No one can accuse Jello Biafra of being less than bipartisan. His archenemy, George Bush, was ousted from office, but the former Dead Kennedys frontman remains as outraged as ever at the White House's current resident.
"Even I had a little bit of hope this time around, although I couldn't hold my nose and vote for him," Biafra says about Bill Clinton. "When he walks in with one of the worst environmental records, worst labor records and worst education records of any sitting governor and then goes out of his way to execute a brain-damaged man before the New Hampshire primaries to show how tough he is on crime, that to me is the sign of a weasel. I mean, how different are so-called liberal yuppies from Bush Republicans?"
Not very different at all, according to Biafra. His latest spoken-word performance piece, appropriately titled "Censorship Rises in the Clinton Era: What We Are Not Being Told," is a collection of diatribes that are as rabid and vigorous as any he delivered during the Reagan/Bush years. This time, however, it's Bill Clinton ("the yuppie George Bush") who's been placed under the unforgiving Jello's microscope. In addition to his standard reflections on censorship, war and corporate greed, Biafra blows the whistle on Whitewater and NAFTA: "What we have with NAFTA and GATT, as far as I can tell," he elaborates, "is that it's officially being put in writing that borders and local governments no longer have any power, and that it really is a worldwide feudalistic state, with corporate multinationals being the barons and lords and us being the serfs."
Equally of concern to Biafra is the increasing power of the religious right and its efforts on behalf of Colorado's own Amendment 2. These Bible-thumpers, Biafra says, "aren't as visible as they once were, but they are working more tightly behind the scenes. Believe it or not, their donations have actually gone up since the '92 elections. And because the abortion war is getting close to being lost, what better way to wedge your way into power than to tap homophobia?"
Biafra comes by his knowledge of Colorado and its politics quite naturally. A self-described "suicidal teenager," the performer grew up in Boulder during the Sixties and observed firsthand the antiwar demonstrations that took place on the University of Colorado campus late in the decade. Much to his dismay, this hotbed of protest became a haven for Don Henley and Joni Mitchell wannabes only a few years later. "I left Boulder because I was frustrated and bored," he explains. "In 1977 it was still under the whole-wheat iron grip of the country-rock scene. At the time, there was only one other person in my high school who knew who the Stooges were."
Not many more were familiar with the burgeoning punk-rock genre. For Biafra, though, a 1976 Ramones show at the now-leveled Ebbets Field was a musical epiphany. That same concert was said to have influenced the musical courses taken by Angst's Joe Pope and Ministry's Al Jourgenson--a pair of performers who claim Colorado roots--but Biafra remembers that what he calls "the country-rock glitterati" who made up most of the crowd weren't quite as receptive.
"Everybody was very nice and very comfortable," Biafra says, laughing. "And then out come these guys in leather jackets, and Johnny hits one chord on the guitar, and instantly we knew it was going to be way louder than we thought. Then I turned around and noticed that most of those at Ebbets Field were visibly terrified. I thought, `Aha! This is for me!'"
In an effort to become a punk-rock musician himself, Biafra fled to San Francisco and formed the Dead Kennedys with guitarist East Bay Ray, bassist Klaus Flouride and drummer Bruce Slesinger (who later was replaced by D.H. Peligro). The band released its first single--a hilariously irreverant tribute to then-California governor Jerry Brown called "California Uber Alles"--in June 1979, and soon followed it with a slew of singles and LPs on Biafra's own Alternative Tentacles label. That same year Biafra made a notorious run for mayor of San Francisco. Today he writes off the campaign as nothing more than a politically motivated prank. "I knew that it would fuck things up," he says.
Thanks to their anticapitalist views and controversial song titles such as "I Kill Children" and "Too Drunk to Fuck," the Dead Kennedys became an instant hit among young punk-rockers and aging radicals. Unfortunately, they also grabbed the attention of Tipper Gore and the Parents' Music Resource Center, which saw album titles such as In God We Trust, Inc. and Frankenchrist as blasphemous threats to Western civilization. The organization was especially offended by an H.R. Geiger poster called "Penis Landscape" that was distributed with the Frankenchrist album. So was the San Francisco police department: In 1987 local cops raided Biafra's apartment in search of his poster stash, and subsequently charged the band with distributing lascivious material to minors. Several months and $80,000 later, the charges were dropped, but the Kennedys' breakup shortly thereafter was an indication that the much-publicized trial had taken its toll on the group.
"It was one of those things that never should have happened," Biafra notes. "But when I wound up being the pigeon, I knew I had to fight. There was never any question in my mind that we wouldn't. Who knows? Maybe I'd have pleaded guilty and paid a small fine if it had all been done quietly. But when the city attorney announced the charge at a big press conference and CNN and UPI were calling up looking for me, I realized, `Oh, my God, we're guinea pigs. Fuck these people.'"
To prevent the incident from being swept under the rug, Biafra recorded three spoken-word albums--No More Cocoons, High Priest of Harmful Matter and I Blow Minds for a Living--that document the trial in its entirety. On the musical front, the ex-Dead Kennedy recorded a series of collaborative projects with several of his Alternative Tentacles labelmates, including NoMeansNo, D.O.A., Tumor Circus (featuring members of Steel Pole Bathtub) and Lard (which includes Ministry's Jourgenson and Paul Barker). His most recent offering, a collaboration with Mojo Nixon entitled Prairie Home Invasion, is a knee-slappin' conglomeration of country-punk shakers and folksy sendups that decimate everything from America's recent fascination with the Sixties ("Nostalgia for an Age That Never Existed") to the corporation-financed alternative-rock scene ("Buy My Snake Oil").
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"There's a lot of cool music out there in the underground," Biafra acknowledges, "but as soon as musicians sign on the dotted line, it becomes `alternative.' Major labels used [the same approach] to describe people like Blondie, the Knack and the Cars. I remember it well. It was like, `Don't listen to that punk-rock shit. This is the new music.' But at the time, they forgot about the metalheads. Now the raw guitar sound brings some of them in, too."
Jello is also suspicious of the forces that have pigeonholed those in the underground youth culture as so-called "slackers." He sees correlations between this trend and the negative media coverage that afflicted the original hippie movement. "I hope [these kids] notice that nobody slagged them for being `slackers' or the `blank generation' until after they helped vote Bush out of office," he says. "Suddenly then we started to hear all this hype about how apathetic people were, and major labels started snapping up anything they thought might tap into the Nirvana dollars--preferably with real self-absorbed, escapist lyrics."
These terms can't be applied to Jello's words, but "anarchy" can. His advice to fans is succinct and to the point: "Don't forget what fun it is to fuck shit up."
Jello Biafra. 8 p.m. Thursday, April 14, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $7, 290-TIXS or 830-2525.