Jello Biafra Speaks Up
by Alison Meeder
It’s not every day you get to interview a punk rock legend. Thus, when I found out I would get to speak with Jello Biafra — former frontman for the Dead Kennedys — my wires were a bit crossed. The arrangement was made to preview this Sunday’s politically bent spoken word appearance at UCSB and I should’ve been focused on questions about the California political climate, the upcoming elections, and methods of getting progressive-minded individuals politically active. Unfortunately, my thought process was dominated by one thought alone: I would be speaking with a punk rock legend while he was actually at home, sitting in his living room. What, I kept wondering, does that living room look like? Visions of anarchy-patterned slip covers and chandeliers made entirely from safety pins danced through my mind; intelligent inquiries about Governor Schwarzenegger and the future of the Green Party were promptly pushed back.
Fortunately, when I did speak with Biafra, he needed no prodding to expound on California politics and his own ambitions to hold office. In one form or another, Biafra has been a political figurehead for nearly 30 years and the man knows how to state his agenda. He first gained public attention in 1979 as the vocalist for the groundbreaking Bay Area punk band the Dead Kennedys. Known for anthems such as “California Über Alles” and “Holiday in Cambodia,” the Dead Kennedys delivered their message with a manic ferocity. Like it or not, most political educators come across more than a little dry, and raising awareness for current events in an entertaining manner is truly a challenge. With the Dead Kennedys, however, the word “dry” was never an option. Live performances often resembled riots and Biafra went to extreme lengths for shock value, even once performing fully nude for a crowd of 3,000.
The Kennedys disbanded in 1987 and shortly thereafter Biafra released his first spoken word album No More Cocoons. Taking the same slash-and-burn showmanship to his non-musical project as he had fronting the Kennedys, he tore into every issue he believed worthy of exposure. Nearly 20 years later, Biafra is still politically on fire. “When I run across something that I find really interesting or just flat-out horrifying, I just light up like a Christmas tree,” he said. “It’s just pure dumb luck that people still come to my shows and listen to what I have to say. I thank people from the bottom of my heart for keeping me from turning into the drunk old crank at the end of the bar who no one listens to.”
Turning into the drunken old crank seems unlikely when Biafra makes listening so enjoyable. On his newly released three-disc spoken word epic, In the Grip of Official Treason, topics range from Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath to Paris Hilton’s (lack of) cultural relevance. All are handled with equal parts accuracy and tongue-in-cheek hilarity. At one point, the Bush administration’s involvement in Iraq is compared to a 1930s cowboy film with a cast made up entirely of midgets. It’s not an easy parallel, but it makes sense when you hear it. “If I’m going to be onstage for four hours,” Biafra told me, “it better be interesting and it better be right.”
But what to do when you are through listening? After hearing one of these bombastic tirades, there is an eminent feeling of wanting to get involved, to fight the power, to stick it to The Man. Then there is a second feeling, the sense that you have no idea how to go about this. I asked Biafra how the average political novice can become better informed on the issues. Where do you turn for the facts? “Try not to be afraid of your own intelligence and to make up your mind about what’s actually true,” said Biafra. “Americans distrust their media. Local weeklies are good, as well as many things on the net. … Try to develop a sharper bullshit detector and encourage other people to do the same.”
Finally, I asked Biafra if he had any aspiration to hold political office himself. In the past he has run for different platforms on the Green Party ticket, but has yet to be elected. Ever sarcastic, Biafra replied that he “would make a better president than Bush or Hillary, but then again, so would the average housefly.” I laughed so hard that I completely forgot to ask about his coffee table books.