Originally published in Arthur No. 14 (January 2005)
Photography and art direction by W.T. Nelson
God Bless Jello Biafra
The inspirational former Dead Kennedy and veteran punk gadfly talks with Sorina Diaconescu about what to do when the going gets grim.
Is there anybody better suited to comment on the absurdities and contradictions of America today than Jello Biafra—musician, activist, performer, poet, indie entrepreneur, First Amendment champion, scathing satirist and all-around radical artist that has inspired generations of young ‘uns the world over?
Here’s a man who at the tender age of 20 formed his first band, the visionary hardcore punk outfit Dead Kennedys, and was born anew as a frontman with a peculiar, quivering bark and a stage name contrived to invoke “plastic America and its overseas results.”
A legit icon of West Coast punk rock rebellion, the dude has withered blows that would have broken the hearts and the bones of the baddest motherfuckers out there. All the more, he did it with a big, lopsided grin smudged on his face, and an extended middle finger proudly pointing skyward.
Jello is now 46—which means he occasionally says things like, “you know, I’m not Iggy Pop and I’m not Henry Rollins, and I’m working my ass off trying to get in better shape and compensate for my age.” But his goal, as stated over the years, remains the same: “to kick over the apple cart of corruption.” While his avenues of expression have shifted back and forth between music and spoken word one thing is for sure: he can still provoke and enlighten, as his latest collaboration, with legendary iconoclasts Melvins, Never Breathe What You Can’t See, amply demonstrates.
Interviewing Jello is predictably fraught with intensity and drama but also deeply inspiring and laugh-out-loud hilarious. Time has not mellowed him. He’s still the same character we punk rock kids grew up loving: an articulate guy with a boundless imagination filled with ideas sick, funny and violent enough to score him enemies like Tipper Gore (who pretty much pegged her “Parental Warning” stickering campaign on his work) and the D.A.s’ offices in L.A. and San Francisco: In one of L.A.’s most notorious First Amendment lawsuits of the ‘80s, Jello and a cast of co-conspirators were charged with peddling obscene material to minors via sleeve art for the DKs record Frankenchrist. (The jury hung, the charges were dismissed, and even the D.A. who pursued the case in court eventually admitted to the press that his son “adores Jello and he plays his music all the time.”)
The patron saint of mutant kids with subversive tendencies was also be an inveterate prankster. In 1979, he for mayor of San Francisco on a platform that included banning cars from city limits, making police run for reelection in their precincts, and mandating that businessmen wear clownsuits from 9 to 5. He came in fourth, an outcome that so rattled the SF city council that they passed a law banning mayoral contenders with “funny names” from future races.
Jello’s anti-establishment persona asserted itself early. Né Eric Boucher in Boulder, Colorado, he is the son of an internationally recognized librarian and a psychiatric social worker, who at the age of 3 “would startle visitors by greeting them at the door saying he looked like a Pithecanthropus erectus,” his father once told a reporter. By grade school Jello was debating the Vietnam war with his grade-school teachers and worshiping Batman villains.
And what about the musical legacy? Even on their 1979 debut, Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, Dead Kennedys were busting out of punkr ock form. Under the musical guidance of bassist Klaus Fluoride, guitarist East Bay Ray and drummers Ted (on Fresh Fruit) and D.H. Peligro (subsequently), the DKs were confident enough to work jamming, rockabilly, and even lounge music into their hyper-fast hardcore routines. While their stylistic peers fizzled out after two albums tops, the DKs actually got better with each record. Between 1978 and 1986, they produced three full-length LPs, one EP, and one collection of singles and rarities, skewering the consumerist hysteria and hedonist stupor of Reaganite ‘80s in songs like “Too Drunk To Fuck,” “Terminal Preppie,” “Kill the Poor,” “Macho Insecurity,” and of course, their multi-riff masterpiece on yuppie hypocrisy, “Holiday in Cambodia.” (Play ethnicky jazz to parade your snazz /…Braggin’ that you know how the niggers feel the cold / And the slum’s got so much soul.)
Live the DKs were a viscerally kick-ass band. Jello’s combative stage act—taunting his audience, jumping in the pit and pouring beer bottles over their heads (as they in turn tore his clothes off)—was inspired by confrontational stand-up comedians; his emphatic, clearly enunciated delivery was based in the method acting he studied in school; his lyrics drew on everything from Mad magazine to Kabuki theater. And what a farsighted reach those words have to this day: Jello came up with the locution “California Über Alles” exactly 25 years before our Gropenführer. He called out “MTV—Get Off The Air” in 1985, long before the so-called “music television” became the home of reality TV shows that have nothing to do with music, or reality. He presciently trashed punk rock dogma in “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”—You ain’t hardcores ‘cause you spike your hair / When a jock still lives inside your head. I say “presciently,” because in the spring of 1994, a pack of self-appointed purist punks attacked Jello during a show in Berkeley, and with the battle cry “sellout!” proceeded to break his leg and inflict severe head injuries. He was, of course, back at the same venue three weeks later, performing on stage in crutches.)
That was but one of many indignities Jello has suffered over the years at the hands of people at odds with his artistic vision. In 1982, unknown suspects dynamited his front lawn; concert goers stabbed him in the head during an ‘80s performance of a song called (irony!) “Bleed For”; and, most painfully, in 1998 his three ex-band mates instigated a protracted legal action against him and Alternative Tentacles Records—the indie label the DKs launched in 1979 with proceeds from a year’s worth of shows. (The bone of contention: ownership to the DKs’ back catalog, which is still generating steady revenue 18 years after the group disbanded.)
The stubborn survival of this influential, fiercely DIY imprint may be Jello’s most punk rock gesture of ‘em all. When other DKs members abdicated their hands-on involvement with the label, Jello assumed full ownership duties, and despite a history checkered with lawsuits, trials and tribulations, ATR celebrated its 25the anniversary in June. Its legacy of rebellion includes all of the DKs original releases, all of Jello’s spoken-word discs –like I Blow Minds For A Living (1993) and Become The Media (2001); plus the output of his innumerable musical partnerships with D.O.A., Ministry (as Lard), No Means No, country artist Mojo Nixon, and his current collaboration with the Melvins.
Taken in its entirety, the catalog of ATR releases is a compendium in the kind of weird, radical and truly original shit that you rarely see anywhere: D.O.A., Butthole Surfers, TSOL, the Dicks, Crucifucks; the No Cal all-lesbian punk band Tribe 8; countless DVDs, underground films and spoken-word releases from radical minds like Noam Chomsky and Mumia Abu-Jamal; the soundtrack for Eraserhead, etc.
So while the careers of most other punk rock rebels thudded, or dove-tailed in embarrassing partnerships with the very establishment they once sneered at (hello, Levi’s-sponsored Sex Pistols reunion tour!), Jello’s has—well, you can’t say exactly “flourished.” But you can say, “endured.” His music still kicks ass, as this latest enterprise with the Melvins proves. He still explores the absurd in characters, social situations and political themes with that combination of lucidity and sarcasm that has caused the Establishment to come down on his ass time and again. May he live long and prosper! Now more than ever, we need his kind around: the kind of artist with a lifelong devotion to “shock values” at odds with Bush’s “moral values.” As the man himself put it once, “It’s one thing to play and have the audience like you. It’s another to play and annoy them; then they’ll never forget you.”
Arthur: What are your thoughts at the outset of the second Bush term—hopefully his last, if he doesn’t crown himself.
Jello Biafra: Even if he doesn’t crown himself, we may get Schwarzenegger next, if they can monkey around with the Constitution enough. Then it truly will be the Fourth Reich. Beware of Austrians who want to rule the world! As far as the election goes, I guess I felt more horrible than I should have, considering that we all kind of knew it was preordained; that they were gonna keep Bush in even if it meant having the Democratic arm of the Corporate Party run a mediocre candidate. Knowing how Nixon and Reagan behaved in their second terms, we have a lot of fighting to do.
Who did you vote for?
I voted for Ralph Nader to protest the heavy-handed tactics the Democrats used to keep him off the ballot in California and many other states. It was neck in neck between him and David Cobb of the Green Party but I finally went to Ralph as a protest vote. If the Democrats spent half as much time fighting the Republicans as they did fighting the greens we might not have had the kind of results we had. Kerry never truly took Bush on, and nailed him to the wall for how badly he’s run things. Only in a corporately managed democracy like this one would they be able to turn things around so much that people were more concerned over whether Kerry got shot enough times in Vietnam than whether Bush has shot our entire foreign policy and future to hell with the Iraq war and what he’s doing domestically.
The same thing went on in the vice presidential debates: Edwards didn’t nail Cheney for his secret energy commission and their map of the Iraqi oil fields at all. He didn’t go after him for how corrupt and secretive that whole scam was; didn’t even mention it. It was more like [affects Edwards’ Southern accent]: ‘Hi, I’m John Edwards! I’m this little guy who talks like he’s on The Andy Griffith Show. I’m most successful at suing people, and I think I should be president someday! And hey, don’t I look kind of like Al Gore with Austin Powers teeth? Ain’t I cute?’ [slips back into Jello voice] That was about all he accomplished.
It’s disappointing how reserved and bloodless their campaign was.
About the only thing we really lost with Bush getting in—besides a woman’s right to choose—is, you know, I was hoping if Kerry got in, they’d at least acknowledge his true calling in life and change the presidential theme from “Hail to the Chief” to The Munsters theme song.
There were a lot of controversial local and state issues in this election.
Hardly anybody votes in the local elections, but it’s really important who the mayor is, who’s on the school board, who the county commissioners, the planning commission are—shit like that. They decide where a lot of the money fleeced away from us by state and the feds in taxes actually gets spent: Homeless shelter or football stadium? Computer training for poor kids, or suing to teach the Bible in biology class? If more people like us showed up and voted locally we’d have a far better chance at getting cool people in office, and good laws passed, like medical marijuana, rent control, living wage and proper land use laws.
Your new album is hilarious and totally inspiring. I get such a kick out of your lyrics, and I can’t imagine how anybody else wouldn’t.
They don’t just pour out of my head. I’m a perfectionist, so I learned a long time ago to try and write and re-write and then re-write again every single line in every single song and in hopes that every single word will pack a punch and help drive the home the point I’m trying to make. Which sometimes means cutting a lot of pieces of paper into very small slivers—I dont write with a computer; I need to be able to stare at five or six columns at once sometimes, and move shit around. It’s not very efficient, but the results speak for themselves. As Morris the Cat once said, it pays to be finicky.
It’s the same with music; I don’t play an instrument, but that doesn’t mean I ain’t a pretty good composer. People shouldn’t let the fact that they’re not able to play very well inhibit them from writing songs.
A lot of work went into it. I don’t always meticulously plan everything; I like magic accidents. I like to see what transpires. Sometimes the mistakes are as important as what you work really hard to do right when you’re writing songs, rehearsing and recording ‘em. I wrote heavy shit because of the Melvins. And little did I guess that [the Melvins’] Buzz would walk in with punkier riffs for me!
Some of this stuff sounds like old-school Dead Kennedys.
I don’t believe in “old school.” I go far back enough to know that there wasn’t any goddam “school” back then. There were no textbooks, no rules, no assistant principals, no PE teachers, no cheerleaders, no nothing! If there was any school at all, we were blowing up the school; the school called “Hotel California”—all the soft rock and adult rock that we were told was all we could expect from major labels from that point forward. So we not only decided—fuck this crappy music!, but also fuck major labels! We’re gonna do something way more extreme than anybody has been done so far because we love shocking all these mellowdrones that made the ‘70s such a crappy time to come of age in.
And I like to continue that spirit. That means not sticking to cookie-cutter formula punkrock today. I have no interest in deliberately trying to remake Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables; it wouldn’t come out the same, anyway. So why not follow my heart and follow what I think sounds cool at the time?
When DKs was around, at least early on, the peer pressure among what is now called by that nauseating term “old school”—it wasn’t for every band to sound alike; it was for every band to be different. There weren’t enough other punkrock bands for everybody to listen to and to provide all the school and the rules for everybody to copy. The roots came from all over the place—everything from of course, the Stooges and the [New York] Dolls, and for some people, but not me, David Bowie. Then on the other hand people were looking into Little Richard, they were looking into Johnny Cash, they were looking into James Brown…!
One of the most influential bands for me was the Screamers, from L.A. They were a punk band but they didn’t even have any guitar players. It was just a fuzzed-out electric piano, a distorted ARP Odyssey synthesizer, a drummer who knew what to do, and a trained mime for a singer who had so much stage presence he could raise one eyebrow and the whole crowd would jump. So when the drummer, I think it was?—said in an interview in a very important zine called Search & Destroy, “we’re not just interested in what the Sex Pistols are doing, we’re equally interested in what [big-band conductor] Nelson Riddle is doing,” I thought, “What the fuck is he talking about? I need to investigate this further!”
For someone who has withstood so many blows, what inspires you to keep at it, especially in the current crypto-fascist environment…?
Well, the only thing that made Reagan era and the ‘80s bearable was the music; the same thing applies today. I have a rare privilege—it’s one of those things that I really like to do, and I can do it my own way, without some fuckwit in a satin baseball jacket sitting at a desk at a major label telling me what I should do with my songs and my words. Yet still I’m able to survive! If I have that avenue in a time when people need their craniums shocked, I oughta use it. It’s part of my soul. It’s something I would do for myself if I didn’t get a chance to do it for other people…but it’s not as fun being a legend only in my own mind.
Will there be more Jello spoken word albums on this very topic? What’s your plan of attack?
The plan of attack for the future is to fight the Bush corporate agenda as an individual on a daily basis. There’s so much we can do in between elections to avoid being part of the problem!
It means giving as little money as humanly possible to global corporate predators. Don’t go to chain stores, don’t go to chain restaurants, put your money in local businesses that keep it in the community and don’t offshore jobs to India or whatever. And think of the benefits: you support the local music store, there’s more cool and diverse music in the store and you’re not going to get carded, just because you want to buy an album with a Tipper sticker on it. If you support the local bookstore, instead of Buns & Nubile, the clerk may even know how to read and like literature; and you won’t see row after row of books by Rush Limbaugh. If you support the local market instead of the corporate supermarket you’re more likely to get locally grown and organic food instead of genetically mutilated frankenfood in your corn flakes, in your grocery bag, and in your body, without anything on the box telling you what they’ve done.
The other thing for people to remember is that, sure, things would be slightly less horrible if Kerry had gotten in, but the upper echelon of the Democratic party are not our friends. They never have been. Kerry had so many chances to show some vision and show some spine! He was asked directly, “Are kids in Iraq dying for a mistake?” and he said, “No.” He lost me for good right then and there.
We have to get the troops out now. We can’t wait to save face, or for “peace with honor,” as Nixon so cynically put it. The best way to withdraw is the same way we got in—via ships, trucks, and planes. Sure, we owe the Iraqis some help in rebuilding their country, but not as an occupying, conquering force of infidels.
So basically what we have to do to fight the next four years is not concentrate on Bush, so much as Bushism itself. That also means, don’t hate the media, become the media! Point out to people why the war is really wrong; why the war on terrorism is poor military strategy; and even the clowns with the American flag stickers on their SUVs will listen to that argument. If they say you don’t support the troops, just counter by saying “Yes I do! I support the troops by saying bring them home, now!” Before they get killed, or have the rest of their lives wrecked by Gulf War syndrome—because we’re poisoning Iraq with depleted uranium again.
We have to go one-on-one with people you know, at home, school, family, at work. Argue about the war, point out the real reason they can’t put food on the table. If they start talking “values,” point out that no one hates kids more than the Bush administration. They love the unborn fetuses, but once the kid is born, they won’t give him money for schools, they won’t give the mom welfare money so she can stay home with the baby. They won’t give any money for after-school programs or tutoring, and Bush even wants to get rid of Head Start [a development program for low-income babies and toddlers]. But they’ll happily build a prison. That’s how much the family values Nazis really hate kids.
We have to get in people’s faces, but not argue with them. If it’s somebody you know, sit down with them. Communicate. Even if they think you’re wrong, they may sleep on the idea and later decide that you’re right. Especially when their own kid gets drafted in the near future.
Media literacy also means pointing out obviously doctored photos in newspapers and magazines, pointing out when a story is propaganda, getting other people to laugh at it with you. Our country is so manipulated right now by corporate-controlled mass media that a lot of people are basically hornswoggled into voting against their own interests. Some of the states the Bush mob has fucked over the worst are the poorer states and the agricultural states like Alabama, Mississippi, Kansas and Idaho—and they went for Bush in gigantic margins. That huge pile of votes in the redneck states is what made Bush king.
Even though we’re still allowed to go to a voting booth in this country, our choices are made narrow and the issues are distorted or worse yet, not reported at all. I think the deliberate omission of important sides of major stories, or forgetting to tell people of major stories altogether is the worst form of censorship going on today. I mean—we’re supposed to be all concerned about American Idol and Survivor! It’s more important that Martha Stewart’s in jail than whether Dick Cheney should be in jail.
Point out when someone like CNN or Fox News says something that’s obviously propaganda or obviously a lie, because once that illusion is broken, once that ice in the brain is broken, people never quite believe everything they’re told by corporate news again.
That was one of the major battles in bringing down the communist dictatorships—getting more and more people to realize that everything the government media was telling them was a calculated lie. And that’s what we have to do. I would even suggest hosting parties and inviting your friends who are sitting on the fence or being all rah-rah about the war, and showing ‘em Fahrenheit 9/11. Or better yet, show ‘em movies like Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed or Bush Family Fortunes [by Greg Palast]. A lot of these DVDs you can get from Alternative Tentacles, or many political organizations as well.
We have to do the job of educating people, otherwise people are going to become more and more militantly stupid and take the easy way out and vote for vengeful redneck dictator who they think they can solve all their problems.
That’s part of what’ll go on my next spoken word album, even though some of it has been on at least two others. Some points, if you feel strongly about them, you should repeat them again and again, you should hammer into the thick skulls of people raised on Fox News, and MTV, and Religion, Inc.
How should artists who want to be politically engaged handle themselves right now?
I think at this point it’s the duty of all artists to make up for all the censorship going on in Corporate McNews. As Chuck D once put it, “We’re the real CNN.” And I take that very seriously. There are many, many ways to do this. But if you’re doing this as a musician, don’t forget about the musical end either. One of the things I’m proud of about the DKs is that not only was the attitude of the band or at least myself, militant as hell, but we backed it up with good songs.
I get as many as 100 demos a month from people who wanna work with ATR, or people I see live, and time and time again, some of the coolest, most activist-minded people are in some of the weakest bands. And some of the strongest bands musically have nothing but a cock-rock, sex-drugs-and-rock & roll, or bling-bling attitude. It never hurts to combine both. Too many people who think that they’re playing punkrock have forgotten about the spirit of rock & roll. You can’t just listen to the Ramones over and over again. You gotta get to the roots of the roots, and absorb Jerry Lee Lewis too. I tend to take a disk out of my stereo and put something else in there when it’s the same formula pop-punk that ain’t got no Jerry Lee in it.
All the more, I really have no patience at all for people around my age and lower who sit around and pout and say, “There’s no good music anymore,” and only wanna listen to old bands and go to reunion shows. That’s such horseshit! They’re so boring.
I’m so curious about music that I never run out of things to listen to. Anything I haven’t heard, even if it’s 60 years old, is new to me. So I’m still pulling weird records out of thrift stores, listening to demos that come in, to recommendations from friends. And, you know, once in a decade or so, a major label will accidentally put out something good as well, and not quite realize the implications of Body Count or Marilyn Manson until it’s too late.
The main thing is, no matter what is getting put down, censored or threatened, we still have a First Amendment in this country, and a lot more freedom than some other countries have that we damn better push the limits of 24 hours a day if we’re going to hang on to it. Even if your way of artistic expression is merely boycotting corporate products and showing up at a protest here and there: don’t be afraid. We’re all on file anyway from the time we start school, so why worry about it? I’ve already figured that I’ve been such a bad boy for so long that even if I turned Christian and worshipped Oliver North tomorrow, I’d still wind up in a camp when Bush starts rounding people up. So why not cause as much trouble as possible?
Besides: I like causing trouble. It’s good for the soul. A prank a day keeps the dog leash away.
You were in the Pranks! book put out by Re/Search. So what are some good ones that you’ve collected recently? Especially some that involve SUVs—we could use those in L.A.
There’s already been a lot of action against SUVs and their ignorant, swine-like owners, ranging from creative bumper-stickering to torching a whole car lot of them out in Covina. Persons unknown spay-painted 65 of ‘em one night in Santa Cruz with “No war for oil”-type slogans. Some of my favorites? Whoever began stickering ‘em in Marin County with stickers that said, “Ask me what I’m doing about global warming.” In the fine, aggro SUV owner tradition, one of the owners found out who put the sticker on his truck and is suing them. I know the kind of pain and suffering this sort of thing can cause, having been through a legal fraud situation myself. There are lawyers who’ll keep the meter running for just about anything if they think they’ve got a rich client they can milk, and someone else they can wreck for blood sport.
People in Maine started printing up fake traffic tickets and sticking them in the windshield wipers of SUVs; if you pulled the ticket out, it looked exactly like a regular ticket until you read it and found that you’ve been cited as an eco-criminal.
What I proposed was printing up some rather large, waterproof stickers the size of police car door shields, with a skull and crossed cell phones, and the slogan “eco-criminal”—and putting those on SUVs. I would propose to the city council to legalize this and other creative vandalism until SUVs leave town. Of course there could always be an amnesty… Like Diane Feinstein did, when she was our own local Margaret Thatcher, in her days as mayor [of San Francisco]. She gave people an amnesty period to turn in their handguns. She then had them melted down, formed into a big cross, and gave that to the pope as a gift. Another little gesture from the warped mind of Diane Frankenswine!
But the best prank I’ve heard of in ages doesn’t involve SUVs. The Melvins told me that back when they were growing up in rural Washington, a farm kid got a hold of a stillborn calf, went into McDonald’s and left it in a stall in the women’s restroom—then hid behind the bushes to watch the fun. Cop car after cop car swarmed McDonald’s. They were all freaking out. No one could figure out what it was—whether it was a dead space alien, a person, or what… I thought that was pretty good.
And let’s not forget some of the great anti-Gulf War pranks! Persons who shall not be identified printed up some flyers back when Daddy Bush first started bombing Iraq, calling for a general strike in San Francisco at a certain time on a major business day. They claimed that it was endorsed by people like Joe Montana, Bill Graham, Jerry Graham, and even Herb Caen, an aging beloved columnist of the conservative local paper [the SF Chronicle]. The straight-news media began phoning up people like Joe Montana, asking him what the hell he was doing endorsing a general strike. He of course knew nothing about it, but that meant they had to have the talking Barbie doll on the 6 o’clock news report with a straight face that “Joe Montana today denied having anything to do with this flyer calling for a general strike this Friday in San Francisco”— thus advertising the general strike right into everyone’s living room. It was brilliant!
Some other people printed up flyers in Texas, announcing an anti-war protest in the afternoon of a business day, saying that somewhere in the town square, wherever that was, “to protest the war in Iraq, we will kill our pets!” And all these people took the afternoon off from work, costing their bosses precious company time and all stood around waiting, waiting…
A great one detailed for a prank book by a major underground comic artist happened during a bible-thumper convention in Arkansas, when [pranksters] got motorcycle locks and padlocked the doors to the convention shut, trapping all the bible thumpers inside. And once again, sat on a hill and watched the entertainment. Eventually, the Fire Department got through the locks and let the fundamentalists out—and out came all these sweat-covered straight people, gasping for air.
Of course, another one to try in towns large and small all across America—especially after this election—is to take a page out of the “sex in the streets” part of what the yippies were up to, and start having males and females make out with people of their own sex en masse downtown, just to finally let people get used to it, and know that no matter how “clean” they think their nice Christian town is, there will always be gay people there.
Let’s discuss this idea of signing on to a major label.
Let’s not. I don’t give a flying fuck! You gotta differentiate between people who are counter-culture, and people who sell counter-culture. A lot of what’s marketed as punk on major labels has almost nothing in common with the spirit of punk, or even the original sounds of punk; it’s basically just the Eagles with loud guitars. Basically, I’ve known a lot of friends who just thought their whole world has collapsed when Green Day not only signed to a major, but got really popular, and then opened the door to mega-stardom for the Offspring and Rancid and the rest of those guys. My attitude was—number one, this music is so good that sooner or later, people are going to catch on, and you have to be willing to deal with that. Instead of bitching and moaning about “so-and-so sold out!” and “look who I just saw on MTV!” put your energy into supporting the underground stuff. Even better: don’t even watch MTV. That shit does not matter to me. I’ve cut that commercial side of the entertainment industry out of my life even long before I was in a band.
I think it was during 8th or 9th grade that I just decided to quit listening to the radio entirely and buy albums with covers that looked cool; go by hunches. The first one I did that with was Tyranny & Mutation by the Blue Öyster Cult, which is still a great album today. I thought, wow, if I lucked out this good the first time, maybe I should do some more of this! Right around that time I discovered a used records store a few blocks from my high-school, where I would go every single day and check out the cheapo bin, take home whatever was in the free box, and just explore.
Plus, there was a music critic at the Denver Post who had encyclopedic knowledge of music he didn’t like. Here’s a guy who once claimed in a column that the Bee Gees and Paul Simon were the greatest composers of the 20th century! At the same time, when he put down Black Sabbath, he said they’re almost as bad the MC5. So I went, wow, I better check out the MC5 tomorrow! And what do I find for 50 cents in the used bin but another great band?! Within weeks the Stooges found their way into my home as well. I realized early on that I was my own best judge of things like that.
You have a song called “Enchanted Thoughtfist” on the new album that includes the verse—Felt I had to confess / In Ginsberg’s apartment / My literary background’s mostly songs and cartoons. Tell me about meeting Alan Ginsberg, and whether he turned out to be a real inspiration as the song seems to suggest.
I just felt a bit relieved that he wasn’t one of these high-falutin’ “academia über alles” types who would dismiss anybody’s thoughts if they didn’t have the proper literary background. I thought that was cool. Klaus Flouride once pulled me aside and told me in confidence, “You know, [DKs member East Bay] Ray’s not really a very good guitar player,” and I defended Ray in that instance saying that whether he’s technically great or not doesn’t matter. It’s what he does with what he’s got! That’s why Lydia Lunch is one of my all time favorite guitar players—just because of what she did with Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. It wasn’t conventional guitar playing at all, but it sure tears your face off, and provokes a reaction.
Ginsberg was an inspiration simply by being a friend. He sought me out; called me out of the blue in the middle of the DKs’ Frankenchrist obscenity trial to offer his moral support and advice. We talked about the difference between what was happening to me and what happened to him and William Burroughs in earlier years. He of course advised me to do a lot of meditation. I guess I’ve gone a little in that direction. A hot bath is pretty much the only place I get to any reading and it’s where I get a lot of my best thoughts. Ideas pop into my head out of nowhere.
In some ways, Ginsberg reminded me of my father—if my father had pursued his writing dreams a little further and I hadn’t happened. I wound up crashing at [Ginsberg’s] apartment several times, in an area that was just a little larger than a piano bench but for some reason very comfortable. Whenever you’d get up and walk into his kitchen, there would always be these unusual, interesting people hanging out and talking and exchanging ideas, with Allen being like the uncle, roving around with his camera and taking candid pictures of everyone. So it wasn’t just Ginsberg himself, as much as his whole web of people, and what we could each bring out of each other when we shared our thoughts.
You have talked in the past about the Berkeley hippie establishment being totally anti-punk back in the day. How do you view today the differences (and differences of outcome) among these three successive eras of public rebellion—the beats in the ‘50s, the hippies in the ‘60s and the punks in the ‘70s/‘80s?
I don’t think there ever would have been a hippie movement if the beats hadn’t come first. You cross the beats with psychedelic drugs, throw in the urgent need to stop the Vietnam war, and presto: you’ve got the yippies! I think it’s important for all activists, especially punks, to look back on some of the amazing things that the yippies and other activists did in the ‘60s and the early ‘70s for inspiration.
Of course in the age of Bushcroft, it would be a little hard to get that close to the Pentagon and freak out everybody inside by thinking you’d be able to levitate it. That was genius on the part of Abbie Hoffman and some of the others. I liked the Arthur article on that quite a bit. [see Arthur No. 13]
The punks in the ‘70s and ‘80s were never that big in numbers, and it was more about music and fighting the Man in a different way. Punks had to fight the police in almost every single city just to be able to play shows; for people who didn’t want to just stay home, watch TV and listen to Led Zeppelin to gather anywhere. (The same kind of harassment came down on metal people later, and of course, on hip-hop artists, to this day.)
What we did was more cultural. We pitched in where we could in the issues department but not every organization that could get anything done would want to be associated with punk—so they didn’t ask us for benefits or other kinds of help.
It’s interesting that some of the older beats were in on the ground floor of the San Franscio punk scene: Bruce Connor, V. Vale, Ginsberg, etc. fronted the money for the first issue of Search & Destroy. Ditto City Lights Books, where Vale worked. But the hippies in Berkeley were very hostile, and the hostility ran both ways. I think some punks initially went way too far overboard trashing anything that was hippie, and anything that was ‘60s, regardless of what it was. I felt sure that some of these people who had turned into these hanging-plant mellowdrones were indeed part of the New Establishment, the New Enemy. But it was the ‘70s that really destroyed the ‘60s.
Let’s discuss this idea of licensing music for commercial use. I know this is something you have very strong convictions about.
Let’s not! I’ve been dragged through legal mud for six years by people I thought were my friends and had the DKs [discography] completely mutilated as a result. But I have no regrets. That’s not what the music was made for. I have no interest in anything I’m connected with being used to promote a product made by a corporate predator. It’s a choice any artist can make. You can either say yes to that, get out of my life, and enjoy your money; or if you don’t want to—then don’t. There’s a choice there, and my answer was FUCK NO! Not just for the obvious political reasons, but for emotional reasons too. When “Search and Destroy” showed up in a Nike commercial I got physically ill. And I don’t think I’ll ever be able to listen to “Blitzkrieg Bop” again because I’ve been so sick of it being used in that cell phone commercial with those dancing teenagers.
The lesson there is—don’t let it happen to you. I would never let any of my songs, let alone my favorite DKs song, “Holiday in Cambodia,” be used for something like that.
Plus, it was especially smelly to think of “Holiday in Cambodia” in a Levi’s Dockers commercial featuring a couple of yuppies in a loft running around chasing a mouse—at a time when artists and people of color and service workers were being bulldozed out of San Francisco by the tens of thousands to make room for more yuppie lofts.
For people who grew up looking up to the DKs—to see the legacy, the music consumed by this litigious process is sad.
My position on that remains that I can’t endorse any of the DKs releases on [imprints] Manifesto, or Cleopatra, or MVD, because they were done without my permission—sometimes behind my back. People who see those in the stores should think twice about touching ‘em. At least realize the mentality behind them and where the money is going. Those guys despise every single thing that the band stood for, and screwed me for sticking to the principles of the band.
For someone who has always been a gadfly pricking at this culture, what are some things that you value about being an American?
People in Europe ask me that a lot: if America’s so horrible, why don’t you flee the country? And the answer is, because home is where the disease is. What other country in the world would have things go on like the preacher in Niles, Ohio, who burned an effigy of the Easter bunny in the town square because it was a pagan god?
This is also a very warped country! We have the crappy mainstream pop culture but we have all these other weird cultures going on, layer after layer, tapestry after tapestry. And I love that. Even though we have a fascist cowboy Hitler with the brain of a housefly in the White House we still have a lot more freedom in this country than we have in some other countries. Plus a major reason I couldn’t see myself living in Europe, believe it or not, is that it’s much more condensed over there. Almost all the land has been either paved over, built on, or fenced in. There ain’t no open roads there very much at all. And I like the mountains, I like the desert, I like the rivers, I like the ocean. I like the parts of this land that people like Woody Guthrie valued so much and put it in their songs. You don’t get that in a lot of other places.
Canada might be an option, but they don’t have a lot of good Mexican food.
Your songs have reached kids in strange, weird little places around the world and changed their lives forever.
It’s what helps keep me going and what gets me out of bed in the morning, although I’d really rather get out of bed at 2 in the afternoon, thankyouvermuch! I keep civilized hours. It means so much more to me when people come up to me and say, “you inspired me to create my own band,” or I decided not to go for an MBA and just do something more fulfilling to myself and help other people.” That means a lot more to me than some mall punk coming up and telling me I’m God and asking for an autograph. We all have to feed off of each other and inspire each other; that’s how it’s done.
My very survival is sweet revenge over every single person who’s fucked me over from birth, or told me that I couldn’t succeed at this, that I was no good, that I was a failure; or tried to wipe to me out by suing the shit out of me and lying like fuck in court and laughing all the way to the bank.
Not many people know this, but you have acted in some indie movies, playing parts like a security guard, an FBI agent, and a U.S. customs agent—the latter being a character you also channel in “The Lighter Side of Global Terrorism,” a song on your new record about voyeurs who end up in that line of work. And more movie roles in your future?
I’m grateful for anything that comes my way. I really like the underground roles where they do a quick guerrilla shoot with a couple of cameras and let the actors improvise the scenes. Those can be great fun. But unfortunately my favorite up-and-coming young director died of cancer recently. That was Sarah Jacobson, who did I Was A Teenage Serial Killer and this amazing movie I had a couple of little parts in called Mary Jane’s Not A Virgin Anymore. I thought it was about the most intelligent film I’ve ever seen aimed at women about the issues revolving around growing up. You’d never see anything this real discussed on Dawson’s Creek. I think the world of [Jacobson’s] work, and it’s a shame that she wasn’t able to continue. I’d recommend people of all ages and both sexes seek out and see that film. She distributed it in a very punk rock way, she went on tour just like bands do, piling a projector and her film in the back of a station wagon, and driving all over the country with her mom, showing the film in small venues. I hope it hits DVD some day.
Speaking of customs agents—have you ever gotten grief from them, or from airport staff, because of who you are?
At airports, it seems to depend on the airline. I’m definitely on the shit list of Delta and Southwest, but United seems to be less of a problem, maybe because I have a frequent flyer card. It also depends on the airport: Burbank, Calif. is especially nasty to me.
On the other hand, I’ve been waved through customs a couple times in Toronto when the customs guy recognized me as Jello Biafra. I’ve always kept my legal name for all formal IDs and transactions; I wouldn’t want to be pulled over by a cop in San Francisco and have “Jello Biafra” on my driver’s license.
What do you think about musician and noted Muslim convert Cat Stevens being denied entry into the U.S.?
I’m a little bummed they didn’t deny him entry into the country 20 or 30 years ago. He and James Taylor were directly responsible in part for what a lonely teenager I was in some respects. I never had a girlfriend or even got laid until after I was out of high school because at the time, all the intelligent hippie chicks I’d get crushes on were far more into Cat Stevens or James Taylor than anyone who was listening to Black Sabbath or the Stooges. I still haven’t forgiven him for that!
Then again, there’s a quote he said about Salman Rushdie after the Ayatollah [Khomeini] issued a fatwa calling for his death, and that quote goes great with his “Moonshadow” song. [Sings along to the tune of “Moonshadow”]: “If someone defames a prophet, he must die!” I think an Islamic death metal band should do that right now.
I hope it’s not inappropriate of me to ask, but are you dating anyone right now? Or looking for that kind of stuff?
Umm, I’m a little weird in the sex department. I prefer blowjobs from crocodiles, so my options are limited. Next question!
Seriously—if someone wanted to ask you out on a date, what kind of person would you respond to?
Oh, I dunno… There has to be some kind of spark, some intelligence. Somebody who isn’t all worried about being skinny, or whatever. I’ve dated a wide variety of people of more than one skin color, so it’s hard to say. It helps to be nice to me! Who knows how many wonderful attractive women I’ve missed out on ‘cause they think I’m aloof and arrogant because I won’t talk to them. But how am I supposed to know? I’m the same shy dork I’ve always been. I talk to people who come up and talk to me. I’m just not comfortable throwing my Jello Biafra-ness around—whatever that may be. So basically I get picked up more than I pick up.
Have any of your beliefs changed over time?
I guess I’ve become a little more respectful of the fact that not every single person all over the world can automatically find salvation by becoming an artist and sticking to their vision, and what not. A lot of people are just trying to get by. There has to be respect for other kinds of people too—although not when they try to force conservative ignorance on others through violence, or at the voting booth; that’s when it’s time to fight.
One old music mag, Trouser Press, once lambasted a DKs album saying I had no sympathy for the common man. And I thought, you know what? They’re right! And I’m not the least bit ashamed of that. I make my shit for the uncommon people; people as weird as I am, who need to know that they’re not alone.