"Nobody has done more to disrespect and exploit the innocent people who died on Sept. 11th and piss on their graves than George Bush." —Jello Biafra, In the Grip of Official Treason
Whether backed by a loud band or all by himself on a microphone, Jello Biafra, 49, has raised hell since the Carter years, taking aim mostly at government corruption and fraud, global violence, blatant and indirect censorship, and commercialization of the media.
Best known, perhaps, as the former lead singer for seminal San Francisco hardcore punk band The Dead Kennedys — one of the most significant U.S. punk bands in the early '80s — Biafra made his mark in recent years as a spoken-word (or "shouted-word") performer and commentator. After the Kennedys' break-up in 1987, he threw himself into his own independent record label, Alternative Tentacles. Through the '90s and into the 2000s, he has collaborated with various American punk/alternative rock veterans, dodged lawsuits from his former bandmates, and traveled across the country doing spoken-word performances.
Biafra's recently-released spoken word album — a three-disc, 30-track collection titled In the Grip of Official Treason — takes a mean swipe at the Bush crowd, the Iraq war, the tragedy in New Orleans after Katrina, and the shaky state of affairs in Washington and on TV news, junk mail, Gov. Schwarzenegger, election fraud, and electronic voting, among other issues. Biafra brings his full bag of rants and comments to Cumberland's on Tues. May 8. He took a few moments to speak with City Paper by telephone from California last week:
CITY PAPER: Your new album touches on the events in the in the Middle East and the Bush administration's handling of the situations, as well as other current events. As you prepare for these spoken-word performances, how do the most recent events in the news — such as the Alberto Gonzales testimony or the late Pat Tillman's family speaking to Congress — affect or distract from your plans?
JELLO BIAFRA: It all depends on what's going down, or if I can catch wind of something local that I can weave into my show that I can at least make one of my snide jokes about. I don't know if I'm going to go into Gonzales ... I'm definitely not going to go into Tillman. I [recently] made Pat Tillman jokes in Arizona. Otherwise, the moral of that story is don't enlist in the military in the first place.
CP: That Tillman situation seems to further illustrate how far some military and government officials will go to distort the truth.
JB: Yeah, military recruiters now have been caught lying to teenagers, claiming the Iraq war is over so they won't get shipped out ... claiming that if they don't enlist ... they'll be drafted and sent to Iraq and the only way out is if they sign up. Things like that. And the sad thing with Tillman — and so many others — is that he signed up with a sincere desire to serve his country and wound up being ground and served by his country.
CP: It can be confusing trying to follow the serious news and figuring out who distorts the news and facts.
JB: I think that the corporate-owned mass media, who people believe to be the whole truth and nothing but the truth, deliberately leaving out important parts of the story — or forgetting to report an important story altogether — is the worst form of censorship going on today. Sure, what happened to Pat Tillman is a scandal, and many, many soldiers get killed by friendly fire in any war. But it's a great way to keep people's focus away from things like Guantanamo Bay. Let alone the Military Commissions Act, which snuck through Congress last fall. It's sort of like a cross between the Patriot Act and the Third Reich [signed into law by President Bush in Oct. 2006, the act has been criticized by those who assert that its wording makes possible the permanent detention and torture of anyone based solely on the decision of the President]. It says that now, even American citizens can be detained for any length of time and never see any evidence brought against them ... and not only is torture legal now, but all those people who did all those horrible things in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and who-knows-what in Afghanistan are now pardoned and given immunity. Isn't this what we entered World War II to stop the Nazis from doing? As far as I'm concerned, anyone who voted "yes" for the Military Commissions Act is no better than a fucking Nazi — and several Democrats voted for it. These people are not our friends.
CP: Maybe this says something about the state of leadership in the Democratic Party, or the lack of it...
JB: Well, I've said for years that we've basically become a one-party state masquerading as a two-party where the Republicans stand for greed, corruption, bigotry, pollution, and war and the Democratic hierarchy stands for pretending to feel guilty about the greed, corruption, bigotry, pollution, and war. In the end, it's all business as usual. Obama has positioned himself as being against the war, but he's also turned around and said we need to leave some of our troops in that country, whether the Iraqis want us there or not. We're just carrying on like a bunch of pirates and the Iraqis know this.
CP: Recently, many Americans were surprised to hear some news reports about the high number of private military companies, such as Blackwater, in Iraq and the Middle East.
JB: They're one of several working in Iraq. There are at least as many mercenaries working in Iraq as there are Coalition troops. What's even more shocking is that because they're a private entity, they're accountable to no law — not our military code of conduct and not Iraqi law, because we wrote all the Iraqi laws before we pretended to turn the government back over to the Iraqis. What's also scary is that Blackwater security was brought into New Orleans after Katrina and kicked people out of their own apartments and stole them to set up their own offices, according to an article in The Nation. Guess who had a meeting with them in January to discuss privatizing some of the traditional duties of the National Guard? Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. If there's another riot in L.A. and Blackwater's in charge, they're gonna do what they do in Iraq: shoot first and ask questions later. This terrifies the hell out me.
CP: Are you disturbed more by the indifference the American public seems to have about shocking news like that, or by the fact that government is even implementing these kinds of things?
JB: Boy, it's hard to pick and choose on that one! I don't think the American public is as indifferent as the corporate media would like to have us believe. Their own polls come in again and again that we're inching up to three-quarters of the country opposed to the Iraq war. I think part of it traces back to the corporate news choosing not to report the most crucial parts of the story. Why worry about torture being legalized in the U.S. when you can sit on the edge of your chairs wondering who fathered Anna Nicole's baby?
CP: CNN tries to out-Fox Fox News with an almost MTV-style of delivery.
JB: Yeah, and when you have interlocking boards of directors of global corporations who want to clamp down on everybody so they do nothing but shock, this is the kind of manufactured news you're gonna get.
CP: Is there a fickleness or short attention span on the voters' part?
JB: What I try to combat more is people who are so fed up with all this they don't bother to vote at all. In the 2004 election, slightly over 50 percent of eligible voters turned out — and they called that an unusually high turn-out. In other democracies, it would be considered a disastrous failure. The reason so few people vote is that they get discouraged and feel they have no choice and there's nothing in it for them, So what I stress is the importance of showing up and voting for local elections. It sure as hell matters who's the mayor and who's on the local commissions and school boards. I stopped voting for years because I was disgusted by the lack of choices. People like Frank Zappa, among others, talked me back into it, pointing out the importance of local action. I quickly discovered how much fun it could be voting down baseball stadiums. Public referendums are a privilege that are kind of unique to the U.S. I don't think they have them in Canada and European countries.
CP: We just had our first televised presidential debate this week — and it's very early out from election day. You touch on the charges of election fraud on the new album, not just for the 2000 election, but for Bush's re-election in 2004 ...
JB: He wasn't re-elected! Let's get this out of our minds right now. He managed to steal the office twice. Look, I think the change of heart in a lot of Americans has to do with people taking it upon themselves to become the media and just talk to people they know about just how crazy and stupid the Bush agenda is. You know, three-quarters of the country wasn't turned against the war by CBS News or MTV — it was us. And the only thing standing in the way of more Guantanamo Bays and Abu Ghraibs opening in the back of a Wal-Mart near you is us, the American people.
CP: Your performances and recordings, as edgy as they are, seem to present ideas as a solution rather than simple trouble-making, which many have accused you of through the years.
JB: Oh, but I do stir up trouble! If I'm stirring up trouble for people illegally occupying the White House and looting the country and turning it into a Disney-fied Reich or whatever, then somebody's gotta do it, I don't mind spreading positive disease.