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His Message Is About the Media

Ex-Dead Kennedy Jello Biafra puts censorship center stage in his spoken-word shows.

April 08, 1999|NATALIE NICHOLS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"I'm not a guru," says Jello Biafra, rejecting a tag that's frequently applied to him as former leader of the pioneering punk band the Dead Kennedys and a persistent provocateur since the group disbanded.

The disdain in his voice makes it clear that although he criticizes the status quo, there's no magical cure for what ails American culture. Still, the self-described "big mouth" has a lot of ideas about what went wrong. These days, he delivers them mainly in spoken-word albums and performances (he'll be at the Palace tonight and the Glass House in Pomona on Saturday), and any other outlets that come along (he recently was a guest on ABC's "Politically Incorrect").

His shows can last more than four hours, and they usually include readings of his printed works, as well as a lengthy "talk on censorship" covering whatever related material he chooses on any given night.

"So much to say, so little time," says the 40-year-old Biafra, whose real name is Eric Boucher. "With so much important information being omitted by corporate media these days, I can talk about anything I want, because in all likelihood it has been censored through omission."

What the media aren't telling people is a cornerstone of Biafra's show, as well as his fifth spoken-word album, the three-disc "If Evolution Is Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Evolve," released last year by his long-standing Alternative Tentacles label.

His battle with censorship began in 1986, when the Dead Kennedys were charged with distribution of harmful matter to minors for including an allegedly obscene poster by Swiss artist H.R. Giger in their album "Frankenchrist." The charges were dropped when a Los Angeles jury deadlocked after a four-day trial, but the band broke up.

"[A lot] of taxpayers' money was wasted trying to destroy my label and throw me in the slammer," Biafra says. But as a result, he adds, he is taken more seriously. "Instead of rock 'n' roll or punk-underground shoptalk, I get asked questions about real things."

With the Dead Kennedys, noted for bringing Sex Pistols-style political consciousness to American punk, Biafra addressed like-minded souls who scoffed at MTV and (mostly) understood the Swiftian humor behind such songs as "Kill the Poor." Now he uses his vengeful sense of humor and knack for absurd drama on targets ranging from the death penalty to the drug war.

Whether listeners accept Biafra's views depend on political and moral beliefs, but when it comes to fundamentals, he heaps disgust on both major parties. " People of different political stripes are frustrated at the same things," he says. " 'Why can't I put food on the table the way I'd like to or the way I used to?' And the Rush Limbaugh types who get frustrated people to point fingers at each other and pick on groups that are already oppressed. But a lot of people are starting to see through that."

Some will find extreme his ideas that corporations and government discourage people from thinking about larger issues by using television and the Internet to keep us "over-bombarded with facts, not all of them useful." Still, it's hard to argue when he says that there are far bigger things to worry about than Monica Lewinsky and O.J. Simpson. Biafra's too much of a realist to offer any magic solutions, but he insists people can make a difference by publishing their own magazines and getting in the habit of thinking for themselves. One of his pieces, "Wake Up and Smell the Noise," essentially urges us to visualize success, asking, "What if you fight the power and it really does fall? Then what do you do?"

Adds Biafra, "It's time everybody, in their own way, started thinking about that."

BE THERE

Jello Biafra, tonight at the Palace, 1735 N. Vine St., 8 p.m. $10. (323) 462-3000. Also Saturday at the Glass House, 200 W. 2nd St., Pomona, 8 p.m. $10. (909) 469-5800.

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