Jerry Brown's Worst Enemy
The former governor of California announced today he's running for the office again. Benjamin Sarlin talks to punk rock legend Jello Biafra, who hounded him the first time.
Tea Partiers have made Nazi comparisons a staple of protests, taking their cue from left-wing demonstrators who went after George W. Bush before them. But they're all amateurs compared to Jello Biafra.
As the frontman for the radical left-wing punk band The Dead Kennedys in the 1970s, Biafra's brutally satirical take on politics made even the most lunatic Rush Limbaugh quotes look tame. His first single with the band, the anthemic “California Über Alles,” declared then-governor of California Jerry Brown to be the second coming of Hitler himself. Sung from the perspective of Brown plotting his future White House run (“I will be fuhrer one day!”), Biafra imagined a future in which the liberal governor made New Age lifestyle trends like meditation and jogging mandatory while exterminating dissenters in death camps with “organic poison gas.”
“'California Über Alles' was a siren, a wake-up call” that “launched the hardcore movement,” Steven Blush, author of American Hardcore: A Tribal History, said.
More than 30 years have passed and Brown's career has taken numerous twists and turns, including a presidential run, a radio show, a stint as mayor of Oakland, and his current job as the state's attorney general. Now, he’s the front-runner in the 2010 race for the California statehouse. Biafra tangled in the political arena himself in that time, running unsuccessfully for mayor of San Francisco in 1979 and organizing for the Green Party and Ralph Nader in the last three presidential races, while putting out spoken-word and rock albums.
“California Über Alles” has also evolved, with multiple rewrites in the intervening years to match the political times. But Biafra admits that the original version proved less than prophetic, however.
“When Ronald Reagan won in 1980, I realized I kind of misfired,” Biafra told The Daily Beast. “Sure, the Jerry Brown theory was something I came up with all by my little self, but it turned out to be wrong.”
The song and its variations were never as much about Brown or any individual politician as they were about liberal apathy, Biafra said. He traced the inspiration for the lyrics to his arrival in San Francisco in the 1970s, where he found that once-idealistic baby boomers had retreated into self-indulgence.
“I found myself surrounded by all these people who were activist rabble rousers in the Vietnam War era and now were stumbling around in the dark looking for some guru to tell them what to do,” he said. “I thought this kind of mellow-drone, hanging-plant cop-out approach was a one-way ticket to fascism—if people sleep too long, look what happens to them! The only politician with any power who had tapped into any of this or seemed to recognize it at the time was Jerry Brown.”
Brown wasn’t the only California governor who bothered Biafra. In the 1980s, The Dead Kennedys recorded “We Got a Bigger Problem Now,” which borrowed the music from “Cailfornia Über Alles,” added a lounge-singer intro, and gave Ronald Reagan the Nazi treatment as well. (sample lyrics: “I am Emperor Ronald Reagan / Born again with fascist cravings). A later version protesting the California recall election in 2004 targeted Arnold Schwarzenegger, with Biafra imitating the governor's Austrian accent and lampooning his constant references to his action films.
“[Biafra’s]language is off the scale but his sense of injustice is often well-founded,” Ralph Nader told The Daily Beast.
“It sort of turned into one of those classic American folk songs where people keep rewriting the words on their own,” Biafra said, noting that other bands had adopted the tune to skewer their own political nemeses.
How does Biafra view Brown today? The singer says he’s admired Brown’s support for a variety of liberal causes over the intervening years, but maintains that the politician never won him over completely.
“His record as mayor is mixed at best,” Biafra, a Bay Area resident, said. “There was a lot of gentrification that went on, but who did it benefit? Plus he never stood up to the Oakland police, who are as corrupt and out of control as any rogue department in this country.”
The two men met in person in the 1990s, according to Biafra—when he attended a dinner party at Brown's house as a guest of filmmaker Michael Moore and was introduced to the ex-governor by one of his aides.
“[The aide] brings up Jerry Brown and says, 'Oh hey Jerry, this is Jello—I was playing Jerry your album just this morning!' and I thought 'Oh shit,'” he said. “I have no idea what color my face was, but if it was a mushroom it would have been poisonous.”
Biafra is still hard at work deflating the great political personalities of the day. His latest album with his band, The Guantanamo School of Medicine, is entitled The Audacity of Hype, and features a parody of Shepard Fairey's iconic Obama poster drawn by Fairey himself. While Obama is far too centrist for Biafra's tastes, he says the album targets complacency—just as “California Über Alles” did.
“I cannot emphasize strongly enough that Obama is not the problem here: It's the people who voted for him and then assumed that their job was done,” he said.
Biafra also has little patience for some of the Dead Kennedys-esque Nazi analogies that Tea Partiers have employed at rallies.
“Some of them are even talking in terms of guns and Obama and whatnot and you know that if anyone said that on radio or TV about Bush they'd be in jail for the next 30 years,” he said.
Biafra said he would not likely be a major presence in this year's gubernatorial race or the 2012 elections.
“I want to see where the dust settles with Obama a little more before I formalize a plan of attack,” he said.
While he may not be as popular as the resurgent Brown, he still has many friends on the far left.
“His language is off the scale but his sense of injustice is often well-founded,” Ralph Nader told the Beast. “He's learned the media game—that you have to say crazy things and be very flamboyant in order to get any attention.”
CORRECTION: This article originally misstated that Brown ran for mayor of Oakland in 1979. It has been updated to San Francisco.
Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.