Jello Biafra cuts to the politics of pop
by Ted Drozdowski
What's up? Poverty, crib death, hunger -- they've risen in the US. Meanwhile
literacy and employment have fallen. And what are our elected representatives
doing about it? Well, when they're not busy blaming all of the above on
immigrants, which they did earlier this year in sweeping federal welfare-reform
legislation (and that's a whole other story), they're still trying to censor
the lyrics of pop music. Thanks to Texas, which on June 20 became the first
state to bar any of its government agencies from investing in companies that
make or distribute music with obscene or violent lyrics, the matter before us
again is the battering of the First Amendment by the very people who are
charged with upholding it.
Ironic? Jello Biafra, the San Francisco-based musician and activist who was
the target of the most notable censorship prosecution case of the Reagan/Bush
era, sees it as more than a political smokescreen -- a little distracting
fiddle playing while Rome burns -- intended to convince us that our moral
interests are being protected. Biafra instead hears the crackling fires of
class war, American style.
"The people from the upper class are waging an active war against the rest of
us," says Biafra. "They want to bully people into not singing -- or speaking
out -- about unemployment, downsizing, or the increasingly dire need to
overthrow the rich. The basic message coming down from the Texas legislature
and the music industry is `Shut up and shop.' I'm sure major labels, which
already have in-house lyric-screening committees thanks to Tipper Gore, are
already saying, `Oh shit, we better make sure this is not gonna get busted in
Texas.' Now that so much of our media is controlled by multinational
corporations that have a vested interest in making people dumber and more
obedient shoppers, we're going to see more censorship."
It's Biafra's denunciation of consumer culture as the yoke of class slavery
that got him in trouble in 1986. On April 15 of that year, a squad of San
Francisco and Los Angeles cops trashed his home under the direction of the LA
district attorney's office. They were looking for copies of an H.R. Giger
poster -- depicting rotting penises penetrating decaying vaginas -- included in
copies of the 1985 album Frankenchrist by Biafra's seminal agit-punk
band, the Dead Kennedys. The artwork was intended as a critique of consumer
culture. But Biafra, who operates the label that issued the album, Alternative
Tentacles, was brought up on obscenity charges.
In August '87, the charges against Biafra and his co-defendants from the label
were dismissed after a three-week criminal trial in LA, where
Frankenchrist was judged not to be "obscene." But albums by Biafra, the
Dead Kennedys, and other Alternative Tentacles artists were nonetheless banned
from many chain record stores.
"This is exactly the type of de facto censorship Tipper Gore and the Parents
Music Resource Center had in mind," Biafra asserts.
Adding a new wrinkle of irony to the story, Michael Guarino, half the DA team
that went after Biafra, recently admitted -- from his new post as associate
dean of John F. Kennedy University's law school in Walnut Creek, California --
that "the whole thing was a comedy of errors. About midway through the trial we
realized that the lyrics of the album were in many ways socially responsible,
very anti-drug, and pro-individual. We were a couple of young prima donna
Biafra says he feels vindicated and ecstatic over Guarino's admission. "Let
that be a lesson to other people who keep trying to put musicians and poets and
comic-book artists in jail. History is never on the side of the narrow-minded
But vindication has a price. "Publicly I was courageous and survived the whole
experience; privately, it took a year and a half out of my life and the stress
was enormous. It contributed to the break-up of the Dead Kennedys. But there
were silver linings, too, like getting to spend some time with Frank Zappa [a
censorship fighter until his death]. And suddenly I was no longer called a
paranoid lunatic for saying the religious right were out to prosecute rock
musicians, so my viewpoint got a higher profile.
"We could have pleaded guilty and got off with a small fine. Guarino even
asked my lawyer, `Why the hell didn't he just pay the $50?' I thought I was
looking at $2000 and a year in jail. More important, Guarino let it slip to an
LA Weekly reporter that his office had an entire file cabinet on other
musicians. They were hoping that by convicting me, or by my copping a plea,
they would set a precedent and go after bigger fish to make a political name
Which brings us back to Texas. The ban -- which prohibits the investment of
state money in companies that own 10 percent or more of a business that
receives income from music describing violence, illegal drug use, degradation
of women, necrophilia, assault of police officers, bestiality, pedophilia, or
criminal street gangs (there goes West Side Story) -- was a slimy,
perhaps illegal backdoor maneuver. Shot down as a bill by the Texas State House
last month -- as similar bills had already been in Maryland and Pennsylvania --
it was passed as a rider on the 1998-'99 budget (effective September 1, 1988).
Cary Sherman, vice-president and general counsel of the Recording Industry
Association of America, the country's leading record-label trade organization,
told the New York Times last week that "under Texas law, you can't use
an appropriations bill to make a general law." The governor of Texas has no
line-item veto power over riders, but it's hard to imagine George W. Bush Jr.
choosing to exercise such authority in this case anyway.
Additionally, the longhorn and oil capitalists who approved the rider may have
shot their own system in the foot. The ban may force state-employed
pension-fund managers -- who invest not only state money but that of state
employees -- to breach their fiduciary responsibility by compelling them to
make investments they know are less enriching. For example, the Texas Permanent
School Fund, Employees Retirement System, and University of Texas have a total
of $15.5 million invested in Seagram, which the New York Times reports
has an 80 percent interest in CDs by Snoop Doggy Dogg, Marilyn Manson, and the
late Tupac Shakur. But, as Biafra would contend, the rich (Seagrams, the
lawmakers, the record labels, and corporate CEOs) don't give a damn about the
retirement income of the little people. It's those folks, not Seagram or Death
Row Records, who'll get hurt.
For artists, there's perhaps a more pressing danger in the subtext of this
ban. A cornerstone in obscenity judgment cases is the determination of whether
a work of art is obscene within the context of community standards. (No wonder
Biafra got off in LA.) Since it tars the musical subjects targeted by the ban
with the brush of obscenity and thereby makes them unfit for investment by
agents of the state, there's a risk that any writ-happy Texas prosecutor may
attempt to cite the ban as a community standard applicable to the entire Lone
Star State. And where does it end? Will the 1999-2000 budget have a rider
banning investment in publishing or filmmaking? Joe Stalin is merrily rolling
in his coffin.
Biafra, meanwhile, has jumped into the haves-versus-have-nots fray with a new
organization he's formed with the Offspring's Dexter Holland that's called FSU.
Jello says that stands for "Fuck Shit Up"; Dexter opts for the gentler "Freedom
Starts Underground." Whatever it means, FSU has organizations like Amnesty
International, AIDS Project LA, Poor Peoples United, and the Tree Foundation in
mind as beneficiaries.
"I figured if I ever blundered into the kind of money that the Offspring now
have, this is what I would do with it," Biafra explains. "That hasn't happened
to me, but that didn't prevent me from suggesting it to others."