your first response when you heard that?
Biafra: I got pretty frightened because it became obvious that my former band members, who should know better, seemed to be all for the idea. And the motivation turned out to be sheer greed. Those songs were not created to shill for corporate products. When "Search and Destroy" by the Stooges came on as a Nike shoe commercial, I got physically sick. That song meant the world to me, and I didn't feel this was the way it ought to be used.
But it wasn't just the political reasons that made turning down that Levi's commercial a no-brainer. It was having to live with the sheer nausea of having what was probably my favorite song the Dead Kennedys ever did used in a commercial that nauseated me. I would hate to have "Holiday in Cambodia" become as tiresome to other people as hearing "Like a Rock" in a Chevrolet commercial.
As an individual artist, somebody had to draw the line and say, "No. This music is not for you. We don't want your dirty money."
Q: Your sixth spoken-word album is called "Become the Media." How do you become the media?
Biafra: I would say there's been a huge widening of the do-it-yourself 'zine culture that may be the best gift punk has given the world, even more than all the cool music. It widened further when Riot Grrrl happened, and now it's caught on to the point where even high school students are publishing their own 'zines about their school, or about the education system itself. There's a great one out of either Louisville or Lexington, Kentucky, called Brat, and I don't know if it still exists or not. I hope it does. What impressed me the most was it had quickly moved on from the "Why School Sucks" articles to "This is how we who are actually going to school right now feel the education system could be reformed."
One of the best things that's come out of the Seattle protests is the birth of the Independent Media Center. It's not as though the independent media movement wasn't already there, but it's given it another jump-start. There's the feeling that not only should we report on our underground culture and our own situation, but now we have to start telling people what's really going on at a time when everything from CNN to USA Today is as tightly controlled as Tass or Pravda.
We've never had a situation where mass media has been so censored, at least in my lifetime. When I was younger, networks like NBC, CBS, were independently owned, and took their jobs as journalists seriously. There used to be documentaries like "The Selling of the Pentagon." There was another one detailing the connections between the harsh treatment of workers in Florida's citrus groves and Coca- Cola. PBS even had a series on for a little while called "The Nader Report." You don't see stuff like that now. So we have to replace that by communicating among ourselves.
Q: From an activist perspective, how does the current atmosphere compare to other periods?
Biafra: As a human being with notoriety and a big mouth, I've felt most threatened during the first Bush Administration. Whenever there's a Bush in the White House, many people die, and the rest of us are threatened. I just didn't think it would happen quite so quickly. The so-called USA Patriot Act, and the announcement of trying people in military tribunals if Bush or Rumsfeld's or Ashcroft's people think they somehow qualify as terrorists, basically, this is McCarthyism run amok. You know, it doesn't take much stretching of the imagination to see where they intend to go with this. It wasn't that long ago that we rounded up thousands of immigrants and labor activists and jailed them for the crime of publicly opposing World War I. I fear this may be what they have in mind again. Already rightwing punditoids and the prime minister of Italy have claimed anti-globalization protesters are terrorists.
At the same time, I never expected the movement against globalization and corporate rule to mushroom as quickly as it has, either. And right now the strongest electoral arm of that movement is the Green Party. I try to stress to people cynical about voting that the Greens are the most effective electoral arm of the so-called Spirit of Seattle, and it's great fun to cause trouble in the streets, but that's not going to accomplish much without insurrection in the voting booth at the same time.
Q: Where do you find hope?
Biafra: The sheer numbers and impact of the Seattle protests and what came after them gave me a lot of hope that this may be the beginning of a very long fight that could quite seriously turn the tide of corporate feudalism. I went to Seattle as just another geek in the food chain, thinking, "Well, in my own puny little way, I'd rather be a part of history than just sit and watch it on TV." So, the fact that so many people are starting to ask the right questions and rack their brains for solutions does give me hope.
I think one of the beauties so far of the so-called Spirit of Seattle is there aren't any leaders, pop stars, or guru figures that everyone else is falling in line with and following. No Mandela, Havel, or Subcomandante Ski Mask riding in on a white horse and everybody else just wanting to follow them to the promised land. We're stitching it together and doing it ourselves.
Jodi Vander Molen is Membership Coordinator for The Progressive, a freelance writer, and an activist.