Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Meet Yr Idols: Jello Biafra

Written by Matt Dineen
DeadKennedys.JPG“All religions make me sick,” I declared defiantly, standing in front of my tenth grade English class. Mr. Joyce had assigned us to write a short speech about a song we found meaningful or moving, read the speech aloud, and then play the song we chose for the class. Holding my speech with both hands, I opened with this shocking line, and a couple of other controversial lyrics, by my favorite band Dead Kennedys. In the speech, I outlined why they were one of the most revolutionary punk rock bands, both musically and politically, while giving special props to their eccentric singer, Jello Biafra. I then proceeded to play one of their longest, and most powerful, songs: “Riot.”

Jello.jpg“All religions make me sick.” I declared defiantly, standing in front of my tenth grade English class. Mr. Joyce had assigned us to write a short speech about a song we found meaningful or moving, read the speech aloud, and then play the song we chose for the class. Holding my speech with both hands, I opened with this shocking line, and a couple of other controversial lyrics, by my favorite band Dead Kennedys. In the speech, I outlined why they were one of the most revolutionary punk rock bands, both musically and politically, while giving special props to their eccentric singer, Jello Biafra. I then proceeded to play one of their longest, and most powerful, songs: “Riot.”

The song ended and Mr. Joyce was into it. “Yeeeah…I like that. ‘Tomorrow you’re homeless, tonight it’s a blast,’” quoting the song’s haunting, post-riot outro.

This was the first of three projects I did in high school highlighting the legacy of Dead Kennedys and their frontman. In a nearly identical assignment the following year, I chose the more blatantly political track, “Stars and Stripes of Corruption,” this time passing out lyric sheets and inciting my fellow classmates to “bring it all down.” Finally, in my senior year writing and research class, I wrote a biographical paper on Jello Biafra. In addition to describing his lead role in Dead Kennedys, my paper told the story of his 1979 run for mayor of San Francisco in which he proposed measures like a city-wide maximum wage and an ordinance that would require businessmen to wear clown suits to the office. In her feedback, Mrs. Masterson seemed entertained by my subject’s escapades suggesting that Jello “sounds like a modern-day Don Quixote!”

Dead Kennedys disbanded in the mid-1980s after a bitter trial in which they fought the censorship crusade of Tipper Gore and the Parental Music Resource Center (PMRC). The accompanying poster to the band’s Frankenchrist  record, which featured the surrealist H.R. Geiger’s “Penis Landscape,” was deemed “harmful to minors.” Alternative Tentacles, the independent label that Jello runs to this day, was chosen as a target to send a message to other artists who thought about pushing the boundaries of expression in Reagan’s Amerika.

My love of Dead Kennedys’ music eventually led me to discover Jello Biafra’s spoken word albums. In addition to continuing to run his label and collaborating on a variety of other music projects, Jello toured extensively speaking his mind on issues like media consolidation, the failed war on drugs, and corporate globalization. These recordings were instrumental in my own political development, introducing me to a lot of new ideas and information unavailable in school or on TV. They encouraged me to think critically and seek out alternative media sources.

In 2000, I finally got to see Jello perform his spoken word live. The lights went out before he appeared on stage and we just heard his voice boom through the speakers announcing with a sinister tone that, “America is now under martial law.” It was right before the tragicomedy that was that year’s U.S. presidential election. A candidate himself that year with the Green Party, Mr. Biafra spoke to a packed crowd at UMass-Amherst for a staggering four hours, remarkably capturing the attention of the predominantly college-aged room until the clock struck midnight. At that moment, he announced—mid-sentence—that we all had to go home.

I didn’t get to meet Jello that night. After saying farewell to my high school sweetheart who had just transferred to UMass, I got a ride back to Bard College with my friends. It was an all night journey that was very much worth it.

Almost two years later, I found myself living in New York City for the summer. I was doing an internship with Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)—a progressive media watch organization. I worked for FAIR’s activism director Peter Hart, spending a lot of my time combing over transcripts of Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor. Some of my research was included in a book Peter published the following year called, The Oh Really? Factor  detailing how Bill O’Reilly was a lying piece of right wing shit.

I started my summer of 2002 adventure couch-surfing in Manhattan. Soon, a house-sitting opportunity opened up for me in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. Chris and Adam were recent Bard alums whose shotgun apartment was about to become vacant while their country-folk grunge-rock band Company was on tour. I offered to stay there for those three weeks and water their plants. A couple days later I had a key in my pocket and a whole place to myself!

In addition to the internship with FAIR, I spent the summer exploring the biggest city in the country by foot, loitering at May Day Books and various city parks, being too scared to ride my bike (outside of the two critical mass rides with 3,000 others to protect me from cars), and going to free outdoor concerts. These things helped me survive the suffocating and filthy urban heat, as well as the equally daunting and pervasive social alienation.

My senior year of college was looming that fall so I was also trying to decide what to write my senior project about. At the time, I had been reading a lot of feminist theory and specifically books about confronting sexual harassment both on the street and in the workplace. I thought about incorporating some of these ideas into the topic that I was about to spend a full school year working on.

This was a really intense experience for me because New York in the summer is an incubator of sexual tension: millions of sweaty bodies crowding the hot sidewalks, pressed up against each other on the subway, and exposing as much skin as legally possible. I would sit on the crowded L train towards Manhattan reading about the social history of street harassment, all the while witnessing it firsthand around every corner. The combination of this awareness and my surrounding environment was difficult, especially as I struggled to confront my own internal issues as a twenty-one year old male; myself a messy product of a patriarchal society. In my attempt to confront the specter of sexual objectification, I was simultaneously powerless to its allure as it permeated the toxic air I breathed.

After leaving FAIR’s office one particular Thursday, I decided that I would not return to Brooklyn that night. It would be an experiment: What would happen if I just stayed up all night wandering the city? It would be like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, I thought.

Or maybe that’s just how I look back on it now. I recently discovered my journal from that summer which reveals a slightly different story. On that fateful night, July 11th, 2002, I described being “filled with sexual alienation from this city,” and how it had caused me to lose my “drive” and “motivation.”

After an early evening documentary about the growing student anti-sweatshop movement, I re-entered the isolating urban nightlife, tensions rising, and my dedication to staying up all night in tact. Wandering around the Lower East Side, I stumbled into Toys in Babeland—a woman-friendly/not-sketchy sex shop. After perusing their book selection, I decided to purchase a collection of feminist erotica called Gynomite. I picked up a flyer for a burlesque show happening in the neighborhood that night and stuffed it into my bag. I walked towards Tompkins Square Park and killed some time in my favorite café in the city, the now-defunct Alt Coffee. I flipped through that week’s Village Voice to see what else was happening that night.

Eventually I made it to the burlesque show which was fun, since I had never experienced one before. But without the social skills or desire to consume alcohol, I still felt isolated and alone; unable to connect with anyone there, or anywhere else in this city.

I decided to take the subway uptown. Waiting on the platform, I took out my sexy new book and started reading the introduction and first story in the anthology. Luckily, the train arrived just as things were getting a little too hot and heavy.

Emerging back onto street level Manhattan, I was bombarded by the hypnotizing spectacle that is Times Square. After walking only a few blocks, I was handed a piece of paper by a guy working on a street corner. As if sensing exactly where I was at on this particularly weird night, he invited me to check out the strip club down the street. I inspected the flyer he handed me and saw that it was a pass for free admission. I held on to the pass, but kept walking.

Settling down at Columbus Circle at the base of Central Park, I sat down on some marble and penned a letter to my friend Jesse who had graduated from Bard that May and was currently living in Minneapolis with her boyfriend. I described how I was feeling in NYC and everything I had been up to. It was two o'clock in the morning and I was still awake, but still not sure why…not yet.

I left Columbus Circle and went back underground to wait for another train to return south. Because it was so late, and the fact that it was a Thursday and not a weekend night, I waited for what seemed like forever in the hot, sticky bowels of the subway tunnel. The R train finally arrived and it slowly lurched toward 14th Street.

Dehydration struck me well before I arrived at Union Square so I decided to walk down 14th to the Veg City Diner—a twenty-four hour, all-vegetarian joint—one of the best things the city had to offer me. I figured I would go in, get a lemonade or something, and just hang out and read for a while.

The diner was more than half empty when I walked in four am. There were a few tables filled with young people toward the back and a couple of middle-aged dudes sat by the window. I sat down at a booth in the middle that faced the front. Looking over the menu, I paused as one of the voices coming from the table by the window sounded familiar, very familiar. A voice I was certain I had spent many hours listening to throughout my post-adolescence.

I looked up and over at the two guys ahead of me. Surely enough, the one sitting to the right was none other than Jello Biafra! My heart raced. If I did not stand up, walk over there and introduce myself, I would regret it for the rest of my life. It all made so much sense in that moment—this was the reason I had stayed up all night. This was my reward for not becoming completely paralyzed by my repressed sexual desires. It was 4:00 in the morning and I was in the same vegetarian diner as Jello Biafra, one of my biggest heroes. This was fate, the kind that is only possible in New York.

I took a sip of my raspberry lemonade, took a deep breath, and walked over. The man that Jello was sharing his late-night snack with had long black hair and looked like he might have been in the Ramones, or some other legendary New York punk band. He probably was. As I approached their booth, they were just standing up to leave, putting their tip down on the table.

“Um, excuse me,” my voice cracked in the direction of the former Dead Kennedys singer. “Uh, are you Jello Biafra?”

“Yeeees,” he replied cautiously.

I told him my name and offered my hand for shaking. Jello complied as I proceeded to tell him how much his work shaped me and how I owned almost all of his spoken word albums.

“Just don’t buy any of that new Dead Kennedys crap,” he warned me. I assured him that I would not support his former bandmates re-releasing old albums on a different label to make a buck after a long legal dispute between him and the rest of the band.

Since he was still based in San Francisco, I asked him what he was doing in New York. “I was asked to speak at a hackers conference actually. I don’t know a whole lot about computers, but I support what they’re doing and they keep inviting me back.”

This entire time Jello and his most likely-legendary friend were slowly shuffling their way towards the exit as I nervously nodded my head and smiled a little too much.

“Well, it was nice meet you,” I said.

“Ok, have a good night.” And just like that, Jello exited the Veg City Diner.

I eventually took the train back to Brooklyn as the sun rose. I got off early at the Bedford stop on the L, walked down to the river. Staring across at the skyline, I tried to put this city, and this bizarre night I just experienced into perspective.

Around seven o'clock in the morning, I returned to my temporary apartment in Bushwick. I laid down in my friend Adam’s bed humming the Dead Kennedy’s cover of “Moon Over Marin,” which had been in my head since I left the diner. After successfully staying up all night, I closed my eyes and fell asleep.

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