Saturday, June 14, 2008
Angry and articulate, Jello Biafra has made as many enemies as influential records. Next week, the former singer of the Dead Kennedys turns 50, and he celebrates with a pair of concerts at the Great American Music Hall. He also celebrates a career that has seen the singer/raconteur/spoken-word artist lead the West Coast punk charge, run for political office and get beat down on more than one occasion.
Here are the highlights of that life and career:
1958: Eric Reed Boucher is born in Boulder, Colo. "My parents didn't hide reality," he says. "I watched cartoons and the news with equal fascination. I saw Oswald get shot live. I saw the Berlin Wall go up, and Vietnam was the best reality show in the history of television."
1977: Shortly before enrolling at UC Santa Cruz - for just one quarter - Biafra takes in live sets by early punk heroes like the Avengers, Wire and the Ramones. "Not only were they way louder than we thought they would be, but they scared the living daylights out of everyone in the room," he says. "The best part was they made it look much easier than it was."
1978: Earning enough money from doing laundry in a nursing home, Biafra moves to San Francisco and takes on his new moniker. He co-founds Dead Kennedys and, a week later, books the band at seminal San Francisco punk venue Mabuhay Gardens. "We wanted it to be as extreme as possible," Biafra says.
1979: The Dead Kennedys form the Alternative Tentacles label and release the underground hit "California Uber Alles." On a dare, Biafra launches a mayoral campaign in San Francisco and comes in fourth in a field of 10 candidates. The same year, he performs nude in front of 3,000 Clash fans, getting the band blacklisted by Bill Graham. "We had no problem attacking the industry," he says.
1980: Dead Kennedys mania hits. The band goes international as controversy brews around crude punk singles like "Too Drunk to F-" and "Nazi Punks F- Off." Alternative Tentacles helps ignite the American hard-core scene with releases by T.S.O.L., 7 Seconds and D.O.A. "The vision for the label is the same now as it was then: to provide an outlet for artists that want to operate outside of the industry," Biafra says.
1983-85: A series of guerrilla gigs sees the Dead Kennedys perform on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and outside both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Rumblings from Tipper Gore's Parents' Music Resource Center signals trouble ahead.
1986: Biafra's home and offices are raided. The band, now defunct, is charged with distribution of harmful matter to minors. The matter in question is the Dead Kennedys' "Frankenchrist" album, which includes surrealist artwork by H.R. Giger depicting nine penises at climax. A criminal trial ends with a hung jury. Biafra and Gore later face off on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." "Right after that everything with my name on it was banned," Biafra says.
1988: The PRMC ordeal raises Biafra's status as a spoken-word artist, vaulting him onto the college lecture circuit as an expert on censorship. "I fought back and people dug that," he says.
1989: Biafra spends the next decade recording albums with various bands such as Lard and Nomeansno. His spoken-word releases get national attention, as do Alternative Tentacles releases by divisive figures like Mumia Abu-Jamal, Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis.
1994: The singer is attacked at Berkeley punk club 924 Gilman Street by a group of men who kick him on the ground shouting, "Sellout rock star!"
2000: Accused by his former bandmates for failing to sell out, accurately distribute royalties or promote their back catalog, Biafra is ordered to pay $220,000 in damages. The following year, he appeals the ruling. "That's still the great heartbreak of my life," he says. "That whole lawsuit was a scam over my not wanting 'Holiday in Cambodia' to be used in a Levi's commercial."
2005: Biafra records "Sieg Howdy!" with members of the Melvins. He credits himself as J Lo on the sleeve. "If I go without rock for too long, I feel depressed," he says. "I saw the Stooges at the Warfield on Iggy's 60th birthday, so I figured I've got to get something together for my 50th."
Biafra Five-O with Jello Biafra and the Melvins 8 p.m. Mon.-Tues. $22 ($40 both nights). Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell St., San Francisco. (415) 885-0750, www.gamh.com.
E-mail Aidin Vaziri at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page E - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle