Give it to Jello Biafra, the idiot savant of Bay Area punk music who as frontman for the Dead Kennedys collaborated on at least two of the greatest political songs ever (Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Buffy St. Marie can all suck it). The first is "Holiday in Cambodia," a bracingly acid-washed rant flung in the general direction of Sandalistas who dug slumming in Third World misery, and the second is "California Uber Alles," a hoolarious slag on the once-and-future Gov. Jerry Brown so searingly funny you could cauterize severed arteries with it.
Listen to both of them before continuing because, like Biafra's brain-cell count and record sales over the past 25 years, it's all downhill from here, kiddos.
Like most idiot savants (and even more musicians), Biafra turned out to have had an excrutiatingly limited amount of good songs and antics in his bone sack; unlike the music emanating from the instruments of bandmates East Bay Ray, Klaus Fluoride, and others, a little Biafra-as-Shaman went a long way. Think of him as the Rudy Ruettiger of punk, one of the few Americans who really doesn't have a second act (sorry, F. Scott, old sport, you were oh-so-wrong about almost everyone except well, you, Rudy, and Jello; hell, even Jerry Brown of all folks is on, what, his third or fourrth or even fifth act?).
Like a tragic mix of Phil Ochs and Ray Davies, Biafra couldn't leave one of signature tunes alone, redoing California Uber Alles when Ronnie Raygun ushered in his horrifying age of peace through superior firepower and then yet again when Arnold Schwarzenegger's Sacramento anschluss fell over the Golden State like edelweiss pollen over the Von Trapp family on their way out of Austria. One only wonders how the very quintessence of modern-day gubernatorial evil—I speak, of course, of George Deukmejian—has escaped the recycling bin of Jello Biafra's mind.
Back in the day, Biafra was never slow to yap on and on about "corporate-serving rodents" and how "people in this country get more and more gullible by the day," draining the joy his music brought with every off-stage utterance. And, of course, as a self-declared commie-pinko-anarchist who happened to run a record label, he was never slow to rip off his bandmates.
As sad as that might be, here's something else to cause a tear right here in the 21st century: Biafra's all-too-serioso interview with The Daily Beast, in which the washed-up rocker puts on his best Stephen Stills and muses grandiosely and paranoidally about what was and what is yet to come:
“When Ronald Reagan won in 1980, I realized I kind of misfired,” Biafra told The Daily Beast. “Sure, the Jerry Brown theory was something I came up with all by my little self, but it turned out to be wrong.”...
Biafra is still hard at work deflating the great political personalities of the day. His latest album with his band, The Guantanamo School of Medicine, is entitled The Audacity of Hype, and features a parody of Shepard Fairey's iconic Obama poster drawn by Fairey himself. While Obama is far too centrist for Biafra's tastes, he says the album targets complacency—just as “California Über Alles” did.
“I cannot emphasize strongly enough that Obama is not the problem here: It's the people who voted for him and then assumed that their job was done,” he said.
You got that? He's deflatin' the great pols of the day, but not Lord Obama, because...well, it's just not Barry O's fault. Cue up the Mary Magdalene bit from Jesus Christ Superstar and hum along: "...he's a man, he's just a man..."
Read the whole thing, including Jello Biafra's middle-aged worries about those Tea Party types ("Some of them are even talking in terms of guns and Obama and whatnot and you know that if anyone said that on radio or TV about Bush they'd be in jail for the next 30 years,”) and then remember one of the foundational truths of punk by way of D.H. Lawrence: Never trust the singer, trust the song. The icons of our youth exist to disappoint us in their (and our) old age and in that sense, Biafra has indeed managed to cough up a second act, however predictable and uninteresting it might be. The madcap fella who closed out one of the greatest albums of all time with an ironic version of "Viva Las Vegas" has become far more cringe-inducing in life than Elvis Presley did while dying on the crapper.