In the fall of 1987, I was a senior in high school in Vestal NY, where I had just moved from Athens, GA. I had been waxing punk for a couple of years but it was then after moving that I began to discover American west coast punk bands like X, Fear, and the Dead Kennedys.
In my senior public speaking class, a debate was assigned, and we were paired off and given a topic. My partner and I were assigned the then-recent subject of parental warning stickers on music.
I took the position of arguing against this, having followed the whole thing in the news. As a regular reader of Bloom County, I was also treated to Berke Breathed’s uproarious satire of the congressional hearings on the subject.
It was my first debate. Coming from an academic family with a strong tradition of crafting reasonable, persuasive arguments, I set to work I argued passionately that it is the responsibility of parents, not the government, to be actively involved in the media, including music, that their children are exposed to. I had some good examples and statistics. I stated my case thoroughly. A lot of the arguments I made that day are still relevant to today’s issues. Convinced of my thorough application of reason and fact, I sat down.
My partner got up for her rebuttal. She read aloud the lyrics to a song, and defeated every bit of my reasoned argument without ever stating a position. That song was “Too Drunk to Fuck”, and that was my introduction to the Dead Kennedys.
After class, we went to lunch and were discussing the debate.
“You know I agree with you,” she said, “but you took the harder position to argue. All I had to do was pull out some lyrics that would be really offensive from a conservative, religious parental point of view.”
She went on, “Actually, the guy who wrote that song, Jello Biafra, agrees with us on this issue and is also vehemently against the parental warning labels on music.”
Indeed, Jello was one of many musicians who had testified before Congress in opposition to this mandatory labeling.
I went out after that school that day and bought a copy of “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death”, which remains in my playlists to this day. Later on, I was introduced to Jello’s spoken word recordings. I listened to a good bit of spoken word and Jello’s recordings went beyond the art of other artists I followed. They extended past the world of personal observation into social awareness.
While he is ever the court jester, monkeywrenching the status quo, beneath the glib exterior lies a mind driven by a familiar sort of reasoning.
Fast forward to 2002, when I went to a Green Party event called Democracy Rising. There were two things on the bill that compelled me to go: Patti Smith and Jello Biafra.
I had always said that if I ever got to meet Jello I would not want to get an autograph but rather would want to give him an article, because he collects such news clippings for his well-researched speaking tour. On the day of the event, I found an article about some political money to the tune of something like $275 thousand dollars being given to Kansas City, MO area politicos to “Combat Goth Culture”. I printed the article and stuck it in my bag as I left the house, not really believing I would get close enough to him to give it to him but hoping.
We got there and Jello came out and delivered a thought-provoking address with his standard fire, reminding me exactly why I liked this artist. He made sense to me.
After he finished while the next speaker was starting, my friends nudged me and pointed out Jello, standing at the side door about 10 feet away.
So I walked up to Jello Biafra and handed him the printout, saying “I brought you a news clipping”. He took it from me, but instead of reading it he squinted at me for a minute too long. He seemed a little disoriented but then he said “Oh…you look like somebody I lost a
long time ago. It threw me for a minute.” I was wearing my classic Emerald Triangle shirt and we did have some mutual acquaintances, but naturally, at this moment my mind blanked like a fangirl meeting the object of her admiration backstage. I may have been making the guppy face at him.
Then he opened the paper and read the article, and laughed. “Funny,” he said, “I’m speaking in Kansas City next week…oh that’s a good one! Thanks.” As he pocketed the article the audience had started chanting “Run, Ralph, Run!!!” He looks at me and says, in an exasperated tone “Will you look at that…he hasn’t even said anything about running again yet…this is supposed to be about LOCAL power!!!” and proceeds to talk to me about the importance of local politics as he tries to untangle his lavaliere mike from his clothing, necklace, and badge. I assist him in getting it free and then stand there holding it while he talks to me.
Here one of the artists I most admire seems to be trying to engage me in a conversation, and THIS is when I lose my words. I stand there tongue-tied.
I want to tell him how much he has inspired me. I wanted to tell him that he kicked my ass in a debate in high school. I wanted to drop the names of the people we had in common. But more than any of that, my burning desire was to listen to what he had to say.
Funny that all these years later, it’s not what he said that I remember so vividly, but my own inability to speak. At that point, one of the organizers stepped in and asked him something about the show, so I handed him his mike and patted him on the shoulder and said “It was very nice to meet you. I have always admired your work.” He smiled at me, listening to the still-talking organizer, and I walked back to my seat, a little starry-eyed. But as Patti Smith played her set I couldn’t help but feel like I had blown it.
It’s such a high to realize one of those maybe-never – happen bucket list things like meeting an artist who influenced you. And most of us don’t get many of those opportunities in our lifetimes. But as an artist myself I also know how overwhelming it is that all these people want to talk to you everywhere you go. So when I look back I think about how real he was with me in that moment. I had this precious gift of his attention and then let my own anxiety steal that from me. That was many years ago and before I spent a dozen years speaking in college classrooms, so I like to think I’d do better now. I know I have passed my interest in this guy and his work on to the generations that have followed me in the classroom and online.
Anyhow, that’s my Jello Biafra story.
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