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Jello Biafra on his days as a newbie punk

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It seems unlikely that anyone even slightly familiar with American punk would need an introduction to the legendary iconoclast Jello Biafra. From his days as the brains, conscience and leader of the notorious and incendiary leftist punks Dead Kennedys, to his lengthy string of superb collaborative albums, to his politically charged spoken word performances, to his most recent work with The Guantanamo School of Medicine, Biafra (born Eric Boucher) has left a bigger stain on American counterculture than most. Unrepentantly opinionated (and to my reckoning, usually dead-on correct), Biafra can typically be heard issuing proclamations in a strident cadence that rings of Fred Schneider trying to imitate Mark E. Smith. Which was why it was actually quite refreshing to see this interview in Denver’s alt-weekly WestWord, wherein Biafra’s focus isn’t on politics, but rather a remembrance of his youth as a new initiate into the punk scene in his hometown of Boulder, CO. His journey to venerated counterculture elder statesman began with a stint as a hanger-on and later roadie for a The Ravers - a little-remembered band that later found much wider recognition under the name The Nails - which led to his ultimate Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment: seeing the Ramones in concert.

As far as I know, [The Ravers were] Colorado’s first punk band and one of the very first anywhere. It was more rooted in ‘60s garage than it was in Ramones or Sex Pistols and still an important part of my life and many other people’s. I’d been reading Marc Campbell’s reviews in the Colorado Daily, and he was much more brash and up front about what he liked and didn’t like.

So he was memorable instantly. Later, I found out he was the singer in the Ravers. They kind of centered around the old basement location on Broadway of Trade A Tape and Records in Boulder where I got a lot of my vinyl. They rehearsed in a back room and Rick Scott, one of the clerks there, was their manager.

Word got around, probably through Rick, that the Ramones were gonna come through Denver and play at Ebbets Field, opening for a major-label attemped flavor-of-the-month called Nite City. Ironically, it had to have Ray Manzarek and a pre-Blondie Nigel Harrison in it, among other people. It was an attempt at an instant FM rock hit, and the opening band was the Ramones.

So the handful of us who kind of knew who the Ramones were in the front row. Ebbets Field was a small, intimate place where everyone was expected to sit down. That’s what people did at concerts; everybody was supposed to sit down. Bill Graham would throw you out for dancing in San Francisco, and so would Barry Fey and Feyline security.

You undoubtedly know Rocky Mountain Low; Joseph Pope was one of the people in the front row with me. At the time, I didn’t really take the Ramones that seriously. I knew they rocked, but I would sit around playing the Ramones with my friends, and we would giggle at the lack of guitar solos and these boneheaded lyrics like “beat on the brat with a baseball bat” and “now I wanna sniff some glue.”

It had an impact enough to go down and see them. And out come these four, kinda degenerate looking guys in leather jackets—which is something you didn’t see very often then. One chord on Jonny’s guitar, and we knew it was going to be a louder than anyone of us were prepared for. We braced ourselves and instead of being goofy, the Ramones were one of the most powerful experiences of my entire life.

We were three feet from the stage and forced to sit down, of course. Not only were they really, really good, but half the fun was turning around and watching the Ebbets Field, country-rock glitterati, the guys with the neatly trimmed beards, Kenny Loggins-feathered hair and corduroy jackets, with patches on the elbows, as well as the cocaine cowboys and their women, with their 1920s suits with flowers, because that’s what Joni Mitchell was wearing at the time—they looked horrified. They had nowhere to go. Because Ebbets Field was so small, you couldn’t go hang out in the lobby because there wasn’t one. They just had to endure the Ramones.

It never would have occurred to me to try to go back stage and talk to the band. I didn’t know you could talk to rock bands. I was a wide-eyed teenager used to going to see arena rock at the Denver Coliseum or McNichols. At any rate, Joseph came back at one point and said, “Oh yeah, I was just back talking to The Ramones.” “What?! You can talk to the Ramones?”

That was the punk rock thing—we’re all from the same place. And that was the beauty of the live shows, too—my god, they’re so powerful, they’re so simple, anyone could do this. Shit, I could do this. Maybe I should. And that’s how it affected a lot of people in the room. The Ramones stayed an extra night and Ebbets Field let them headline, and the Ravers were going to open the show. Luckily, The Ravers needed what was then called “roadies.” So I me, Joe, Sam Spinner, and, I think, John Trujillo, were anointed “the roadies” on the spot.

Suddenly I thought, “All you people who thought I was a loser in school, now I’m somebody. I’m a roadie for the Ravers!” That meant many good times at other Ravers shows like playing with the Nerves and the big one playing on the top floor of the ex-elementary school at 9th and Arapahoe. Which was Driver which became The Nightflames and the Front.

By the way, if you’re curious about that Ray Manzarek/Nigel Harrison band Biafra mentions, I don’t recommend you trouble yourself with finding it, it’s horrible, horrible stuff.

Regular readers of this blog may have recognized that the Marc Campbell mentioned in the interview is Dangerous Minds’ own. I actually didn’t - DM‘s poo-bah Richard Metzger pointed it out to me. This, young aspiring writers, is why we have editors. Marc had this to add to Jello’s reminiscences:

The Ramones were traveling with a woman (Johnny’s girlfriend I think). She was dressed in fish nets and leather mini-skirt and reading a Nazi torture porn novel something like “Ilsa, She Wolf Of The SS.” Totally silent. Dee Dee kept talking about how scary it was flying so close to the Rocky Mountains. An animated goofball full of manic energy. Joey, Johnny and Tommy didn’t talk much. They were intimidating. All theater, seamless and perfect.

The Ramones’ show at Ebbet’s Field was a religious experience for me. Perhaps the most important rock show of my life in that it solidly re-connected me to what I loved about the music and made me want to continue playing it. Months later, The Ravers were on their way to Manhattan and CBGB and Max’s. Eric helped load up the van and saw us off. He was too young to make the trip with us, or at least his parents thought so. I think I remember him waving bye as we sped toward our destiny. But that may be the movie version. Jello will have to correct me if I’m wrong.

For a look at what that Colorado kid evolved into, enjoy “Sing Along with the Dead Kennedys,” a bonus feature from the Dead Kennedys - The Early Years Live DVD.
 

Posted by Ron Kretsch
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