Jello Biafra on his early days in punk in Colorado and his first encounter with Wax Trax
Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine
Jello Biafra has made an unmistakable and enduring impact both punk and counterculture internationally. 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 appearance this Saturday, December 21, at Wax Trax, and his show at the Summit Music Hall on with Guantano School of Medicine on Tuesday, December 31, we spoke with the witty and eloquent singer. In the first of a two part interview with Biafra, we discuss his early days of punk rock in Boulder and Denver and his first encounter with Wax Trax.
Westword: You did an introduction to the first Radio 1190 Local Shakedown compilation that Andrew Murphy put together and talked about living in Colorado in the 1970s and the relative lack of music going on. How did you get connected with The Ravers?
Jello Biafra: As far as I know, that was Colorado's first punk band and one of the very first anywhere. It was more rooted in '60s garage than it was in Ramones or Sex Pistols and still an important part of my life and many other people's. I'd been reading Mark Campbell's reviews in the Colorado Daily, and he was much more brash and up front about what he liked and didn't like.
So he was memorable instantly. Later, I found out he was the singer in the Ravers. They kind of centered around the old basement location on Broadway of Trade A Tape and Records in Boulder where I got a lot of my vinyl. They rehearsed in a back room and Rick Scott, one of the clerks there, was their manager.
Word got around, probably through Rick, that the Ramones were gonna come through Denver and play at Ebbets Field, opening for a major-label attemped flavor-of-the-month called Nite City. Ironically, it had to have Ray Manzarek and a pre-Blondie Nigel Harrison in it, among other people. It was an attempt at an instant FM rock hit, and the opening band was the Ramones.
So the handful of us who kind of knew who the Ramones were in the front row. Ebbets Field was a small, intimate place where everyone was expected to sit down. That's what people did at concerts; everybody was supposed to sit down. Bill Graham would throw you out for dancing in San Francisco, and so would Barry Fey and Feyline security.
You undoubtedly know Rocky Mountain Low; Joseph Pope was one of the people in the front row with me. At the time, I didn't really take the Ramones that seriously. I knew they rocked, but I would sit around playing the Ramones with my friends, and we would giggle at the lack of guitar solos and these boneheaded lyrics like "beat on the brat with a baseball bat" and "now I wanna sniff some glue."
It had an impact enough to go down and see them. And out come these four, kinda degenerate looking guys in leather jackets -- which is something you didn't see very often then. One chord on Jonny's guitar, and we knew it was going to be a louder than anyone of us were prepared for. We braced ourselves and instead of being goofy, the Ramones were one of the most powerful experiences of my entire life.
We were three feet from the stage and forced to sit down, of course. Not only were they really, really good, but half the fun was turning around and watching the Ebbets Field, country-rock glitterati, the guys with the neatly trimmed beards, Kenny Loggins-feathered hair and corduroy jackets, with patches on the elbows, as well as the cocaine cowboys and their women, with their 1920s suits with flowers, because that's what Joni Mitchell was wearing at the time -- they looked horrified. They had nowhere to go. Because Ebbets Field was so small, you couldn't go hang out in the lobby because there wasn't one. They just had to endure the Ramones.
It never would have occurred to me to try to go back stage and talk to the band. I didn't know you could talk to rock bands. I was a wide-eyed teenager used to going to see arena rock at the Denver Coliseum or McNichols. At any rate, Joseph came back at one point and said, "Oh yeah, I was just back talking to The Ramones." "What?! You can talk to the Ramones?"
That was the punk rock thing -- we're all from the same place. And that was the beauty of the live shows, too -- my god, they're so powerful, they're so simple, anyone could do this. Shit, I could do this. Maybe I should. And that's how it affected a lot of people in the room. The Ramones stayed an extra night and Ebbets Field let them headline, and the Ravers were going to open the show. Luckily, The Ravers needed what was then called "roadies." So I me, Joe, Sam Spinner, and, I think, John Trujillo, were anointed "the roadies" on the spot.
Suddenly I thought, "All you people who thought I was a loser in school, now I'm somebody. I'm a roadie for the Ravers!" That meant many good times at other Ravers shows like playing with the Nerves and the big one playing on the top floor of the ex-elementary school at 9th and Arapahoe. Which was Driver which became The Nightflames and the Front.
Steve Knutson of the Front was one of the people that saw that Ramones show that resulted in the long run in Dead Kennedys, the Wax Trax label, Angst, the SST band that Joseph came from. And Don Fleming, from Gumball Velvet Monkey, was there while he was stationed at Lowery Air Force Base -- the first time I ever heard "I Got a Right" was his record in his room on base, and I got lost driving around on base trying to get home.
Al Jourgensen claims he was there, but no one knew him at the time. And of course the Wax Trax mavens, Dannie Flesher and Jim Nash. They owned the Denver store until they sold it to Duane Davis and Dave Stidman and relocated their Wax Trax to Chicago and never looked back.
Ironically, at the original Wax Trax store on Ogden, where I went to for the first time and saw a John Denver greatest hits record cover on the front door with nails through his eyes and blood dripping down -- I knew I had found a home. At the time, Jim gave me shit for buying synthesizer records like the early Tangerine Dream stuff and things like that. He never heard the end of it later when he not only put out electronic records on the Wax Trax label, but disco, no less. My, how times do change.
But then the fateful decision came when the Ravers were moving to New York, and eventually changed their name to the Nails, and I found out toward the end that only one roadie could go with, and it wasn't going to be me. I was half-bummed and half-relieved at the same time. I'm not sure I was ready to live on my own -- especially in New York, where I'd never been. And I was set to go to school in the fall, and bam wound up going to New York with the Ravers instead. We all ended up back in Colorado until, one by one, we started moving out west to California instead.