Interview with Jello Biafra...
Jello Biafra, Dead Kennedys, 8-23-06
What was your first rock band t-shirt?
I can’t really remember because I went to middle and high school in the early to mid-seventies and rock t-shirts hadn’t really come in yet. Sure they existed but it wasn’t something you saw on high school kids. People didn’t want to put their favorite band as being that big a part of their identity on their t-shirt. Of course there were “Keep On Truckin’” t-shirts, the occasional Coca Cola logo parodied into “Cocaine”. So I guess maybe the first one was one I fished off the floor of the Marquee in England when I went over there on my fear and loathing hippie backpack trip from hell in the summer of ‘77 and of course I sought out punk rock shows and wound up seeing the Saints who’s first album had come out. And the opening band was Wire which must’ve been one of their first gigs…Colin Newman was still putting on Johnny Rotten faces and trying to be all punk and everything. I guess it would’ve been at the end of the gig, somebody threw out a bunch of shrink-wrapped t-shirts for the Saints that all said in a kind of dripping blood red paintbrush on a white shirt “It’s better to be a Saint than a sap” I think that might’ve been my first band t-shirt so I wore it with great pride. I actually brought home two of them and I still haven’t opened the second one. All I have to do is find it.
They also had a bunch of empty jackets from the I’m Stranded album so I pulled one off the floor and had them autograph that for me. Chris Bailey, the singer, and I sat on the edge of the stage and talked about the Blues Magoos. This is the summer of ‘77, the Kennedys didn’t start ‘til a year later. I didn’t even cut all my hair off and put it in a plastic bag and nail to my dorm room door until later that Fall. But I’ve always been really proud of the autographed Saints album cover because the cover was just destroyed by people pogo dancing and spilling beers…it’s the most mangled record cover you’ll ever see. It was what was available. Plus they gave me a free t-shirt and a couple of buttons.
Do you have a favorite rock t-shirt?
It’s hard to say because being somebody who sees a lot of bands and gets a lot of stuff in the mail I’m always inundated with band t-shirts. I try to talk bands out of giving me shirts. I’d much rather listen to their music. So I usually only take one if the artwork on it is really good. Still, I’m not sure I have a lasting favorite because a lot of those would have worn out over the years. I did find a whole barrel of cheap cut-out Donny and Marie t-shirts years ago in a warehouse chain store in Marin County. And I always thought it was really funny that the singer of the very first punk band in Colorado, the Ravers, who I roadied for (as the language was back in the day)before I moved to San Francisco, as a gag he wore a Donny and Marie t-shirt on stage and I always thought that was funny and what do I find but a big pile of Donny and Marie t-shirts. So I wore them night after night on the last Dead Kennedys tour in the Fall of ’85, I had so many of them I actually started to take them off and throwing them in the crowd every night and forgot to save a single one. So I’ve missed my Donny and Marie shirts ever since although they were an ugly color of beige and I’ve gotten a little fatter since.
The Ravers eventually moved to NY and changed their name to the Nails and had that old hit “88 Lines About 44 Women.”
Somebody brought me an amazing looking bible school t-shirt back stage in San Jose but somebody stole it the same night so I never got to wear it.
Maybe one of the first rock band shirts was when I was working for the Ravers, they made a few shirts of their own and I got one. It was my only rock t-shirt, this was before the Saints. I felt cool as shit. Everybody always giving me shit in high school, I never thought my family believed in me, but now I was a fucking roadie, man! I was on top of the world and I had the t-shirt to prove it.
Regarding the Ravers’ t-shirt design:
It’s kind of a guitar that turns into a flower at one end. Keep in mind, anything that was trying to bring back rock and roll was considered punk at the time. ‘Cause I listen back to primitive live recordings of the Ravers now, you know, they clearly had greater leanings to garage and rock and roll than they did to the Ramones. But it was such a horrible country rock and jazz fusion sound just admitting you liked that band would scare the hell out of just about anyone. That was a lot of fun.
Are there any rock band t-shirts that you dislike?
I haven’t really thought of one except…maybe some band I really can’t stand, it immediately brands the wearer as an idiot. But that goes triple for somebody sporting a shirt that’s pro-Republican or openly racist or whatever. I gave Jeff Clayton (Antiseen) a pass on his “I Have a Dream” t-shirt with a Confederate flag on the front because he’s Jeff and we’re friends. If it was a stranger wearing something like that I would have to wonder. You know, like a “Speak English or die” shirt.
Of course, somebody with a really obnoxious, in your face Jesus shirt would rub me the wrong way too. You know it’s one thing to have spiritual values and believe in a God that loves people, but a lot of those shirts are worn by bigoted Christian supremacists.
What do you think is the most iconic rock band t-shirt?
Well, the Dead Kennedy’s “DK” logo did a pretty good job of that. I’d been playing around with it for awhile, drawing out chicken scratches, I wanted to make sure it was something simple and easy to spray-paint so people would graffiti it all over the place. and then I showed it to Winston Smith, he played around with it, came back with a bunch of designs, that had the circle and slightly 3-D looking letters and he had ones with different patterns behind it. I liked the one with bricks, but ultimately I thought simple red behind it was the boldest and the best.
The Magma logo is hard to get away from. I’ve hardly ever see it on a shirt, but I thought it was so cool I had one custom made. Apparently they were selling pendants the one time they played over here the one time they played over here, but I was out of town and didn’t get to see them play. The progheads I still speak to who saw that show tell me it was the best live show they’d ever seen in their lives.
Winston Smith was a rabble-rousing guerilla artist who’s mainly known for his collages now. He could also draw really well. A woman I knew gave him my address and said we should meet. So I get this postcard in the mail with a still from the Zapruder film where Kennedy’s brain is exploding. “If you want more, write me back, Winston Smith” So I wrote him back and then he sent me this big package of collages, a self-portrait which is him with a gas-mask on standing in the middle of a military graveyard. He sent me fake credit cards with names like “Vice” and “Masterscam”. Some kind of scary ass fake deteregent he enclosed, Radioactive Detergent and some other things. Then I wrote him back again and asked for a phone number and we’ve been inseparable ever since.
He even does the cover to my new spoken word album coming out in the fall, called “In the Grip of Official Treason”
Regarding the Dead Kennedy’s logo:
It was turning up behind the Iron Curtain in some of the most repressed former Communist countries. People have reported seeing both that logo and bootleg tapes of my music and spoken word albums on the West Bank. And I think it was Live Skull who sent me a postcard from a little turd town in Minnesota and the post card was of their city park that had a great big tank in the middle of it. That was what you were supposed to see of this city, this big tank, and somebody had painted, it look like it was brush-painted, a DK logo on the side of the tank and it was in all the post cards.
The ex-members of the band sued me, in large part because I didn’t want to put “Holiday in Cambodia” in a Levi’s ad. Lied like fuck in court, claim they wrote all the songs, Ray now claims he designed the DK logo too and were able to con a jury into giving them the rights to everything so now I have no say in how Dead Kennedy’s is basically pimped and I’m not even allowed to see all the books. They do fake reunion shows with the logo in the ad and a lot of times my pictures in the ads too.
They were even talking about making DK logo money clips for awhile. At least I was able to shame them out of that one.
At this point, every time I get a fax form East Bay Ray with the DK logo in the top along with the name of his rogue ex-band member partnership that’s been turned into a money-grubbing corporation that the Dead Kennedy’s is a front for called DK Music, whenever I see the DK logo in collection with DK Music is looks like a swastika. Because about all he ever sends me are lies and threats.
Now the same people who do the DK t-shirts and merchandise also do the Rolling Stones, so it’s all totally gone corporate.
Do you think the DK logo has become like the Black Flag bars logo or the Misfits crimson ghost where the image or icon has become more popular than the music?
I don’t think the DK logo has gone that far. I think I can say for a fact, from what little accounting I’m allowed to see, the music outsells the logo merchandise 10-to-1, if not 50-to-1. It depresses me after doing a 4 hour spoken word show that’s packed with suppressed information I want people to know that people always say “Gosh, that was great, I learned so much tonight, but instead of buying your CD I’m gonna buy a trinket! I want a shirt. I want a hat.”
It goes the same for music, you kinda have to have ‘em now. I resisted making t-shirts at all for years, ‘cause I thought it was just scamming on the whole thing and kinda stupid. But then Winston complained to me that the DK logo was being bootlegged right, left and center and he should be getting a cut of those because he helped design the damn thing and he had a point. After that we startred making them a got rid of a goodly amount of the bootleggers, but not all of them. I can tell a bootleg from a mile away.
Other iconic ones, Black Flag, Misfits, Motorhead, the Rolling Stones…some of those icons are almost like Smiley Faces now. Some of their impact has lessened, some not.
(Jell-o asks me…)
How do you feel about the Soledad Brothers using the Black Panther logo? They originally started with a White Panther logo. They definitely had the full support of John Sinclair and I think they actually talked to Angela Davis, and maybe Huey Newton or Bobby Seale, one of them has a widow and I think someone’s widow saw it gave them the thumbs-up.
(Jello speaks now)
In a way that surprises me. When I saw that, white guys trying to play a black musical form to an audience of all white people, I was kind of offended. If the old ex-Panthers are ok with it I guess I’ll shut up. It weirded me out and I know a lot of other people have never been able to get past that and dig the band as well.
Any interesting/weird stories or anecdotes with you and t-shirts?
People have been arrested on three continents for wearing Dead Kennedy’s t-shirts. I think in Britain and Australia it was a “Too Drunk to Fuck” t-shirt and here it was a “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” t-shirt, of course because of the swastika, rather than the word “fuck” or the bars through the swastika itself.
Imagine walking around with a Millions of Dead Cops t-shirt. I got one from the band early on and I wore it to jury duty, thinking they’re gonna kick me out of this in no time and never call me back again. But it didn’t work! The jury system in the city and county of San Francisco is so horrible that they kick you off one jury and then call you back again and again and again even though it was obvious you were never going to serve. I not only wore it every single day, but I refused to wash it. After awhile I was hoping I’d get thrown out because I smelled bad, but no luck there.