As JELLO BIAFRA becomes engulfed by a wave of allegations that threatens to swamp his liberty, he chats to JACK BARRON about censorship, apocalyspe and the day he ran for mayor. Holiday snap: EYE AND EYE.
"WHY DO I think I am right!?!" echoes Jello Biafra, surprise momentarily road-blocking his busy freeway of words.
The Walter Mitty of politi-punk casts his anthracite eyes around the spartan warehouse which serves as the headquarters of Alternative Tentacles, a downbeat building that the police department of San Francisco recently raided in search of subversive material.
Yes, I continue, resuming my line of questioning. The Dead Kennedys have always used their music as a vehicle for social commentary and political criticism. So why do you think your perspective on life is any more valid than the perspective of those you criticise?
" I think, because of my deep sense of being threatened by those in authority," laughs Jello uneasily, his chest recoiling with an almost paranoid tautness beneath a T-shirt which bears the motto Ugly American. Maybe this man, who seems to have had his handsome features stretched to cracking point on the rack of desperation, is still rattled by the events of the past few days.
See, what had been brought to the police department's notice was the posters of H R Geiger's Penis Landscape, given with the Kennedys' album 'Frankenchrist'. Biafra now faces up to a year in prison and a $2,000 fine to go with the allegations that he and the rest of the band are guilty of "distributing harmful material to minors"
So, if Jello's rattled, who could blame him?
"As I said to you a bit earlier on when we were talking about censorship," explains Biafra, a lyricist never starved of polemic, "if the authorities had their way I - or anybody like me --would probably be dead. The American government want a Christian-style Islamic republic and I don't think executions would bother them a bit.
"The right-wing Christians who run this country go on about how the life of an unborn foetus is sacred, how we shouldn't allow abortions. But once the foetuses are 18, who are the first people who want to
execute them in gas chambers or want to send them to die in Nicaragua and EI Salvador? It's the right-wing Christians.
"So what makes me feel that I am right and other people are wrong is when I feel that my dignity and survival, and the dignity and survival of other people, is being threatened by a few greedy Nazis."
This might sound extreme but it rings true in the context of the moral waywardness of the USA. In the kingdom of the insane, the paranoid becomes sane because he has every reason to worry, his fears are real. How can they be otherwise when he watches the police raid his office?
Dissent, artistic or otherwise, is not in fashion in America in the late '80s. Everybody - from individuals to nations – is expected to toe the line of conformity, and that line says you are either a God fearing capitalist, or you're a stinking pinko communist atheist pervert who does it in the streets with dogs and Lord help you if you're in a band with the name of The Dead Kennedys.
OK, I know that's a little simplified, but the whole point about the upsurge of patriotism which Reagan symbolises is that it does present the public with clear cut black and white' choices which save people from making the effort to think or question.
Anything which doesn't fit into this monocular vision - an example being the Vietnam veterans poisoned by Agent Orange who've subsequently had deformed children and yet don't qualify for war injury benefits - is quietly swept under the carpet.
THE DEAD Kennedys - Jello, bassist Klaus Flouride, guitarist East Bay Ray and drummer D H Peligro – are interested in lifting up that carpet of self imposed ignorance and spotlighting the dirt. But it's getting more difficult day by day.
"Let's just say that the ghost of Joe McCarthy is back in action now," comments Biafra. "So far as music is concerned the PMRC, the Parents Music Resource Centre, which is staffed by wives of right-wing senators and a member or two of Reagan's cabinet, acts as a kind of thought police.
"As you know, they're making moves to get records graded according to their content, but that is only the tip. Their attempt to decide what people hear, see, taste and think goes deeper than that.
"For instance, they're now working with local Parent Teacher Associations and police departments to snuff out rock music which they deem not wholesome. We've had several gigs cancelled under mysterious circumstances and then, of course, there was the raid here."
I tell him the offending Geiger poster - Geiger was a set designer on Alien, by the way - which depicts a field of erect penises entering vaginas is so abstract it reminds me of a vegetable stall specialising in leeks and onions.
"Uh-haw, I've heard lots of interpretations of it but nothing like that," grins Biafra . "It has been called sexist by some people but I don't think it is. My reason for using it was that as soon as I saw the thing I thought, 'Yeah! That's what's inside the heads of Americans: this is a nation out to screw each other in every way. That painting is consumer culture on parade. "
Penis Landscape has, in fact, been seen by a lot of Americans. Long before it became a Kennedys poster it was featured in a Geiger showcase in Penthouse. Still , the poster gave the police an excuse to search
Alternative Tentacles thoroughly.
In a country which is headed by a staunch Chri stian ex-actor President who presents and presides over the political process as if he were still in some Hollywood film, it seems somehow apt that the Kennedys' last album was called 'Frankenchri st'.
Run to the hills, a monster cometh!
" If you want to understand something about the nature of Americans it's that we're taught in school that this country is in the frontline with regards to free speech and the rights of the individual," says Biafra. "What is conveniently forgotten is that the founding fathers of America were slave owners.
Thomas Jefferson had seven kids by one of his."
J ELLO BIAFRA, eight years on from the inception of The Dead Kennedys, speaks like some bizarre hybrid of musician, politician and Mr Memory Man. It is easy to see why he garnered 6,OOO-odd votes and came sixth when he stood for the post of Mayor of San Francisco a while back on an absurdist platform.
Ask him a question and out will pop some ghoulish story or three, many of which have been sent in by outsiders to the Kennedys or the hardcore politi-punk fanzine Maximum Rock And Roll which shares the warehouse with Alternative Tentacles.
"No, we haven't split the band! Who told you that? We've never been a group of people who eat, work and play together from the beginning. We don't even agree with each other on every issue, that has
always been the w ay in this band. We often argue but hopefully that friction gets channelled into the music.
"The po int is, though, that we get together to record and tour only if everyone agrees to what is involved . At the moment we're doing another album called 'Bedtime For Democracy' which will hopefully be out in the autumn.
'" I know that, because of the gap between 'Plastic Surgery Disasters' (the DKs' last album) and 'Frankenchrist', people have thought that we've sat on our backsides for three years and retracted our claws, but it's not true!
"We've also been savouring some of the weird information from around the world which we got in response to our request for miscellaneous data on the inner sleeve of 'Frankenchrist'. We'd like Alternative Tentacles to act as a conduit for this info because some of it is mindblasting.
"The scariest story was in fact mailed to me from somebody in San Francisco. It was a little report out of a science magazine that said the next scheduled space shuttle, in other words the one after the one that blew up, was going to be loaded with 46 pounds of plutonium!
"If that shuttle had blown up instead, imagine what would have happened! There would have been enough plutonium in the air to give cancer to as many as five billion people. That's virtually the whole of the world! So that would have been it – all because of a few military assholes manipulating to get the Star Wars Defence System off the ground without telling anybody. This is the most reckless act I've heard of yet!"
THE SON of a librarian mother and a psychiatric social worker father who quit his job to write poetry and books around the same time Jello ran for Mayor of 'Frisco, the 27-year-old singer was brought up in Boulder, Colorado.
Nestling against the Rockies, the "sleepy" university town became a "counter-culture Mecca" in the late '60s and early '70s when it was invaded by hippies.
"At one point there were 15,000 of them . Naturally the other 40,000 citizens of Boulder freaked out, but for me that made it a great place to grow up.
"A lot of thought was provoked in me and the anti-war movement was strong.
"But the hippy people would use a lot of drug-dealing lingo to justfy ripping people off, saying, like, Hey man, that candle costs 50 dollars because it's all natural ingredients! You know the sort of thing: hand made by an authentic crook."
While the music world turned from Dayglo to the mouldy mellow feathers of The Eagles, Biafra took advantage of the transition by hoarding forgotten gems of garage psychedelia, such as The Thirteenth
" Really though there wasn't much happening musically and I was more interested in the news on TV."
A fleeting visit to pogoing England in 1977changed his life.
"All that energy and hate of smug apathy really excited me. When I got back I went off to university in Santa Cruz to take classes in drama and the history of Paraguay but I didn't last long.
"I noticed the punk thing was happening in San Francisco although on a much smaller scale, and, against the wishes of myfather, I dropped out ... "
And The Dead Kennedys were given a breech birth .
"Once The Kennedys were going I soon realised it was possible to concoct something beyond being this week's Sex Pistols. I wanted to fuse the political anger of a virtually unknown British band called Third World War with the gut-rage of Iggy Pop and, say, the fascination with horror and gore of Alice Cooper.
"The thing was I knew that the atrocities of real life were far more frightening than fiction . That has always been the motivating force in this band."
CALIFORNIA UBER Alles', 'Too Drunk To F***' , 'Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables' - the DKs' record titles
alone made the burghers choke, never mind the gallows humour of the band's name. And, allied to the group's violent live velocity and Biafra's cracked actor presentation, come 1983 the Kennedys were on the cusp of greatness. They were the premier hardcore corps poised to take a flamethrower to the charts.
It never happened, and I don't think it ever will. The Kennedys' belief in the punk ethic of independence from the straight music biz scams ensured they'd never become pop stars like The Clash. Their ideals wouldn't allow the necessary compromises and, when Faulty Products (the American distributor) folded, the moment was gone forever.
This isn't to put down their achievements. The Kennedys still make fierce records and Biafra is in demand as a spoken word artist. His mixture of poetry, lyrics and news is, I'm told, inflammatory .
But don't you ever feel that you' re just hitting your head against a brick wall?
Biafra's anthracite eyes glow with amusement as he finishes his beer.
“ Oh sure, I get frustrated most of every day. But I figure that I’d much rather do this than put a little leash round my neck in the form of a necktie and knuckle under . At least I feel alive.
After all, things are never dull when the police are trying to tear your house apart.”