Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys talks to Legs McNeil about the JonBenét Ramsey murder, meeting H. R. Giger, seeing the Ramones for the first time and making an album with the Melvins
Sunday, August 6th marked the birthday of JonBenét Ramsey, the famous flaxen-haired six-year-old who was brutally murdered in 1996. She would now be 27 years old.
Back in the 90s, the family of famed Dead Kennedys screamer Jello Biafra lived just a few blocks away from JonBenét Ramsey’s house in Boulder, Colorado. And Biafra was in the neighborhood when the murder took place.
Why the FBI never interviewed him, the world will never know, so I conducted my own investigation into the wild world of Jello Biafra, to find out just what he was up to that fateful night… and just who stole that candy cane off their front lawn. His account is below.
The first day after the JonBenét Ramsey murder there were four or five paragraphs on the front of the Boulder Daily Camera. The next day there was maybe triple that amount of ink, and then the next day there was page after page after page and the circus had come to town. It was wild.
A lot of the national journalists spent most of their time hanging around at the bar at the Harvest House Hotel, just getting drunk on each other, but it was crazy. I’d just come back from a New Year’s show at the Blue Bird in Denver and had a little bit of a buzz going on. It was a good show, a lot of energy. It was three in the morning, the night was young, I was bored, What should I do?
I know, I’ll go to JonBenét’s house!
So I stopped by on the way home. It’s about a five-minute walk from where I grew up. It was below freezing outside, with two feet of snow on the ground, and the Ramseys had fled the house to get away from the media. There was a CBS truck or a CNN truck. A couple of those corporate news cartoon vans were floodlighting the front of the Ramsey’s mansion, with their engines running at three in the morning, just in case something happened.
I’m still kicking myself for not pulling over, whipping out the recording Walkman I carried with me everywhere, and just knocking on the door of the van, asking, “What are you trying to do here, people? Now I’m interviewing you! Gimme some fucking news! Do you have any?”
One of my friends, Bob, managed to “acquire” one of the plastic candy canes from the Ramsey’s front yard. He got together a bunch of articles about her, and along with the candy cane, built a shrine to JonBenét in his bedroom.
CBS was rooting around, trying to dig up some overlooked suspects in the murder of JonBenét, so Bob invited CBS to come over and check out his shrine. And sure enough, they filmed it and ran the piece! They were pointing fingers at different people on this segment. Then there was the candy cane with Bob talking about how much JonBenét meant to him in his life. They fucking fell for it.
So a day or two after the broadcast, the FBI stormed Bob’s house and took away his JonBenét collection, including the candy cane. He’s never been able to get it back.
Who Did It?
My family dentist was saying that the grandpa did it, because he was whisked away to the airport in the wee hours of that morning, but I never heard that anywhere else.
I don’t think the little brother did it, because it was too sophisticated for a kid that young. I don’t think he had sperm yet, and they found some kind of semen on her. But again, I could be wrong.
My uncle said that he heard that the Detroit mob did it, to get back at John Ramsey for something he’d done in Detroit. But if the mob wanted to get your ass badly enough, they wouldn’t kill your daughter–they’d kill you.
The other rumor floating around was that 50 different people had copies of the house keys. The Ramseys were trusting and would let people come and go, doing favors for them. The problem is, if even five extra people have keys, a well-meaning person might make a copy for some other well-meaning person who might make another copy for some other well-meaning person who might have some not-so-well-meaning friend swipe the key and make a copy for themselves.
I mean, there was so much missing information, and misinformation, so people could point fingers all they wanted. But I think the DA, Alex Hunter, was right in not bringing the case to trial, even when a grand jury recommended charging the parents. Hunter was an experienced prosecutor and knew that the case wasn’t a slam dunk. I think he made the right decision, especially when the parents got cleared later on.
And it’s still going on. It’s still an unsolved murder. I mean, it may be the biggest tabloid sensation of its time since the Black Dahlia murder case.
H. R. Giger
There were a few silver linings to my 1986 obscenity bust, when police officers raided my house in response to complaints by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRA). The LA deputy city attorney Michael Guarino, working under City Attorney James Hahn, brought me to trial for distributing “harmful material to minors,” because in the album Frankenchrist there was a print of the H. R. Giger poster “Penis Landscape” included as a poster.
So I was charged with “distribution of harmful matter,” which had never been tried in a courtroom before, and I’m sure nobody ever tried to bring that charge to court ever again. It was a year-and-a-half-long ordeal. I mean, it tied in with Ed Messe’s attacks on porn and was also meant to generate publicity for Al Gore’s first presidential run in 1988.
It damned near drove me to a nervous breakdown; I felt like I had the whole future of the music industry and freedom of expression hanging on my back. But the silver lining was that suddenly my spoken word performances were vaulted out of the coffee houses and onto the college lecture circuit as the so-called “expert on censorship.” I spoke about who was funding the PMRC and what their real goals were in connection with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robinson and the “Focus on the Family.”
Also I got to know Frank Zappa and eventually managed to spend time with Hans Rudolf Giger.
The first time meeting Giger was probably the most fun. We met when he came to New York on a rare visit to the United States with his agent, Leslie Barany. They flew me out because Giger wanted to meet me after all the shit that went down with Frankenchrist. It was the same time in New York as the CMJ festival, and Giger and this uptight gallery owner were having all kinds of disagreements about the exhibit.
Then it was time for opening night and Giger was in one room and an R. Crumb exhibit was going on in the other room, and people were going back and forth. And Giger discovered that this gallery owner, who was obviously some miserable guy with money had to put, Where Are We Going? (the actual title of the Giger piece in the Frankenchrist album) and some other more graphic and supposedly explicit Giger pieces all in one little room, where he could lock a door.
And if so called important people were there, they were allowed into this little room, because they might drop 50 grand on another Giger painting.
So Giger was just enraged, and a battle ensued and finally the door was kept open and the room was lit for everybody, but the arguments went on and on. Then people started coming in, and Giger was trying to have some fun with the whole thing, and he put on one of those metal masks he makes and hid behind the door, and as people walked in, Giger would jump out and scare them!
He’d go RAHHR, like a werewolf springing on them.
And all these metal-heads began showing up, and I’m not sure that miserable money guy had ever seen such creatures before, because he started freaking out again and imposed a dress code in the middle of the party.
The gallery owner said, “Now you have to pay twenty-five bucks to get on the elevator to come up to the event!”
So Giger, of course, was furious. The metal fans were all there to meet him cause he’d just done the cover for a Carcass album, and Carcass was there playing CMJ, so all these Carcass people were there and the gallery owner was freaking out!
Then who should walk in, in full costume, but GWAR. The gallery owner was so flipped out by that point he fled his own party and didn’t come back the rest of the night.
Giger was overjoyed to see GWAR. It was a buoyant mood for the rest of the evening.
I dunno how I would describe H. R. Giger. Obviously he was very brilliant, very focused on his work. The next time I saw him, I got to go visit his place in Zurich. It was part of a large duplex building. One side of the duplex was immaculately maintained with a perfectly manicured little lawn in front. Then there was Giger’s side, where some of the weeds in the lawn had turned into tree trunks!
So I went in and there’s some of the best-known paintings we all know and love just leaning against each other on one wall. There was a famous Joe Coleman original thrown up above his stove complete with splattered food grease on it. He also had the remnants of a little train he’d built that went in and out of his house and back into a tunnel he put in the back yard. Of course the entrance looked more like a woman’s vagina than a tunnel entrance, and there were 3-D reproductions of some of his infamous “Babies in a Row” paintings.
It was cold and raining the day I went, and I guess it had been for some time, because the babies had mushrooms growing all over them which made them even more Giger-esque. Eventually I heard this real atonal music, this almost Schoenberg-ish piano music coming through the building, and I thought it set a really good mood. I went, “Wow, this is a cool choice, I wonder what this is?”
I finally made it up the stairs to a little top attic floor, and there was Giger all by himself, playing the piano. He looked up and saw me watching him and stopped. He didn’t play anymore. Apparently he was an accomplished keyboardist as well, and some recordings of his music may exist, but I don’t know what state they’re in, or what length they are, or where you can get them.
The first time I saw the Ramones was in Denver in 1977. I was still shocked I could just go backstage and talk to a member of a rock band! I mean, arena rock was all we knew back then.
What set them apart from all the dumb sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll arena shit–not to mention horrid adult soft rock–was what they were singing about. I mean, at first, me and my pot head friends would put the Ramones on and laugh when we heard, “Now I wanna sniff some glue, now I wanna have something to do.”
They had these super short songs with no guitar solos, but what they were singing about was trying to turn a trick at 53rd and Third, or beating somebody up at the Burger King. People didn’t even talk about that topical stuff until punk brought it back with a vengeance.
The word got around about that show. After me and some of my friends went and saw it, my other friends were like, “Eric do you really take the Ramones seriously now?”
Yep. Hah! Part of the beauty of that show was not only that it was so powerful, but also that it scared the living shit out of most of the people in the room. It wasn’t only about how powerful they were, but how simple they were. The gears began turning. “Wow… Some of that was so simple, anybody could do it! I could do it! I should do it!”
And of course those gears were turning in people’s heads all over the country. So slowly but surely, the lonely misfit Stooges fans, who didn’t know anybody else like them in their towns, all moved to bigger towns (especially New York, LA, and San Francisco) and started bands. The rest is history. Johnny Ramone did write me a letter when Dead Kennedys was still active in the mid 80s, on why he thought punk shouldn’t be political and stuff. Johnny was not exactly down with where Dead Kennedys were going.
I wrote him back, I think, but I can’t remember what I said. It was friendly, but standing my ground. I always heard the Ramones as a political band, simply because of the subjects they put in their songs.
I’ve known the Melvins for many years. A friend of theirs gave me a little demo cassette of them clear back in 1984, when they were all living in Olympia. Then I saw them a little bit in the late 80s or early 90s, when they moved down here. I didn’t quite get into them that much.
Eventually I saw another show and all the sudden I got it. Maybe it was because they played “Halo of Flies” that night? I don’t know, but they blew the roof off the venue, so I figured it was time to start listening to them. It only took one more gig before Buzz and Dale approached me about doing a tour. They were responding to the fake, reformed version of Dead Kennedys, who were running off with people’s money in their fraud-core shows. The Melvins guys were really outraged at that and so they wanted to do a counter tour playing nothing but Dead Kennedys songs.
I was like, “No, if I’m gonna tour at all, I wanna play new songs. I’ve got plenty of other songs I’ve never performed with anybody. Do you wanna make an album?”
And they were totally into it.
For the last few years, I’ve been doing the band again. I was finally able to launch Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine. Now we have four releases, two full lengths and two EPs. The last album was called White People and the Damage Done. It came out early 2013, and the on-again, off-again touring for it hasn’t really slowed down until recently. We still have a little sling through Texas to do and anything else local that pops up, but otherwise it’s gonna be time for me to, uh… pull the plug for a little bit. I need to hide and write the next batch of Guantanamo School of Med songs.
I’m not very good at writing songs on the fly when I’m on tour. I gotta be left alone a while to hide and get my brain in the zone and not have the phone and the email and everything else.
I used to do my writing in Boulder, but it became a little harder to do that for me for whatever reason by the mid to late 80s, so I’ve done all the writing here in San Francisco. But all the Dead Kennedys writing was done in Boulder. Back then, there wasn’t such a thing as answering machines or emails or whatever. Every time the phone rang at my house somebody had to pick it up. Nine times out of ten, the call was for me and there would go another day of my life.
So I had to get away from both Dead Kennedys and I suppose get away from Jello Biafra long enough to pull my brain back out of my ass and start writing stuff again. I’m also trying to get a couple of other projects out the door, including a long-overdue live album from this really cool thing I did in New Orleans on a dare. It’s called Jello Biafra and the New Orleans Raunchin’ Soul All-Stars.
See, I was back at my parent’s place and I went to a show in Denver to see Cowboy Mouth and Dash Rip Rock. I’d never heard of Cowboy Mouth, but they totally blew me away. Fred LeBlanc is just about the most charismatic singing drummer you could ever imagine. Maybe even more charismatic than Levon Helm.
So I was at the Dash Rip Rock show and the story is that one of their crew heard me singing along to some of their covers, which of course was older New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll, or a little bit of gospel. Then Fred and Bill Davis, the main guy in Dash Rip Rock, just kind of pulled me aside in the dressing room and dared me to come to New Orleans during Jazz Fest and do a whole set of old New Orleans soul and rhythm-and-blues covers.
And I talked him into adding a little bit of garage rock too, because that’s more in my wheelhouse. So we came down and did it with a full horn section and an amazing piano player Pete Gordon, who I’ve worked with before.
Pete came down to join us and a great time was had by all. The recording multi-track was a total fucking train wreck, but Ben Mumphry, who does Pixies and Frank and a whole bunch of other people, called me up and said, “Look, I was at the show, I think I can fix this if you’ll let me take the multi-track to my studio.”
So slowly but surely he’s been doing pretty coherent versions with maximum trash appeal, ya know, everything from “Workin’ in a Coal Mine,” “Mother in Law,” the Ernie K. Doe song, we got “House of the Rising Sun,” and we did “Bangkok” because Alex Chilton had been adopted by New Orleans after he moved there and he’d just died. We needed to give him a shout out. We even did “I Walk on Gilded Splinters,” that really cool Dr. John song off Gris-Gris.
It’s not exactly the tightest thing in the world, but you can just tell that everybody’s having fun and there’s sweat dripping off the walls.