Jello Biafra @ The Forum Theatre, Melbourne (22/10/2011)
Of all survivors from the original punk movement, none have remained as committed, prolific, uncompromising, socially aware and relevant as Jello Biafra. Given his show at the Forum was sold out a week in advance, it’s clear that the voice of the legendary Dead Kennedys remains respected as ever.
Brought out as part of the Melbourne Festival, this was Jello’s first visit to Australia since his last spoken word tour in 2003, but tonight had the added bonus of him being joined by a panel of Australian music identities for a Q&A session in the second half of the show. Ambling on stage dressed in a loud flame-patterned shirt tucked into jeans, looking every bit his 53 years of age, it didn’t take him long to launch into a scathing attack on a generation of ‘crackberry users’ and their misuse of social media; his punk attitude matching the motif on his shirt – with the fire still burning bright within.
While prior to the tour he conceded he didn’t have much idea on what direction the show would take, it was clear that the recent events of Occupy Melbourne would dominate proceedings. Having visited the protest site only hours before the much discussed police clashes, Biafra had some interesting takes. Like the mass arrests being a blessing that provided the media exposure it needs, or his view that we’re serfs in a system of new feudalism – subject matter covered on a track with his band, The Guantanamo School of Medicine. It was also hard to disagree with his suggestion of introducing a ‘maximum wage’ at the other end of the scale to curb the financial divide between the other 99%. Things lightened up when he rolled off some of his favourite placards that he saw at the protests, with the standout being ‘Milton Friedman is a cunt”, which when read in the distinctive voice of Jello was pure genius.
The topic inevitably drifted into the sphere of US politics- Biafra’s bread and butter. It was mostly great, but had the tendency to drag on, and become tedious. It’s much tougher to dig the boot into Obama over his prior whipping boys – Reagan and Bush -much easier targets that featured prominently in his earlier work. Biafra’s knowledge of Australian politics was also impressive, staying abreast on issues like internet censorship laws, carbon tax and also his observation that all our prime ministers look like lizards, or in the case of Bob Hawke – “a lizard with an Elvis hairdo”.
As expected, a range of ‘Biafraisms’ were showcased, with standouts including ‘Don’t hate the media, become the media’, ‘the ‘United Snakes of America’ or ‘climate collapse,’ a more accurate description to climate change. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Jello show without reference to his mortal enemy, Ronald McReagan.
After a 1.5 hour set, it was time for him for the others to join him onstage with Australian luminaries Dave Graney, Steve Kilbey and SLAM rally organiser Helen Marcou, taking questions from the audience. Chaired by Graney, the idea was a great concept on paper, but fell some way short of the mark, with proceedings coming across disjointed and rushed. Questions from the audience were underwhelming, and a rambling monologue by Steve Kilbey, which had nothing to do with the question, while at times entertaining, was eventually drowned out by jeers from the restless crowd.
It was a slight letdown that the night featured no discussion of the Dead Kennedys. The only reference was a throwaway line from Jello that his former bandmates were “just like Dick Cheney, they only care about money”. But all up it was a vintage performance, and is clear that he hasn’t lost his edge. And good news for fans is that he stated his intentions for a return visit later in the year with his current band, Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, which is indeed reason to be excited.