To tell you the absolute truth, I hate going to concerts by myself. Despite the fact that conversation between co-attendees is generally governed by gig volume and breaks between the songs, it’s always nice to be able to turn to your friend(s) and do the “Fuck, yeah” nod in appreciation of what you’re witnessing taking place on the stage. But in these troublesome economic times, combined with the steady increase in price of concert tickets, many fans of live music are more reluctant to venture out; especially if the show in question is taking place on a school/work night.
But goddammit all to HELL, there was no way that I was missing Jello Biafra and his latest musical venture, The Guantanamo School of Medicine. My introduction to Mr. Biafra came in the form of a 5th or 6th generation cassette tape in my first year of high school, and I’ve never looked at music (or politics in music) the same way since. Fresh from a more mainstream background (Unionville, Ontario, formerly a stronghold for snobby business moguls and their well-to-do families), punk fascinated me in a way that no other style of music had. Starting off lightly, with The Clash’s, “Combat Rock” and, “Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols”, I was too busy enjoying the aggression and political commentary (not to mention the looks of disgust on the faces of my parents) found in this “new” style of music to notice anything else. To say that the subsequent accidental introduction to what was known to just about everyone but me as “hardcore” was mind-blowing would be to horribly understate its impact on my teenage self. Hardcore said everything I wanted to say; stop taking it just because you’re told to, stop trusting your elders just because that’s the way it’s supposed to be, and most importantly, the people in charge are NOT YOUR FRIENDS. In the time it took to play one side of that tape, containing the Dead Kennedys compilation album, “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death”, I was a convert, and Jello and the rest of the Dead Kennedys became the most important band in the world.
Unfortunately, the phrase “Late to the Party” has become a bit of an accidental M.O. throughout my life, and not only had I more or less missed the important years of hardcore, but by the time I had discovered the Dead Kennedys in 1989, they’d already been disbanded for three years; victims of a self-destructive scene and a lengthy obscenity trial. Jello Biafra soldiered on as an artist, his spoken-word albums every bit as riveting as his DK lyrics, and his side projects with members of Ministry, NoMeansNo, D.O.A. and The Melvins continued his musical legacy; but though some of these projects were works of genius, they fell short of the benchmark set by DK.
Flash-forward to August 28, 2012, and I’m standing in front of the 3-foot stage at This Ain’t Hollywood in Hamilton, Ontario, watching as an older, greyer, and heavier Jello Biafra makes his way past me in a silk kimono, green surgical gloves, outlandish sunglasses, and a t-shirt bearing the word (order, even) “SHOCK-U-PY!!” to take his place at the microphone. The band behind him are not the Dead Kennedys, who reformed without Jello after a vicious lawsuit naming Jello and his label, Alternative Tentacles; they are The Guantanamo School Of Medicine, and for the most part, I like what I’ve heard on their last two releases. Still, this is my chance to confront my musical idols from the past; will the 50-something Jello live up to expectations?
With no speeches or fanfare, Jello and the band launch into “Strength Thru Shopping” from the album “The Audacity of Hype”, a comment on consumers who buy themselves into a better state of mind. Following that, the band jumped straight into “John Dillinger”, after which Jello gave the sold-out crowd a lesson in Canadian politics before launching into “New Feudalism” and “Panic Land”. For the most part, the crowd seemed to know all of the words, screaming along to the songs and yelling into the microphone which Jello graciously offered to the crowd throughout the night. Having lost the kimono, gloves and sunglasses, Jello took a hefty swig of water as drummer Paul Della Pelle beat out the intro to the Dead Kennedys classic, “California Uber Alles”….and that’s when everyone went INSANE. Using the mic stand as a barbell, Jello spat out updated lyrics (found on his collaboration with The Melvins) about “Governor Schvahze-neggah!”…and I was back in high school again, hearing the Dead Kennedys for the first time as the crowd pushed my now-bruised knees into the stage repeatedly, and yet another beer spilled on my back. The temperature in the club had increased by what seemed like 4,000 degrees, and I was in HEAVEN as Jello dove over my head into the crowd while his stage crew fought desperately to pull the microphone and cable back to safety.
The show could have ended right there, and I would’ve gladly walked away with the satisfaction that I’d gotten my money’s worth, but there was still a lot more to come. After a sneering commentary on the idiocy of working a pointless job sitting at a computer all day (really, I can’t relate), the band kicked off “Electronic Plantation”, following it up with “Brown Lipstick Parade” and “Werewolves on Wall Street”. Jello used the gaps in between the songs, when I would normally be exchanging that aforementioned nod with my fellow concert buddy, as a political forum (this is the guy who almost got the nomination for the Green Party’s Presidential candidate, coming in second to a fellow named Ralph Nader) to talk about everything from privatized prisons, to the current Presidential administration and the administrations before it, the Occupy movement, and all other manner of current events. To his credit, Biafra’s political knowledge does extend past the borders of his homeland, and he made an effort to enlighten the attendees about their own governmental situation, “ESPECIALLY PROVINCIALLY!” After deciding that it was time to lighten the mood a bit, Kimo Ball’s guitar rang out with the intro from the often misunderstood DK track “Too Drunk To Fuck”, and the craziness started again. It’s hard to figure out at which point Biafra started removing clothing, but by the time the band finished blasting through “Three Strikes” and “Pets Eat Their Master”, he was standing on the stage above me, his shirtless, sweaty mass raining down gallons of gross on my head as the girls beside me lost their minds trying to touch his fur-covered stomach. With feedback ringing from the amps, the band left the stage, only to return a few minutes later with an extended intro into “The Cells That Will Not Die”, sadly the only track from the 2011 EP, “Enhanced Methods of Questioning”. Having left the stage again, it certainly seemed like the show was over until a chuckling Jello, having taken the stage again, jokingly asked the backs of the departing crowd, “Why are you all leaving? Gotta WORK tomorrow or something?”. After a mass rush back to the stage, the band broke into the third DK song of the night, a well-received, high-octane version of “Police Truck”, with just about everyone in attendance singing along with every word…even writing about it gives me goose bumps. Just when it seemed that the night couldn’t end on a better note, guitarist Ralph Spight started messing around with his effects, creating a chaotic soundscape which was eventually broken up by Andrew Weiss’ descending bass line, instantly recognizable as the intro to the Dead Kennedys, “Holiday in Cambodia”. As the song slowly built in tempo and volume, so did the movement of the crowd, finally exploding as the first snare roll kicked the song into full gear. “In daddy’s car, thinking you’ll go far, back east your type don’t crawl!” Jello yelled into the mic, seconds before launching himself overhead and into the crowd for the final time that night. The reign of Pol Pot may be as distant of a memory as the breakup of the Dead Kennedys, but as everyone in attendance at This Ain’t Hollywood shouted the former Khmer Rouge dictator’s name over and over again during the climax of the song, the past had come alive again.
Wrenching myself from the stage as the band walked off again (I had a death-grip on the edge of the platform to hold myself up in those last few minutes of intensity), I slipped on the sweat and beer covered dance floor a couple of times, making my way to the back to buy a t-shirt from a relaxed-looking merch guy. Ears ringing, I made my way out of the club and into the slightly-cooler Hamilton night, and realized that I had witnessed a performance that (don’t laugh) transcended time. For 2 hours, I was a teenager again, discovering the music that would stay with me for the rest of my life; made relevant still in a way that only an artist like Jello can pull off. And I guess, at the end of all of this, I hope that the audience did the same for him.