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.

Jello-Biafra-File-Web.jpgFortunately, 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

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.


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