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Four Hours With Jello Biafra

In Which the Former Front Man of the Dead Kennedys Attempts to Save the Future of Rock 'n' Roll

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"Shut up. Be happy. Everything you demanded is now commanded." Jello Biafra is stalking the stage at Northwestern University, goose-stepping from one end to the other. He wears a black leather trench coat, black boots. His face is obscured by dark glasses and the script trembling in his hand.

Two friends in the audience, Mike and Jeff, are slouched near horizontal and laughing nervously at Biafra's antics. It's laughter with little relationship to humor. Jeff halfheartedly strums an invisible guitar as if impatient or preoccupied.

"Has a bloody coup already gone down?" Biafra dramatically asks. His tone says it has, and he rattles off a machine-gun list of conspirators. "Richard Secord, Ollie North, General Singlaub, Frank Carlucci, George Bush--his wimp factor is more like a mirage to make him seem cute. Why do the same names keep coming up?"

"I came to see him because I like the Dead Kennedys," Jeff says. Biafra used to be the front man and vocalist for the underground San Francisco-based group. "I thought he was, you know, a lot like Sid Vicious . . . just out there, really out there."

Neither Jeff nor Mike looks particularly punky, however. Neither one is wearing black or any of the usual metallic accessories associated with the old Sex Pistols look. In fact they appear rather safe, in pastels and jeans faded almost to white. Mike has a new red gym bag between his feet.

Onstage, Biafra shakes the pages clutched in his fist. "What can we do besides buy? What is this, Germany, 1939? Why do I feel like there's only five more years? I'm scared."

Jeff turns to Mike and shrugs. "Performance art, I think." Mike throws open his hands, resigned to the possibility.

Biafra turns his back to them, strips off the coat, and fiddles with some sheets of paper on the table that is his main prop in this "Spoken Word Performance." In the audience, more than 300 cleanly scrubbed young people marvel at Biafra's energy. His anger is palpable, even with the house lights on high.

"I don't know what I thought I'd see," Mike says. "I guess I thought he'd talk about rock 'n' roll or something. I don't know."

For Biafra, everything he's doing is about rock 'n' roll. The whole show, the whole performance, is consumed with a singular, almost unbelievable mission: he's got to save rock 'n' roll. It's not madness that grips him but the kind of anger that comes from having been slapped around.

The Dead Kennedys were better known for their outrageous offensiveness than their musical prowess, but it becomes apparent that Biafra has had his smug cynicism tried and converted into real fear, real emotion. Now, without the wall of speakers or a beer drenched stage, Biafra wants to tell the world of his ordeal.

During his performance--a marathon of nearly four hours that will lose half its audience before it's over--Biafra will do a Lenny Bruce: when he's through with the prepared scripts, he starts talking about his recent court case, quoting the cops, the district attorney, arguing about the insanity of his arrest. This, he believes, is the beginning of rock 'n' roll repression.

What actually happened is this: When Tipper Gore (yes, the wife of presidential aspirant Albert) several years ago founded the Parents Music Resource Center, which sought ratings for records similar to the movies' G, PG, PG-13, R, and X, Biafra became one of the organization's most vocal opponents. He certainly wasn't alone: allies as unlikely as Frank Zappa and John Denver testified against the group's proposals before a Senate hearing. (According to Biafra, one of the PMRC's supporters is Jeanne Simon, wife of the Illinois senator.)

Later, in 1986, when the Dead Kennedys released the LP Frankenchrist, California authorities--with the full support of the PMRC--charged Biafra, his distributor, and even the pressing plant that made the album with "distributing harmful material to minors." The material deemed offensive was not the record itself but a poster insert by H.R. Giger called "Landscape XX." It depicts what appear to be rows upon rows of anonymous, mysteriously engaged genitals.

In August 1987, Biafra was acquitted when the jury deadlocked. But the case haunts him, as his show at Northwestern evidenced. For Biafra, his arrest is the result of the land of the free's ever-constricting definitions of freedom. "They didn't go after the big guys," Biafra rails. "They went after the little guy who manufactures his own record." He points out that the record-store chain that actually sold Frankenchrist was miraculously left off the indictment list.

For Biafra, the acquittal is no victory. His life has been on hold for more than a year. He's had to form a defense fund, go to court. He hasn't written any music in ages. In the meantime, Gore runs for president, wife Tipper writes a book (Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society, released by a religious-right publisher), and several record companies have capitulated to the PMRC by voluntarily putting warning labels on records. Biafra is frustrated and flushed.

Holding up a publication endorsed by the PMRC, Biafra says, "Here are the 'rules to de-punk and de-metal': 'Do not use hair dyes; do not associate with punk or heavy metal; do not listen to punk or heavy metal; do not wear any torn clothing; do not wear hair in any style which inhibits the learning process.'"

Jeff and Mike are used to a different kind of rock 'n' roll. "I see his thing, but, you know, there is a First Amendment, and I can sort of see how the Giger poster could be seen as obscene," Jeff says. "I mean, my mom--who's really pretty cool--she'd think it was obscene. I mean, my mom listens to the Rolling Stones and stuff." Mike looks away, unsure of the validity of Jeff's testimony.

Onstage Biafra is piqued, talking now about a private reform school in Utah, a favorite of the religious right, where a lot of troubled kids are being shipped. He stands firmly and reads from another script he's written. "Once the Beaver, always the Beaver," he says with a sigh. "Twenty thousand grand a year is a small price to pay to avoid talking straight with our kids."

Mike's eyelids are dropping. Jeff shifts in his seat. Mike touches Jeff's elbow and with a jerk of the head signals toward the exit. "Wanna go shoot some baskets?" he asks. Jeff nods. They get up wordlessly and disappear through the door.

After the show, Biafra is surrounded by fans as he tries to collect his things off the table. Among his props is a signed copy of Tipper Gore's book. The inscription is personal, asking Biafra to read the book with an open mind.

"You know, I really admire what you're doing," a woman tells Biafra. His look is stiff, almost haunted. His eyes, roving over the heads of the crowd around him, are keeping track of a shoe full of money to be donated to his defense fund. "I'm a fifth-grade teacher, and a lot of mu kids are listening to the Dead Kennedys," the woman adds.

"Really? Great, that's great," Biafra says. He's packing up his scripts and a little Rambo soldier doll he uses in the show.

"I think it's really important that they get another point of view," she tells him. She teaches at a private school in Lake Forest. "Well, keep up the good work," he says, signing autographs for the score of kids around him. Biafra doesn't look much older than they are, only more weary. Somebody hands him a social security card. "You want me to sign this?" he asks, surprised.

"Yeah," beams a boy. He's terribly pleased with himself.

Biafra shrugs, scribbling his name across it with a wide-tipped black magic marker. After it, he prints a small "R" and draws a circle around it. His name is a product, a registered trademark.

"Listen," says the same boy, trying for cleverness. "I know where you got the 'Biafra.' So where did 'Jello' come from?"

Biafra stares at him. "Come on," he says, his face tied in a knot. He's too tired, and it's just not funny.

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