There’s Still Room for Jello

Nathan Hall

By all accounts, it appears that the 44-year-old ex-Dead Kennedy front man Jello Biafra needs a hug or three. His indie label Alternative Tentacles is financially strapped after bitter ex-band mates successfully sued him for refusing to allow their songs to be used in commercials and accused him of withholding royalty checks from the back catalog. His bids for San Francisco mayor and the U.S. presidency fizzled. He has been accused by California police of distributing “harmful matter” to minors, which he blamed for the destruction of his marriage. The terminally paranoid Biafra, otherwise known as Eric Reed Boucher, still does not even have an e-mail address. Regardless, Biafra triumphantly trudges on with his seventh solo album.

With a title like “Machine Gun In The Clown’s Hand” and cover art that features Osama Bin Laden’s head on Ronald McDonald’s body, Biafra certainly has not started getting subtle on us yet. These are politically charged yet bitterly funny rantings and ravings that feel light-years away from the lame-ass slam prose we have come to expect when someone mentions the dreaded phrase “spoken word.” With the closest point of reference being Henry Rollins’ post-Black Flag blatherings and outbursts, this feels more like open mic night-style stand-up comedy than a hippie-dippy poetry festival.

Focusing mainly on lampooning the war on terrorism, this follow-up to last year’s largely ignored “The Big Kaboom” continues to hammer away at Biafra’s twisted vision of the new and improved Father, Son and Holy Ghost: oil, bombs and money. Sprawling out over three discs and ultra deluxe liner notes, this type of excess seems particularly odd considering persistent rumors claiming Alternative Tentacles is weeks away from bankruptcy court proceedings.

The subject matter runs the gamut, from impersonating his high school geometry teacher to fondly remembering his friend Joey Ramone, but overall, this is still extreme left-wing agit prop. Some members of the punk community have taken offense to what they view as Biafra’s self-indulgence and penchant for martyrdom, perhaps most evident in 1994’s “Beyond The Valley Of The Gift Police.” Biafra’s often-tortured relationship with the underground music scene was most severely tested when he was once beaten into a near coma to cries of “Sellout!” by some decidedly overzealous music purists while attending a concert near Maximum Rock And Roll’s headquarters.

Each Biafra release works mainly as a non-traditional time capsule of the activist movement at that particular moment. However, that’s certainly not to be construed as to imply that if you own one Jello album, then, for all practical purposes, you own them all. To be sure, there are certain common themes that are reaffirmed throughout the catalog. However, “Machine Gun” should be approached as a new, exciting and vibrant work with its own merits.

Several critics have lumped Biafra in with 1960s Yippies like Abbie Hoffman, most likely due in part to both men’s advocacy for the consumption of proscribed substances. If you are willing to look past that, Biafra’s well-researched, rapid-fire accusations are far more reminiscent of classic Lenny Bruce or Bill Hicks routines than they are of Hoffman’s madcap antics. Biafra is a brilliant and engaging public speaker that would bring the Toastmaster finalists to tears, and he knows it all too well. Never content to rest on his well-deserved laurels, Biafra is determined to keep shouting unpopular, tacky and sometimes offensive things until the cows come home and start getting interested in political reform.

Biafra does engage here, thankfully lightly, in more traditional, near-hokey techniques of spoken word recital that have historically been his weak point. To Biafra’s credit, no 3-CD set in recent memory has been released commercially without a little bit of fluff attached. The vast majority of the time, Biafra gets his point across with wit and grace that fit together thoughts like puzzle pieces much like his carefully constructed cut-and-paste Fuck Facts! ‘zine. Most of his more provocative questions lay unanswered but, hey, that’s life.

Biafra is the poster boy of every embattled reject of the fractured punk community, still hungry for progressive socio-politico ideals yet feeling like way too much of a geezer to sport liberty spikes. Ultimately, records like “Machine Gun” provide hope for all of us that being old doesn’t necessarily relegate you to “tool” status.

Nathan Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]