Disappointed by the results of the recent national election? You're not alone. Jello Biafra feels your pain. As if to underscore that point, he's made it so that callers to his San Francisco home are treated to this sardonic telephone answering machine message:
"In case you still suffer from faith in the inner goodness of the human race, just keep in mind, as you walk down the street and see the people go by, that one in every four adult Americans got off their rear ends just to go down to the polls and cast a vote for George Bush."
Like more than 50 million other people in this country, Biafra is discouraged by the way Election 2004 panned out. But instead of sinking into despair or apathy, the spoken-word artist has chosen to be politically active and to deal with frustration in a way that is cathartic for himself and for his audiences. In his stimulating and insightful monologues, Biafra the raconteur relates true American horror stories and furnishes little-known facts about our political system and the people in charge that will curl your teeth -- and maybe even incite you to rage against the machine. He'll be in Spokane this Friday night at the Met Theater for a spoken-word performance that will benefit a couple of fine local nonprofit groups, the Lands Council (www.landscouncil.org) and Thin Air Community Radio (www.thinair.org). Biafra's also using the current tour to support his new album, a collaboration with the Melvins called Never Breathe What You Can't See.
Biafra's role as a political activist was initially thrust upon him in 1986 when -- as the leader of the seminal San Francisco punk band, the Dead Kennedys -- he found himself having to defend his First Amendment rights during the infamous Frankenchrist obscenity trial. There he and four others became the first American citizens in this nation's history to face criminal charges over a recorded work, specifically, over the alleged "harmful matter to minors" that the Frankenchrist artwork (included with the album) represented to some, particularly the censorship-happy PMRC who filed had the complaint. The trial ended in a hung jury and the charges were dropped.
After releasing the appropriately titled Bedtime for Democracy later that same year, the Dead Kennedys called it quits. But for Biafra -- former San Francisco mayoral candidate and current head of Alternative Tentacles Records -- things were just heating up. He took to the road with a spoken word show, vigorously championing individualism and freedom of expression while blasting government and corporate corruption, stupidity, apathy and greed.
When Biafra was in last in Spokane (in March 2003), he gave the Met audience much more than it bargained for as he commanded the crowd's full attention for nearly five hours.
"Yikes," he exclaims upon hearing that fact. "I don't start out intending to speak for that long. It's just that I'm not as concise as I wish I was. Especially when it comes to the Bush mob and the current direction of our country and corporate media's success in creating an entire society that's so militantly stupid. There's just so much to say, so little time."
If there was a lot of grist for Biafra's word mill then, just imagine the load he's packing around post-11/2.
"We hadn't taken the mask off and decided we needed to become an empire quite yet," he says referring to the Bush administration's evolving foreign policy agenda. "Now we're occupying Iraq with no intention whatsoever of leaving. The Pentagon has been talking about keeping as many as 14 permanent military bases in Iraq, whether the Iraqis want us there or not. What this says to me is that we have no intention of ever leaving Iraq. This is just beachhead number one in a crackpot scheme to try to colonize the Middle East."
Lest you think Biafra's show is all sledgehammer and vitriol, it's not. In addition to having reams of intriguing information at his fingertips, the man is able to successfully temper his considerable moral indignation with an acerbic -- some might say demented -- sense of humor. It's the sugar that helps the medicine go down.
"Humor alone will not overthrow Bush Inc.," he says. "But on the other hand, we need humor individually right now or we're gonna wind up jumping in front of trains. If it weren't for my warped sense of humor, I would have joined Kurt Cobain a long time ago."
For many in America, there was nothing the least bit funny about waking up on Nov. 3 and realizing that their hopes for the country had been dashed. Yet Biafra says the defeat only stiffened his personal resolve -- and the resolve of the political actions groups with which he is associated.
"A lot of my friends just felt completely drained and depressed and horrible after November 2," he says. "But I wasn't all that surprised. And it's weird, but the further we get away from November 2, the more I feel this surge of energy to start fighting back and biting as many Republican ankles as I can."
Yet what's left for the opponents of the Bush administration now that a slim majority of Americans have not only handed the Republicans the White House for another four years, but have increased the GOP's hold on the House and Senate as well? Biafra puts the potentially gloomy scenario into historical perspective.
"Right now, the side of reason is losing in this country," he concedes. "And losing badly. But isn't that the same situation we faced when Lyndon Johnson rammed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution through Congress in 1964 and began pouring troops into Vietnam and the few voices in the wilderness who cried out that this is wrong were brutally put down as commies, traitors, peaceniks, freaks, pinkos, and faggots? But in the long run -- against incredible odds and the whole military-industrial complex and the hierarchy of both the Democratic and Republican parties -- the American people rose up and did stop the Vietnam War. We did it once, we can do it again. What I tell people is, look, I've been through this sh** before. Being involved in political action in this country means you're not always going to win. And if you win anything, it's going to be slow, incremental, brick-by-brick victories at the grassroots level. I mean, what about the heartbreak of Nixon getting a second term? And by a landslide?"
Open dissent is the constitutional right of every American -- it's how this country got started in the first place, remember? It's also one of the few weapons ordinary citizens have against the forces of totalitarianism. While the future of this country is being charted by the "haves and the have mores" (as Bush himself refers to his supporters), now is clearly no time for those alternative, progressive voices to keep still.
"The old Jesse Jackson phrase is 'Keep hope alive.' In my opinion, that's not enough," urges Biafra. "It's up to each of us individually, at this point, to keep fire alive. Even if it means starting a few new ones when no one is looking."
Publication date: 12/09/04