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Be specific: Jello Biafra on 21st century censorship

Jello BiafraPunk icon Jello Biafra brings his new band, the Guantanamo School of Medicine, to the Black Cat tonight. (Photo courtesy of the artist.)

By Chris Richards

When Jello Biafra brought the Dead Kennedys to Washington D.C. in 1982, The Washington Post referred to his path-finding California punk troupe as "the D.K.s." Twenty-eight years later, Biafra brings his new band, the Guantanamo School of Medicine, to the Black Cat for a Tuesday night performance.

Click Track spoke with Biafra about censorship in 21st century America. He had plenty to say, but we still had to censor the four-letter words.

Were you aware that the Post referred to the Dead Kennedys as "the D.K.s" back in 1982?

I don't remember the Post ever referring to the band as the D.K.s at all. There was lots of pressure early on from people who thought they could get us a major label deal if we just changed our name. And even the major labels themselves were saying, "Oh yeah, we'll give you all the artistic control you want, if you just change your name." But one of the reasons I used that name was to torpedo any fantasies of any other band members of signing to those pimps. I think one of the most important things punk brought back was the whole concept of staying independent and doing things yourself. It made music a lot less boring in any category you can name.

(Obamatons, Ronald Dumbsfeld, Congress-creatures and more, after the jump.)

Today, there are newer punk bands with names like [expletive] Jeans or [expletive] Up. I see that they don't get much attention from traditional media outlets because their names have to be spelled with a bunch asterisks. Have you noticed this?

I think [expletive] Up are getting a lot of press because they're on the Matador label whose media machinery is very strong. I saw a long New York Times review of them that found a way not to mention their name for the entire article. It went into a fair amount of detail about the band. What I can't remember was if a reader who didn't know who the band already was would be able to figure it out. Because I already knew the band, I had seen the band and I had my own strong feelings about the band -- namely that I thought they were really good.

You've seen censorship change a lot of the course of your career. Do you think standards are loosening up? And how is it affecting your work?

I still like getting in people's faces and beating them over the head with what I'm trying to communicate. You know, I've never been a big fan of subtle art. I like art that gets deep into my head and starts my brain spinning with new ideas and inspiration and my whole body is full of energy. That's why I liked H.R. Geiger's paintings when I first saw them. One of them wound up in the [Dead Kennedys'] "Frankenchrist" album because I got so many ideas from just looking at them. That can go for music, film, writing, journalism, pranks -- like the guy who got fired from a Toyota dealership recently. He managed to hack into all of these alarms of cars that the dealership had sold and set them all off at once. I thought that was hilarious.

But does our anything-goes-on-the-Internet era make it harder to find those same kinds of shocks and thrills?

Well, we always have to fight to preserve what we have. If people like Comcast and AT&T had their way, they would have an iron grip on the Internet and not only be able to charge more money, but pick and choose what went over what they seem to think is their information highway. I'm a big booster of Internet neutrality and that will always be under threat as long as we have coin-operated lawmakers.

I mean, censorship via the private sector is probably more widespread and more damaging than the latest whining by Tipper Gore or Joe Lieberman blaming all high-school shootings on Marilyn Manson or irrational stuff like that.

I flipped through a little bit of the soundbites of corporate McNews today, and at least Tiger Woods's [anatomy] is off the front burner for a day or two. But now we've got what, a Moscow subway bombing, and oooh, somebody's playing basketball today. Wow. Cool.

But then I think of all the other issues that people could also have on their plate, be it poverty, the veterans we ignore -- who come back from wars we never should have started -- with missing limbs or PTSD or the one I met in New York whose vertebrae is corroding as I speak from depleted uranium poisoning and how many people still aren't going to get proper health care when across the border in Canada, it's a human right by law.

In choosing what stories to highlight and how much time to give those stories and what stories to taint, slant or not mention at all -- or not even tell all sides of the story -- in corporate McNews, that is by far the worst form of censorship going on today.

You'd think half this country was going gaga over the tea baggers. When in reality, all it would take to wipe them off the front page would be a million uninsured marching on Washington. Or then again: would that get 10 seconds and then it would be back to the tea baggers again? Nobody would ever hear about Sarah Palin if corporate McNews didn't find so much [expletive] there to keep throwing on the screen. All she has to do is open her mouth and even MSNBC has her all over the screen all day.

How do you decide what issues you're going to talk about each night on stage?

Well, it depends on the songs we're gonna play. We're a newer band and we only have about an album and a half of our own songs learned at this point. There are few Dead Kennedys songs in the set as well, and yeah, I chose some of them because of their current impact -- especially "Bleed for Me," the anti-torture song that I originally wrote about the desaparecidos in Argentina and the kind of bloodshed we were stoking in El Salvador and Guatemala, through the Shah of Iran and things like that. And now to my horror, it's going on in this country and the Obama administration isn't doing a damn thing to bring neo-Nazi war criminals from the Bush regime to justice.

That scares me more than any other disappointment in the Obama era so far. Because if those people aren't brought to justice now, they'll inevitably storm back into power in 2012 or 2016 or maybe one more cycle at the most. And they're gonna be 10 or 20 times nastier than they were already. It's not Bush and Cheney and Ronald Dumbsfeld that bother me so much as the people that worked for them -- the ones that thought they were [wimps] just like Cheney and Rove did when they worked for Nixon.

People like David Addington, John Yoo, the General Geoffrey Miller, Douglas Feith -- even people like Condoleezza Rice should be in jail for war crimes as we speak. And Robert Gates's crimes go all the way back to [the Iran-]Contra-gate.

Is this Obama's fault or is this our fault? I remember Amy Goodman [wrote] about an incident when Franklin Roosevelt was first elected. As President-elect, he received a previously scorned labor leader who gave him a list of demands. And supposedly FDR said, "Okay, this all looks pretty good. Now make me do it." And I know exactly what he meant by "Make me do it." Get your people out in the streets. Get your people to lobby their Congress-creatures and let them know how important this is. And even on health care, the people who know how badly we need a public option in the single-payer system simply haven't done their job.

Talking about change, or lack thereof, how has D.C. changed from your perspective? Some think the musician-activist community has eroded a little in recent years.

Most of the people I know would dispute that it's eroded away. It may have eroded away in the eyes of corporate McNews such as The Washington Post, which is of course going to be spending more time covering Tiger Woods's [anatomy] or the latest outburst from John McCain than what underground bands in their own community are saying.

You have to keep in mind that D.C. has underground political hip-hop now, too, which may not have been spawned from people who listened to the Dischord bands. It's a completely different sound and scene, and that's very important too.

How did you become aware of those hip-hop groups?

I'm not aware of who exactly does what. I know there was a large post-march anti-war concert I emceed on the capital mall in '05. One of the major backers was Thievery Corporation. I've also run into a Green Party-connected rapper named Head-Roc from time to time, from way below the underground. And I know there's a lot more, too.

Well this has been great. I really appreciate your time...

Hopefully, we'll be back out east after this show because one example of trying to rekindle mass activism, and get through to people, and make the Obamatons do the right thing is the Iraq Veterans Against the War, among others, are putting together something called the UXO Tour, which stands for "unexploded ordinance" in military terms. [The idea is] to play as close to military bases as possible, veterans admitted free. Veterans and soldiers will be admitted free and everyone else has gotta pay so we can keep this thing going.

And when will this take place?

It's supposed to debut during Fleet Week in New York City and [organizers will] park a rented boat in the next berth to the big ship that the military brings on to show off our world-domination. And I guess [hip-hop group] the Coup has signed on for the whole tour. The Flo-bots, who are hip-hop-ish from Denver. ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. Wayne Kramer. And if all goes well, we're gonna be there, too. And you can get more as it comes out from IVAW.

They're gonna try and play by the Carolina bases and outside of Camp Pendleton, outside of Fort Lewis in Washington, (which we're not going to be able to do because we're going to be in Europe), and culminating in [Washington D.C.] right before the election.

Wow. Very interesting.

One more thing I want to mention here: It might not be directly about censorship but it finishes my argument about the Obama situation. That's why our band is called the Guantanamo School of Medicine: To let people know we're not going let torture off the hook. Isn't that why we fought against the Nazis in the first place? So the album opens with "The Terror of Tiny Town." The title and plot come from an all-midget cowboy movie from the 1930s but the metaphor for the Bush administration was just so strong, I couldn't resist.

But why even talk about Bush now? Well, the reason is that so many of the lawless excesses are still going on. The end of the lyric is: "So what now? He ain't gone til they're all brought to justice for war crimes. So act fast or this lasts. Because before you know it, guess who will be back?"

And [the album] closes with a song called "I Won't Give Up," which is basically the first shot across the bow of the Obama era, saying, to quote our famous commander-in-chief, [in Obama voice] "Look..." [laughs].

Prepare to get your hearts broken, but for crying out loud, don't give up. Don't get quieter and just retreat to living on your phones and texting all day. Get stronger. Get louder. Get wilder. Get weirder and push back. Because after all, if there hadn't been a lot more insurrection than we're seeing right now, we never would have even gotten the New Deal, let alone the Civil Rights Act of '64 or any decent environmental laws, or abortion rights, or gay rights. You name it.

By Chris Richards  |  March 30, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Be specific  | Tags: Dead Kennedys, Guantanamo School of Medicine, Jello Biafra  
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Comments

After reading this (and a similar interview in the ONION A/V section), I'm very excited to see this band!

Posted by: phburris | March 30, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse

If you missed the shows in DC and Richmond, YOU SHOULD HAVE WENT!!!
Great Band and Jello Kicks it out. Buy the record, if you liked Jello's Projects. You will like this record.

Posted by: porcelainproductions | April 1, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

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