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By Michael E. Miller
It's a thin line between punk and poser. So how do you tell the difference? Do Mohawks, homemade tattoos, and musical elitism comprise the punk checklist? Not so much. Try: fighting censorship, singing in an influential band, and running an indie label. Those are the major accomplishments of one Eric Reed Boucher, better known by his stage name, Jello Biafra, the punk rock prototype.
At 48 years old, Biafra has a wider midsection and thinner hair than he did back in the Seventies, when he first made his name as the founder and lead singer of the seminal outfit the Dead Kennedys. His personality remains as fiery as ever. The DKs released five LPs in a brief but frenzied career, including such classic punk anthems as "California Über Alles" and "Holiday in Cambodia." After the controversial band broke up in 1986, Biafra continued to ruffle feathers with his spoken word performances.
Whether singing or speaking, Biafra has espoused the same message for almost 30 years: Our government is corrupt, war is evil, and the media lies. He is a perfectly preserved relic of the ideals that emerged from the late-Seventies/early-Eighties punk scene, his beliefs almost completely unchanged, except for one thing. "I changed my mind about voting," he tells New Times, during a recent phoner from his Bay Area home. "I was very anti-voting for a while. I did my duty and registered when I was eighteen and voted for Jimmy Carter to get the Ford/Nixon regime out of office. Not much really changed and I just got fed up with the lack of choice. But then Frank Zappa and others talked me back into voting, pointing out how important local elections are."
The former rocker would know a thing or two about local elections: He ran for mayor of San Francisco in 1979, winning almost four percent of the votes. These days he saves the political pranksterism for his speeches. Biafra is currently touring for his latest spoken word album, In the Grip of Official Treason. After that he'll be laying down a track for a Reverend Horton Heat tribute album, playing a crooked TV evangelist in the movie Price of Pieces, and working with his label, Alternative Tentacles, which, among other things, will be releasing a double album for the notorious old school Miami punk band, the Eat.
When he's not busy on the lecture circuit, Biafra still dabbles in the occasional music project. He's collaborated with the likes of Ministry's Al Jourgenson (for the Biafra side project, Lard), D.O.A., Nomeansno, and most recently, the Melvins.
"I never have normal days," he notes. "I have abnormal days. That's the downside of being my own boss, I always have more work to do, sixteen to twenty hours a day. On the other hand, it ain't all work if there's not any boss in a suit or any Hollywood pimp telling me what to do."
While Biafra has never been one to take orders, plenty of folks have tried to muzzle the wild orator. In 1986 the Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC) the gang of moralist moms led by none other than Tipper Gore objected to an allegedly obscene poster included in the Dead Kennedys album, Frankenchrist. He wound up charged by the Los Angeles District Attorney for "distribution of harmful material." Charges were eventually dropped, but not until after a long and costly legal battle intended, Biafra contends, to silence him. A few years later, the ever-combative Biafra was taken to court by his former DK bandmates, who claimed he was withholding royalties from them. Biafra lost that battle. To his disgust, many of the songs he insists he wrote alone are now credited to the entire band on various reissued albums. His former band is also able to tour without Biafra, using the notorious original Dead Kennedys name.
Nevertheless, Biafra trudges on, plying his brand of political activism via rousing spoken word performances. All of Biafra's spoken word albums are brimming with incisive moral commentary and righteous tirades. Unlike the other various demagogues yapping for attention in this age of loudmouths, Biafra makes it a point to take on radical and unpopular topics. His advocacy of the so-called "maximum wage," for instance, is a response to the greed he says he encountered in his courtroom battles.
"What causes more of a problem for this country, drug addiction or wealth addiction?" he asks. "Even in South Florida, I do believe wealth addiction is the answer. And the only way to cure addicts of their problem is rehab. I'm not talking some Communist dictatorship here," he adds quickly. "No. One or two hundred grand [per year] and cut it off. You can live really well on that kind of money." How's that for stopping our exorbitant corporate culture in its tracks?
Like any firebrand, Biafra has also attracted his share of haters. He's been called a hypocrite and a sell-out and worse. In 1994 a gang of skinheads physically assaulted Biafra at a Berkeley rock club, sending him to the hospital with serious injuries.
To what does he owe his longevity in a world constantly at odds with him? "I had a deep inner belief in myself," Biafra says, "that I could blow some people's minds and rock and do some cool things if I ever got the chance, and punk happened just at the right time and gave me that chance. Tipper Gore claimed that music caused teenagers to commit suicide. In my case, music did exactly the opposite. It prevented suicide and it saved me from drugs. When I came to San Francisco I hardly had any money, and if I had an extra five bucks I could spend it on speed or I could spend it on records. Guess which way I went?"
His fans would agree he made the right choice.