[Sidebar] July 10 - 17, 1997
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Bullshit detector

Jello Biafra cuts to the politics of pop

by Ted Drozdowski

[Jello] 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 prosecutors."

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 censor."

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 for themselves."

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."

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