Maybe you’ve heard the old conundrum: How does the guy who drives the snowplow get to work in the morning? Well, similarly, have you ever wondered where lefty know-it-alls like Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky and Jello Biafra start plowing through mounds of information to get to the juicy stuff for their books and political lectures?
“It comes from all over the place,” says Biafra (né plain ol’ Eric Boucher, born in Boulder, Colo., in 1958), former lead singer for the Ur-punk band Dead Kennedys and lately a sought-after spoken-word firebrand. “A lot of it is print. The great weakness is books, but I get flooded with periodicals and things people pull off the Internet for me, and sometimes personal stories as well, for more of a this-is-how-it-affects-real-people scenario. I’m always interested in those, and ever since there was a P.O. box on the back of a Dead Kennedys record, people seem to have felt compelled to write me really long letters telling me their life stories or the things that are on their mind that are important to them. Oftentimes, especially if they’re in the military, they have no idea that other people have no idea that certain things are going on. Things that are normal to them, facts that they know, have not gone beyond their network or even their base.”
So how does Biafra vet his information for factual accuracy? Does he believe that the facts themselves are partisan in nature?
“We all have inner biases, partisan or not,” he admits. “In the end, we all have to look in the mirror and realize we all believe what we want to believe, and so I will draw information from all kinds of different places, including the Wall Street Journal, but in the end I have to digest it and see if in my own mind it makes sense. I have left some mind-blowing revelations out of my shows when I just didn’t feel like the source was solid enough and I wasn’t convinced it was true.”
He runs down a couple of red-hot stories. “But I can’t use those as stated facts,” he says ruefully. “They might not even be true. I tell people this about the Internet, because that’s where a lot of people get the really wild stuff: Try and double-check as many of those things as you can. Even Noam Chomsky says that the first thing people should do with the information he gives out is to try to make sure it’s true and not automatically believe what he says. Or what Jello Biafra or Michael Moore or FOX News says. I do the best I can. I’m not perfect.”
Chomsky, not surprisingly, has a rigorous physical process for organizing information, spending hours a week clipping, filing, collating and colluding. How does Biafra keep reigns on the reams of reprints and Net-gleanings piling up in his in-basket?
“I have more and more of a physical process,” he insists, “but I doubt it’s as organized as [Chomsky’s]. I’m not as smart as he is, for one thing, and there’s this other decadent heathen musician side of me that also wants some quality time, so at the moment the stack of unfiled clippings is about six inches high and I’m not going to have time to deal with it before I go on the road again. One of my files is just an umbrella September 11th file. I started throwing everything from the attacks on the World Trade Center to the Patriot Act to the war in Iraq all into one box, and now that one’s about two-and-a-half feet tall. I don’t look forward to having to split that into another three-dozen files, but at some point I’m going to have to.” Biafra, who describes himself as the “absentee thoughtlord” of Alternative Tentacles, the record label he founded in 1979, says it’s increasingly difficult to keep the spoken-word and decadent-heathen-musician aspects of his career—insofar as he’s likely to call it a career—in workable balance. He’s collaborated with dozens of musicians on several albums, most recently the Melvins, who floated the idea of doing an all-Dead Kennedys-covers tour in response to what Biafra calls “the fraud-core going on with the dishonest people using the name.” (Biafra is currently appealing the decision in a lawsuit brought against him by his former bandmates seeking rights to the Dead Kennedys catalogue).
But mostly he has to turn would-be collaborators away. It’s usually them making the offers, he says, and seldom for reasons that interest him.
“There have been other people who wanted to do stuff, but it was quite clear they either only wanted to play formula punk, or they only thought that glomming on to me would make them a lot of easy money. It’s an ongoing battle, trying to balance all the different things I need to do and get done and work music back in.” At the suggestion of a friend, Biafra started giving spoken-word performances in 1986, the same year the Dead Kennedys broke up. Wary of calculating his cultish celebrity in terms of audience size and ticket sales, he nonetheless points out that such fame as he enjoys he at least won differently from celebrities seemingly famous just for being famous.
“The celebrity factor helps,” he admits, “but we need to dig a little deeper and decide what creates the celebrity factor in the first place. It ain’t because I’m cute. It ain’t because I won on American Idol or Survivor. It’s because I put out some cool music and was also willing to spew out some cool thoughts without music and willing to plunge into other adventures over the years that people have found interesting.”
Indeed. The shortest of Jello rap-sheets would need to include his infamous 1979 run for the mayorship of San Francisco (he finished fourth out of 10 candidates, with about 3.5 percent of the total vote—enough to help force a runoff), his high-profile stumping for Ralph Nader’s Green Party in 2000 (he wasn’t asked to participate this time around, but he says he voted for Nader to protest “all the mean-spirited hardball tactics the Democrats used to keep him off the ballots in so many states”) and his celebrated standoff with Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center over Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger’s poster insert for the Dead Kennedy’s album Frankenchrist.
If punk rock has a Scopes Monkey trial, it’s this one. Although obscenity charges against Biafra and four others were dismissed in 1987 after a three-week trial, Frankenchrist and other Alternative Tentacles releases were subsequently banned from several chain stores anyway—precisely the sort of de facto censorship Tipper and the PMRC had been banking on, he says.
Nearly 20 years and many times that number of anti-censorship spoken-word catharses later, it’s still a sore subject with Biafra. As notoriety goes, though, he suggests, there are worse ways to go about getting it than by sticking to one’s principles.
“That’s part of what makes me a celebrity,” he admits. “I didn’t do it through the commercial entertainment industry at all. I did it through hard work and unmitigated gall, as well as some pure dumb luck and knowing what to do with it.
“I’m very thankful that anybody even cares about what I do at all, that anyone would be interested in a new Jello Biafra music album as well as seeing me do the spoken-word shows. It also puts a lot of pressure on me to work harder and make sure I continue to do it right and turn out something that I, the picky fan, would want to hear or see. If it weren’t for all the people who dig what I do, I’d just be ranting and raving at the end of a bar stool before I passed out on the floor.”
Jello Biafra will rant and rave real proper-like on Saturday, Dec. 11, at the Wilma Theatre. Proceeds from the 8 PM performance (tickets are $10) will benefit The Ecology Center and the Native Forest Network.