Jello Biafra was born in 1958 as Eric Boucher in Boulder, Colorado. From a young age he was already interested and influenced by politics, and was encouraged to do so by his parents. The assassination of JFK, the race riots in Detroit and the creation of the Berlin Wall were situations that were among his first encounters with the world of politics and, every time, he used to ask questions about each event. His parents were happy to answer them, so at a very early stage in his life, he learned to think about the world, and the way things were done. As he said later:
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 favourite cartoon characters were... oh, I liked George of the Jungle, Sen Everett Dirksen and a few others, I mixed and matched.
Some years later, when Biafra heard rock music for the first time, he found himself completely addicted to it. From that moment on he was determined to pursue a career in music, instead of following the default path to success by becoming a doctor, lawyer or otherwise 'boring occupations'.
The Vietnam war, which started when Biafra was still in school, had a major impact on him. While the politicians tried very hard to convince the people that they were doing the right thing, Biafra found out that a lot of things regarding the war were actually not so good at all. This was one of the moments when he realised that the government couldn't be trusted. These thoughts were probably the greatest influence on everything he has done since, as an artist, in his life. Fighting the government, big corporations and everyone that sympathised with that way of working would soon be one of the biggest goals in his later life.
Biafra and Punk Rock
Although Biafra wasn't able to start his musical career right away, it was never out of his mind. At one point he had been working for a while and attended a school in Santa Cruz. After he returned to Boulder, he had saved up some money and decided to try his luck in San Francisco, where he finally became involved with the punk scene. Taking acting classes during the day, and diving deep into punk by night soon led to Biafra meeting East Bay Ray, which led to the formation of Dead Kennedys1.
In 1979, Dead Kennedys released their first single, 'California Uber Alles'. That single, the follow-up 'Holiday in Cambodia' and the album that they appeared on, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables quickly made Dead Kennedys one of the hottest punk bands around. In America, and later in Europe, kids were astonished by the pure sound and political lyrics of the band.
1979 was also the year that Biafra founded his own record label, called Alternative Tentacles. This label was used to publish all Dead Kennedys material and, during the years, it has grown into the biggest independent record label in the world. Nowadays it has a number of artists on its rostra, including Lard, Victim's Family and Nomeansno. Biafra's own spoken word albums are also released on Alternative Tentacles, as well as special projects, such as the No WTO. Combo, featuring Biafra, Krist Novoselic (ex-Nirvana), Kim Thayil and Gina Mainwall.
The year had already been very busy for Biafra and Co, but there was still time for something that started out as a prank, but turned into a serious campaign later on. In 1979, there were mayoral elections in San Francisco. Biafra, challenged by a band member, decided he was going to run for mayor as well. This story is best known to people because of the unusual propositions that were included in his platform. The banning of automobiles from within San Francisco city limits, and the legalisation of squatting in all vacant buildings were among the more well-known items on his agenda. The one thing that everyone still remembers about the Biafra campaign, however, was the proposition that all businessmen were required to wear clown-suits between the hours of nine and five. This item clearly states that, even though Biafra took the campaign very seriously and the proposition was a straight accusal towards the way the big companies operated, he was still able to include his humour in it as well. Eventually, Biafra came in fourth, thus helping force a run-off between the two major candidates, Dianne Feinstein and Quentin Cop (eventually won by Feinstein). All this can be found on Biafra's third spoken word album, I Blow Minds For A Living.
As the years passed, more Dead Kennedys material was recorded and released, and the punk scene in America and Europe continued to grow steadily. The release that caught the most attention was, of course, the 1981 single from the Dead Kennedys called 'Too Drunk to F**k'. Despite the explicit lyrics on the single and the efforts of the music industry to keep the song off radio and TV, it made it to position 36 in the British charts. Alternative Tentacles grew into a label to be reckoned with in the music scene since it remained independent and controversial, while the big corporations wanted the music scene to stay on the safe side. The best example of this is probably the release of the 1985 Frankenchrist album by Dead Kennedys. This album, which included a print by Swiss surrealist master HR Giger2, would go into history as the first album ever to be sued because of the explicit contents; in this case the aforementioned print, which was called Penis Landscape.
Hearings in the Senate (staged by Senator Al Gore) already showed that the political world was going to get involved in the music business. Under the cover of organizations like the Parents Music Resource Centre (PMRC)3, a witch-hunt was arranged. Everything that was considered anti-Christian, sexually explicit, or other things that were not suitable for young children, were mentioned in these hearings. The music business corporations, afraid that sanctions would be imposed, let this happen with the notable exception of Frank Zappa and a few others.
These hearings, however, were just the first step. In April 1986, Biafra found himself charged with the crime of 'distributing harmful matters to minors'. His house was raided by a combined group of San Francisco and Los Angeles policemen and a trial awaited him and four others. They were the first people in history ever to be sued over a record and its contents. Since neither Biafra, nor Alternative Tentacles, were able to finance such a big trial, they founded the 'No More Censorship Defense Fund' in order to collect enough money to contest the charges. Because of the mass publicity given to this fund and the fame of Biafra and Dead Kennedys, they were able to hire lawyers, and fight the battle. The trial eventually took one and a half years out of Biafra's life, with a year in jail and a $2000 fine at stake.
The reason why the LA Attorney used the Frankenchrist album for this trial was later reported to be 'a cost effective way of sending a message' to other possible targets, hoping that other musicians and record labels would be much more inclined to follow the 'rules' set by the aforementioned PMRC and similar organisations.
In August 1987, the trial ended. The charges were dismissed, and the prosecutor wasn't able to file an appeal. The events leading to the trial, and the complete story about what happened at the trial, are all compiled on the second spoken word album, High Priest of Harmful Matter.
Biafra and Spoken Word
1986 was also the year in which Biafra would make his first steps on the road to a whole new area of performing. In January of that year Biafra spoke at the UCLA University on subjects such as censorship, the PMRC and the impact they may have on the arts. The press dismissed this performance as 'the ravings of a paranoid lunatic'. Biafra, on the other hand, had just discovered a new way of getting his message across to the public. Dead Kennedys broke up in 1986, shortly after the release of their final album Bedtime for Democracy, and Biafra's first spoken word album, entitled No More Cocoons was released in 1987. This included tracks such as 'What Reagan Didn't Know', about the way Reagan performed (or did not perform) his presidential tasks, and 'Why I'm Glad the Space Shuttle Blew Up', about the dangers of the space programme and the reckless way NASA and the American politicians dealt with it.
Of course, the 'success' of Biafra's spoken word shows did not mean he would drop music completely. Guest appearances on albums by DOA and Nomeansno showed that he was still very much into the punk scene and was more than willing to contribute to it. Eventually Biafra, together with Jeff Ward, Al Jourgensen (also well known as the main man of rock outfit Ministry) and Paul Barker launched a new project called Lard. An EP was released, and the success of that EP resulted in the making of a full-length album, called The Last Temptation of Reid. Other musical escapades included the soundtrack for Terminal City Ricochet and a collaboration with Charlie Tolnay which resulted in the Tumor Circus album.
1991 was, of course, the year of the Gulf War. Biafra's views on George Bush and the Gulf War were perhaps best stated in a track from his third spoken word album, I Blow Minds for a Living. The track was called 'Die for Oil, Sucker', and it featured an in-depth view on the way the war was fought and the reasons politicians gave for fighting that war. Needless to say, Biafra pointed out the exact opposites, and better alternatives, for situations like that. With a sense of humour that was much sharper yet darker than in his previous albums, he talked not only about the Gulf War, but also about his mayoral campaign, the Drug War, the way George Bush was handling being president, and how that was turning the country in to something close to a mass-media controlled police state.
A few quiet years followed. Alternative Tentacles continued to grow; new artists signed up with the label and older bands came back with new albums. Biafra, himself, released his fourth spoken word album, Beyond the Valley of the Gift Police, in 1994. The album was mostly about how the Clinton administration was different from the Bush administration, and how 'new' was possibly far more dangerous than 'old'. For the first time there was much comment on the trade treaties that were being pursued, such as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). According to Biafra, those treaties were dangerous to essential world problems like the environment because, with the new treaties, corporations could dismiss existing laws as being a barrier to free trade. These warnings, as it turned out, became more and more realistic with the arrival of the WTO (World Trade Organization). Where NAFTA and GATT focused on America, WTO would play a similar role to the entire world.
Become the Media
In the fifth album, If Evolution Is Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Evolve, but even more in the sixth, Become the Media, a major vocal offensive was launched towards the WTO and the corporations it stood for. Besides that, Biafra spoke about the presidential elections, and the role he played in them. He was drafted as a candidate for the Green Party, for which Ralph Nader was eventually voted nominee. The title of the album was mostly reflected in the tracks where Biafra described how he went to conventions and more political meetings, as a reporter for the Independent Media Centre, armed with a camera and a crew. The message was clear and short: Don't hate the media, become the media - a slogan which was repeated in almost all of his spoken word albums. By this, Biafra wanted to encourage his public to go after the news by themselves and spread the word - to not let the corporate media dictate information, but to make sure that people know what is going on in the world.
The latest reason why the media has its eyes on Biafra is a less pleasant one. Years after the Dead Kennedys split up, three of the ex-band members tried to persuade their former frontman to give Levi's the rights to one of the most influential DK-songs, 'Holiday In Cambodia'. Levi's would then be able to use the song in one of their commercials. Biafra, of course, refused. The reason for this was the fact that the use of a punk song in a commercial for a big multinational would go against everything punk and Dead Kennedys stood for. The three ex-DK's did not share Biafra's view on the subject, and decided to take it to court. The outcome of that trial, at least up to this point, is that they gained control over most of the Dead Kennedys catalogue, and removed Biafra from all the credits. At the time of writing, this verdict is in the process of being appealed, and the outcome is still unsure. Biafra and Alternative Tentacles are now using their performances and media connections to gain support and financial backing for their cause.
As for the future, things are still unsure. The lawsuit is something that could be dangerous for the continuity of the record label and the political situation in the United States does not look too promising, according to most political activists. As far as the music's concerned, though, things will definitely continue. Perhaps Biafra himself summarized it best when he was quoted as saying:
This is my home. Home is where the disease is. As long as I stay in America, I'll never run out of subjects for songs...