Holiday In Baltimore
Jello Biafra gets hardcore again with the Guantanamo School of Medicine
Jello Biafra (Elizabeth Sloan / June 25, 2014)
It's been nearly 30 years since Biafra fronted Bay Area hardcore icons the Dead Kennedys, but he's still sticking it to The Man with the Guantanamo School of Medicine (GSM), his first full-time band in decades. GSM is aggressive punk tinged with creepy surf-rock riffs—and Biafra belts out acerbic political rants ("Iraq-ateering, Pinochet/ Oil disasters every day/ Crops you grew for centuries/ Now patented Monsanto seeds") in his distinct warbling falsetto with as much energy as he did in the DK era.
But don't call it a comeback. The career provocateur has stayed busy as an activist, a spoken-word artist, and as the owner of Alternative Tentacles, the independent music label he cofounded in 1979, whose roster includes 7 Seconds, The Dicks, the Butthole Surfers, and other notables.
"I always figured I'd be doing [music] again at some point, it just took a lot longer than I thought," Biafra says, on the phone at 1:30 a.m.—the only time he was available for a chat. His spoken-word career took off with the 1987 album No More Cocoons released one year after DK ended. "I figured if I blundered into this other gift and found a new way to help torment the corporate world order and spread positive disease, then I ought to use it."
This Sunday, Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine come to the Ottobar, one of only a handful of stops on a current tour. The 56-year-old singer keeps his tours short—because yeah, touring is draining: "I suppose I could [do longer tours] if I just stood there like a mannequin on stage and just ate the words, but once that volume and noise and power takes control of me, I like to move around," Biafra says. "So I'd rather give the people the kind of show that I as a fan would like to go see, rather than just kind of go out there and do ‘Jello Biafra lite' or something."
The band plays a few Dead Kennedys songs each night—which is pretty awesome for those of us who got into the band in the '90s and never thought we'd see our favorite songs played live—but most of the songs are new. "I'm so damn old, I come from a period when punk was supposed to be about something new," Biafra says. "So I see no reason to freeze in the '80s and never write any new songs. It's not like I'm suddenly going to turn off the faucet, decide my work here is done, and rest on some kind of half-assed laurels."
Still, Biafra doesn't mind playing "California Über Alles," "Holiday in Cambodia," and a few other classics. "They're a pretty important part of me, and I don't mind yanking them away from corporate pirates and giving them back their heart and soul," he says.
That typically caustic barb is in reference to Biafra's former bandmates (East Bay Ray, Klaus Flouride, and D.H. Peligro) who re-formed the Dead Kennedys in 2001 without Biafra, after they won a lawsuit against him over nonpayment of royalties that also awarded them the rights to most of DK's material. The other members say the suit was all about royalties, but Biafra says they filed the lawsuit because he refused to allow "Holiday in Cambodia" to be used in a Levi's commercial.
Biafra's lyrics with GSM are, as they've always been, political. But his lyrics have also always been more sardonic than preachy—if Joe Strummer is the RFK of political punk, Biafra is the Abbie Hoffman. He pretty much howls his mission statement on GSM's "I Won't Give Up": "I wanna rock and roll/ Let my sick humor explode/ Smile as I set everything on fire."
Biafra's vitriolic satire mines typical punk themes that are as relevant today as they were in the Reagan era: Wall Street greed, political and corporate corruption, American imperialism, and the vapidity of consumerism and pop culture. If Biafra's missives seem rote now, it's largely because so many other punk lyricists followed Biafra's lead. Lyrics like "We are the Illumi-Nazis/ You're the food chain we devour/ Laughing all the way to China/ Giving you the golden shower," from "The Brown Lipstick Parade" off GSM'S 2013 album White People and the Damage Done, could have been yelled by a number of Biafra imitators over the last 30 years.
Like all of Biafra's albums, GSM's cover art provokes. The cover of the band's 2009 debut, The Audacity of Hype, parodies the iconic President Barack Obama "Hope" poster. Shepard Fairey, who created the original poster, also did the parody for GSM. "I figured if I was going to parody one of the most famous pieces of art, I should at least call [Fairey] and warn him about what I was going to do, as a friend," Biafra says. Fairey, whose origins are in subversive street art, jumped at the chance to poke fun of his own art, which faced its own legal hurdles when he was sued by the AP photographer who took the source photo of the future president used for the wildly popular "Hope" image.
The cover of White People and the Damage Done, GSM's second album, features a collage by Winston Smith, Biafra's longtime "partner in art crime" who did work for the Dead Kennedys and a number of Alternative Tentacles bands over the years. The cover is a little girl in a pink dress, her features distorted, with a third eye and pink devil horns on her head.
"It's his wife's baby picture altered a little bit here and there," Biafra says of the collage. "When her mother saw it, she broke down and cried."
Biafra says he's always tried to make his album covers stand out.
"I was an eccentric vinyl junkie even as a teenager, and I'd already become so fed up with radio I was just buying my album on hunches out of a used record store. My hunches weren't always right, but a real good clue was provocative or unforgettable cover art."
Biafra's choice in artwork led to his arrest in 1987. Dead Kennedy's third album, Frankenchrist, included a poster insert by H.R. Giger depicting rows of penises entering vaginas. At the time, the U.S. Senate had just homed in on the issue of "potentially offensive content" in pop music, and Tipper Gore was on the warpath with her new coalition, the Parents Music Recourse Council—the guys responsible for the parental warning stickers on albums.
Biafra was charged with distributing harmful material to minors. "I was the first person in American history to be put on trial over the contents of a music album," Biafra says proudly. "I knew I had to fight them."
The charges were eventually dropped, but it was a long and expensive legal battle. "It took a year and a half out of my life and was really stressful but I have no regrets about that," Biafra says. "Sometimes even if you don't want to have anything to do with making history, history will find you."
GSM's Baltimore show will open with local feminist punks War on Women, whom Biafra says he is particularly excited to see. And he says he's looking forward to Baltimore in general, although he can't really give a complete impression of the town since he's only been here every few years on tour. "The only time I was there for more than a day is when I crashed at John Waters' place overnight [in the early '80s], beneath a Mexican Elvis and, like, a painting of one of the Manson-family women."
In a City Paper story on legendary Baltimore punk venue the Marble Bar ("Glory Hole," Feature, Dec. 6, 2000), manager LesLee Anderson recalls a Dead Kennedys show there. "We had 600 people come through the doors," she said. "I looked up from packing beers behind the bar, and kids were just flying around like wild fish—this place was mass lunacy.
"Oh, and I'll never forget how Jello Biafra left his pants here," Anderson added. "I had to mail them back to him. They were soaking wet and full of holes, but he called me up and said he had to have them the next day. I offered to wash and dry them, and he said, ‘Absolutely not!'"
Biafra even has a Baltimore-related song that he plans to play on Sunday, called "The Cells that Will Not Die" off GSM's 2011 EP, Enhanced Methods of Questioning. The song is about Henrietta Lacks, the subject of the 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Lacks was an African-American woman in the 1950s who was the unwitting donor of a line of cancer cells that turned out to be "immortal"—the first kind of cancer cells that could be kept alive in a lab and grow. The cells—harvested at Johns Hopkins without permission from Lacks or her family—led to a lot of scientific breakthroughs. But "at the same time, they grew so voraciously that they contaminated other experiments in other labs all over the world, and continue to do that to this day, over half a century later," Biafra says.
As for what's next, Biafra says GSM will probably record another album at some point.
"I haven't had time to break away from the touring treadmill and the turmoil of daily life to get the next batch of songs finished," Biafra says.
"Spoken word has largely been on ice, because once I started rocking again, the band just started eating up all of my time. Maybe some of the other guys can just put it away when we're not practicing or playing live, and you know, go on to other parts of their life. But with me it's 24/7 and always has been." ¿
Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine play Ottobar on June 29 with War on Women.