Jello Biafra on the time he dressed up in his dad's clothes and visited Focus on the Family
Jello Biafra has had an unmistakable and enduring impact internationally, both on punk and the counterculture. 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 New Year's Eve show tonight at the Summit Music Hall with Guantano School of Medicine, we spoke with the witty and eloquent singer. In the second part of our interview with Biafra, he talks about the Astronauts, the infamous Dead Kennedys gig opening for the Clash, Wesley Willis, the Sonics and some of his adventures in politics and pranking.
Westword: You met Bob Demmon of the Astronauts as a kid?
Jello Biafra: I never really met him; he just came to show his dog when I was in second grade. That was right around the first time I heard rock and roll. I wouldn't say I discovered it so much as my parents blundered into it on the radio on KIMN. I thought, "Yeah, this is for me!" Then there was no stopping me. That was at the time when the big commercial radio stations like KIMN and KTLK -- though I didn't hear that until later -- played local bands. The Moonrakers were played locally, and the top of the heap on KIMN was the Astronauts. There was even a scheduled interview once a week with Bob Demmon from wherever the Astronauts were.
Somehow I knew he was the son of Mrs. Demmon, the woman who ran the office at [University] Hill Primary School. When we were told, "Mrs. Demmon's son is going to come and show us his dog next week," me and one other girl, Erica, who knew who he was, got all excited, "Bob Demmon from the Astronauts is coming to our class! That's so cool!"
We expected Beatle hair, but it was rocker hair, but not that long. He turned out to be very quiet. Drunken mobs of CU students at Tulagi's was no problem for the Astronauts, but a room full of second graders was a different matter. He didn't say much, and we we took turns going up to pet [the dog], and that was the end of my first encounter with a rock star.
We looked around for the snow for a while to figure out where exactly the cover to Everything Is A-OK! was taken on Flagstaff Mountain before they finally positioned me where they thought it was for the interview for the movie about the Astronauts [Boulder to Baja & Beyond].
I was thinking the other day that I'm really grateful that, even as a kid, that I deeply experienced the '60s. I didn't just sit there watching it on TV and then forgetting it all or whatever. I experienced and felt the '60s, the music and the political events combined. It gave me a much deeper passion for both, I think. It astonishes me when I run into somebody I grew up with in Boulder and they tell me I have more memories of their own childhood than they do.
How on earth could this be possible? Even in fourth grade, everybody had an opinion on Vietnam, and by high school, we were going through Watergate, and it was on everybody's lips. Not to mention that the committee hearings were the best reality show in the history of television, and Nixon was going down.
I wonder why that happened? I think maybe the parents were less open with what was going on. And the bloody war footage that they would never show now from Vietnam or the race riots in Alabama or whatever -- when those came on the news, they were explained to me, even when I was six years old, so I had very strong feelings early on about racism, environmentalism, war.
I got a thorough understanding, and when, by 1968, "Officer Friendly" was in our textbooks, it wasn't reality anymore. On my spoken word album Beyond the Valley of the Gift Police, there is a track called "Eric Meets the Moose Diarrhea Salesman," and a lot of it is about Colorado -- although the part I added later. As I got older and my audiences at the spoken shows became younger, the underground, independent punk, rock and hip-hop scenes didn't exist when I was coming of age.
In Colorado, you either sounded like you'd probably be the next Firefall, or you didn't play. So the few people that were actually trying to play rock instruments at the time, which was rare enough then, what would we play? Covers of Deep Purple? I either worked on my voice, so I could hit the high notes in "Child in Time," but it was right when I was discovering MC5 and the Stooges; my same [musician] friends were discovering Yes, jazz fusion and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
So there was no avenue for a teenager to actually participate and make their own rock at that point. [Al] Journgensen claims he had a heavy rock cover band called Slayer, of all things, based in Greeley, where he was living at the time he was going to UNC, but I don't know how far they ever got, or if anybody else has ever heard of this.
What can you tell us about that infamous 1979 incident when Dead Kennedys played with The Clash? Did Bill Graham say anything to you directly?
I just heard about it later. I came back with nothing on but my wingtip shoes, my argyle socks and my belt with shreds of my underwear. Graham was so angry, he had to be physically restrained to keep him from coming up on stage to beat me up. That's what I was told afterward, but I never saw him.
The sadder part of it was the whole experience of sharing a bill with the Clash. They took a four-hour sound check, and little kids were being let play guitars through the P.A. And here were the Cramps, us and the Rockabilly Rebels, minus Ray Campi, lined up waiting for our sound check that never happened. So I guess they went back to their hotel rooms and didn't come back until right before they went on stage, so they didn't see any of us.
And I was ushered up into the back dressing room that had a line of women going up two flights of stairs to meet Joe Strummer. He was sitting behind a two-foot pile of deli food. "Oh, you're the one that's running for mayor." Pause. "Chicago has a woman mayor, too." So I left. There was a lesson there to me, especially being known for having a big mouth about politics and current events: If you don't really know what's going about something, just admit it. You'll have a better conversation if ask questions. You may get some responses like, "You really don't know about that?" "No, I actually don't. Tell me."
People told me that in later years Strummer was more sensible and down to earth, but that's not who I met at that hellacious Bill Graham show. Not only did I not play for Bill Graham again, I didn't even go to any of his shows for years after that, even if they were free. I still haven't paid to go to a Graham show or SFX [Productions] or Live Nation -- nope. The boycott remains. Ironically, the European Live Nation offered us a tour there with Motorhead.
You spoke about your mayoral run quite well and in detail in I Blow Minds For A Living. Now Diane Feinstein has been back in the news with some greater prominence. Has your perspective changed on her at all?
Diane Feinstein was the Margaret Thatcher of San Francisco. She was mean as fuck. You put a wig and a pound of make-up on a Chicago ward boss, take away the cigar, and there is Feinstein. The thing that really left a bad taste in my mouth was how really out of control the police were when she was mayor. And the attacks they made on any music shows of any kind that weren't Bill Graham.
She was well known for having a police radio on in her limousine as a way of relaxing. One of the Board of Supervisors members called her a "cop groupie." A reporter for one of the two big daily papers, who regularly criticized her in his column, was arrested and jailed for walking his dog without a leash or a license or something. That was the way Feinstein ran the city. And when she got into the senate, she was one of the biggest apologist advocates for Suharto, who was slaughtering people in East Timor and the rest of Indonesia. So, no, I'm not a big fan of Diane Feinstein.
Gun control is one of her few good issues. But it's a tough one because the police state is way far out there, too. I wish the Second Amendment had been interpreted differently, where the militia is what it was supposed to be all along -- something like the national guard. Not these clowns running around with machine guns saying, "It's my god-given right as a red, white and blue American to go blow ducks away with an AR-15!"
Although in a way some of their wacky conspiracy theories fascinate me. Where would we be without the comic relief of the Tea Party, like Ken Buck claiming the Denver bicycle sharing program was a UN plot to take over Denver. It was worth it to have him run for the senate and lose just to have that in our lives. I thought about this when the militia movement crested before and Timothy McVeigh was a pop star.
All these people wanted to join militias and stuff because they were afraid the government was going to take their guns away. But, wow, wouldn't it be great if the UN troops and their blue helmets actually did rise out of the sewers of Detroit, of all places, and went door to door just to try to take away everybody's machine guns? I'd get lawn chair and a pitcher of lemonade and watch the fun. It would be awesome!
When Australia had a mass shooting, when you could still get machine guns there, they didn't screw around. They banned them nationwide, on the spot, retroactively, and took them all away. And lo and behold, they haven't had anybody shooting up a movie theater or a classroom full of first graders, of all things, since. It doesn't happen there anymore. So there's got to be a way.
My proposal is just tax bullets to the ceiling. Don't go after the guns, go after the bullets. That way these Tea Party Newtsies just show off all their machine guns to their friends, but the only things they can shoot out of them are tranquilizers. You wanna roll around the 'hood with a gun in your back pocket, all you have is tranquilizers. That's the way to stop the near genocidal number of deaths from guns in this country.
You also ran for president as a Green Party candidate?
Yeah, that was kind of a fluke, and I did it on a dare, like I did with that mayoral campaign. With that, our old drummer Ted was driving us to a Pere Ubu show, and he said, "You have such a big mouth, Biafra, you should run for president. No, you should run for mayor." Then the light bulb went off in my head, and I said, "Aha."
I went to the Pere Ubu show and told everybody I was running for mayor and wrote out my platform on a napkin with a felt tip pen. The ideas came to me as Pere Ubu was playing a few feet from me. It was one of those "no dancing" venues, like Ebbets Field, called the Old Waldorf in San Francisco. Then I couldn't get rid of it, and I had to go through with it.
The whole inspiration came from the prank campaign for Boulder City Council we had every couple of years. My favorite being a local gadfly named John Davenport who ran on a platform of banning cars in the city and several other things. Then there were the photos of all the candidates in the Boulder Daily Camera, and here was this guy with a pirate suit, and I think he had an eye patch. And some of his teeth were blacked out. This made an impression on me. Wouldn't it be cool if I was that when I grew up.
So me and my friend John Greenway, who wrote the original lyrics for "California Über Alles," and I plotted a run for school board a year or two year later. His idea was to run for school board with a Mohawk, which was unheard of then except inTaxi Driver, promising free drugs for children while wearing a tutu. I can't remember what my idea was to top that. I'm not sure I could.
But that's what was in my mind when I ran for mayor of San Francisco without thinking about it at all. It was done as a prank, done on a dare, in that same spirit that I now call "shockupy." That's when I wrote a song for the Occupy movement. I wanted to emphasize how fun resistance can be. Of course it's not all fun and games. I knew it would evaporate when winter hit and not be able to come back. Even my mother, who is 83 now, was down with what Occupy was doing, what they were saying and why they were doing it. She supported the earlier occupation of Wisconsin's capital for the same reason, too.
My favorite part of protest is the prank and the theater and going out of our way to annoy the people that most need to be annoyed. Thus the saying, "Don't just occupy; shockupy." It was the same thing I was writing about in that old Dead Kennedys song, "The Man With the Dogs." There used to be this guy I'd run into from time to time, and he'd just stare at me with this weird grin on his face. It totally freaked me out, and I thought he was a real prick until I realized why he was doing it. Only later did I find out that he was Rick Scott's roommate and he lived in the back of the Arapahoe location of Trade A Tape.