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Jello Biafra

Speaking out of turn as a way of life

Interview by Steve Kreitzer

From the WUSB 90.1 FM Program Guide, Fall/Winter 1987, Vol. 4 No. 1. Copyright 1987, 1997, WUSB 90.1 FM.

On August 27, 1987: pornography charges against Dead Kennedy's lead singer Jello Biafra and Michael Bonanno were dismissed after a Los Angeles Municipal judge declared a mistrial when jurors reported that they were hopelessly deadlocked 7-5 in favor of acquittal. Both had been charged with distributing harmful material to minors for having inserted a graphic poster by H.R. Giger in the now defunct Dead Kennedys' 1985 Frankenchrist album. The following interview took place after Jello Biafra's spoken word performance, September 29th at SUNY Stony Brook.

Steve Kreiher has been a long time supporter of the underground music scene and coordinated Jello Biafra's spoken word performance at SUNY Stony Brook. He can be heard every Wednesday night as host of Turmoil.

WUSB: What made you decide after the Dead Kennedys broke up, to go into spoken word?

BIAFRA: I had done that already. With no band, this became the new way to perform. It's been an interesting adventure. I don't know whether it's improved me as a writer. It wouldn't as a lyricist, because with lyrics you have to compact everything and fold it and make it fit into a song, and here I can ramble on and on at length, which is the same kind of temptation as a guitarist who gets to play long solos. I'm just basically trying, to spread out right now, to try different things, because with no Dead Kennedys I can go one of two ways, either be a relic slogging it out on the rock circuit doing cover versions of my own songs with a new band, which would be humiliating for me and the audience, or I could try to grow. One way to grow is to try different things. I've done a little bit of acting; I might do more of that.

WUSB: The show is billed as a spoken word performance. I consider it more of a seminar; it's more of a teaching type thing.

BIAFRA: Well call it what you will. I didn't want it called a "lecture": because I hate the idea of lecturing. Would you go to a Lecture? I'd never go to a Lecture. Spoken word seems to be the best catch all term so people can interpret it any way that they want. It's basically me, naked, without a wall of noise to hide behind.

WUSB: Any fears about performing like that?

BIAFRA: It's actually not as taxing as Dead Kennedys was because Dead Kennedys was more physical. Plus, the singing would mean that my voice would go out on tour which was a real murderous thing to deal with. It depends on the situation, too. I would say I'm probably more high strung at musical gigs because I'd get really nervous before them. It depends. If everything's fucking up at the last minute, nothing's prepared and I have to go on, that's when I turn into a very short tempered person.

It was nerve-wracking reading my stuff at the River City Reunion in Lawrence, Kansas. It was a celebration after twenty years of a counter culture movement. They had William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Ann Waldman, Ed Dorn, John Giorno, oh lots and lots of people. One of the last segments was me co-billed with Timothy Leary. I went on first, and never had I realized what a horrible writer I was when I was trying to read to that audience knowing that Ginsberg, Waldman and the rest were all in the crowd. Husker Du played the final night, too. It was mostly spoken stuff but some people used occasional music backing. Ed Sanders, the guy who founded the Fugs, had a bit of musical accompaniment, including playing home-made instruments such as electronic gardening gloves... it was quite fascinating. Marianne Faithful did one night. Jim Carroll was there too. It was an interesting meeting of the minds. I was added on at the last minute. I thought the trial would have eaten into the time.

WUSB: I'd like to move on to the trial. When you decided to put the poster in the album, did you expect any backlash like you got?

BIAFRA: Klaus (Fluoride, bassist) thought there might be some, but I kind of shouted him down as I was known to do... "What do you mean, this is 1985, why would anybody be that dumb? Nobody prosecutes people over things like that anymore." Was I ever wrong. On the other hand, if we forced the issue to get this out in the open a little bit... it's just as well somebody did.

WUSB: Now the trial had various postponements... it took over a year and a half. Do you think that was a deliberate delay on the part of the prosecution?

BIAFRA: There were deliberate delays on both sides. We wanted to get the charges thrown out ahead of time without a trial. So we filed a legal action called a demurrer. That was tossed out of three different courts, which had me real frightened, seeing how hard line they were. We got it up to the State Court of Appeals, who were appointees of Governor George Dukmejian. They wouldn't even read our briefs; they just tossed them aside and said "Ha ha, send them to trial." We wanted to avoid trial partly because people had to take time off from work. Michael Bonanno is a bicycle messenger now; he doesn't even work for Alternative Tentacles. He had to risk losing his job. People didn't have the money to go move to LA for a month. That was punishment enough, having to go to LA for that long. It was actually three long weeks.

WUSB: Part of the trial tactics was for you not to take the stand. Was that a decision by yourself or by your lawyer?

BIAFRA: It was by the legal team. There were six lawyers on our side; one for each defendant as criminal law etiquette requires, plus Carol Sobel of the American Civil Liberties Union. It was kind of a last minute thing and I fought it back and forth, because I thought they were going to need me to explain the record to the jury. We went over the evidence the night before I was supposed to testify and realized technically Guarino had never nailed me on the distribution part. He had to prove that I was a distributor regardless of whether or not it was harmful. He hadn't. We realized that if I was on the stand, I would have to cop to the fact that I was an active participant; though not in the way he thought I was. We realized he had so many eggs in the Biafra Basket, but he couldn't get any of it admitted into evidence if he never got to cross examine me. Guarino was visibly furious when he found out he wasn't going to get to me. He came in expecting to rip me apart on the stand all day, and then Phil Schnayerson (Jello's lawyer) said "The defense rests": which left him (Guarino) about fifteen minutes to prepare his closing arguments.

WUSB: How did it feel to have someone explain your position... not allowed to do it yourself?

BIAFRA: It was very frustrating. It was especially frustrating when the cop was lying on the witness stand. I don't know why I had the illusion that they just wouldn't do that in America, but for some reason I did. It wasn't stuff the guy even had to lie about. That just really, really stunk. Guarino would make stuff up about me, or call me names in front of the jury hoping to draw a reaction out of me. Phil would have to try to keep me from bursting out. The strategy was to make me as generic and innocent as possible. You know, the suit and the tie, just kind of sit there with my hands folded, listening to all this crap go on. Michael Bonanno was sitting on the end of the defense table, so he had to watch the jury face to face the whole time, which I couldn't do from where I was sitting. I was quite concerned about their initial reaction from where I was sitting. I was quite concerned about their initial reaction to the Giger poster, which varied with the jurors. Some of them shoved it as far away from themselves as possible, immediately; several of them opened the poster up upside down when it was first presented to them.

WUSB: What are your feelings about the media coverage of the case? Out here on the east coast there was very little of it except for the Daily News-- what was it like in California?

BIAFRA: About the same-- it was covered each day in the Los Angeles Times, and I think there was one article in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner where Frank Zappa got the main side bar and everything instead of Guarino, which undoubtedly pissed him off no end since he filed this as a publicity stunt for himself. I strongly think he was hoping to run for political office off of this case, make a big name for himself. Even if he'd won, his manners with the press were so poor that it would be an uphill battle... these are people with no charm whatsoever in this world, who just can't act charming if they tried.

WUSB: Somehow with the (mainstream) media they become like vultures, they dig into your past-- I heard somewhere that your parents had to change their phone number...

BIAFRA: No that wasn't true. I just kind of kept people away from them, to respect their wishes. My dad came to the trial and was very talkative with reporters there, kind of giving them history lessons on the McCarthy era and before. He's kind of a history encyclopedia anyway, going back 5000 years, he knew plenty of cases. He had one interesting comment to somebody where he said he felt he was sitting in a 1930s movie waiting for Spencer Tracy to appear there, but mostly I wasn't really as interesting to them as the case itself, and neither was Mr. Guarino. I'm sure he would have loved to tell his life story to the press and nobody ever asked him. Plus I'm fairly private in a lot of ways so I drew the lines on some things.

WUSB: It seems the PMRC takes a very strong stand against the occult and lyrics like that and those bands never gave their support...

BIAFRA: Well that's because those bands are mainly in it for themselves, and they all are owned and operated by major labels who have some say in what they're allowed to say to the press. One journalist I know tried to interview different major label artists about censorship and people said, "No, we don't want our artists talking about that, but hey what about the new album!" The major labels are in bed with the PMRC. They're willing to put the warning stickers and make little deals with them in a classic political horse trade. Their first hope was the PMRC could [intimidate] their husbands into passing a tax on blank cassettes. The first time in American history there would be a federally imposed tax to benefit a certain sector of private corporations. And even the Reagan administration finally came out and opposed it, much to my surprise. So what they're trying to do is tax ghetto blasters and tape copiers, which in effect is taxing the poor. People who can afford to buy records and pre-recorded tapes are going to do it-- making their own tapes takes too long. If the art work with an album is interesting enough, who the hell wants some dumb ass blank tape with nothing but the name on it. We make our art interesting for a reason. If they can't think of anything but a blow dried photo of their boring, generic artist to put on the cover, then home taping will happen. Our attitude on home taping is on the In God We Trust, Inc. cassette. "Home taping is killing big entertainment industry profits, we left side two blank so you can help." What they're trying to do now is to tax that plus digital audio tape (DAT). I think they're trying to suppress technology and rip off the consumer. Even Stevie Wonder is opposed to a DAT ban, seeing it would prevent young musicians from making studio-quality demos. The industry would like to have only a few artists they toss out to everybody. They'd have less paperwork and less personalities to deal with, and have everybody buy the same 20 bands and get rid of everything else.

One statistic I turned up was when the industry moans about "oh, moan, groan; home taping is killing our sales", well, their sales have risen dramatically in the past few years. Of all the cassettes sold in America, only three percent are blank.

WUSB: Let's move on to your representation on MTV, which I'm surprised they covered. Do you think that's a result of Dweezil Zappa...

BIAFRA: It had nothing to do with that, Dweezil had never been on MTV until after the case started...

WUSB: He was one of the first ones to bring it up, though...

BIAFRA: I didn't know he had. No, actually what happened was I met an MTV news reporter at the New Music Seminar in 1986 who was English and had never heard of such a thing, so I explained to him how things are done in this country and why there is far less freedom of the press here than there is in England or Australia or in most of Europe...

WUSB: That was Doug Kersoff?

BIAFRA: No, that was Dave Kendall. So he began trying to plant things in MTV whenever he could, saying there was group of disgruntled employees there who sang our song "MTV Get Off The Air" to themselves, while at work. The first report he put in, I strung together a really long quote about how most pop music television was meant to sedate people and make them stupid, obedient shoppers, and here Mark Goodman had to read that from a teleprompter. I could see his eyes getting bigger and bigger like "I'm reading this?!" Being accessible to the straight media and getting things like that across can make it worth it. I even got the Orange County Register, a major newspaper down there, and they somehow left a quote in of mine about how most american newspapers lie in almost all their stories to keep people from finding out what's really going on. Occassionally that kind of thing slips through.

WUSB: I wanted to ask about your private life...

BIAFRA: You can ask any question you want. I just don't guarantee I'II answer it.

WUSB: You were born in Colorado, dad was a social worker, mom was a librarian...

BIAFRA: My mother still is a librarian.

WUSB: What kind of influence did they have. Are they the ones who geared you towards the political?

BIAFRA: In a way they were. Partly it was my own doing, because I used to come home from school and watch cartoon shows, and then the 6 O'Clock News would come on. I saw very little difference between the two, so I watched both with equal fascination. My early favorite cartoon characters were...oh, I liked George of the Jungle, Senator Everett Dirksen and a few others, I mixed and matched. Plus they would always explain to me what was going on the news and why we were having race riots. When I was eight, my dad drove me through the slums of Detroit and a week later the riots happened. He just wanted me to see first hand why people were so angry. I saw the Berlin Wall go up on television; I saw Oswald get shot live on television, and I remember my dad taking me for a walk in the park when Iwas real little trying to explain the Cuban missile crisis to me. Plus I was just an opinionated, loud-mouthed person about everything anyway, and had it in for authority from an early age; this fit right in. Boulder, Colorado was a politically volatile town; during the Vietnam war era, even in sixth grade people knew who was for and who was against the war. There was a really right wing teacher that year who had editorialized for it and what a great country America was and how great it was they shot demonstrators at Kent State, and someone had to argue with him so I did.

WUSB: You moved to San Francisco to go to school? Or was that Santa Cruz?

BIAFRA: I went to school in Santa Cruz for two and a half months then I left and went back to Colorado, got some money together and came out to San Francisco, going to acting school by day and diving head long into to punk rock and starting a band by night.

WUSB: How was the original meeting between the other members of the Dead Kennedys?

BIAFRA: I answered an ad that Ray had put up in a record store, I think everybody found each other through Ray's ad.

WUSB: What made you decide to form Alternative Tentacles, was that to stay away from the major labels to do what you wanted to do?

BIAFRA: I kept seeing all these bands and saying "boy, wouldn't it be great if they could make records. God, if I ever had the money, I want to help get these people's records out." So it was something I just wanted to do.

WUSB: Is there any philosophy behind Alternative Tentacles?

BIAFRA: Music that thinks.

WUSB: Because of the trial you've pretty much lost a year and a half of your life, what plans do you have, do you expect to...

BIAFRA: I don't believe in plans, there's no way you can make up for year and a half in your life, that's like blaming your parents when you're upset when you're thirty years old, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. I feel years behind in my work anyway, compared to how many songs I have in my head that I wanted to have done, recorded and out there. I'II probably always feel that way, so I'll just do the speaking tour for a while to keep the issue hot, make a living, save up some money; then unplug the phone, write some songs and do another band.

WUSB: Your idea of a perfect band?

BIAFRA: It changes every time I hear a new record that I like a lot. It's the old artistic jealousy of "Oh, wow, this is great, I want to sound this good." I think Frankenchrist is closer to my heart than the Bedtime for Democracy album in terms of the musical syle, there's more songs kicking around in that vein. I'd like to add more of an industrial edge, perhaps; expand the band with sheet metal percussion or even keyboards. I listen to all kinds of things, the most extreme of the harcore stuff I still like. I like Head of David, Big Black, Scraping Fetus Off The Wheel, Evan Johns and the H-Bombs, all kinds of things. It would be fun to have one foot in the 1950s and one foot in the 1990s and see what happened.

WUSB: Ten years from now, if we're still around...

BIAFRA: That's a real big if.

WUSB: Do you see yourself acting, still doing bands or politics?

BIAFRA: Straight politics is for people with no sense of humor. People rely on artists for the truth far more than they rely on politicians. Taking journalism into account as an art here. If I was ever to enter politics again it would be for the same reason I ran for mayor in San Francisco, namely an act of sabotage. I've always tried to use my life and my art as a prank as much as possible.