No stranger to political unrest, punk provocateur Jello Biafra entered Melbourne in the midst of a media storm over protests and police action. Taking the stage of The Forum in a colourful shirt, he seemed at first nothing like his formidable reputation might suggest – indeed, his air seemed quite professorial, almost like your favourite Civics lecturer was in session. Once begun however, Jello left no doubt that the fire still burns, and, turning a sardonic eye on contemporary society and politics, he wasted no time reminding people why he is such a countercultural figure, impossible to ignore.
Despite Biafra being well under the mainstream radar, he is a canny choice for the Melbourne Festival. Anyone over a certain age that has had a passing interest in progressive politics and underground music of the ’80s was bound to have at least thought of attending. A whole younger demographic who have discovered him through cultural serendipity were sure to rock up – the Dead Kennedys are still a band that will drop jaws for certain first-time listeners, after all.
The room was clearly warm and his appearance on stage highly anticipated. The happy coincidence of his arrival during the local Occupy protests provided him with ample fuel for the night, and it was gratifying that he shaped his material to respond to issues pertinent to an Australian audience. The Q&A that followed the monologue clearly demonstrated his ability to engage with the concerns of his fans, and his power as a communicator.
Not afraid to mock himself as he popped on his glasses to read from a hastily scribbled crib sheet, Jello’s energy never faltered as he reeled off a tumble of anecdotes, observations and the occasional sly bomb throw (Bill Clinton’s teenage years serving mint juleps to mobsters was a notable highlight). He showed no favour to figures of the left or right – corruption, regardless of political leaning, is corruption after all, and Biafra has fought long and hard for the right to call bullshit where he sees it in the staggeringly shallow discourse that has replaced true politics. His knowledge of domestic affairs was notable, though many US references may have been a bit obscure to anyone not given to watching cable news. Barack Obama is a stooge, the Koch brothers and the Murdoch press have an insidious influence on public life, and Australians prefer their politicians to be reptilian in appearance (oddball conspiracist David Icke, due soon in Melbourne, will no doubt have secret evidence that this is in fact true). Regarding the eviction of Occupy protesters from City Square, he quipped “We have a term for that… we call it a Police Riot.” At the heart of much of the world’s ills, UPRA (United Puppets of Rich Assholes) accrue wealth while democracy withers and Corporatism slowly dismantles liberty.
Biafra is a rousing presence. His long association with direct action and engagement with democratic process has been unfailing (and one can only wonder at what San Francisco may have become if he had secured the mayoralty of the city). This can result in his delivery becoming a touch didactic, and although it never veers into hectoring it can feel uncomfortably close to evangelical. Then again, he does have a message, a cause. The world has some fucked, greedy people in it, who care nothing for the welfare of others, nor even for the foundations of a democratic society. It is almost as though each time he talks about a topic, he never ceases to be amazed at how much injustice oozes through the machine to oil the cogs of modern politics. He’s angry, and he wants you to be also. Don’t hate the media – become the media.