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Profiles

Jello Biafra and the Politics of Punk

Having spent a quarter-century pushing Americans to face the music, the former Dead Kennedys vocalist sits down to tell his thoughts on Obama, political parties, and participatory democracy.

Credit: Ramoneart Photography

“They call themselves the Dead Kennedys,” I recall my buddy Landon shouting over frenetic, rapid-fire chord changes as we barreled through Charlotte, N.C., in an ambulance he had “borrowed” from his dad, an EMT. Landon’s stunt would leave behind a lasting impression. Up until that point, I had hated punk rock. The Sex Pistols bored me, the Buzzcocks had a bubblegum sound, and I just didn’t get the Ramones. I thought punk would fade like disco, and with any luck, be replaced with a musical movement led by artists who could actually play their instruments. But in the ambulance, the maniacal vibrato and caustic quips of Dead Kennedys lead singer Jello Biafra had me gaping. Forever etched in my brain are his Tourettes-like rants about the perils of chemical warfare and the unmitigated cruelty of Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, dueling with the wailing siren as my buddy and I wove through rush-hour traffic.

More than 25 years later, Biafra is still writing songs that needle the narcissistic impulses of a status quo awash in commodity fetishism and political apathy. Though the bulk of his albums have featured his singing, he has also released eight spoken-word recordings that rely on an array of comedic devices to cleverly convey his political ideals. In the Grip of Official Treason, his latest project, contains more than three hours of compelling arguments for drastic social change. The monologues have an earnest tone and are stitched together with a humorous, optimistic thread—a unique combination of attributes that has held my attention for nearly three decades.

 

I called Jello Biafra at his San Francisco home in May. His lengthy voice-mail greeting, used to screen calls, chides Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for waffling on NAFTA and questions their sincerity about ending the war in Iraq. The message serves as a reminder of Biafra’s long-time engagement with the political process, from his candidacies for public office to his emphasis on the importance of voting, especially in local contests when ballot initiatives are at stake. Both are unusual stances for an avowed anarchist.

“But that doesn’t automatically mean that I’m filled with naïve hope for our future,” Biafra says to me. “I figure every available tool should be used relentlessly to fight the powers that be. It’s not as though a President ‘Barack-star’ is going to wave his magic wand and suddenly Iraq is all better. My biggest worry about him is that if he wins, he’s just going to turn around, pull off the mask, and be the creature of the corporate establishment that his voting record indicates. And a whole generation inspired to get off their asses and participate will become so disillusioned that they don’t vote again.”

Biafra’s disappointment with the Carter administration was an early impetus for his opposition to the two-party system of American politics, which he says has left voters with no acceptable choices in national elections. He is a member of the Green Party and has supported Ralph Nader’s candidacy in several presidential contests. The last time Biafra voted for a mainstream presidential candidate was in 1976.

“I figure every available tool should be used relentlessly to fight the powers that be.” “I was 18 years old and so proud that I finally got to give the big middle finger to the Nixon-Ford regime. And then what happened was mostly a watered-down version of the same policies rather than the change people felt we needed so badly. People forget that this drift towards the right and corporate sycophancy didn’t begin with Bill Clinton. It started under Jimmy Carter. And as wonderful as Carter has been as an ex-president, his lack of competence as president paved the way for the Reaganoids.”

In 1977, Biafra enrolled at the University of California at Santa Cruz, but he left at the end of the fall quarter, attracted instead by the San Francisco punk scene. At the center of it all was Mabuhay Gardens, a music venue that booked local bands like the Avengers and the Dils, whose blistering tempos and visceral intensity intrigued Biafra. The next year, he formed the Dead Kennedys with guitarists East Bay Ray and 6025, bassist Klaus Flouride, and drummer Bruce Slesinger. Biafra, who until that point had gone by his given name, Eric Boucher, randomly selected his moniker from a notebook.

“Me and my friend John Greenway had been in Boulder, making up names for bands, people in bands, and songs, and I just took the notebook with me. At first, I called myself ‘Occupant,’ but of course, San Francisco was also the home of the Residents, so people kept saying, ‘Hey, Resident! How ya doin’?’ And I thought I had better pick another name. I opened up the notebook and [Jello Biafra] seemed to have more staying power than some of the others on the list, like ‘Smegma Pig Vomit’ and ‘Mucus Melanoma.’ And I liked the way the two images collide in the mind—the ultimate useless, wiggly, sugary American food product and what was then the symbol for mass genocide and starvation like Darfur is now.”

The Dead Kennedys began performing live after only a week of rehearsals and made an immediate impact on Bay Area music with their turbulent mix of thrashing rhythms, serpentine melodies and scathing denunciations of social inequality. Biafra’s diatribes, delivered through the musical medium that would later become known as hardcore, drew a new generation of fans away from the nihilistic attitudes that had previously characterized the punk genre. About two years later, Biafra carried his political engagement a step further when he ran for mayor of San Francisco against current Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

“It wasn’t a decision as much as an impulse,” he says. “I was folded up in the back of Bruce’s Volkswagen—he, me, and Klaus were going down to see Pere Ubu—and Bruce said, ‘Biafra, you’ve got such a big mouth, you should run for president. No—better yet, you should run for mayor!’ And I thought, ‘Ah-ha. I will.’ When we got to the Pere Ubu show and I began blabbing that I was going to run for mayor, everybody got excited, and I thought, ‘Oh, shit—I had better have a platform!’ And all I could get ahold of was a felt-tip pen and a napkin. So, I wrote my platform while Pere Ubu was playing about five feet away. And it popped in my head right there that police officers should be elected. I still think that’s a really good idea.”

Other items on Biafra’s platform included banning all cars from the city to alleviate the pollution problem and moving the jail to a local golf course so that inmates could “enjoy true rehabilitation like the Watergate criminals.” After front-runner Feinstein made headlines sweeping the rough streets of the Tenderloin district with a broom, Biafra upped the ante by cleaning the manicured lawns of her upscale neighborhood with a PowerVac. He wound up placing fourth out of a field of 10 candidates, and Feinstein was forced to defend her top showing in a runoff before being declared the winner.

Biafra’s mayoral platform drew attention to serious issues in a playful manner—a tactic he would repeatedly use throughout his career as an artist and activist. In 1980, at the dawn of the Reagan era, the Dead Kennedys released their debut album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, which incorporated sarcasm and irony into a collection of songs with outrageous titles like “Kill the Poor,” “Stealing People’s Mail,” and “I Kill Children.” Punk anthem “California Über Alles” likened Jerry Brown, then the state’s governor, to Hitler. A tour of Europe followed, and Fresh Fruit went on to receive critical acclaim as an essential punk album.

“Very few bands got to make albums then,” Biafra explains. “And anytime anybody like the Germs or the Plugz in L.A. made theirs, it was sort of a triumph for the whole scene. I was confident that if we made one album, we’d be able to make more. We [had planned] to document our first songs first and save “Bleed for Me” and “Moon Over Marin” for the second album. And in between came In God We Trust, Inc., which was done on an impulse, venting gut rage about the Reagan regime and what it all meant.”

The most stunning number on 1981’s In God We Trust, Inc. is “We’ve Got A Bigger Problem Now,” in which Reagan’s conservative agenda is excoriated against a schizoid soundscape that oscillates between East Bay Ray’s smoky-lounge strumming and raucous chord sequences. In hindsight, it’s hard not to view the song as prophetic. Biafra was a few years from encountering the biggest problem of his career.

After front-runner Feinstein made headlines sweeping the rough streets of the Tenderloin district with a broom, Biafra upped the ante by cleaning the manicured lawns of her upscale neighborhood with a PowerVac. In 1985 the Dead Kennedys released Frankenchrist, which contained a poster reproduction of Swiss painter H.R. Giger’s Work 219: Landscape XX, a surreal depiction of several penises entering vaginal cavities. Biafra and four others would be charged with distributing harmful matter to minors, a crime punishable by a $2,000 fine and up to one year in jail.

A lawyer named Michael Guarino prosecuted the case for the Los Angeles attorney general’s office. The Frankenchrist ordeal dragged on for more than a year and received international attention; renowned historian and cultural critic Greil Marcus even took the stand as an expert witness for Biafra. In the end, the jury deadlocked seven to five in favor of acquittal, and although Guarino filed a motion for a new trial, the judge dropped the charges and dismissed the case.

Later on, Guarino regretted his prosecution of Biafra. “I felt I was on the wrong side of history,” he admitted in a 2005 interview on National Public Radio’s This American Life. The episode concluded with a cordial telephone conversation between Guarino and Biafra in which they found common ground.

“The whole thing was a surprise to me,” Biafra says. “They were interviewing me live on the phone for This American Life and didn’t tell me they had the prosecutor from the Frankenchrist obscenity trial on the other line. But we worked it out. It was a bit shocking to hear him claiming that my work helped inspire him.”

Biafra recounted his experiences during the Frankenchrist trial on his 1989 spoken-word album High Priest of Harmful Matter, which underscored his talent as a humorist. Other releases of stand-up performances followed, as well as collaborations with Al Jourgensen and Paul Barker of the industrial-metal band Ministry, recording under the name Lard. The trio produced four records—two EPs and two full-length albums that entwine Biafra’s biting verbal barrage with dense rhythmic waves of undulating noise.

Pure Chewing Satisfaction, the second Lard album, was a bunch of studio tracks that Al had, but hadn’t added his own vocals to,” Biafra explains. “It was sort of like feeding Ministry tracks to the dog, but they were so good that I was a very happy dog. If there’s another Lard album, I’ll probably be much more deeply involved from the musical end because we’ll have to create from scratch like we did with The Last Temptation [of Reid].”

Two of Biafra’s recent musical releases, Never Breathe What You Can’t See and Seig Howdy!, are joint projects with the experimental metal group the Melvins. But the plodding dirge of grinding guitar so characteristic of the Melvins’ music is conspicuously absent from these records; instead, listeners are treated to a bedazzling blend of scampering chord progressions and crunchy layers of rhythm guitar buttressing Biafra’s mordacious social commentaries. Seig Howdy! contains a cover of “Halo of Flies,” a song by shock-rocker Alice Cooper, who is widely known for his ultra-conservative political views.

“If I got into a discussion about politics with Alice Cooper or Jerry Lee Lewis, it probably wouldn’t get very far,” Biafra says. “But that doesn’t mean I’m going to shut myself off from enjoying their music. There’s some people in the more politically-correct-than-thou circles who think it’s important to remain pure and only listen to music with politically correct lyrics. That’s a one-way ticket to boredom. And I can tell immediately when a so-called punk rock band ain’t got no Jerry Lee in ‘em.”