Friday, November 8, 2013

Jello Biafra Still Going Strong After Dead Kennedys

Back in 1980's America, conformity was the order of the day. No, it was not quite like the 1950's. Probably, it was a pale imitation of that level of conformity. Still, there was a general consensus, seemingly, to not bring controversial, potentially divisive issues to the fore. So, the political climate was one of general congeniality. Again, my personal belief was that a lot of this was false, and people grew conveniently naive. That luxury has been stripped from us by very much the same spirit of the politics that the "Me decade" gave birth to, but that is a discussion for another time.

In the eighties, it seemed that the world felt more black and white. Oh, sure there were some political issues. But these were also not nearly so controversial, because the lines between good and bad seemed, at least on the surface, clearer. There was the anti-apartheid movement, and most people agreed that official racial segregation that was the official policy of the white minority government in South Africa needed to end. That the deeper questions of what America's foreign policy at the time towards the apartheid regime - in particular Reagan's "constructive engagement" policy, may itself have been a reflection of lingering racial attitudes within the United States, seems to have eluded many Americans.

Of course, those were also the days of the Cold War, which still lingered on. President Reagan assured us that the Soviet Union was the "evil empire", and most Americans believed it without question. The Soviets were in Afghanistan, suffering their own version of Vietnam, in a war that would hasten the collapse of the Soviet Union. Later in the decade, the Berlin Wall would fall, and revolutions throughout Eastern Europe spelled the end of the Cold War, and the beginning of what would be a more complicated world, less easily divided even by self-serving politicians as a struggle between good and bad, between black and white, between east and west.

Still, most Americans seemed satisfied with the politics in the background in the eighties. Reagan was, and still is, considered a great President by many, despite being a union buster, despite being engulfed in some serious controversies and scandals, particularly the Iran-Contragate scandal, despite starting the trend of giving huge tax breaks and incentives to the very rich and corporations, despite bringing a dangerous nationalism and sense of "American exceptionalism" that has since been proven detrimental to the nation's, and the world's, best interests. He reassured us that America's best days were ahead of us, and all we needed to do was keep dreaming heroic dreams. Most Americans were satisfied with this, and questioning these things was very unpopular.

Yet, some continued to do so. Former President Jimmy Carter, who lost the 1980 election to Reagan in the first place, warned of some of these things, as did his wife, Rosalyn. The Democrats cried foul as well, although that was the beginning of the era of the Democrats being virtually a nonfactor, and more a part of the problem, than the solution. There were some criticisms here and there elsewhere, as well. Some received quite a bit of press, such as Bruce Springsteen, who was a vocal critic of Reagan, and even demanded the Reagan and the Republicans stop playing "Born in the USA" for their political rallies.

But even those measures of opposition seem tame compared to Jello Biafra, back then the frontman of the Dead Kennedys. Here was a man, and a band, that personified rude, in your face, punk alternatives to conventional norms. Biafra's style in behavior and lyrics shocked many, and earned him some enemies. Of course, he certainly did not seem to mind. He actively took aim at members of the establishment, which included conventional, boring rock stars who seemed to encourage that national complacency.

Throughout the eighties, Biafra continued vicious, and often shocking, assaults on various people, including President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher, Sylvester Stallone and his movie characters that personified machismo, Tipper Gore (wife of future Vice-President Al Gore) and other members and supporters of the Parent Music Resource Center (PMRC), boring and overly safe rock stars such as Sammy Hagar, among others, as well as countless others along the way.

Sometimes, he seemed borderline paranoid, such as when he warned that potential reports of a suicide by any member of the Dead Kennedys would actually be a government conspiracy. Of course, Biafra always did have an undeniable flair for the dramatic.

Biafra shook things up, alright. And he did so loudly, crassly, and without apology. Yet, he was surprisingly well behaved when he needed to be, such as during television appearances in debate forum, where he would raise his hand and wait his turn before speaking. Once he did speak, of course, he unflinchingly went on the attack. On stage and off, he was full of what many cynics might suggest was piss and vinegar. But Biafra injected life not only to his band, the Dead Kennedys (who became kind of cult legends), but also to the punk scene in general, which itself had grown rather stagnant and formulaic. He shook things up, in the true spirit of punk.

Now, of course, we all know what happened next. Biafra and the Kennedys were dragged into court after the Frankenchrist album. they eventually won, but the court case was very costly, and likely was the main factor behind what happened next.

Like many bands, the Dead Kennedys broke up. Unlike most well known bands, there really does not appear to be an icicle's chance in hell that Biafra will ever have a reunion with his former bandmates in the Kennedys. There have been court dates between those members and Jello Biafra - quite a few of them. And the bad blood has lasted through the years, to the point that it has not dissipated.

Biafra remained active in the post-DK era. He continued on with his own record label, Alternative Tentacles. He remained politically active, in almost a shock jock capacity during his spoken word appearances (and albums). For that matter, he did not simply abandon the punk music scene, either. He did side projects with bands such as DOA, Nomeansno, LARD, with also a one-time punk collaboration with former members of Nirvana and Soundgarden, which came to be known as "The No WTO Combo", and later, the Melvins. He even did a country album with Mojo Nixon.

More recently, he has become the head of a new band that he has now released a few albums with. Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine have been together now for several years, and although their style differs greatly than the old Dead Kennedys, Biafra still brings that same intensity and energy that he always possessed. He has a crazed presence on stage, and injects life to any and every show that I know of, even though he is now well past fifty. And yes, he is still as active and outspoken as he ever was politically, even though the lyrics to his music these days are not always as crass as they once were. Hell, they aren't even as political as they systematically used to be, although they always have some depth and serious thinking to them.

As for the Dead Kennedys? Well, life existed for them after Jello Biafra, although in a much more limited way. They reunited in 2001, and have since had numerous lead singers. But none of them have the same stage presence that Biafra once brought to the band. For that matter, they have not released any new music, really, in the post-Biafra era. They have lived on the past, and perhaps, in so doing, have justified Biafra's rather dismissive characterizations of them. He considers them a de facto commercial band these days. Just a bunch of businessmen. To that end, he refers to them as the DK Kennedys, making them sound almost like some boys band, or perhaps some fashionable clothes line, rather than a punk band that used to be considered very dangerous. I have seen them a few times, and they just don't have much life to them without Biafra, frankly. Frankly, they are like a shadow of what they used to be as a band.

I have wanted Biafra and his new band, who came out with a great album earlier this year, to come around to the East Coast, but they apparently are not doing it this time around. Jello still has a ton of energy, and none of the old intensity has been lost during live performances, believe me! It is incredible, just how much he commands the stage, even though he is a middle aged man with a considerable gut these days. He (and any band he is with - I have seen him with both the Melvins and the Guantanamo School of Medicine) - are one of the few bands that I generally am willing to drop everything to go see. After all, he was one of the true honest voices in an age when artificiality and conformity reigned supreme.

I have not always agreed with everything that he has to say. But at the same token, I always, always respect him for saying it, and never backing away, or sugar coating things. He tells it the way that he sees it, and that is more than admirable. Plus, much of what he has said has been proven true. Just listen to him on the "Battle in Seattle", by the NO WTO Combo, during the 1999 Seattle protests. Read his lyrics, and listen to his spoken word material. he might not be right about everything, and he can be extreme and overly dramatic in his delivery. But much of what he has said has proven to be true. I remember feeling myself almost as a member of the Democrats when growing up. He suggested that the two major parties were essentially one and the same, two different wings of the same party. It almost offended me back then. But, over time, there has certainly been proof of this simple, if tragic, truth. What he says, and how he says it, might not be pretty. But again, the truth rarely is. Especially these days.

So, why suddenly write about this subject, all of a sudden. Well, a recent article, which got me thinking about it. Here is that article about them from just a few days ago as I write this:

"Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra to perform in Long Beach with new band" by Richard Guzman, Press-Telegram  11/05/13

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