Jello Biafra on the time he dressed up in his dad's clothes and visited Focus on the Family
Jello Biafra has had an unmistakable and enduring impact internationally, both on punk and the counterculture. The iconoclast grew up in Boulder and moved to San Francisco in the late '70s, where he formed the Dead Kennedys and established the Alternative Tentacles imprint. As an outspoken critic of the more unsavory aspects of American culture and deleterious effect of moneyed interests on our political system and our daily lives, Biafra is all but a one-man anti-propaganda campaign with his social commentary and music.
One of his latest musical projects is Guantanamo School of Medicine, which released the 2013 album White People and the Damage Done. In advance of his New Year's Eve show tonight at the Summit Music Hall with Guantano School of Medicine, we spoke with the witty and eloquent singer. In the second part of our interview with Biafra, he talks about the Astronauts, the infamous Dead Kennedys gig opening for the Clash, Wesley Willis, the Sonics and some of his adventures in politics and pranking.
Westword: You met Bob Demmon of the Astronauts as a kid?
Jello Biafra: I never really met him; he just came to show his dog when I was in second grade. That was right around the first time I heard rock and roll. I wouldn't say I discovered it so much as my parents blundered into it on the radio on KIMN. I thought, "Yeah, this is for me!" Then there was no stopping me. That was at the time when the big commercial radio stations like KIMN and KTLK -- though I didn't hear that until later -- played local bands. The Moonrakers were played locally, and the top of the heap on KIMN was the Astronauts. There was even a scheduled interview once a week with Bob Demmon from wherever the Astronauts were.
Somehow I knew he was the son of Mrs. Demmon, the woman who ran the office at [University] Hill Primary School. When we were told, "Mrs. Demmon's son is going to come and show us his dog next week," me and one other girl, Erica, who knew who he was, got all excited, "Bob Demmon from the Astronauts is coming to our class! That's so cool!"
We expected Beatle hair, but it was rocker hair, but not that long. He turned out to be very quiet. Drunken mobs of CU students at Tulagi's was no problem for the Astronauts, but a room full of second graders was a different matter. He didn't say much, and we we took turns going up to pet [the dog], and that was the end of my first encounter with a rock star.
We looked around for the snow for a while to figure out where exactly the cover to Everything Is A-OK! was taken on Flagstaff Mountain before they finally positioned me where they thought it was for the interview for the movie about the Astronauts [Boulder to Baja & Beyond].
I was thinking the other day that I'm really grateful that, even as a kid, that I deeply experienced the '60s. I didn't just sit there watching it on TV and then forgetting it all or whatever. I experienced and felt the '60s, the music and the political events combined. It gave me a much deeper passion for both, I think. It astonishes me when I run into somebody I grew up with in Boulder and they tell me I have more memories of their own childhood than they do.
How on earth could this be possible? Even in fourth grade, everybody had an opinion on Vietnam, and by high school, we were going through Watergate, and it was on everybody's lips. Not to mention that the committee hearings were the best reality show in the history of television, and Nixon was going down.
I wonder why that happened? I think maybe the parents were less open with what was going on. And the bloody war footage that they would never show now from Vietnam or the race riots in Alabama or whatever -- when those came on the news, they were explained to me, even when I was six years old, so I had very strong feelings early on about racism, environmentalism, war.
I got a thorough understanding, and when, by 1968, "Officer Friendly" was in our textbooks, it wasn't reality anymore. On my spoken word album Beyond the Valley of the Gift Police, there is a track called "Eric Meets the Moose Diarrhea Salesman," and a lot of it is about Colorado -- although the part I added later. As I got older and my audiences at the spoken shows became younger, the underground, independent punk, rock and hip-hop scenes didn't exist when I was coming of age.
In Colorado, you either sounded like you'd probably be the next Firefall, or you didn't play. So the few people that were actually trying to play rock instruments at the time, which was rare enough then, what would we play? Covers of Deep Purple? I either worked on my voice, so I could hit the high notes in "Child in Time," but it was right when I was discovering MC5 and the Stooges; my same [musician] friends were discovering Yes, jazz fusion and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
So there was no avenue for a teenager to actually participate and make their own rock at that point. [Al] Journgensen claims he had a heavy rock cover band called Slayer, of all things, based in Greeley, where he was living at the time he was going to UNC, but I don't know how far they ever got, or if anybody else has ever heard of this.
What can you tell us about that infamous 1979 incident when Dead Kennedys played with The Clash? Did Bill Graham say anything to you directly?
I just heard about it later. I came back with nothing on but my wingtip shoes, my argyle socks and my belt with shreds of my underwear. Graham was so angry, he had to be physically restrained to keep him from coming up on stage to beat me up. That's what I was told afterward, but I never saw him.
The sadder part of it was the whole experience of sharing a bill with the Clash. They took a four-hour sound check, and little kids were being let play guitars through the P.A. And here were the Cramps, us and the Rockabilly Rebels, minus Ray Campi, lined up waiting for our sound check that never happened. So I guess they went back to their hotel rooms and didn't come back until right before they went on stage, so they didn't see any of us.
And I was ushered up into the back dressing room that had a line of women going up two flights of stairs to meet Joe Strummer. He was sitting behind a two-foot pile of deli food. "Oh, you're the one that's running for mayor." Pause. "Chicago has a woman mayor, too." So I left. There was a lesson there to me, especially being known for having a big mouth about politics and current events: If you don't really know what's going about something, just admit it. You'll have a better conversation if ask questions. You may get some responses like, "You really don't know about that?" "No, I actually don't. Tell me."
People told me that in later years Strummer was more sensible and down to earth, but that's not who I met at that hellacious Bill Graham show. Not only did I not play for Bill Graham again, I didn't even go to any of his shows for years after that, even if they were free. I still haven't paid to go to a Graham show or SFX [Productions] or Live Nation -- nope. The boycott remains. Ironically, the European Live Nation offered us a tour there with Motorhead.
You spoke about your mayoral run quite well and in detail in I Blow Minds For A Living. Now Diane Feinstein has been back in the news with some greater prominence. Has your perspective changed on her at all?
Diane Feinstein was the Margaret Thatcher of San Francisco. She was mean as fuck. You put a wig and a pound of make-up on a Chicago ward boss, take away the cigar, and there is Feinstein. The thing that really left a bad taste in my mouth was how really out of control the police were when she was mayor. And the attacks they made on any music shows of any kind that weren't Bill Graham.
She was well known for having a police radio on in her limousine as a way of relaxing. One of the Board of Supervisors members called her a "cop groupie." A reporter for one of the two big daily papers, who regularly criticized her in his column, was arrested and jailed for walking his dog without a leash or a license or something. That was the way Feinstein ran the city. And when she got into the senate, she was one of the biggest apologist advocates for Suharto, who was slaughtering people in East Timor and the rest of Indonesia. So, no, I'm not a big fan of Diane Feinstein.
Gun control is one of her few good issues. But it's a tough one because the police state is way far out there, too. I wish the Second Amendment had been interpreted differently, where the militia is what it was supposed to be all along -- something like the national guard. Not these clowns running around with machine guns saying, "It's my god-given right as a red, white and blue American to go blow ducks away with an AR-15!"
Although in a way some of their wacky conspiracy theories fascinate me. Where would we be without the comic relief of the Tea Party, like Ken Buck claiming the Denver bicycle sharing program was a UN plot to take over Denver. It was worth it to have him run for the senate and lose just to have that in our lives. I thought about this when the militia movement crested before and Timothy McVeigh was a pop star.
All these people wanted to join militias and stuff because they were afraid the government was going to take their guns away. But, wow, wouldn't it be great if the UN troops and their blue helmets actually did rise out of the sewers of Detroit, of all places, and went door to door just to try to take away everybody's machine guns? I'd get lawn chair and a pitcher of lemonade and watch the fun. It would be awesome!
When Australia had a mass shooting, when you could still get machine guns there, they didn't screw around. They banned them nationwide, on the spot, retroactively, and took them all away. And lo and behold, they haven't had anybody shooting up a movie theater or a classroom full of first graders, of all things, since. It doesn't happen there anymore. So there's got to be a way.
My proposal is just tax bullets to the ceiling. Don't go after the guns, go after the bullets. That way these Tea Party Newtsies just show off all their machine guns to their friends, but the only things they can shoot out of them are tranquilizers. You wanna roll around the 'hood with a gun in your back pocket, all you have is tranquilizers. That's the way to stop the near genocidal number of deaths from guns in this country.
You also ran for president as a Green Party candidate?
Yeah, that was kind of a fluke, and I did it on a dare, like I did with that mayoral campaign. With that, our old drummer Ted was driving us to a Pere Ubu show, and he said, "You have such a big mouth, Biafra, you should run for president. No, you should run for mayor." Then the light bulb went off in my head, and I said, "Aha."
I went to the Pere Ubu show and told everybody I was running for mayor and wrote out my platform on a napkin with a felt tip pen. The ideas came to me as Pere Ubu was playing a few feet from me. It was one of those "no dancing" venues, like Ebbets Field, called the Old Waldorf in San Francisco. Then I couldn't get rid of it, and I had to go through with it.
The whole inspiration came from the prank campaign for Boulder City Council we had every couple of years. My favorite being a local gadfly named John Davenport who ran on a platform of banning cars in the city and several other things. Then there were the photos of all the candidates in the Boulder Daily Camera, and here was this guy with a pirate suit, and I think he had an eye patch. And some of his teeth were blacked out. This made an impression on me. Wouldn't it be cool if I was that when I grew up.
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So me and my friend John Greenway, who wrote the original lyrics for "California Über Alles," and I plotted a run for school board a year or two year later. His idea was to run for school board with a Mohawk, which was unheard of then except inTaxi Driver, promising free drugs for children while wearing a tutu. I can't remember what my idea was to top that. I'm not sure I could.
But that's what was in my mind when I ran for mayor of San Francisco without thinking about it at all. It was done as a prank, done on a dare, in that same spirit that I now call "shockupy." That's when I wrote a song for the Occupy movement. I wanted to emphasize how fun resistance can be. Of course it's not all fun and games. I knew it would evaporate when winter hit and not be able to come back. Even my mother, who is 83 now, was down with what Occupy was doing, what they were saying and why they were doing it. She supported the earlier occupation of Wisconsin's capital for the same reason, too.
My favorite part of protest is the prank and the theater and going out of our way to annoy the people that most need to be annoyed. Thus the saying, "Don't just occupy; shockupy." It was the same thing I was writing about in that old Dead Kennedys song, "The Man With the Dogs." There used to be this guy I'd run into from time to time, and he'd just stare at me with this weird grin on his face. It totally freaked me out, and I thought he was a real prick until I realized why he was doing it. Only later did I find out that he was Rick Scott's roommate and he lived in the back of the Arapahoe location of Trade A Tape.
You did a spoken word performance at the Ogden Theatre several years ago, on November 16, 2001, and Wesley Willis was in attendance.
Oh that one. How could I forget that show. I got word that Wesley was in the building, but I couldn't find him. He's hard to miss, so I asked the audience where he was, and five seconds later, I turn back around and there's Wesley with a freshly-shaved head, right at the front of the stage of the Ogden with a big grin on his face.
"Jello! I have CDs for sale!" "Uh, sorry, Wes, I'm doing a show right now. Maybe I can get some from you later." "Oh, okay." Then he turned around and got the whole audience to say, "Rah" and "Row." Then he picked out the prettiest girl in the front row and asked her to head butt him and then went back out to the lobby to sell drawings and CDs while I did the rest of the show.
But I thought, "A-ha. This is a golden opportunity. Tomorrow, Wesley meets my parents." So the next day sure enough Wes came over and Chris Bagley, who made the definitive documentary about Wes [Wesley Willis's Joy Rides], was there, and Joel Haertling came by with a camera and my mother decided she even really wanted to meet Wesley.
My dad is a retired mental health professional, and he was intrigued, so he was open to it. Then the door bell rang, and my dad came to the door, and so did my mom, and so did my aunt and uncle, who had come over to fix my mom's computer but didn't even really know who Wesley was.
Enters this giant man, "Are you Virginia Biafra? I am very glad to meet you." He didn't head butt her -- luckily, he knew better -- but he shook her hand for an extended period and didn't let go for a while. Then we got him a chair that we assumed was strong enough to hold his four hundred and fifty pounds or so.
Then we ask him, "Hey, Wes, do you want some orange juice?" "Hell no!" "I thought you liked orange juice." "It gives me defecation." Then he sees my dad looking through some photos of his drawings that Chris Bagley had taken. He was looking at them approvingly, so Wes said, "I have some new drawings. Would you like to see one?" So he opens up his notebook and of course its one of his "suck a camel's dick" things, and my dad looked at them, and it was an interesting afternoon. There's a photo that Haertling took that's in Greatest Hits Vol. 3.
How did you become aware of his work?
Oh, a friend of mine, Tammy Smith. We met up in Saint Louis. We hadn't seen each other in a while, and we saw D.H. Peligro there. She pulled out this cassette to play in her car saying, "There's something I think you need to hear." The first song on there -- she had compiled herself, and Wes didn't have any CDs out yet -- was "Rock and Roll McDonald's," and so, of course, I thought, "Holy shit, what is this?"
Most people like that, who are now labeled outsider art, have one or two really amazing songs and then they get kind of normal or they try to sound exactly like the Beatles. Or the guy in Seattle who is obsessed with Johnny Mathis -- I can't remember his name. But with this Wesley tape, it was 45 minutes a side, and every song was amazing. There was just one after another after another. I had just finished the longest interview of my life for the Incredibly Strange Music book, and this guy was the most incredibly strangest music I'd ever heard.
So, of course, we put out the Greatest Hits CDs, which was the only way anyone could talk Wesley into editing himself. I thought, "Aha, I know how to get around this." And then I told Wes, "Hey, Wes, I want to put out your greatest hits." "Yeah!" "And these are your greatest hits: 'Rock and Roll McDonalds'?" "Yeah!" "'I Whupped Batman's Ass'?" "Yeah!"And the rest is history.
He stayed at my house several times, and it was physically and mentally exhausting to be in charge with him for a while. Anyone who thought the people that were in bands with him on the road were exploiting him has no idea what it took to take care of him on a daily basis. So I don't think they were exploiting him one bit. If anything, he was exploiting them, and he knew it.
He was quite the hustler. "Jello, I'm going to have a financial hell ride today unless I sell some CDs." Which meant he was going to freak out and cry against his demons unless I got him some fresh cash. So I would take him around to different stores, and he would try to sell them to people at random on the street, even in the pre-gentrified Mission District, where most of the people he approached only spoke Spanish. Every once in a while, he would succeed.
The last two times he stayed with me, he head butted me so much that I had a big callous on my forehead just like he did. "Jello, what happened? Did you get into a fight?" "No, Wesley stayed at my house." "Wow, cool!" I came out of the same graduating class with Rick Riley. The dude plays golf with Bill Clinton. Would I trade that for all the quality time with Wesley Willis? Hell no. I can tell my grand children, if I have any, that I got to see Wesley emerge nude from the shower and carry on a conversation with everyone in the living room and forgetting to dry himself off or getting dressed. You just don't get things like that playing golf with Bill Clinton, I'm sorry.
It might come as a surprise to many people that you have a vocal coach, Pat Wynne. When did you start working with her?
I finally went to her in 1985 because I was sick of blowing out my voice after only two shows of a tour. I started working with her before we started recording Frankenchrist, and then we did the longest rock tour I've ever done, which was about seven weeks, and I didn't blow out until the second to last show. So I thought it worked pretty well, and we became friends. She'd never worked with someone doing my style of music before, but she went with it, and she's an old labor activist, among other things, so we've always had lots to talk about.
How did you meet her?
Just through recommendations from members of the Mutants. Not having too many options, I just went to her. It's kind of turned around now, and she's one of the vocalists on The Audacity of Hype. We needed a choir on "Shockupy," and I thought why not her, and a lot of fun was to be had. She doesn't teach heavy metal; she's a folk and blues singer. She taught me some warm-ups, so I could get more out of what I got without screeching myself hoarse. And I got a lot of my original range back, too. I smoked so much weed right after I got out of high school I burned out my Robert Plant voice. Is music better off? You decide.
Why were the Sonics such an important band to you, and have you been able to see them live?
I finally did see them live and they were great. I don't know if they've come to Denver yet or not, but they're coming more and more out of their shell. They headlined a big garage rock festival in Reno, which I wrangled my way into by offering to DJ. So I saw lots of cool bands and played lots of records and brought a trunk load of records to sell because I thought that would be a good place to do it.
Oddly enough, one of my original Bo Diddley records went to one of the Gories. It was great to see the Sonics at a small venue at the front of the stage just like all the punk shows I'd been to. Now they're even working on a new album, and I've heard some version of it, and it's pretty damned good.
For all of your career, in your lyrics, there is an element of humor alongside serious content, and you're a big fan of pranks and creative trouble-making: What is it about that sort of thing that really appeals to you?
In my case, I think it's one way of keeping sane as our society becomes more of a corporate, fascist drone state where people are somehow supposed to accept being spied on by the NSA, that fracking is good for you and on down the line.
Of course it's blacked out over here, but in the U.K. they're kicking ass on fracking. They don't just protest at a county commissioners' meeting, large numbers of people will sit down across the road so the trucks can't get in to drill. There was a huge standoff at Balcomb that lasted for weeks. Eventually the trucks got in, and the standoff burned out, but the anti-fracking movement has not. It got much wider publicity in Britain than it would have otherwise.
They seem really hell bent on getting all the wells in the ground as quickly as possible all over the world before people wake up and realize how bone-headed, toxic and dangerous it all is. You know, "We must save all the SUVs and the internal combustion engine any way possible, even if it wrecks the water supply and poisons people's farms and wells. You turn on your kitchen faucet, and you can turn it on fire. Anything to save the SUV." But not everyone agrees with that.
I'm amazed it's gotten as far as it has in Colorado, but Weld County is the land of people that actually vote for Ken Buck, so you never know. Even when I was growing up here, it seemed like Colorado's politics and voters were diametrically opposed to one another. Back then, it was the ranchers who wanted to poison the animals, and the developers who wanted more four-lane roads and ski resorts wherever they could put them.
While on the other end, it was the so-called conservationists, before it was called the environmental movement, who said, "Hey wait a minute, maybe we don't have to do all this stuff and not all development is good." One of the great turning points is when the Olympics got kicked out of Denver.
And now it's sort of the same thing going on. On one hand, you have ever more active, militant environmentalists and progressives versus Tea Party wackos and people like Tancredo and people who follow them, not to mention the Christian supremacists. I've been put on Focus On The Family's mailing list as a prank. Gary Floyd of the Dicks and Sister Double Happiness is a prime suspect. All of a sudden, I was getting magazines from Jerry Falwell; I was getting Pat Robertson's stuff. I might have got some stuff from Swaggert, too, as well as stuff from Focus On The Family.
But since I was going whole hog against the religious right and fighting the censorship of music, since I knew they were tight with Tipper Gore and the PMRC, I thought, "What better way to expose them than through their own literature?" So I was happy to have it.
My roommate discovered all the sex subliminals in this leather bound bible that Falwell was selling with his own annotations in the margins. That blew my mind. Then this letter came from Focus On The Family telling us that they were packing up and moving from Pomona to Colorado Springs and saying, "Come and join us. The real estate's really cheap, and there will be lots of people like us if all of you show up." And then thousands of people did.
Not long after that Amendment 2 went through, thanks in large part to Focus On The Family and a Christian supremacist football coach named Bill McCartney. All those years as a kid watching CU lose to Oklahoma and Nebraska by wide margins every single year, and when they started beating them, I had to root for the other team because of Bill McCartney.
After that, Focus On The Family and other hate groups identified who they could use as lieutenants on the eastern plains and the western slope and attacks on libraries and school curriculums all across the state. I know this because my sister was hired by the state library to use her sociology degree to track it all. Needless to say, she was outraged when she realized what these people were doing and why working as lieutenants of the Christian supremacist hate agenda pushed by James Dobson and Focus On The Family and others like them.
So I figured well let's see what happens if I go into the belly of the best. So I put on some of my dad's clothes to disguise myself as a respectable citizen and went to Colorado Springs to pay Focus On The Family a visit. I went to their visitor's center and and asked, "Do you have anything on rock music?"
They directed me to some videos on how Beavis and Butthead causes devil worship and acts of arson by kindergartners and stuff. I noticed that people were following me all over the visitor's center and then I noticed a whole bale of their magazine by the cash register had fallen on the floor and I thought, "I could put them all in a dumpster and do my good deed for the day."
Then I looked up and of course someone with folded arms, a lot bigger than me, was standing right behind me looking down. So I grabbed a few of the mags and it was the perfect one to get at the time because the cover story was about what lurks in the library and it showed these innocent-looking, storybook children leaving Curious George on the shelf and reading things like My Pal Manson and Satanism As An Alternative Lifestyle.
I thought, "Shit, why didn't they have that in the school library when I was in third grade. But I gave most of the copies to my sister Julie and the state library as study materials and took a couple with me. They still make a great visual aid when I'm doing a spoken word piece to expose those people.
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