BLURTING WITH… Jello Biafra

The man born as Eric
Reed Boucher on Obama, Abbie Hoffman, Canadian customs officers, the media,
fake MySpace addresses and more.

 

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

Jello Biafra’s voicemail
greeting is a must-listen. You see, he screens his calls-probably for good
reason, as the vociferous punk rocker and spoken word artist can’t help but
make enemies. And, being what he is, he likes to be heard. So let’s listen.

 

“Cost of the Marshall
Plan, adjusted for current inflation: $115.3 billion. Louisiana
Purchase? $217 billion. The race to the moon? $237 billion. The
savings and loan crisis that Reagan and the first Bush gave us, $256 billion.
Korean War: $456 billion. Vietnam:
$698 billion. New Deal, only $500 billion (estimated). Invasion of Iraq: $600
billion and counting, not including Afghanistan. Rest of NASA: $851.2
billion, adding up to approximately $3,925,500,000,000 taxpayer dollars-
less
than half of the estimated 8 to 12 [trillion]
dollars handed out to banks and mortgage companies who caused our current
economic crisis in the first place. Plus, I can’t help but wonder, how many of
their estimated losses were based on what they thought all these houses would
continue to be worth if the market grew? In other words, how much of the
bailout money that both George W. Bush and the Obama Administration gave to the
thieves, in reimbursement and bailout, was money that
never existed in the
first place?”

 

Powerful shit, huh? Jello didn’t crunch those numbers so
much as set them in a contextual mold for us with that last line. That’s his
stock in trade: Getting in the last word, the worldview-altering zinger that
goads one into action. Throughout the last three decades, it elevated his band Dead
Kennedys to notoriety beyond the punk microcosm (and caused a feud with his
now-ex bandmates), landed him in court as a scapegoat of Tipper Gore’s Parents
Music Resource Center and saw him recruited as candidate for the Green Party’s
presidential nomination (he lost to Ralph Nader, whom he supported then and in
’04 as well as ‘08). Today it continues to cause him varying degrees of trouble,
but since Biafra views silence in the face of rampant
political and social hypocrisy and exploitation with utter disdain, almost all
of it is worthwhile.

 

With a new band, The Guantanamo School of Medicine, and a
new album, The Audacity of Hype (on
his Alternative Tentacles label), Biafra stirs
the usual shit. The Shepard Fairey-esque cover art and cheeky title let us know
it’s not all about red-state Bible-thumpers, whom many of us-this writer
included-have made scapegoats for the world’s woes. The fact of the matter is,
in Biafra’s world, there’s as much reason to
hate Barack Obama as there is/was to hate George W. Bush because they play for
the same team of corporate fatcats, and all their rhetoric is tantamount to WWF
chest-beating, a little theater to distract you from the terrible truth.

 

Once Blurt heard
the requisite voicemail greeting and announced ourselves, Biafra
was only too glad to discuss this-among other things.

 

***

 

BLURT: The new album smokes.

 

JELLO BIAFRA: Well, thanks!
That’s kinda the idea. I’m still a fan and a vinyl junkie and all that so I
always try to make my albums something that I myself would wanna listen to a
lot.

 

I have a hard time
imagining you as a music fan-offstage, I picture you with your nose in a book,
or at a computer typing long, venomous screeds… But jamming out to tunes in
your car? Uh-unh.

 

It depends on what I’m hearing in the car ‘cause that’s
usually the only chance I have to listen to all the demos we get in. Even in
the [digital age] we still get hard copies of demos by the crateload. It’s
worth going through the bad ones because when a really good one or a really
unique one comes up, it’s always a great surprise; it’s always cool.

 

Do people send you
more targeted demos or do you get the same slush pile as every other label?

 

We get a lot of kissy-ass pop punk for people who wanna be
the next boy band with Sid Vicious haircuts or something. We occasionally even
get demos from pushy stage mothers thinking we can somehow get their precious
child on American Idol or something.
Like, ‘Look at her! She’s 14. Isn’t she pretty? She’s a cheerleader, she’s in
French club, and wait ‘til you hear here sing, ‘Redneck Woman’!’ I mean, that
one was so off the wall, I thought, ‘Okay I am gonna listen to this one.’ I put it on and sure enough, the girl had a great
country voice. But I thought, shit, if she’s being pushed this far at this age,
she may wind up hating music by the time she turns 18 and a great talent might
be lost. Either that, or some other pimp will make her into the next Britney
Spears and she’ll have a meltdown and wind up hating music a little later in
life.

 

I’m still trying to
get over the fact that someone actually sent you that.

 

Oh, yeah. There was another one that had her daughter
singing Pat Benatar songs in her bedroom.

 

Do you have a
trainwreck collection, a freakshow archive?

 

I’m a librarian’s kid so I know the importance of archiving
things. There’s been more than once case where I’ve had to dig through old
cassettes to find the last existing copy of a band’s demo or live recording so
they can put it on a retrospective CD or something.

 

You should pull an
Irwin Chusid [Note: Chusid is an avid
supporter and collector of cool and strange-“outsider”-music.
] and release
a compilation of the weirdest submissions.

 

Sometimes you can tell from the people that sent it that you
don’t wanna get close enough to them to negotiate the release rights.

 

As soon as I saw the
cover of The Audacity of Hype I
understood what it would be about. As someone who became political when Bush
stole the 2000 election, I thought being the opposite of him and the
evangelical right wing was the appropriate reaction. So of course I bought into
the Obama hype, but being older and more cynical, I feel like I should mistrust
all politicians-

 

Falling for the myth that there’s only Choice A and Choice B
and some issues don’t have two sides, they have 52 sides? I mean, whether or not to send more troops to Afghanistan is
just one. Although the current or last issue of The Nation with the headline “Obama’s Fateful Choice” on the cover
has about ten or a dozen people reporting on different aspects of Afghanistan and
make a very powerful argument that we
should get the hell out of there. That it’s gonna be miserable there whether we
stay or go, and maybe vastly worse even for women, if we stay.

 

That’s just it.
Obama’s sent more troops, which feels like more of the same. It feels hopeless.
A friend of mine has even started checking out conspiracy sites like
PrisonPlanet.com.

 

I like my conspiracy theories to be supported by logic and
science and a lot of the 9/11 conspiracy stuff is not. To get to the bottom of
the allegation that the whole 9/11 conspiracy theory was started by Lyndon
LaRouche-although that itself may be yet another conspiracy theory. There’s a
song I did long ago with Lard called, “Can God Fill Teeth?” where the guy goes
so crazy that he’s pulling his teeth out looking for bugging devices and
saying, ‘Look under any rock-you’re gonna find a conspiracy.’ Man, life is a conspiracy. As horrified as I
am by the way things really work in this world, I’ve tried to guard myself
against all that consuming me. If I didn’t have such a sick sense of humor, I
might’ve pulled a Kurt Cobain 20 years ago.

            I think the
key word is ‘coin-operated.’ And Obama’s Congressional voting record reflected
that, as did the fact that Wall Street picked him as the candidate to put all
their money into instead of McCain or Hillary Clinton. And what do they get in
return? He surrounds himself with some of the worst offenders for setting the
stage for our economic collapse. People forget that it wasn’t the Bush
Administration that monkeyed with all they laws, allowing all these financial
institutions to be run like casinos. It was the Clinton Administration. And the
people involved were [Clinton] Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and his protégés
Lawrence “Larry” Summers, who is head of Obama’s economic team now, and I
believe [current Secretary of the Treasury] Timothy Geithner pops up in there
somewhere, too.

 

See? There’s a song
on your album called “I Won’t Give Up” where you say surrender is “not an
option.” How are we ever gonna dismantle the two-party system and stop the
corporatization of America?
I see your point that the only thing we can do is fight and try to educate a
lot of people-

 

It’s a hell of a lot of fun. A prank a day keeps the dog
leash away. That doesn’t mean fighting the power is all some big funsy-wunsy Disneyland affair-there’s sacrifice and lots of hard
work. But at the end of the day, it’s gratifying to know that you’re making the
effort not to be as big a part of the problem and to, in our own puny way as
individual human beings, try to be part of the solution. And there isn’t one
magic solution, either.

But as I’ve said at the end of so
many spoken word shows, as well as that song, ‘Doing something is better than
doing nothing.’ And the most basic step-‘cause after the 2000 election when
they were doing the Democracy Rising rallies, I shared the stage with Ralph
Nader and Michael Moore at some of the events. They were telling the audience,
‘You’ve got to do something!’ I thought, ‘Okay… What?’ I decided I better find
some type of basic, first step, dip-your-toe-in-the-water, what. And so what I
stress to people is, ‘If you choose to do this, just make a little vow to
yourself that ‘I’m not co-operating with corporations or their agenda anymore.
They can’t have me.’ And that means being very careful where you spend your
money, who you give your money to. Don’t vote for their puppets and try not to
work for them. If you must work for them, just remember that the digital age
has ushered in a whole new frontier of sabotage on the job.

 

I see the logic in
that, but I my problem is that I can’t see it having an effect.

 

It lessens the effects of the other side. Not by much, but
like I say, it’s better than doing nothing. And to help spread the word on this
and inspire other people to do the same thing, I mean- Yet another thing that
our dumbed-down, propagandized, corporate McNews has been very successful at is
avoiding any news coverage of victories against the system. Sometimes they do
happen, for example the Coalition of Immokale Workers went after Taco Bell and
Burger King and I believe McDonald’s, among others, using word of mouth on
college campuses to get those chains boycotted until the tomato pickers finally
had their wages raised about slave level. As far as I know, it worked. It was
never on the national news, it was never discussed at a cartoon level by Wolf
Blitzer or anyone at MSNBC-but word got out.

 

So the idea is that
these little victories eventually will add up, become too much for the media to
ignore.

 

Hopefully, yeah. But in the meantime, at least get through
to those fast food chains that they should quit treating people like slaves. I
mean, getting the job done is the most important. I had some 9/11 conspiracy
zealots corner me after a Seattle show demanding that I talk more about that
and, of course, that I agree with them on everything. And they were very cold
and humorless about it; it kind of reminded me of anti-abortion zealots or
über-vegans or something. And I said, ‘Hey, look-even if all this is true, and
I’m not convinced it is, isn’t it more important to get the troops out of the Middle East so less people get killed? They’re like, ‘No,
no. This is the most important thing. This is the most important thing.’ I felt
like I was talking to Scientologists or something.

 

You talk about ‘a
prank a day.’ I remember how they treated Abbie Hoffman, the Weather
Underground…

 

The documentary about The Weather Underground is very, very
interesting, but it should also be seen next to a documentary on the Students
for a Democratic Society, that they broke off from. One thing to get loud and
clear about what brought down the SDS is that people got more hardline, more
factionalized. The African-Americans broke off to be part of the Black Power
Movement. And people that thought the SDS wasn’t getting through enough, broke
off and started playing around with weapons and explosives in The Weather
Underground. And my one complaint about The Weather Underground documentary is
it doesn’t really explore whether or not some of the people involved in The
Weather Underground from the get-go were undercover FBI agents. What better way
to discredit an entire anti-war movement than to have a small group of people
that the media can brand terrorists and then turn not just the entire anti-war
movement but the very idea of opposing the Vietnam War as being some type of
sympathy with terrorists or something.

            You’ll
notice they try to do that with the environmental movement, too. Whenever
somebody from the ALF or whoever burns down a vivisection lab or a spanking-new
ski lodge near Vail or something, they try to call all environmental activists
‘eco-terrorists’. Or as soon as the window at Starbucks broke at the Seattle
protest, that was the big news on CNN instead of the fact that the Teamsters
and nurse’s unions and airline pilots’ unions was all siding with the
protestors and everyone was marching peacefully, and that the WTO was the
problem, not somebody who broke the window of a poor, innocent Starbucks.

 

How have you avoided,
in your career, being labeled a terrorist?

 

Oh, I haven’t. I mean, people like Al Gore’s wife Tipper
tried [to portray] me as some kind of child killer because there was a Dead Kennedys
song called “I Kill Children.” And they took the lyrics slightly out of context
and then had a field day with that. And of course the religious right TV
programs even claimed we were devil worshipers and blasphemers because of “In
God We Trust, Inc.”

 

They’re not even
listening.

 

No. You label your own critics blasphemers and then you
kinda sidetrack the fact that “In God We Trust, Inc.” was aimed at religion for
profit, not necessarily religion itself.

 

When Tipper did that,
it was 10-15 years ago?

 

Um, the PMRC first reared their ugly, society-lady heads in
1985. And Tipper’s husband, the Senator named Al Gore, who everybody thinks is
some kind of saint now, used a committee that had nothing to do with this area,
to stage a hearing on evil music. And he called his own wife and her buddy,
James Baker’s wife Susan, as his first expert witnesses. And then Tipper and
Susan ushered in some more people they called expert witnesses and it turned
out to be a parade of religious right nutjobs.

 

Who you’d think
they’d be Al and Tipper’s enemies…

 

That was one thing that was pretty well-documented, although
not by straight media, was that the Parents’ Music Resource
Center was working
hand-in-hand with the nastiest forces in the religious right from the get-go. Susan Baker was on the board of
directors of Focus on the Family. They also had a direct line to Jerry Falwell
and another one to Pat Robertson, as well as being able to tap into those
people’s networks of bigots in individual towns to try and get shows shut down
and, in my case, musicians busted.

 

What I actually meant
when I asked about being labeled a terrorist was recently-like have you
appeared on a no-fly list or anything like that.

 

Uh, thankfully not. Not a no-fly list, no. Having a
European-Caucasian legal name [Eric Reed Boucher] on my birth certificate
hasn’t hurt. There’s no way I’d ever legally change my name to Jello Biafra.
I’d have a lot more explaining to do if I got pulled over by the cops or
something. Although, ironically, a couple times I’ve been waved through customs
with a smile, coming in to Canada, because the customs officer recognized
me-“Oh, how you doin’? Come on in!”

 

Didn’t you play a
Canadian customs officer-

 

Yeah, that was in a movie called Highway 61.

 

One of my favorite
movies!

 

The ironic part is, even though it was shot in Toronto, it was supposed
to take place on the American side of the border, where I myself got busted in
customs on the Canadian side of the
border as an 18-year-old! They found a joint in our car-we were pre-punk
hippies, and all. I took the rap ‘cause my friend was underage and I didn’t
want his family to find out we got nailed for trying to bring a small amount of
weed into Canada.
But their drug laws are a little more humane than what we have now. I just
spent a night in jail and then was fined a hundred bucks the next day, which
they reduced to ninety because of my night in jail. And my only two jailmates
were an aboriginal guy that just kinda smiled and laughed and stared a lot, and
this hot-headed dude that said he was in for going on a grand theft auto spree,
and then they finally caught him when he was taxiing a stolen plane down a
runway. He said he was considering joining the military because he thought it
would give him some discipline.

            Then the
next day, the court appearance was even funnier. Here was this stern judge, in
old semi-medieval robes ‘cause of course Canada’s a part of the British Commonwealth. And there’s a picture of the Queen
behind him. First up was kind of a dumpy older woman who was charged with petty
theft and had a big scowl on her face. And then the next one was these
unrepentant-looking teenagers who were charged with all kinds of vandalism and stuff over a one-night spree, including
something to do with sabotaging motorboat motors. You could tell the mom, one
of them, was like, ‘I don’t know what to do with these kids!’ And the kids were just kind of amused by the whole thing. And
I had to not laugh because I was up next!

 

You’ve always struck
me as pretty fearless-my brother-in-law was the first guy to play your spoken
word albums for me, and I always thought, This
guy has balls.

 

I’m not sure I’d quite put it that way. I do-I am really
grateful, blown away actually, that anybody would still be interested in
anything I do, at my age. But it also applies kind of a positive pressure, not
fear, but pressure, that if I’m gonna keep doing new stuff, that it better be
good. It better be something that I, the anal music fan, whatever, wanna go
see. And the content of the spoken word shows also needs to be good. And as
best as I or any human being can do, try to make it accurate.

That also means that I’m very
reluctant to quote bloggers in the spoken word shows. I mean, it’s one thing to
enjoy fellow ranters who already agree with me, but there’s a difference
between ranting and actually being the journalist who does the research. What
scares me about this is some people who are completely turned off the corporate
media because of how propagandized and stupid it is, and are stupid of ‘all
assholes, all the time’ all over the news, automatically believe a blog. And
ex-girlfriend at one time put up one about how wicked and evil I was, and made
some pretty wild allegations in there that weren’t true. And there was all the
parrots, emailing in, including somebody from a long-running East Coast punk
zine, you know, saying ‘Oh yeah, god what a terrible person, on this is so
awful, oh this is bad’ and then nobody questioning it. And then Klaus Flouride, the old Dead Kennedys bass player,
tried the same thing. And there was some more parrots chiming in. With that one, I figured ‘Okay, I don’t like to wade
into this small-town, henpecking, gossipy bullshit, but I gotta set the record
clear on this one’, so I wrote about three sentences in and that was that. [The
parrots said] ‘Oh, okay. Now I see the other side.’ But I kept thinking, Jesus,
a lot of the people writing in are intelligent people, that are just not using
their noggins. There’s plenty of intelligent people who don’t always show a lot
of wisdom.

And where this leads is, more and
more newspapers and magazines that pay journalists are going under-and most
blogs, even Huffington Post, are
volunteer labor. I guess Arianna Huffington, who already had a lot of money,
may be the only one except for paid assistants to her who’s making any money
off the Huffington Post. I’m not
saying that the only journalism worth believing is when people are paid-no. But
I do worry what happens when there aren’t enough outlets left who can afford to
pay really good, muckraking reporters a living wage to research a story for six
months or even one or two years before they report something that’s really
important and are willing to basically deal with dynamite in order to do it. It’s
not the same as just blogging after you get home from work. To keep journalism
alive and believable, there has to be somebody that can actually do the work.

            There’s
nothing wrong with writing for free-I had a whole spoken word album called Become the Media. And the fact that more
and more people are becoming the media is great, but that just means we have to
keep our bullshit detectors cranked up to 11. Don’t just question Fox and CNN;
question bloggers, too. ‘Cause sometimes-I mean, there’s been several times
over the past 10 or 15 years that reports of my death have gone viral and all
kinds of people who should know better started believing it. I had to say,
‘Wait a minute-I looked for the bullet holes in the shower, and I couldn’t find
the blood or anything. So as far as I know, I’m not dead.

 

I’ll be happy to
report that.

 

There you go. But you never know. By the time you actually
report it, you might find something else going viral on the Internet. After
all, if the Internet says it, it must be true. Right? Wrong.

            There
apparently is also somebody on Facebook claiming they’re me, and at one point
there were two dozen Jello Biafra MySpace addresses and none of them were mine.
And that was dwarfed by the number
for [Alternative Tentacles artist] Wesley Willis.

 

 

[Photo via JelloBiafra.org]

 

 

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