Photos by Raymond Ahner.
Jello Biafra, founder of seminal punk band Dead Kennedys and one of the most influential figures in the Bay Area music scene, burst into the spotlight in 1978 when he unleashed his quivering voice and biting social commentary on the masses with the release of “California Uber Alles,” followed by “Holiday in Cambodia,” on the band’s own label, Alternative Tentacles. His frantically dramatic and maniacal stage presence, coupled with the sardonic humor he used to convey the sheer truth of his words, solidified him as an instant punk rock legend. After four albums with Dead Kennedys, and subsequent collaborations on over a dozen more with bands like The Melvins and D.O.A., he is now three albums deep with his current band, Guantanamo School of Medicine. Known as much for his political perspectives as his outrageous stage antics, Jello is a sought-after speaker well-known for his spoken word art and revered for his notoriously tongue-in-cheek – but legitimate –1979 campaign for San Francisco mayor at age 21.
Just days away from his 60th birthday, Jello spoke with SF Sonic about the importance of voting in local elections, just how the 2016 presidential election was rigged, how the right could be on the verge of legally rewriting the Constitution, and how “staying mad” is the key to lasting idealism.
For his birthday, Jello put on a terrific show at the Great American Music Hall. The photos here are from that show.
SF Sonic: Let’s touch on a few salient social and political issues that are at the forefront at the moment. Police brutality is as rampant as it’s been since slavery. Women around the world are rising up in unprecedented numbers with the #metoo movement and others. What do you think is the most punk rock thing we could be doing in the face of the current political climate?
Jello Biafra: Well, I would say just staying engaged, and looking for ways you can help kick ass individually and/or collectively. I really hope the outrage over our gun culture, if you can call it a culture, continues now that a lot of the people who spearheaded March for Our Lives have graduated, or they’re just about to. My hope is that – as somebody told me when I was in school in the 1970s and got forced to do a speech in front of the entire school called, “Why Should I Respect the Law?,” saying, basically, now that Nixon was pardoned, why should I respect the law at all – a well-known criminal defense attorney was there and he just pulled me aside after and looked me in the eye and said, “Stay mad.” That wasn’t too hard in my case (laughs).
I’m very grateful that I can even get out on stage and play and anybody’s gonna be interested in what I do in this day and age. So, the fact that I’m able not only to stay mad, but actually survive off my bad attitude and big mouth – I’m very grateful to all the people who continue to stay interested…
“Staying mad” means five years or 10 years from now – not just five months or five days – you remember what brought you to the March for Our Lives, Black Lives Matter, Occupy or whatever. Don’t turn around and turn into Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, and go soft or go corrupt. Even Willie Brown started out idealistic. Even John Kerry started out idealistic. What the fuck happened? You gotta stay mad, in a way.
That doesn’t mean stay miserable.
SF Sonic: That’s a good distinction to make.
Biafra: What I’ve always tried to do is stay within what I’m calling “mad” in this interview, but also try and go as far as I can without being an asshole about it. And find a way to, by and large, live radically, but in a way that I can actually live with and live up to. Some of my harshest critics, back when Maximum Rock and Roll turned on me and attacked me, went completely the other direction within a year or two. One said, “Oh, I don’t care about that stuff anymore; I’m into swing music now.” And another one just completely rode this commercial pop punk wave and got completely obsessed with money and being a rock star and the kind of self-worship that we now associate with Donald Trump. And it’s like, yeah, well, I told you so. Me? Here I am, doing what I do, period.
Someone from one of the really great ’80s anarcho-hardcore punk bands from [the Bay Area], I ran into a few years ago and said, “What are you doing now?” And he’s a stock broker! When he saw the look on my face, he said, “I couldn’t take it anymore!” It doesn’t have to turn into that. It’s a lifelong exploration as times change. “How can I do what I wanna do but not make myself so miserable I wanna turn around and be the Flintstones?”
SF Sonic: San Francisco just had another round of elections. A lot of people still seem disenchanted and disillusioned with the voting process.
Biafra: Ballot initiatives are the reason to show up and fucking vote. I mean, that’s part of staying mad, right, is to pay attention to this kind of stuff… If you’re bummed that Bernie Sanders didn’t get in, what about the up-and-coming people who were inspired by that? What about the ballot initiatives like banning sugar and vaping devices and products to keep kids from getting hooked on RJ Reynolds’ crap in San Francisco? It passed. I mean, it may not survive a court fight, but not even $11M from RJ Reynolds could deter people from seeing through all those ads and voting to kick ’em out of town. I mean, I went on vote strike in the early ’80s, too, but then Frank Zappa, among other people, got me back into it. And one of first things that really got me hooked was the sheer delight I took in helping vote down sports stadiums…
This is why people gotta show up. This is how you hang on to rent control and give it sharper teeth in this area. San Francisco’s pretty good about showing up. Even though with the Bay Guardian, there’s only the occasional online election endorsement from [Tim] Redmond now, I’m really glad he’s still doing that – researching every ballot initiative and looking at the numbers and knowing where the bones are buried and everything else. And that’s the reason to vote. The smaller the office, the less attention it gets, and when cool people show up and vote, the more likely it is that people like us will get something closer to what we want, and change things brick-by-brick, from the ground up.
SF Sonic: Jello, you’ve dabbled in politics – there was your campaign for mayor of San Francisco in 1979 and then your bid for president on the Green Party ticket in 2000. I think there are a lot more people in San Francisco who would vote for you if you were to run for office again. Is that something you would ever consider doing?
Biafra: I’ve toyed in my mind with the idea of running against [Nancy] Pelosi… but I also realize that if I did that, I would have to lay the groundwork a year or two in advance and spend all my time knocking on doors and doing the actual grunt work required of someone who might actually rise to the level of being a competent congressperson. It would mean blowing up my band, possibly blowing up Alternative Tentacles, as well, just so I can put in the time and start building the skills and get to know people who would make a proper staff to keep me from being a doofus in the House of Representatives and stuff. So, I haven’t gone that far.
Plus, I’m registered Green, and there’s a Green Party guy, Barry Hermanson, who runs against Pelosi every election, so I always vote for him. But of course you won’t find his name on the ballot because of this kooky primary system we have, where only the final two candidates get to run in the Fall. And the main reason that the two big parties – [California] might as well be a one-party state masquerading as a two-party state – they ran that through to try and keep people like Barry Hermanson, Ralph Nader, and Bernie Sanders from being on the ballot in the fall at all. You only get two choices: corporate A or corporate B, and that’s all you’re gonna get. So, if two wingnuts or two obvious corporate gangsters are the only ones running in the fall, there’s no chance for an Independent or Green or Peace and Freedom Party, or somebody else that actually could run things, of getting in. They wipe them out in the primary. That’s the scam behind the California primary law.
SF Sonic: I wish you would run, Jello! I think we’re ready for a punk rock politico!
Biafra: Yeah, but that would be the end of the music, though. I can only do so many things. And I already spread myself too goddamn thin a lot of the time. “Jello, when are you gonna write your book?” I don’t have time to write a fucking book! Maybe when I’m 75!
SF Sonic: People want you to write a book because they want to know your perspective, explore your insights, learn from your life experiences. On that note, do you have any life lessons to impart as you approach 60?
Biafra: I think we’ve already been talking about that, in a way. I’m more on the Frank Zappa side of the fence, where he came right out and said he wanted his music to be remembered, but he didn’t care if anybody remembered him. That wasn’t the important part. And in my case, it spreads into the rest of my art. I’ve mainly gone back to rock the past 10 years, but there’s the spoken word stuff, and there’s my own collage art, my DJ’ing and the occasional movie acting… I do all kinds of things.
SF Sonic: Do you have any acting projects on the horizon?
Well, they just premiered An American in Texas in LA, and I have some hope for that. It’s an independent film shot in the writer/director’s hometown, a small town called Victoria, Texas. I play the mayor.
SF Sonic: Oh, really? (laughs) Perfect!
Biafra: You don’t see much of the mayor. It’s mainly kind of a coming-of-age, people trying to figure out who they are and spreading their wings as punk rockers, set in a little redneck town in Texas, right when George [H.W.] Bush evades Iraq. Obviously, it’s very personal to Anthony Pedone, the writer/director. The final cut is a little abstract for me, but I see this movie potentially as a really cool hybrid of SLC Punk and The Last Picture Show. So, hopefully it’s gonna get a wider release. And there’s a possible soundtrack in the works, as well, on Alternative Tentacles.
SF Sonic: So, we just had the mid-terms.
Biafra: Mid-terms? We haven’t had the mid-terms! Only a few states have had the primaries!
SF Sonic: Whatever the fuck election San Francisco just voted in. The primaries. What are some of the highlights for you?
Biafra: A real triumph for me was that a real nasty, corporate fuck-wit got voted out as the supervisor in my district. Jeff Sheehy, who was the lieutenant of a really nasty guy who’s now in the state senate named Scott Weiner – God, what a fitting last name he has. At least he’s not running for mayor this time, but we’re not out of danger yet. And [Sheehy’s] being replaced by Rafael Mandelman, who’s been running so long for that seat and even got the Bay Guardian endorsement back when they were our weekly lifeline, in their print edition. And he finally got in even though he had a fraction of the money. And Jeff Sheehy, the appointed supervisor appointed by [late San Francisco Mayor] Ed Lee, no less – that should be the first clue he needs to go – he’s going.
And there’s still hope, thanks to ranked-choice voting, that Mark Leno, who is far from perfect, but he’s a far better possibility for our mayor than London “Greed” –
SF Sonic: Did you just call [London Breed] London “Greed”?
Biafra: Yeah. I mean, she’s a total fucking machine. And she ain’t no Kamala Harris. She’s another one designed and built by Willie Brown to maintain business as usual, which of course means more aggressive gentrification, more ugly high-rises, more of San Francisco’s heart, blood, life, and soul being bulldozed out of town so more snooty little wannabe Gavin Newsoms and wannabe Travis Kalanicks can move in.”
SF Sonic: So, as we approach the mid-term elections, who are some other candidates that you want to warn people about or encourage people to vote for?
Biafra: Well, I don’t know how many local offices are going to be up in the fall because we did a bunch in the spring. But keep in mind who’s running even for things like state insurance commissioner – that’s an important one – state commissioner of education – that’s an important one – even secretary of state: that’s who runs the election. And that’s why the Tea Party crackpots and the Koch brothers have been trying to take over that office in state after state after state.
SF Sonic: What went wrong in 2016? And how is Trump still in the White House?
Biafra: We haven’t talked about what really was rigged about the 2016 election. Well, it was the Interstate Crosscheck Program, which has been exposed in a documentary called The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, directed by the same muckraking journalist who exposed how George W. and Katherine Harris rigged Florida and stole the 2000 election. Three of the last five presidential elections were rigged or stolen. And it wasn’t the kind of vote fraud where someone with a Latino last name might’ve voted twice. The real vote fraud goes on in a much more massive scale, which is why I don’t believe this hype about a so-called “blue wave” coming in the fall at all, unless a hell of a lot more people show up than they’re anticipating, to overcome the effect of this vote-rigging and the ballot bandits.
And the scam that tipped 2016 not just for Trump, but for all these crackpot Tea Party senators who were predicted to lose but got back in again just in time to put [Neil] Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, was the Interstate Crosscheck Program, which [Greg] Palast has exposed in the The Best Democracy Money Can Buy – which by now is probably streaming online somewhere; go to his website and you’ll find out. I’m hoping to stream it on Alternative Tentacles, but we haven’t gotten it yet. They may still be trying it in the theaters for a little bit longer.
The Interstate Crosscheck Program was concocted by one of the true evil geniuses of the modern neo-fascist Right: a guy named Kris Kobach. And yes, he’s the secretary of state of Kansas, so you think, well, old podunk state – who cares? Well, this guy, I think is even Oxford-educated, Ivy league, one of the big right-wing wunderkinds across the scene, and he’s an even more diabolically brilliant version of Karl Rove. Kobach is the one who wrote Arizona’s “Show Me Your Papers” laws a few years ago.
In the case of his Interstate Crosscheck Program, he got secretaries of state in 29 other states to all opt in and hand their entire voter database over to him. He dumps them all into one big voter database and then the Crosscheck program goes to work to look through all these names – millions of people in 29 states – and looks for names that match, and kicks them off the voter roles, claiming, oh, you’re the same person, you must’ve voted twice.
And the program was skewed to flag names like “Washington,” because three-quarters or more of the people named Washington are African American. And of course if your name is Jose Martinez, all 500 of you got kicked off the voter role in 29 states. And most people didn’t even know it because so many people vote by mail and vote absentee. So all this hype that black people didn’t show up for Hillary – my guess is they probably did, but they don’t even know their votes were thrown away.
And with this being so fucking blatant – the first version of the [documentary] ran before the 2016 election. I saw it and I thought, “Ohhh shit.” And it was right around that time Trump began claiming the election was rigged in order to further deflect any suspicion that it was actually rigged for him. I don’t wanna say rigged just for him – they rigged it for whoever that nominee was going to be.
But it also meant the downed ballots tipped all kinds of senate races, governor races, state legislature races. And keep in mind, there are 21 or more states now where there’s a Republican governor and Republican control of both houses of the state legislature – often not just Republican, but Tea Party control. And you’re seeing the carnage in places like Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas…. More people get kicked off the voter roll, unions gutted, polluters still run wild, etc. “We don’t want one Flint, Michigan, we want a million of ’em.”
And here’s the danger: If they’ve already got almost two dozen of these states, all they need, through Crosscheck and other vote-repealing and vote-suppression, is to get 26 states, and under our Constitution, the states can hold a new constitutional convention and rewrite the Constitution from fucking scratch. And if that happens, you’re gonna get people like Kris Kobach, his pal Mike Pence, the Koch brothers, the Scott Walkers and the others, rewriting it so suddenly women have no more reproductive rights, and no environmental protection law can be enacted if it violates somebody’s property rights under the new constitution.
That’s where the big picture lies. And people like the Koch brothers and the Coors beer family and other tycoons like that – they’re taking the long view, and this is what the long view is. They are diabolically patient. And they’ve already gotten way more of what they wanted than they ever dreamed possible. This is the real corporate coup, slow but sure. And the tank has been slowly but surely crushing us at least since Reagan, possibly even since Carter. Every once in a while they step on the gas, like after 9/11 and [the] 2016 [presidential election] and whatnot.
The only thing we’ve got in our favor is us. The kind of people power that brought down Milosevich, brought down Marcos and brought down the corporate fucks who were running the British Labor Party, that never met a laborer they didn’t hate – you know, the neo-liberal Tony Blairites – they got thrown out. And there’s all this hype coming form both countries that Jeremy Corbyn can’t win against [British PM Theresa] May, but he keeps winning. And he’s expanded the Labor Party base so there’s all these new people joining the Labor Party who are all young and kinda radical. They’ve found something they can actually vote for.
And of course, the corporate Democrats are scrambling like crazy right now to keep the kind of people somebody might actually vote for from winning these primaries so they can keep their up-and-coming versions of Nancy Pelosi and Bill Clinton humming along strongly. But it’s not always working anymore, is it? There’s Our Revolution, there’s Brand New Congress, there’s all these groups – maybe working too independently of each other, I don’t know.
Even the backlash that happened after the Parkland School massacre – a Tea Party crackpot governor who never met a gun whose barrel he didn’t wanna suck – Rick Scott – signed the first mild gun control law that Florida has seen in a generation or two or three. And a lot of it was pressure from organized teenagers who weren’t even old enough to vote yet. My hope is that they stay mad when they are old enough to vote, and keep throwing these motherfuckers out.
I’m for insurrection on three fronts: insurrection in the street, insurrection with the ballot box and insurrection with our wallets. The more we divorce ourselves from paying money for corporate products we don’t even need, the less we are a part of the problem.
And nobody can be as pure as the German snow on this, even the uber-vegans… But doing something is better than doing nothing. And the more you do, the more you wanna do. It’s like drugs, or tattoos.
Here’s a video from Punk Rock Romantics of Jello Biafra performing “California Uber Alles”: