They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
Today, Eric Boucher turns 55 years old. This might not interest you, unless you know that his stage name is Jello Biafra. Which still might not interest you, unless you like provocative, politically charged hardcore (or need to).
Biafra first came to notice as the lead singer and primary songwriter for the Dead Kennedys, whose in-your-face name and sound helped to make them poster boys of the hardcore movement. Speaking of posters, the band’s inclusion of H.R. Giger’s “Penis Landscape” as a poster in their Frankenchrist album resulted in their being charged with “distribution of harmful matter to minors.” The trial ended, appropriately enough, with a hung jury.
Biafra was born in Boulder, Colorado on July 17, 1958. Twenty years later, he answered an ad placed by East Bay Ray (also not his parents’ name of choice), and together they formed the Dead Kennedys, a name designed to shock the sensibilities of even the most liberal of listeners. After toying with the stage name “Occupant,” he settled on a pseudonym combining the retro jiggly dessert with a tragically failed rebel African state best known for its starving children. Of course, Biafra and the DKs were well known for their absurdist sense of humor, using it not only to criticize those they disagreed with, but also to point out the hypocrisy of like-minded people who failed to walk the walk.
In addition, Biafra co-founded Alternative Tentacles, a label that not only released his band’s material, but became a prominent force in the independent music world.
This being hardcore, and the band members being headstrong, it could have been predicted that the Dead Kennedys would have an acrimonious breakup peppered with litigation, and Biafra was replaced by the kid from The Courtship of Eddie’s Father and others. Since the breakup, Biafra has performed with other bands, toured the country as a(n out)spoken word artist, and even done some country and soul music.
Beyond music, Biafra has been politically active, supporting environmental causes and civil liberties. He ran for mayor of San Francisco in 1979 (coming in fourth out of ten people, with 3.5 percent of the vote), and in 2000 he sought the Green Party nomination for President, coming in second to Ralph Nader. He has continued to work for causes he believes in, and has criticized President Obama for continuing and expanding Bush’s policies.
The Dead Kennedys’ humor, message, and musical cleverness has made them a popular cover subject, including at least three tribute albums (one compiled by Biafra himself).
Thom Dunn – Kill the Poor (Dead Kennedys cover)
The DK’s first and best album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, opened with “Kill the Poor,” a song that epitomized Biafra’s politics and sense of humor. At the time, there was much talk of a neutron bomb that would kill enemy soldiers, but not destroy buildings. This song argued, tongue-in-cheek, for using the bomb to eliminate poverty in this country. While the original started slowly and turned into a blast of punk, Dunn’s version is more of a folk/bluegrass romp. Dunn, a writer and musician from Massachusetts, works for the Huntington Theatre Company; last week they won the Tony Award for Best Regional Theatre, so being featured in Cover Me is probably not the highlight of Dunn’s month.
The Delgados – California Über Alles (Dead Kennedys cover)
In “California Über Alles,” also from the debut album, Biafra somehow conflates California’s then- (and future-) governor Jerry Brown, a serious and generally thoughtful politician, with Adolf Hitler, who was serious but not particularly thoughtful. Brown, best known as a fiscally conservative but socially liberal populist who dated Linda Ronstadt, couldn’t have been less like Hitler, which made Biafra’s vision of “suede denim secret police” and concentration camps for the “uncool” rather amusing. The Delgados, an indie-pop band from Scotland, pay tribute to this song with a remarkably faithful cover that is aptly described by Allmusic.com as both “deadly earnest” and “quite hilarious,” a contrast that is consistent with the song’s bizarre conceit.
Foo Fighters (with Serj Tankian) – Holiday in Cambodia (Dead Kennedys cover)
On the other hand, Pol Pot, the leader of Cambodia during the late 1970s, had all too many similarities to Hitler. Cambodia was probably one of the last places in the world that anyone would want to have vacationed in at that time, and “Holiday in Cambodia” criticizes both the totalitarian regime and the failure of the West to care enough to do anything. Of course, memories of the exemplary job that Western nations had done during the Vietnam War were still fresh, so the likelihood of an intervention at that time was slim. This cover by Foo Fighters, with Serj Tankian of System of a Down, rocks at least as hard as the original.
Nouvelle Vague – Too Drunk to Fuck (Dead Kennedys cover)
Originally released as a single, “Too Drunk to Fuck” became popular despite the fact that many radio stations simply wouldn’t play it. In its original incarnation, it was a typical DK song – hard, fast, and catchy. It has a great surf guitar part from East Bay Ray, and Biafra sounds partially angry and partially disappointed because he is, well, too drunk to fuck. The cover, by French band Nouvelle Vague, turns the song into a sunny Brazilian-sounding tune, and the female singer seems sort of amused that she is, well, too drunk to fuck. Biafra, who had lost the rights to many of the band’s songs after a lawsuit, was not unreasonably displeased that his former colleagues licensed this version for use during a rape scene in the movie Grindhouse.
Mojo Nixon & The Toadliquors – Winnebago Warrior (Dead Kennedys cover)
The Dead Kennedys’ second album, Plastic Surgery Disasters, wasn’t much of a departure, although the band was tighter and they allowed a few more influences to bubble under their basic hardcore sound. “Winnebago Warrior” skewers a pretty easy target — Americans who travel in RVs, indiscriminately buying dumb souvenirs. Mojo Nixon, a musical parodist and iconoclast whose preferred genre deviated toward the country/rockabilly/blues end of the spectrum, collaborated with Biafra on an album called Prairie Home Invasion, released on Alternative Tentacles. Nixon’s version of the song, with his band the Toadliquors, is a blast of rockabilly that works surprisingly well.
Bonus Cover: Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon – Love Me, I’m a Liberal (Phil Ochs cover)
Although their musical styles were very different, Biafra and Phil Ochs have much in common. Ochs’s Wikipedia entry refers to him as a “songwriter who was known for his sharp wit, sardonic humor, earnest humanism, political activism, insightful and alliterative lyrics, and distinctive voice,” and that description fits Biafra. The aforementioned Prairie Home Invasion album includes a cover of Ochs’s “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” updated to refer to the Clinton era. The song’s sarcastic exposing of liberal hypocrisy makes it a perfect fit for Biafra (and Nixon), and they turn the folkie original into a piano-driven rollicking rocker.
There’s always room for Jello at Alternative Tentacles, and the Dead Kennedys live on at iTunes and Amazon.