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 Oakland 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 said. “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.”