Sometime in 2000, East Bay Ray, Klaus Fluoride, and D.H. Peligro--ex-members of the East Bay punk band Dead Kennedys--announced to their ex-vocalist, Jello Biafra, they were suing him. Their primary goal was to control the money and ownership over all Dead Kennedys material. However, the lawsuit was kick-started because Biafra refused to allow the song "Holiday in Cambodia" to be played in a Levi's Dockers commercial due to his opposition to Levi's sweatshop practices. "Basically, they wouldn't compromise, dragged me through a trial, claimed they wrote all the songs and that I'd plotted to hide all this precious money from them, even though they aren't exactly poor," explains Biafra.
With the help of a lawyer who's represented Journey, Carlos Santana, and Boston, and a jury largely unschooled in the workings of punk rock and underground record labels, the ex-Kennedys won the suit. They now retain all rights to the Dead Kennedys songs, including the ones written by Biafra. "Now they're going around trying to sell off the catalog and fleece it and poison it anyway they possibly can," he says. "This has meant that a bastardized version of the albums are coming out this fall, on a label called Manifesto, that I'm totally embarrassed to be associated with. This live album they put out is so weak, I'm completely ashamed of it. I mean, Ray blows his guitar part on 'Police Truck' six times in the first song. That's how little they care about the quality of their work.
"I would urge people to think twice about where the money is going and whether this is being done in the spirit of what the Dead Kennedys was supposed to stand for, before parting with any cash for these releases I don't authorize and don't endorse," says Biafra.
The grotesque irony of this situation would be laughable if it weren't so depressing on so many different levels. At least one question begs to be asked: How did those longtime punk rock heroes lose their backbones and become part of the system in a mere 15 years? And, most importantly, how can those of us in the 18-30 age group keep our ideals intact as we grow older, without becoming wishy-washy, consumerist liberals--the perceived fate of a large part of the hippie generation?
"Don't follow the negative examples of those you once admired!" laughs Jello Biafra, sort of wryly.
Biafra, whose politics have remained as radical in 2001 as they were in 1980 when Dead Kennedys released their first record, is one of the best people to answer this question. From his fourth-place run for Mayor in the 1979 San Francisco primaries, to his nomination for President by the Green Party in 2000 (for which he chose Mumia Abu-Jamal as his running mate), Biafra has long been the singular most outspoken punk rock political figure in America. He's been sued by a parent (in 1987, for "distributing pornography" in the form of an H.R. Giger drawing inserted in Dead Kennedys' Frankenchrist), sued by his bandmates, and had the shit kicked out of him by cops and young punks alike. And he tours the world, speaking against all the issues--global warming, third-world oppression, censorship, etc.--brought about by globalization. He's the farthest thing from a casualty of pseudo-liberal apathy.
"Part of the reason things got so bad in the '70s and '80s and the '90s with all this 'Me Me Me Me,' SUV-yuppie greed, is because a lot of the people who put their necks on the line to hit the streets and stop the Vietnam War figured the whole fight was won after that," says Biafra. "They sort of forgot where they came from and turned into Clinton/Gore Democrats, or worse. You know, the kinds of parents who say, 'Yeah, your mom and I had a great time when we were your age, causin' trouble, partying, doing drugs, having sex, et cetera, but now that you're that age, just say no!' People like that disgust me."
Jello Biafra's most recent spoken-word album, Become the Media (on Biafra's own Alternative Tentacles label), is a chronicle of talks he's given over the past couple of years, from his original Presidential acceptance speech in 2000, to when he reported on the Democratic National Convention for the Independent Media Center. It's three hours long, but nonetheless riveting; hardly repetitive, even funny at times, Biafra's gruff voice makes a good backdrop for his impassioned speeches. Indeed, if the charisma conveyed on his spoken word albums are any indication, Biafra is an excellent public speaker. He's inspiring and cuts the bullshit--if it weren't for the fact that his political viewpoints are currently in the minority, it'd be easy to picture him as a great political leader. Within the system, that is.
The Green Scare
"One thing that I, for one, am going to come out strongly about when I come to Portland," says Biafra, "is that now, instead of Red-baiting like the dark days of the Anti-Communist '50s--you know, with Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon wrecking peoples' lives--there's Green-baiting going on. Even in my own family; my father said, 'Yeah, if it weren't for your man Nader and the Greens, you wouldn't be having to worry about Gail Norton or John Ashcroft now, would you?' Their whole angle is 'Nader cost Gore the election,' and that's crap," says Biafra. "Gore cost Gore the election, by being such a mediocre, Bush-clone of a candidate, and picking someone even more right-wing than he was for vice president, who's the leading advocate for censorship in mass media in Congress today There are several non-negotiable issues where I draw the line about who I'm voting for. Anybody running for office who supports the drug war, the death penalty, the WTO, the FTAA, gutting the welfare system and throwing more kids on the street, putting nuclear missiles in outer space, putting Christian dogma back in public school classrooms--Gore supported all those things. So why on earth should we have anything to do with him?"
"I think, rather than going on a Green-baiting campaign to try and intimidate people from running as alternative candidates in 2002, if the Democrats had any brains or heart left, they would think more in terms of trying to reach out and form a coalition, so when it makes sense to keep a Democrat in office, they can count on Green Power to do it. But in order to forge that coalition, they have to stop being so hostile to people who want real reform, and in the process, reform their own policies. Otherwise, they're slowly but surely going to go the way of the Whigs. In our lifetime."
Livability... for Whom?
Given the recent anti-postering, anti-"noise" laws being pushed in Portland, it seems pertinent to explain the issues to Biafra, a staunch advocate of free speech. "As far as postering goes," he says, "the city's doing that here [in San Francisco], but with publications. They've tried to [allow only a handful of newspapers and publications to be distributed], and fold them in to one big machine controlled by those French tycoons, the Decoux Company. So far, that has met a lot of opposition, but hasn't gone through. The idea is to limit the amount of publications people can pick up and read, some of them for free, only to a few, and if people start a new neighborhood paper they can't get it distributed. The same with flyers. There have been concerted campaigns to stop flyering here; even before Giuiliani, there was a really bad one in New York where a friend of mine was fined $22,000 for putting up a few flyers that advertised a show. Eventually he fought that and won, but it took a lot out of him, as it would anybody," says Biafra.
"I totally applaud the type of direct action where, if people say 'no more posters,' then everybody starts putting up posters to the point where you can't control it anymore. It's like applying the Johnny Appleseed principle to the drug war--you know, everybody becomes Johnny Potseed and tosses pot seeds in parks, grass on city hall, suburban lawns, so there's so many pot plants they can't possibly put people in jail anymore, cause there's no more room."
I ask him if he has any other ideas for direct and indirect action Portlanders might do to combat the Noise Ordinance and Anti-Poster Ban. He says, "More direct actions, including a 'play-in' where people just start performing music without permission all over town; busking in the streets, electric music in houses, you know. A show of force by people who like music. Also, it wouldn't be a bad idea for somebody to run for city council or even mayor in the next election highlighting [those issues]. Even if you lose, at least you get the issue out there for more people to think about it and be aware of it. It might also inspire a lot of people who feel locked out of the process to get off their asses and vote because there's actually somebody cool to vote for."
In his spoken and written word, and even this interview, Jello Biafra backs up strong viewpoints with actual fact. However, because his passion can be interpreted as inflammatory at times, it's understandable when people find him bullheaded and abrasive. But he says something that surprises me regarding the nature of radicalism. "One thing we have to watch when we fight the power is not becoming the radical equivalent of fundamentalist Christians in the process," he says. "I've seen this happen with so many punk people-- Exhibit A being [long-running punk zine] Maximum Rock 'n' Roll, where people are politically incorrect if they don't do this, that, and the other, and musically incorrect if they don't sound like a cookie cut-out of other old bands. And fundamentalism is poison to me; it turns other people off to perfectly good ideas, for one thing, and it also often leads to people being really dogmatic, having a black and white mindset in one direction. Then, since they see things through black and white blinders, when they get tired of living a monastic existence, they completely flip over and go the other way and become SUV predators. It doesn't have to be that way. I may take shit from the more radical-than-thou, but it's better to pick a moral code and lifestyle you can actually try to live with, and live up to, than try and push something on other people that you can't live up to."
Jello Biafra will speak in Portland Friday, Aug 3, at the Hollywood Theater ($10). On Saturday, August 4, he will address Green Party issues at Ralph Nader's "People Have the Power" tour, along with Danny Glover, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, Medea Benjamin, and local Green candidate for Secretary of State Lloyd Marbet. Though the speeches begin at five pm, the Multnomah Chapter of the Pacific Green Party is hosting a Progressive Action Conference consisting of 29 teach-ins on pertinent local and global issues. From two to five pm, there will be an Alternative Media Convergence. The event, held at the Rose Garden Arena, is free during the day, and $8-10 after 8 pm.