No Holiday in the Head of Frankenchrist: THE LIFE OF JELLO BIAFRA

Jello Biafra (born Eric Reed Boucher; June 17, 1958) is the former lead singer and songwriter for San Francisco punk rock band Dead Kennedys, and is currently a musician and spoken word artist. After he left the Dead Kennedys, he took over the influential independent record label Alternative Tentacles, which he had co-founded in 1979 with Dead Kennedys bandmate East Bay Ray. Although now focused primarily on spoken word, he has continued as a musician in numerous collaborations.

avatar_56bae81b5289_512Politically, Biafra is a member of the Green Party of the United States and actively supports various political causes. He ran for the party’s Presidential nomination in 2000, finishing second to Ralph Nader. He is a staunch believer in a free society, who utilizes shock value and advocates direct action and pranksterism in the name of political causes. Biafra is known to use absurdist media tactics, in the leftist tradition of the Yippies, to highlight issues of civil rights and social justice.

Eric Boucher was born in Boulder, Colorado, the son of Virginia (née Parker), a librarian, and Stanley Wayne Boucher, a psychiatric social worker and poet.  He also had a sister, Julie J. Boucher, the Associate Director of the Library Research Service at the Colorado State Library (who died in a mountain-climbing accident on October 12, 1996). As a child, Eric Boucher developed an interest in international politics that was encouraged by his parents. An avid news watcher, one of his earliest memories was of the John F. Kennedy assassination. Biafra says he has been a fan of rock music since first hearing it in 1965, when his parents accidentally tuned into a rock radio station.

He began his career in music in January 1977 as a roadie for the punk rock band The Ravers (who later changed their name to The Nails), soon joining his friend John Greenway in a band called The Healers. The Healers became infamous locally for their mainly improvised lyrics and avant garde music. In the autumn of that year, he began attending the University of California, Santa Cruz.
art038-dead-kennedys-posterIn June 1978, he responded to an advertisement placed in a store by guitarist East Bay Ray, stating “Guitarist wants to form punk band”, and together they formed the Dead Kennedys. He began performing with the band under the stage name Occupant, but soon began to use his current stage name, a combination of the brand name Jell-O and the short-lived African state Biafra. Biafra wrote the band’s lyrics, most of which were political in nature and displayed a sardonic, sometimes absurdist, sense of humor despite their serious subject matter. In the tradition of UK anarcho-punk bands like Crass, the Dead Kennedys were one of the first US punk bands to write politically themed songs. The lyrics Biafra wrote helped popularize the use of humorous lyrics in hardcore. Biafra cites Joey Ramone as the inspiration for his use of humor in his songs (as well as being the musician who made him interested in punk rock), noting in particular songs by The Ramones such as “Beat on the Brat” and “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”.

Biafra initially attempted to compose music on guitar, but his lack of experience on the instrument and his own admission of being “a fumbler with my hands” led Dead Kennedys bassist Klaus Flouride to suggest that Biafra simply sing the parts he envisioned to the band. Biafra sang his riffs and melodies into a tape recorder, which he brought to the band’s rehearsal and/or recording sessions. This later became a problem when the other members of the Dead Kennedys sued Biafra over royalties and publishing rights.  By all accounts, including his own, Biafra is not a conventionally skilled musician, though he and his collaborators (Joey Shithead of D.O.A. in particular) attest that he is a skilled composer and his work, particularly with the Dead Kennedys, is highly respected by punk-oriented critics and fans.

jello2Biafra’s first popular song was the first single by the Dead Kennedys, “California Über Alles”. The song, which spoofed California governor Jerry Brown, was the first of many political songs by the group and Biafra. The song’s popularity resulted in its being covered by other musicians, such as The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (who rewrote the lyrics to parody Pete Wilson), John Linnell of They Might Be Giants and Six Feet Under on their Graveyard Classics album of cover versions. Not long after, the Dead Kennedys had a second and bigger hit with “Holiday in Cambodia” from their debut album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. AllMusic cites this song as “possibly the most successful single of the American hardcore scene” and Biafra counts it as his personal favorite Dead Kennedy’s songs. Minor hits from the album included “Kill the Poor” (about potential abuse of the then-new neutron bomb) and a satirical cover of Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas”.

CALIFORNIA UBER ALLES by DEAD KENNEDYS

 

The Dead Kennedys received some controversy in the spring of 1981 over the single “Too Drunk to Fuck”. The song became a big hit in Britain, and the BBC feared that it would manage to be a big enough hit to appear among the top 30 songs on the national charts, requiring a mention on Top of the Pops. However, the single peaked at number 31 in the charts.

biafracropLater albums also contained memorable songs, but with less popularity than the earlier ones. The EP In God We Trust, Inc. contained the song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off!” as well as “We’ve Got A Bigger Problem Now”, a rewritten version of “California Über Alles” about Ronald Reagan. Punk musician and scholar Vic Bondi considers the latter song to be the song that “defined the lyrical agenda of much of hardcore music, and represented its break with punk”. The band’s most controversial album, Frankenchrist, brought with it the song “MTV Get Off the Air”, which accused MTV of promoting poor quality music and sedating the public. The album also contained a controversial poster by Swiss surrealist artist H. R. Giger entitled Penis Landscape.

The Dead Kennedys toured widely during their career, starting in the late 1970s. They began playing at San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens (their home base) and other Bay Area venues, later branching out to shows in southern Californian clubs (most notably the Whisky a Go Go), but eventually they moved to major clubs across the country, including CBGB in New York. Later, they played to larger audiences such as at the 1980 Bay Area Music Awards (where they played the notorious “Pull My Strings” for the only time), and headlined the 1983 Rock Against Reagan festival.

HOLIDAY IN CAMBODIA by DEAD KENNEDYS

 

On May 7, 1994, Punk Rock fans who believed Biafra was a “sell out” attacked him at the 924 Gilman Street club in Berkeley, California. Biafra claims that he was attacked by a man nicknamed Cretin, who crashed into him while moshing. The crash injured Biafra’s leg, causing an argument between the two men. During the argument, Cretin pushed Biafra to the floor and five or six friends of Cretin assaulted Biafra while he was down, yelling “Sellout rock star, kick him”, and attempting to pull out his hair. Biafra was later hospitalized with serious injuries. The attack derailed Biafra’s plans for both a Canadian spoken-word tour and an accompanying album, and the production of Pure Chewing Satisfaction was halted. However, Biafra returned to the Gilman club a few months after the incident to perform a spoken-word performance as an act of reconciliation with the club.

DKs-1Biafra has been a prominent figure of the Californian punk scene and was one of the third generation members of the San Francisco punk community. Many later hardcore bands have cited the Dead Kennedys as a major influence. Hardcore punk author Steven Blush describes Biafra as hardcore’s “biggest star” who was a “powerful presence whose political insurgence and rabid fandom made him the father figure of a burgeoning subculture [and an] inspirational force [who] could also be a real prick… Biafra was a visionary, incendiary [performer].”

After the Dead Kennedys disbanded, Biafra’s new songs were recorded with other bands, and he released only spoken word albums as solo projects. These collaborations had less popularity than Biafra’s earlier work. However, his song “That’s Progress”, originally recorded with D.O.A. for the album Last Scream of the Missing Neighbors, received considerable exposure when it appeared on the album Rock Against Bush, Vol. 1.

In April 1986, police officers raided his house in response to complaints by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). In June 1986, L.A. deputy city attorney Michael Guarino, working under City Attorney James Hahn, brought Biafra to trial in Los Angeles for distributing “harmful material to minors” in the Dead Kennedys album Frankenchrist. In actuality, the dispute was about neither the music nor the lyrics from the album, but rather the print of the H. R. Giger poster Landscape XX (Penis Landscape) included with the album. Biafra believes the trial was politically motivated; it was often reported that the PMRC took Biafra to court as a cost-effective way of sending a message out to other musicians with content considered offensive in their music.

Jello_Biafra_at_Fusion_Festival_2010Music author Reebee Garofalo argued that Biafra and Alternative Tentacles may have been targeted because the label was a “small, self-managed and self-supported company that could ill afford a protracted legal battle.” Facing the possible sentence of a year in jail and a $2000 fine, Biafra, Dirk Dirksen, and Suzanne Stefanac founded the No More Censorship Defense Fund, a benefit made up of several punk rock bands, to help pay for his legal fees, which neither he nor his record label could afford. The jury deadlocked 5 to 7 in favor of acquittal, prompting a mistrial; despite a motion to re-try the case, the judge ordered all charges dropped. The Dead Kennedys disbanded during the trial, in December 1986, due to the mounting legal costs; in the wake of their disbandment, Biafra made a career of his spoken word performances.

Biafra has a cameo role in the 1988 film Tapeheads. He plays an FBI agent who arrests the two protagonists (played by Tim Robbins and John Cusack). Whilst arresting them his character asks “Remember what we did to Jello Biafra?” lampooning the obscenity prosecution.

On March 25, 2005, Biafra appeared on the U.S. radio program This American Life, “Episode 285: Know Your Enemy”, which featured a phone call between Jello Biafra and Michael Guarino, the prosecutor in the Frankenchrist trial.

7e13111ceaf1c166298633c3c0cec716In October 1998, former members of the Dead Kennedys sued Biafra for nonpayment of royalties. According to Biafra, the suit resulted from his refusal to allow one of the band’s most well known singles, “Holiday in Cambodia”, to be used in a commercial for Levi’s Dockers; Biafra opposes Levi’s because they use unfair business practices and sweatshop labor. The three former members claimed that their motive had nothing to do with advertising, and that they had filed suit because Biafra had denied them royalties and failed to promote their albums. Biafra maintained that he had never denied them royalties, and that he himself had not even received royalties for rereleases of their albums or “posthumous” live albums which had been licensed to other labels by the Decay Music partnership. Decay Music denied this charge and have posted what they say are his cashed royalty checks. Biafra also complained about the songwriting credits in new reissues and archival live albums of songs that Biafra claims he composed himself to the entire band. In May 2000, a jury found Biafra liable for fraud and malice and ordered him to pay $200,000, including $20,000 in punitive damages, to the band members. After an appeal by Biafra’s lawyers, in June 2003, the California Court of Appeal unanimously upheld all the conditions of the 2000 verdict against Biafra and Alternative Tentacles.

In the early 1980s, Biafra collaborated with musicians Christian Lunch and Adrian Borland (of The Sound) for the synthpunk musical project The Witch Trials, releasing one self-titled EP in its lifetime.

prank2ajbj-300x207In 1988, Biafra, with Al Jourgensen and Paul Barker of the band Ministry, and Jeff Ward, formed Lard. The band became yet another side project for Ministry, with Biafra providing vocals and lyrics. According to a March 2009 interview with Jourgensen, he and Biafra are working on a new Lard album, which is being recorded in Jourgensen’s El Paso studio. While working on the film Terminal City Ricochet in 1989, Biafra did a song for the film’s soundtrack with D.O.A.. As a result, Biafra worked with D.O.A. on the album Last Scream of the Missing Neighbors. Biafra also worked with Nomeansno on the soundtrack, which led to their collaboration on the album The Sky Is Falling and I Want My Mommy the following year. Biafra also provided lyrics for the song “Biotech is Godzilla” for Sepultura’s 1993 album Chaos A.D..

FULL METAL JACKOFF by JELLBO BIAFRA WITH D.O.A.

 

In 1999, Biafra and other members of the anti-globalization movement protested the WTO Meeting of 1999 in Seattle. Along with other prominent West Coast musicians, he formed the short-lived band the No WTO Combo to help promote the movement’s cause. The band was originally scheduled to play during the protest, but the performance was canceled due to riots. The band performed a short set the following night at the Showbox in downtown Seattle (outside the designated area), along with the hiphop group Spearhead. No WTO Combo later released a CD of recordings from the concert, entitled Live from the Battle in Seattle.

Jello-Melvins-shAs of late 2005, Biafra was performing with the band The Melvins under the name “Jello Biafra and the Melvins”, though fans sometimes refer to them as “The Jelvins.” Together they have released two albums, and have been working on material for a third collaborative release, much of which was premiered live at two concerts at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco during an event called Biafra Five-O, commemorating Biafra’s 50th birthday, the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Dead Kennedys, and the beginning of legalized same-sex marriage in California. Biafra is also working with a new band known as Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, which includes Ralph Spight of Victims Family on guitar and Billy Gould of Faith No More on bass. This group debuted during Biafra Five-O.

In 2011, Biafra appeared in a singular concert event with an all-star cast of Southern musicians including members from Cowboy Mouth, Dash Rip Rock, Mojo Nixon and Down entitled, “Jello Biafra and the New Orleans Raunch & Soul All Stars” who performed an array of classic Soul covers to a packed house at the 12-Bar in New Orleans, Louisiana. He would later reunite with many of the same musicians during the Carnival season 2014 to revisit many of these classics at Siberia, New Orleans.

Alternative-TentaclesIn June 1979, Biafra co-founded the record label Alternative Tentacles, with which the Dead Kennedys released their first single, “California Über Alles”. The label was created to allow the band to release albums without having to deal with pressure from major labels to change their music (although the major labels were not willing to sign the band due to their songs being deemed too controversial). After dealing with Cherry Red in the UK and IRS Records in the US for their first album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, the band released all later albums (and later pressings of Fresh Fruit) on Alternative Tentacles (with the exception of live albums released after the band’s break-up, which the other band members compiled from recordings in the band partnership’s vaults without Biafra’s input or endorsement)[citation needed]. Biafra has been the owner of the company ever since its founding, though he does not receive a salary for his position (Biafra has referred to his position in the company as “absentee thoughtlord”).

JESUS WAS A TERRORIST by JELLO BIAFRA WITH NOMEANSNO

 

Biafra is an ardent collector of unusual vinyl records of all kinds, from 1950s and 1960s ethno-pop recordings by the likes of Les Baxter and Esquivel to vanity pressings that have circulated regionally, to German crooner Heino; he cites his always growing collection as one of his biggest musical influences. In 1993 he gave an interview to RE/Search Publications for their second Incredibly Strange Music book focusing primarily on these records. His heavy interest in such recordings (often categorized as outsider music) eventually led to his discovery of the prolific (and schizophrenic) singer/songwriter/artist Wesley Willis, whom he signed to Alternative Tentacles in 1994, preceding Willis’ major label deal with American Recordings. His collection grew so large that on October 1, 2005, Biafra donated a portion of his collection to an annual yard sale co-promoted by Alternative Tentacles and held at their warehouse in Emeryville, California.

In 2006, along with Alternative Tentacles employee and The Frisk lead singer Jesse Luscious, Biafra began co-hosting The Alternative Tentacles Batcast, a downloadable podcast hosted by alternativetentacles.com. The show primarily focuses on interviews with artists and bands that are currently signed to the Alternative Tentacles label, although there are also occasional episodes where Biafra devoted the show to answering fan questions.

Biafra was an anarchist in the 1980s, but has shifted away from his former anti-government views. In a 2012 interview, Biafra said “I’m very pro-tax as long as it goes for the right things. I don’t mind paying more money as long as it’s going to provide shelter for people sleeping in the street or getting the schools getting fixed back up, getting the infrastructure up to the standards of other countries, including a high speed rail system. I’m totally down with that.”

il_570xN.423312581_hazgIn the autumn of 1979, Biafra ran for mayor of San Francisco, using the Jell-O ad campaign catchphrase, “There’s always room for Jello”, as his campaign slogan. Having entered the race before creating a campaign platform, Biafra later wrote his platform on a napkin while attending a Pere Ubu concert where Dead Kennedys drummer Ted told Biafra, “Biafra, you have such a big mouth that you should run for Mayor.” As he campaigned, Biafra wore campaign T-shirts from his opponent Quentin Kopp’s previous campaign and at one point vacuumed leaves off the front lawn of another opponent, current U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, to mock her publicity stunt of sweeping streets in downtown San Francisco for a few hours. He also made a whistlestop campaign tour along the BART line. Supporters committed equally odd actions; two well known signs held by supporters said “If he doesn’t win I’ll kill myself” and “What if he does win?”

In San Francisco any individual could legally run for mayor if a petition was signed by 1500 people or if $1500 was paid. Biafra paid $900 and got signatures over time and eventually became a legal candidate, meaning he received statements put in voters’ pamphlets and equal news coverage.

JELLO BIAFRA VERSUS TIPPER GORE

 

His platform included unconventional points such as forcing businessmen to wear clown suits within city limits, erecting statues of Dan White (who assassinated Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978) all over town and allowing the parks department to sell eggs and tomatoes with which people could pelt them, hiring out of job workers, due to a tax initiative, to become pan handlers in wealthy neighborhoods (one being where Dianne Feinstein lives), and a citywide ban on cars (although the latter point was not considered completely outlandish by many voters at the time, as the city was suffering from serious pollution). Biafra has expressed irritation that these parts of his platform attained such notoriety, preferring instead to be remembered for serious proposals such as legalizing squatting in vacant, tax-delinquent buildings and requiring police officers to keep their jobs by running for election voted by the people of the neighborhoods they patrol.

He finished fourth out of a field of ten, receiving 3.79% of the vote (6,591 votes); the election ended in a runoff that did not involve him (Feinstein was declared the winner).

JelloBiafra560ElizabethSloan.jpg.jpgIn 2000, the New York State Green Party drafted Biafra as a candidate for the Green Party presidential nomination, and a few supporters were elected to the party’s nominating convention in Denver, Colorado. Biafra chose death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal as his running mate. The party overwhelmingly chose Ralph Nader as the presidential candidate with 295 of the 319 delegate votes. Biafra received 10 votes.

Biafra, along with a camera crew (dubbed by Biafra as “The Camcorder Truth Jihad”), later reported for the Independent Media Center at the Republican and Democratic conventions.

After losing the 2000 nomination, Jello became highly active in Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign, as well as in 2004 and 2008. During the 2008 campaign Jello played at rallies and answered questions for journalists in support of Ralph Nader. When gay rights activists accused Nader of costing Al Gore the 2000 election, Biafra reminded them that Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center wanted warning stickers on albums with homosexual content.

JELLO BIAFRA AND HIS RECORD COLLECTION

 

After Barack Obama won the general election, Jello wrote an open letter making suggestions on how to run his term as president. Biafra criticized Obama during his term, stating that “Obama even won the award for best advertising campaign of 2008.” Biafra dubbed Obama “Barackstar O’Bummer”. Biafra refused to support Obama in 2012. Biafra has stated that he feels that Obama continued many of George W. Bush’s policies, summarizing Obama’s policies as containing “worse and worse laws against human rights and more and more illegal unconstitutional spying.”

Inspired by Iggy Pop’s 60th birthday gig at the Warfield in San Francisco, Biafra laid plans for his own 50th birthday party and finally decided it was time to start a band of his own. Ten years before he had been attempting the same thing with the likes of guitarist Ralph Spight (Victims Family, Freak Accident, Hellworms) and drummer Jon Weiss (Sharkbait, Horsey). They had also previously worked with bassist Billy Gould (Faith No More) who was tapped for the new group. After cramming rehearsal for a month the four piece band known as Jello Biafra and the Axis Of Merry Evildoers took the stage in a sold-out two night stand at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall and subsequently spent the next 9 months in rehearsal for an album project. Before entering the studio guitarist Kimo Ball (Freak Accident, Carneyball Johnson, Mol Triffid, Griddle) was recruited and the resulting twin guitar attack took the groups sound to new, noisier heights. The quintet now known as Jello Biafra and The Guantanamo School of Medicine began recording tracks for the upcoming LP/CD “The Audacity Of Hype” slated for release in October 2009, produced by Biafra and engineered by Hip Hop legend and long time Jello co-conspirator Matt Kelley (Hieroglyphics, Tupac Shakur, Digital Underground, Victims Family) at Prairie Sun Recording in Cotati, CA and San Francisco’s Hyde Street Studios.

The band’s sound retains some of the spy-music-on-meth chaos of the Dead Kennedys while adding a healthy dose of Detroit style proto-punk mixed with layers of sonic guitar noise, and Weiss’ industrial excursions into metal percussion. Topically, the album explores how our forced Iraqnophobia and Homeland Insecurity continues to feed lawlessness at the top, such as in the song “The Terror of Tiny Town”, vs. a runaway police state and class war towards the bottom, for example in the songs “Three Strikes” and “Electronic Plantation”. “Clean As A Thistle” becomes more timely every day as “Family Values” blowhards get caught in sinful trysts, while album closer “I Won’t Give Up” offers an age of Obama anthem on how change comes from agitation from below, not glamor and soundbites from the top.

In 2010, Jon’s brother, Andrew Weiss (Rollins Band, Ween, Butthole Surfers), temporarily filled the bass position for live performances while Billy Gould took part in the Faith No More reunion tour.

The band’s second release, an EP titled Enhanced Methods of Questioning, was released on May 31, 2011. Controversy for the band arose after news was released of the band’s decision to play in Tel Aviv, Israel on 2 July 2011. Biafra received much criticism from the left and punk community in light of the artistic boycott put forward by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign in 2005. On the 29 June 2011, Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine announced that their controversial show in Tel Aviv, Israel, was cancelled.

THE BROWN LIPSTICK PARADE by JELLO BIAFRA AND THE GUANTANAMO SCHOOL OF MEDICINE

 

In 2012, the band, now officially including Andrew Weiss on bass and Paul Della Pelle on drums, entered the studio. The first song released from the session was “SHOCK-U-PY!”, a tribute to the Occupy movement, which was released in July 2012 on Bandcamp. That song will be featured on a single in fall 2012 and later on the band’s next full-length, White People and the Damage Done.