Jello Biafra speaks out again with his latest CD, Become the Media
More than 20 years after bursting onto the punk scene, former Dead Kennedys front man Jello Biafra remains a controversial figure in the public eye.
Biafra first made political headlines while running for mayor of San Francisco in 1979. His platform included legalizing bribery instead of campaign contributions and forcing businessmen in the downtown area to wear clown suits. Since the breakup of the Bay Area punk band in the mid-1980s, Biafra (born Eric Boucher) has been expounding his anti-establishment views on subjects such as free expression and “corporate feudalism.”
He often tours for his spoken-word shows; he even visited the University of Nevada, Reno, in 1992. Although he’s not currently touring, he has released his sixth offering, Become the Media. On this CD, Biafra tells the story of his Green Party candidacy for president this past year and offers his side of the bitter legal dispute with the other members of the Dead Kennedys over ownership and royalties issues.
The three-hour CD set is a recorded collection of appearances he made in U.S. cities last year. It also includes material recorded under the name NO WTO Combo, a collaboration which included Biafra, drummer Gina Mainwal, ex-Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and ex-Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayll. The NO WTO Combo’s Live from the Battle in Seattle was recorded at a protest concert during the 1999 World Trade Organization conference.
Biafra spoke with the RN&R about his reluctant candidacy for higher office, the current state of political affairs, censorship and the lawsuit filed by his former band mates.
He said in his spoken word album that he was surprised to learn that the New York State Green Party had nominated him for president last year, although he accepted the offer. While he agreed with much of Ralph Nader’s positions, he thought his name would lend recognition of his supporters in the Green Party.
“I figured I could leave my name in, not as an opponent of other candidates, but to augment other candidacies and draw in people familiar with me and what I stood for the past two decades into the party and the presidential election and local elections into this fall,” he explained on the CD.
Biafra said in a telephone interview with the RN&R last month that he was unsure how much his candidacy impacted the election, but he said his supporters were weary of a potential First Lady Tipper Gore.
“My audience definitely hasn’t forgotten the damage Tipper has done and continues to try to do,” he said. “Twelve years of makeovers, and they still remember that bitch the same way the rest of us should. She called my music a Trojan horse, rolling explicit sex and violence into people’s homes. She, from the beginning, has been a Trojan horse for the religious right.”
Biafra has been a vocal critic of the explicit lyrics sticker-labeling system that was called for in the mid-1980s by Tipper Gore and other Washington wives, who founded the watchdog group Parents Music Resource Center. Since then, Gore has been a regular object of scorn on his spoken-word albums. On his new CD, Biafra gives a humorous account involving Gore from the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. While working as a correspondent for an alternative television network, Biafra was on the convention floor when Gore entered the arena and the delegates begin chanting and holding up signs saying “Tipper Rocks.” Biafra likens this scene to an old Nazi propaganda film.
Biafra also shares contempt for Vice President Al Gore’s former running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who has sharply criticized the entertainment world for excessive sex and violence in movies and music.
“He’s so intolerant toward the music and culture, he’s like Tipper Gore on crack,” Biafra said. “Not to mention his comments about the Constitution not guaranteeing freedom from religion and stuff like that. … Lieberman’s attacks on culture [would have] continue[d] either from the Senate or the vice president’s kennel.”
Biafra said one of the ways free expression can be safeguarded is by supporting independent record stores instead of those owned by major chains.
“If you want freedom of speech, you have to support the people who are willing to stick their necks out and stock the music and books that the chains are too frightened of or deliberately marginalize, because they don’t want the sound or point of view to be heard,” he said. “It also means doing what they can to educate parents that music is not what the Eagle Forum and Liebermans of the world say it is.”
Since the breakup of the Dead Kennedys (who played several shows in Reno during the early 1980s), Biafra has not only engaged in many spoken-word efforts, but also in collaborations with musicians as diverse as Ice-T, Mojo Nixon and Alain Jourgensen of Ministry.
He said that although some fans have been turned off by his departure from the Dead Kennedys’ sound, others appreciate him going the extra mile and working a little harder than other performers to make sure both his words and music are good and interesting.
“You don’t get the same formula over and over,” he said. “I draw from wide and sometimes random influences. The best way to try and create good music is not to restrict your influence to your favorite artist or genre only. You have to blend other things.”
Biafra’s solo ventures have also led to a heated legal dispute with his former Dead Kennedys band mates—guitarist East Bay Ray (Ray Pepperell), bassist Klaus Flouride (Geoffrey Lyall) and drummer D.H. Peligro (Darren Henley).
Biafra recently appealed a May decision finding him liable for nearly all charges brought against him by his former band mates, which state that his record label, Alternative Tentacles, failed to promote the group’s back catalog and failed to pay back nearly $200,000 in royalties.
One of the disputes reportedly leading to the litigation was Biafra’s refusal to allow the band’s 1980 track, “Holiday in Cambodia,” to be used in a Levi’s commercial. Several Dead Kennedys songs attack materialism, including “Holiday in Cambodia.” The irony wouldn’t go unnoticed among Dead Kennedys fans.
Last month, Biafra established a legal defense fund to assist with the court costs.
In a Dec. 22 statement announcing the Alternative Tentacles Records Legal Defense Fund, he wrote:
“In a sense, I am being punished for sticking to the vision and principles of the band and saying no to corporate branding and co-opting of our culture. We are at risk of being wiped out if the verdict stands. If so, they can and most likely will pimp our music to corporate labels, TV commercials, etc., regardless of how people who believe in Dead Kennedys’ message feel about it. Their intention is that I have no say in how Dead Kennedys is handled. Yet because I am the most visible and active ex-member, I will be hit with most of the blame.”
In light of the lawsuit, Biafra has gained a new perspective on copyright issues arising from Napster. He said file sharing is going to happen, no matter what happens with online music file sharing services.
“I would hope people are conscious about it and don’t go out of their way to screw the little guy," he told the RN&R. "If those guys finally do succeed in stealing my songs and using my music, my words, my reputation and my face to scam money and TV commercials and all, whatever replaces Napster may be my best friend."