High Times Greats: Jello Biafra

A 1999 interview with the former leader of the Dead Kennedys.
High Times Greats: Jello Biafra
The Dead Kennedys circa 1980. Biafra with bassist Klaus Fluoride and guitarist East Bay Ray. (Chris Walter/ Retna)

Jello Biafra has been injecting his brand of sardonic political and social criticism into American culture since the late ’70s. Biafra grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and moved to California in 1977, where he formed the legendary punk band the Dead Kennedys, started the Alternative Tentacles record label and ran for mayor of San Francisco. The DKs were at the epicenter of the ’80s hardcore-punk scene, one of the few places of outrageous counterculture in the Reagan era, producing punk classics like “Holiday in Cambodia,” “Let’s Lynch the Landlord” and “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.”

In 1986, Biafra was busted for “distributing harmful matter to minors,” a poster by painter H.R. Giger included with the Dead Kennedys’ Frankenchrist album. He beat the rap, but the band broke up before the trial. He continued to play music, collaborating with Mojo Nixon, the Vancouver punk band D.O.A. and with former Ministry lead singer Al Jourgenson in Lard. In the ’90s. Biafra primarily concentrated on spoken-word performances collected on five albums, including 1991’s I Blow Minds for a Living (featuring “Grow More Pot”) and If Evolution Is Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Evolve. AK Press published a book of his speeches, Burning Down the Magic Kingdom. Toby Rogers and Steven Wishnia spoke to Biafra in San Francisco for an interview published in the October, 1999 issue of High Times. In celebration of Jello Biafra’s birthday on June 17, we’re republishing it below.

High Times: When did you start smoking pot?

Jello Biafra: I started later than most people I knew, which is good because by the time I got into it, I had just graduated from high school, so my hard-core stoner period didn’t screw up my education.

What bands were you listening to at the time?

I’ve always liked really extreme, heavy, wild rock ’n’ roll. I started listening to music when I was a little kid, on the tail end of Beatlemania, and quickly gravitated to harder stuff like the Rolling Stones, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Music Machine. At that point the local radio stations played the local bands, and being in Colorado, I got to hear the Moonrakers and the Monocles as well.

When did you first get into punk?

As soon as it happened. By the time I got to high school I discovered the used-record store, so I could quickly get a lot more albums for a lot less money, especially when this one store near the school threw out everything they thought they couldn’t sell into a free box each day. Being fed up with stupid mellow FM and AM radio, I just cleaned out the free box every single day for three years. I got all the Doors albums in six weeks, and stuff nobody would even touch back then, like the 13th Floor Elevators, the Nazz and the Seeds. And in the quarter bin was the MC5. The local music critic in Denver had blasted Black Sabbath, saying they were almost as bad as the MC5. So I immediately knew I better check those guys out.

I got really into the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams and then Raw Power by the Stooges right when a lot of my friends ditched Black Sabbath for Emerson, Lake and Palmer, jazz-fusion and Yes. Later, in my pothead phase, I did open up more to psychedelic music and prog-rock, but I’ve always gravitated toward stuff that was darker and more intense. For instance, I was pretty deeply into Hawkwind even before I smoked a lot of pot.

What do you mean when you say you “smoked a lot of pot”? You’ve said you hate “the whole low-energy stoner vibe.”

For a while I would probably light up a joint first thing when I got up, and then continue from there. But after a few years, I stopped smoking, because every time I did I just got depressed and afraid of everything. I began looking at everything as, “Wow, that movie would have been really great if I’d seen it stoned!” It’s important to experiment with drugs and learn what you can from them and then move on, instead of letting it become a security blanket. I’m sure glad my addictive phase was with a relatively harmless drug like marijuana.

You mentioned the MCS as an influence. Would you say the Dead Kennedys were as radical as the MC5, maybe even more?

In some ways yes, in some ways no. We never went straight up against the Chicago police. Thus, I still have teeth left.

But were the MC5 similar to what you were looking for as a vision for the Dead Kennedys?

They certainly played its role. I hadn’t really written any lyrics before the band started. I figured if I had to write the lyrics, they better be good ones. So I tried to explore some of the same dark territory and horror that Alice Cooper did with theater and Iggy Pop did from a personal point of view, but I wanted to make it politically militant like the MC5.

How do you relate to the ’60s counterculture?

There was so much cool music, the loosening of sexual puritanism, the dawn of the environmental movement, people rising up and stopping the Vietnam War and driving Richard Nixon back into the hole from which he came. But by the time I got out of high school all that changed, and the ’70s were in full swing. We weren’t dazed and confused, we were dazed and disgusted. Rock ’n’ roll had been reduced to a spectator sport. Major labels were pushing bogus mellow garbage like jazz-fusion and the Eagles. I hated that shit. All of that made punk necessary. When I came out to San Francisco and saw these fantastic bands, like the Avengers, the Screamers, Negative Trend, the Sleepers, the Dils, Crime, the Nuns and the Mutants all falling by the wayside before they could make albums, I was heartbroken. I figured that if I ever had the financial resources to rectify that, I would start a label for people who wanted to operate outside the mainstream entertainment industry and be as no-bullshit and uncompromising as they wanted.

In the ’80s, labels like Alternative Tentacles were about creating a self-sufficient cultural underground. But once it got big enough so that bands could make a living, the major labels came in and sucked everything up.

That’s too simplistic. The majors didn’t come in ’til years later. The only reason they came in at all was because there was a whole new generation of suburban white kids listening to political rap music. The clowns at the major labels suddenly realized that these kids weren’t interested in Eric Clapton and Bob Seger. So they caved in and signed these other bands, even if they couldn’t stand them. Sonic Youth and Nirvana were a few of the first ones.

Do you think Geffen Records thought Nirvana would get so big?

I don’t think they expected them to do as well as they did, but once Nirvana took off, it was natural corporate-predator behavior to isolate Kurt Cobain as a rock-star zoo animal and drive him to an early grave and make money off his death. So I welcome the current downsizing at major labels. If all they are interested in is Alanis Hootiefish and Shania Twain, fine. Let the independents put out the good stuff, just like we did before Nirvana and Green Day took off.

It’s quite possible now for an artist to make a decent living staying away from the commercial entertainment industry. The more you dip into the commercial entertainment industry, the less money you make, unless you are mega-huge. Otherwise, there is so much money being sucked away by managers, lawyers, charges for promotion. Bands make less money at labels than if they do it themselves and cut out the middlemen.

Do you have any reflections on your censorship case?

What’s most telling now about the whole Frankenchrist censorship fiasco that Tipper Gore played such a key role in is that the prosecutor in the case apologized a couple of years ago in the Washington Post. He said the whole thing was a comedy of errors, he regretted it, they had no idea my lyrics were socially relevant—even though they kept me under surveillance before they raided my house—and that his son has all my albums and plays them constantly to torment his father. I want to shove that in the face of every other prima donna prosecutor who attacks musicians to try and get their name in the paper.

Speaking of which, people are pointing the finger at Hollywood, Marilyn Manson and video games for the mass killings in Littleton. Who do you think is to blame?

I would say multinational corporations who are hell-bent on destroying America’s soul, and above all the way they make organized sports and firearms the religious totems of our society. People blamed Marilyn Manson when they should be looking at the schools and possibly the parents. One of those kids was murdered because he was black. Marilyn Manson didn’t do that. Bigotry is taught in the home, and the way jocks are deified in the public schools needs to be stopped. As far as I’m concerned, wanting to kill the bullies and blow up the school is a normal rite of passage of growing up in America. What made these kids go over the line and actually do it? Easy availability of firearms. Pure and simple.

If Marilyn Manson really had that much influence over those guys, why didn’t they wait three more days, go see him live in Denver and then go kill the jocks? I mean, how many millions of people play Doom and don’t go shoot up their school? The cause is somewhere else.

Could you talk about the Drug War and the prison-industrial complex? Sixty percent of federal prisoners are drug offenders. And you mention on your new CD that corporations are using prisoners as slave labor.

The Drug War is ethnic cleansing, American-style. Instead of rounding up the Jews, we’re rounding up the blacks. It is mostly people of color who are getting locked up on drug charges. I’m sure you well know the penalty for crack possession is 100 times more severe than possession of powder cocaine. We’re putting more and more people in jail for smaller and smaller offenses. The prison-industrial complex is the fastest growing sector of the American economy. What does that say about our so-called family values, when a prison guard makes twice as much as a schoolteacher?

And they’re spending that money hiring lobbyists to pressure legislators and Congresspeople to enact harsher drug laws and longer sentencing laws, and financing state ballot initiatives to con voters into passing “three strikes and you’re out” laws, thinking they are putting child-murderers in jail. In Oregon, they’re charging prisoners $6,000 a year rent for their cells and $1.50 a meal so they can work as slaves for Microsoft and Starbucks. Even Victoria’s Secret is in on this now.

A lot of politicians have smoked pot, but they usually dismiss it as a “youthful indiscretion” and support the Drug War.

That’s typical hypocrisy of vicious yuppie fascists. It’s going to be an interesting election in that sense, because both Al and Tipper Gore admitted smoking pot. There’s going to be no way of disqualifying people from public office. Hell, even Newt Gingrich admitted smoking pot.

What do you think of Jesse Ventura?

He stopped being funny already. I’m over him, although I do think that more professional wrestlers should run for public office. How much more proof do you need that Americans are completely fed up with a one-party state masquerading as a two-party state, when voters feel they have no recourse but to elect a professional wrestler governor?

On the other hand, Jesse’s against gun laws and taxes. At heart, he’s a right-wing libertarian, and as far as I’m concerned libertarians are nothing but Republicans who smoke pot. Their basic motivation to cut government spending is greed.

I’m very pro-tax. Everybody’s income should be cut off at $100,000 and all the rest of the money should be spent for the public good, and anybody who doesn’t make 100 grand doesn’t pay any taxes at ail. The benefit for everyone would be free education, better schools, free medical care, free transportation, including air travel, and a hell of a lot of long-overdue public-works projects that are far more important than building new jails and sports stadiums. We live in extreme times that call for extreme solutions.

Do you think that pot might be legalized in the future, or has the government invested too much in the War on Drugs as a tool for social control?

What’s interesting is that the cuckoo Joe-Army Drug Czar that Clinton put in, General McCaffrey, has said there are too many people in jail, and has called it America’s gulag. I call on all the governors and states in the union to release all small-time drug offenders today. Then you wouldn’t have to build any more jails.

We should run the laws like they do in Holland and other more progressive countries in Europe, where the emphasis is on treating the addict and harm reduction, not on locking people in jail to benefit racists and the prison-industrial complex. The best vehicle for getting pot decriminalized is medical marijuana. That’s what has gotten people to show up at the voting booths and pass the initiatives. Smoke-ins in the park don’t communicate our view to enough voters. Medical marijuana is a way to crack it open.

1 comment
  1. I live in Denver and have seen Jello a few times over the years both here in town and up the road in Boulder. There used to be a groovy little goth internet coffee shop/bar (!) called Cafe Netherworld down near the Denver Art Museum near 13th and Pearl and every once in awhile you would see him out front in his leather jacket smoking a pipe.

    Great interview; thanks for posting it!

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