“I’m already on everybody’s shit list,” says confirmed night owl Jello Biafra after tossing down a late-afternoon lunch. “So what the hell, why not use my constitutional rights and my big mouth and cause as much trouble as I can, ’cause there’s no turning back anyway. Besides, this is what I like to do.”
That big mouth still issues its own mysterious tone and frequency — like a bizarro Casey Kasem, Biafra’s voice is a combination of drug dealer confidentiality and game-show-host bombast that doesn’t shift cadence whether it’s reflecting on childhood, quoting Morris the Cat, or relating a newfound enthusiasm for soul music.
Say what you like, but with as big a mouth as Biafra has, he can’t be accused of being all talk. The 45-year-old Boulder, Colorado native is the original Renaissance punk, a musician, pundit, activist, and prankster extraordinaire. He also has fostered the longest-running punk label ever, the East Bay’s Alternative Tentacles, which celebrates its 25th anniversary Halloween night at Slim’s with such friends and labelmates as the Bellrays, the Fleshies, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, Comets on Fire and, most importantly, Biafra’s latest musical project.
After all, the one thing he hasn’t done since the Dead Kennedys disbanded in 1986 — besides issue a signature line of gas masks or open his own nefarious, uninsured theme park — is release an album as satisfying as the Dead Kennedys’ ’85 classic Frankenchrist. Until now.
Never Breathe What You Can’t See, recorded with nutzoid metalers the Melvins, came together in part as a response to the infamously fractured post-breakup Dead Kennedys debacle — Biafra’s bandmates East Bay Ray, Klaus Flouride, and D.H. Peligro successfully sued him for unpaid royalties, a ruling finalized in July after years of ugly litigation and mudslinging. The result: an ongoing world tour of the “Dead Kennedys” without Biafra himself. Whatever the merits of the royalty case, consider the shrug East Bay Ray offers on DeadKennedys.com as he announces that the band has replaced Biafra in the frontman role with some guy named Jeff Penalty: “Basically, the band’s message is still the same — only the voice has changed.” Public Enemy should just dump Chuck D, then.
So, the DKs’ original voice is particularly compelled to mouth off again. Referring to the Kennedys-sans-Jello as “the Sha-Na-Na version,” Melvins leader Buzz Osbourne notes that “It became really obvious and amazing to us just how much Jello had to do with writing the Dead Kennedys’ material, because the songs that he would bring in just completely sounded like the Dead Kennedys.”
Indeed, Never Breathe detonates immediately with “Plethysmograph” — concerning a sort of polygraph machine for the penis — and rips through eight tracks of rebel sarcasm as acrid, nutty, and anthemic as the best of the Kennedys’ sometimes overstuffed albums. “McGruff the Crime Dog” is a nightmarish speculation about half the population spying on the other half in dog costumes, a new extreme of Philip K. Dick-ish weirdness even for the man who wrote “California über Alles.” “Yuppie Cadillac” slams SUV owners as sharply as “Police Truck” skewered Oakland’s finest, only it’s funnier. But the album’s most powerful moment is “Caped Crusader,” in which Biafra is absolutely creepy in the role of a religious fundamentalist, quavering lines written by both Mohammed Atta and John Ashcroft.
Biafra insists this is not a return to straight punk. “I prefer ‘disease rock,'” he says. “I’ve never returned to straight anything. The peer pressure when I got to San Francisco was not for every band to try and sound the same and try and be popular — it was for every band to sound different than each other.” Indeed, the Kennedys twisted ’60s surf and garage into something too frantic and massive to be recognized by any kind of purist. As for Jello and the Melvins, they retain the influences but sound sleek, heavy, and a touch psychedelic — not to mention scarier, at least to eardrums callused by the compounding of hardcore and metal that has occurred since the ’80s.
A fine Halloween show, then. Early this month the Melvins canceled two solid months of international tour dates (citing an illness in the band), but salvaged the Slim’s show, giving longtime Biafra fans and detractors alike another look at a severely polarizing figure, even for punk. Much of the still-prevalent anti-Jello invective goes beyond the Kennedys lawsuit fallout and suggests a pathological resentment of Biafra: After all, he’s a punk golden boy. Though Jello had an early experience with education that may have spoiled him for authority — “I found I’d been written up as a bad seed even in first grade, and I thought that teacher liked me” — he is punk’s valedictorian just the same: a controversaholic whose persona is more potent and uncompromising than anyone in the controversy business. Furthermore, besides heading one of the three most important original punk bands in the United States, he ran for mayor of SF at 21, stumped for president in the 2000 Green Party primary, and somehow parried a 1985 appearance before the Parents’ Music Resource Center (and a subsequent obscenity charge) into nationwide punditry. Then there are his six spoken-word albums, a full-blooded second artistic career. Considering all his achievements, it’s believable that Biafra is as methodical as he makes himself sound. Take, for example, his recollections of his first stabs at writing lyrics: “I thought, ‘What is it that nobody has done yet?'” he recalls. “Aha! What if the theatrical allure of Alice Cooper and his gallery of monsters was transferred to real life? Instead of vampires, you get Latin American torture chambers; instead of ax murderers, you get ax murderers in uniform in the form of the Oakland Police Department!'” That kind of this-is-my-life spiel might sound like pure hype from most artists, but Biafra has lived a vision of conspicuous rebellion and pseudovillainy that makes Henry Rollins’ parallel shtick seem like Bullwinkle villain Boris Badenov to Jello’s Vlad the Impaler.
“To the general public, he’s just this weird bogeyman who officially represented punk rock before the United States Congress in the 1980s,” says Johnny No Moniker, singer of Alternative Tentacles Pabst-punkers the Fleshies. “But to a dirtball kid who grew up in the Bay Area of the 1990s like me, Jello Biafra was like a force of nature.”
Musically speaking, Biafra’s ambitious scheming translates into some of the most deliberate-sounding songs ever written. “I don’t believe in subtlety,” he says. “I learned early that if I don’t want people asking me, ‘What’s that song about?,’ I should make it as blunt and graphic as hell. In this day and age of corporate media putting people to sleep, there ain’t nothing wrong with using your art to whack people over the head.”
Thus, classics such as “Soup Is Good Food,” “Buzzbomb,” and “Holiday in Cambodia” hit more powerfully than the kind of psychodrama and sketchy poetry that often substitutes, even in punk, for something to say. But Biafra’s post-Kennedys output sometimes feels so deliberate in concept that it comes off as more experimental than monumental, including the band Lard (an excursion into industrial music with Ministry) and Prairie Home Invasion, a country-roots project with Mojo Nixon.
But if Biafra’s output has anything to do with his input, we may be in store for stranger things yet. “It was only after a friend of mine began laying all these soul records on me, and the Bellrays hit town, that I finally decided I could like soul music,” he notes. “And so that’s opened up a whole new world. I’m not much into the sweet soul and the ballads, but there’s some really wild shit to be heard, both in soul and in funk.”
For those of us who can only handle so many signs of the apocalypse in our musical diets, there’s another Biafra/Melvins album slated for next year, before we’re treated to any buttery jams with George Clinton. If it’s anything like Never Breathe What You Can’t See, that’ll offer further proof that even as Biafra continues to radiate his tentacles, he’s as musically focused after a quarter-century as he was when he wrote “Holiday in Cambodia.”
“When I was a teenager in the early ’80s, I was equally in love with and horrified by him,” says fellow Tentacler Slim Cessna, who grew up Baptist in Biafra’s hometown. “I still feel this way.”