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Jello Biafra, Cultural Terrorist

October 11, 1987|BOB SIPCHEN

A soft-spoken mental health professional from Boulder, Colo., Stan Boucher still smiles slightly when he refers to the young man he named Eric Boucher 29 years ago as "Jello Biafra."

But as he stood in the hallway of a Los Angeles Municipal Court building, waiting for a jury to decide whether his son was guilty of distributing harmful material to minors, Boucher said he admired what the boy he reared on Kennedy liberalism has done with his life since becoming lead singer for the punk band Dead Kennedys.

The jury, it turned out, couldn't decide whether "Penis Landscape," an art poster included in the Dead Kennedys' 1985 "Frankenchrist" album, was obscene, and when a deputy city attorney tried to refile the misdemeanor charges, the judge in the nationally publicized case turned him down.

Outside the courtroom, Stan Boucher smiled and said he was relieved.

"I'm so happy I want to tear down buildings! I want to vandalize! I want to spray paint!" Biafra announced, looking almost "L.A. Law"-ish in a pin-stripe suit he had picked up at the Salvation Army. After autographing albums for some of the jurors, the self-proclaimed cultural terrorist noticed that the small swarm of reporters and legal types was disappearing into elevators.

"No one wants to go out and talk some more?" he asked.

"Your 15 minutes of fame are over," someone called out.

But that doesn't seem likely.

The case killed Biafra's band and left the man who wrote the lyrics to such anthems as "Religious Vomit" and "Kill the Poor" nearly broke.

But an angry young man is something of a novelty in the 1980s, which may explain why Biafra's "spoken word" performances--in which he discusses such topics as "Why I'm Glad the Space Shuttle Blew Up"--are drawing crowds of folks who wouldn't have been caught dead at a Dead Kennedys concert.

Some people--Biafra included--are already making the inevitable comparison to the late social satirist Lenny Bruce.

A couple of weeks after the trial, in San Francisco, Biafra was running a little late, hustling about in a last-ditch effort to avoid eviction from his apartment in the increasingly gentrified Mission District.

At Alternative Tentacles Records, the independent label Biafra helped create and now owns, three employees worked intently in a disheveled office about the size of most executive restrooms, diligently filling mail orders from West Germany, Holland, Minnesota and Hermosa Beach.

The walls are a montage of clutter. One displays the jackets of albums the label has produced by bands such as the Jungle Studs, Part Time Christians, Tragic Mulatto and others that have gone beyond the Dead Kennedys' dubious taste in selecting names.

A bulletin board above an old couch sports a dart board with a well-punctured portrait of Oliver North. A collection of irate letters are stapled to a door. For example:

"Dear Mr. Biafra:

"Your music . . . has corrupted the lives of certain youths in the community. Several of these children were honest churchgoers and played an active role in parish activities. They now belong to a 'band' called Social Insects and are nothing but a disturbance."

To Biafra, of course, a disturbance is a fine thing to be--a calling, even.

"That sounds like him," one of the Alternative Tentacles staff people said, hearing the sputtering of a vehicle that had clearly been driven hard. Out in the garage Biafra picked at the remaining pieces of his truck's turn signal, which he had somehow just shattered.

At the courthouse, Biafra's face had been so taut with anger or stress it looked as if he'd had a premature face lift. Two weeks later, it still did. But then Biafra still has a lot to be upset about.

For one thing, he was getting evicted (the reasons were complex, but apparently had nothing to do with his song "Let's Lynch the Landlord"). What enrages him the most, though, is how few people are enraged by all the enraging things in the world. For instance, he is infuriated by what he sees as the aggressive attempts by some law makers and enforcers around the country to curtail the free expression of artists in various media.

As Biafra sees things, mainstream record companies have been cowed by the forces of repression for so long that they now push "Glam rock" and other heavy-metal variants, believing that "if people want loud music as a cathartic ritual to let off anger and steam, why not give them something that will go nowhere, something sexist and meaningless that preaches obedience to authority rather than taking action on your own?"

As a singer, Biafra has the same sort of impassioned sensibility and tremolo that Joan Baez might have as she's being electrocuted.

The Dead Kennedys' music helped blow away the sex-, drug- and disco-addled culture of the '70s, Biafra believes. But he also believes that today's yuppie careerist consumerism and the self-centered spiritualism of the New Age movement are equally fertile ground for the insidious forces that would eradicate individual expression and freedom.

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