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Real Conversations 1 Excerpt: Jello Biafra

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Jello BiafraJELLO BIAFRA: [having just been panhandled] Even the homeless have corporate logos on them–what does THAT say about what we’re turning into?!

V: That’s because in the past 20 years the corporations have learned the importance of branding, and they give away lots of clothing prominently displaying their brand or logo–

JB: Oh, they make you pay for it. You buy T-shirts with your favorite band’s logo on the front–you’re paying to advertise them! And I traffic in it, too–I admit it–because our record label sells T-shirts.

I was part of the 30th Anniversary of the Summer of Love concert in Golden Gate Park (1997). I walked up to the microphone thinking, “Oh, s … , I’m by far the youngest person on the bill. What am I gonna say? . . . I know . . .” So I said, “I’ll bet you the difference between the original, Ôreal’ Summer of Love and this, is there were not all those corporate logos and banners by the concession stands. I’ll bet that giant blow-up Miller beer can balloon wouldn’t have been there.” And by the end of the Jefferson Airplane set, someone had popped that balloon!

So Miller, after the fact, called up Chet Helms [promoter] and said, “We’re pulling $15,000 in funding from your event because you failed to guarantee that no artists would attack our products from the stage.” Dirk Dirksen [Mabuhay Gardens impresario] called and told me how livid the promoters were over this, adding, “Please don’t go to the press with this, Biafra–it’ll make it worse.” So I played ball and didn’t go to the press, and finally Miller was shamed into coughing up the promised money. Part of the agreement was that the promoters had to patch the balloon so Miller could take it to their next event–an amusing ending to this that shows why these bastards must be fought when they try to . . . not exactly “steal” our culture so much as stamp ownership on it–kind of like the Mark of the Beast!

V: It’s finally time to examine how advertising, marketing and branding have gotten so much better, to the point where it’s almost impossible to have any kind of “counterculture” anymore–

JB: The San Francisco Bay Guardian ran an article about Pepsi trying to buy into the school district here. Soda companies and Frito-Lay will offer millions to a school district that has had its tax money taken away (by the very same people whom the soda companies “funded,” I suppose), then say, “We’ll give you ten million bucks if we’re the exclusive beverage in all of your schools.” And they get to advertise. Like in Colorado Springs: instead of pep banners in the gym, there are Pepsi banners, Pepsi machines the minute you walk in the front door, Pepsi ads on the sides of school buses, posters, etc. And even though they passed a law against it here in California, the companies are trying to do it anyway.

V: It’s the mind-set of the corporate state: Do whatever it takes to make maximum profits as quickly as possible, ignoring people’s welfare and the environment–

JB: Actually, the corporate state has no mind, because there are too many people (and too much money) involved, who fight with each other because they want total control over everybody else–and no one can have it all, not even Bill Gates! When you get to that level, it’s like wealth addiction rather than crack addiction–a far more dangerous drug, in my opinion. That’s why I seized on the Green Party’s idea for MAXIMUM WAGE and trumpeted it everywhere. The Green Party didn’t set a maximum, but here’s mine: six figures, and then cut everybody off! And the benefit would be FREE SCHOOLS, FREE MEDICAL CARE, FREE CHILD CARE– things that are a given as a human right in other “civilized” countries. And FREE TRANSPORTATION . . .

I like the idea of abolishing the stock market entirely. That’s a major element of wealth addiction. Once somebody gets their first million, what more is there to gain? Obviously, there’s a very deep drive to succeed, and success is measured in money, and people figure they have to keep playing the game and play for higher and higher stakes to make more and more money to feed their wealth addiction habit. And if it means screwing over everybody else, so much the better–thus Ross Perot, Donald Trump, Dianne Feinstein’s husband, etc., etc., etc. That’s why the best way to put wealth addicts in rehab is to take their money away. [laughs]

When I went on “Politically Incorrect” and introduced the idea of maximum wage, I was booed by hosts, guests and audience alike. When I called Michael Jordan a wealthy parasite, another guest (the star of the TV version of “Clueless”) whined, “But wait, he was a good basketball player. He deserved all that money” and other pearls of wisdom.

Part of what I did in Seattle during the anti-WTO protests was just to say: Step One is to divorce oneself from corporate feudalism as much as humanly possible–not to mention sabotage it, if you possibly can. Unfortunately, there’s just one way to completely divorce yourself from corporate feudalism–I know of only one person who ever pulled that off, remaining pure and politically correct as the driven snow, and that’s Ted Kaczynski. But he suffered dearly for his art statement, didn’t he? He lived in a little cabin with no windows, so miserable that he sent mail bombs for 20 years to people he didn’t even know, because he couldn’t get laid. There’s got to be a better way!

So what I try to tell people is: Just think about what you’re doing, what you’re buying, and start trying to divorce yourself from crap as much as possible. Don’t go to chain stores, don’t buy corporate products. To some degree we all have to–I happen to like cars, and there’s no nice organic woodsy oil company out there to supply us with politically correct gasoline. So a compromise is being made right there.

V: You don’t drive a new SUV, do you?

JB: Hell, no–those things just radiate evil. They’re yuppie Cadillacs; tanks–that’s the whole mentality behind them. I saved a magazine ad for the Lexus model that shows all these look-alike houses in suburbia with tanks in the driveways, and the smart shopper front-and-center with a Lexus SUV in the driveway instead. And then the Lincoln Navigator ad proclaimed it as an “Urban Assault Vehicle” with “luxury” written above in pink cursive writing with a little pointer. I mean, what kind of self-important, paranoid a–hole thinks they need a Humvee to commute back and forth in L.A.? And those drivers just cut in front of everybody. You heard about the SUV Nazi who cut in front of a woman near the San Jose airport? When she bumped into his back bumper, he got out of the SUV, pulled her dog out of her car and flung it into oncoming traffic and killed it. When you drive one of those SUVs, what you’re saying to the rest of the world is, “I’m an a–hole, and I’m an a–hole because I can afford to be–ha ha ha.”

V: What’s your take on the incredible amounts of money being spent on prisons? Venture capitalists (VCs) are big investors here; it’s a growth industry. And all these prison employees are happy to be getting such high-paying jobs–

JB: Well, what does it say about our “family values” when a prison guard makes twice as much as a schoolteacher? I’m sure you’ve heard the term “prison-industrial complex.” That’s exactly what’s happening. The reason to keep building more and more jails and locking up more and more people is money, pure and simple. Private prisons is the fastest-growing sector of the American economy; Corrections Corporation of America was one of the top five stocks on Wall Street. They’re expanding into Australia and other countries now, too. As far as I know, their closest competitor is Wackenhut, which is long reported to have been owned and operated by the CIA. The Baffler #12 had an excellent article on this.

It’s a way to treat poor kids and black kids the way Germany treated the Jews, and make money off it at the same time. Plus, the prison guards’ union is the most powerful in the state, and they pour huge amounts of money into the political campaigns. They knew enough to fund Gray Davis instead of Dan Lundgren, so they basically pull his strings now. I mean, it costs way less to rehabilitate somebody than to lock them up for drugs, but we’re locking everybody up. It’s all a matter of who’s making the money.

V: Lobbying is just another kind of corporate payola at work–

JB: The word “scam” comes to mind. There aren’t Communists to fight anymore, so now those same military executives make their money waging war on the American people. That’s why there are so many SWAT teams now, and why so much military hardware is given to local police departments by the Pentagon. How many small-town cops really need grenade launchers? And the kind of armored personnel anti-riot vehicles that were invented for South Africa–I’ve read that they’re giving them to our police departments for free because they can’t find any dictator who wants them. Bush wants to replace a lot of our stockpiled weaponry because it’s “too old”!

V: Wonder who profits from that? I just saw a photo in the New York Times, taken in Israel, of an armored bulldozer–I didn’t even know these things existed. They just crash through into a house when somebody’s holding someone hostage.

JB: No, what they do is–like in Indianapolis and L.A.–they declare a house a “crack house” based on somebody’s rumor, bulldoze it, and ask questions later. Kind of like how the Israeli Army treats Palestinians.

V: This is an era where corporations have more power than governments. Isn’t the corporation the ultimate extension of capitalism?

JB: It’s not capitalism anymore, it’s feudalism: techno-feudalism, cyber-feudalism, new feudalism–call it whatever you want.

V: Feudalism? The way that it used to be was: you had the man in the high castle and the serfs all around tilling the fields for him–

JB: –a moat in between, and the guy in the castle had the gestapo in shining armor. Every time we buy Budweiser, go to Wal-Mart, Blockbuster, or McDonald’s, or consume a Time-Warner product–we’re their serfs! Every time. That’s how today’s feudalism works. NAFTA, GATT, the World Economic Forum, that MAI treaty they tried to put in, the WTO, etc.–that’s all sealing in writing the dictatorial enforcement arm of corporate feudalism.

The term “capitalism” applies to small business owners like us, just trying to pay our bills while putting out ideas that the corporations don’t want in circulation. But feudalism is what’s running things now. Feudalism is naming that new San Francisco stadium after the Pac Bell phone company instead of Willie Mays.

V: As well as changing the name of Candlestick Park to 3-Com Park–

JB: The funny thing was, our then-mayor Frank Jordan was so dumb that he sold the name of Candlestick to 3-Com for a little over $400 grand, while in Denver, Coors paid $40 million-plus for the privilege of naming “Coors Field.” Jordan really didn’t make a very good deal.

V: Switching topics a little, the big chains Borders and Barnes & Noble have won–they’ve driven most of the independent bookstores out of business.

JB: But what about Amazon?

V: At least they make our books available, unlike the chains. But for their “Advantage” program (offering to ship books to customers within 24 hours), they demand a 55% wholesale discount, and publisher pays shipping. Then they start ordering, like, six copies at a time.

JB: Wow. Music chains aren’t quite so consolidated. But what happened with the chains is: if you want your stuff displayed or even stocked, you have to bribe them to do it, like pay the individual manager of the store a buck a CD.

V: In order to get Borders to order more than a few copies of my book Swing! The New Retro Renaissance, I had to buy a $1,500 ad in their in-house catalog. They ordered 5,000 copies and then returned about 2,500–all damaged. Books are fragile; the corners are easily bent.

JB: Gawd! And Borders was at one time a supposedly “hip” company. They’ve been very good against censorship over the years, but not so good on employee unions.

V: They’ve changed. The corporations themselves are being squeezed by competition. There never was that much money in the book business anyway. And when you have Barnes & Noble–

JB: Oh–you must mean “Buns & Nubile”! The chains’ impact on the music business is not as severe. The worst area hit, I think, is toy stores. Remember when some of the weirdest people in the world ran toy stores–eccentrics who still had factory-sealed 20- and 30-year-old toys in the back room, forgotten? They’ve all been paved over by Toys “R” Us. There are no more toy stores except Toys “R” Us–unless you buy somebody a toy gun at Wal-Mart, or something like that. The “strange people running toy stores” species is extinct!

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