Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, plus Terminal City Ricochet screening and more!

Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, photo by Elizabeth Sloan

I suppose anyone who cares realizes by now that Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine play October 16th at the Rickshaw Theatre, with Vancouver's own Subhumans opening up. For most Vancouver punks, regardless of generation, this is going to be an essential show. Tho' Jello recently turned 50, he's still a tireless and compelling frontman, as anyone who saw him with the Melvins a couple of years ago can attest, and his new band's first album shows him to be in fine form indeed, with two guitars, killer songwriting and an evolved, genre-spanning conception of music (including elements of punk, surf, grunge, and garage rock). He says of their European tour, in a Q&A conducted in 2009 by Jesse Luscious, that:

"I held up pretty well - I could do my thing and not just stand there and still do a show so that was still good. I ain't no Henry Rollins or Iggy Pop - I'm a mortal. The idea of a theatrical front person is almost lost at this point, so again I began realizing that people don't see demented people on stage so much anymore and you gotta try to do more of it and do it better and whatnot. But it came out pretty well and even in Germany people seemed pretty happy that we were doing almost all new material instead of doing nothing but old material. Even the ones that began yelling for 'Too Drunk To Fuck' after one song...as soon as I laid down the law and said 'Hey look we're here to play some new songs,' they went 'Yeeehaah.' Or 'Jaaaaa...' "

Presumably a couple Dead Kennedys songs will be in the set - the Jelvins did a crowd-pleasing encore of "Holiday In Cambodia" and a revised, updated "When Ya Get Drafted" when here - but if you don't yet know the two Jello/Melvins collaborations (especially Never Breathe What You Can't See) or the Guantanamo School of Medicine debut, you should definitely check them out; some songs, like the Jelvins' "Caped Crusader" or GSM's "Pets Eat Their Master" - which Jello observes is "a really upbeat song" - stand up there with the very best of Jello's output. And openers the Subhumans have yet to have an official Vancouver record release for their excellent, expanded re-recording of Incorrect Thoughts, also available on Alternative Tentacles. They've just returned from shows in Ontario and Quebec and should be smokin'. (There's another opening act, Fuel Injected .45, but I don't know their music).

Anyhow, all that is known to anyone with an eye for gig posters around town. What is not being so widely publicized yet is that Jello will also be in town the next night, Oct. 17th, for a Q&A, DVD signing, and screening of two films he acts in, both being released this month on A/T - the legendary, long-unseen, Vancouver-shot Terminal City Ricochet and the less-well-known, but equally rich-sounding The Widower. (I've seen neither film, so I'm quite excited). In addition to Jello, both films involve - either in performance or on the soundtracks - a bewildering who's-who of Vancouverites, including, between them, Joe Keithley and the Goble/Card DOA lineup, Art Bergmann, Nardwuar, Neko Case, Ani Kyd, Watermelon, and Subhumans bassist Gerry Hannah (whose "Living With the Lies," off one of his prison cassettes, is on the Terminal City Ricochet soundtrack and about the only way the non-fanatic can access any of Gerry's solo recordings). Screenings will be at the Chapel Arts Center (304 Dunlevy), on Sunday, October 17th, with tickets $10 at the door - The Widower shows first at 7 and then Terminal City Ricochet at 9, with Jello appearing afterwards, at least according to the press release...! (It was still all a bit mysterious to him when we spoke).

And now for the interview. When I reached Jello by phone, there had been a bit of a mixup, and we only had a few minutes to talk - forcing me to cut short questions about his record collection, his fondness for outsider music, and about a mutual acquaintance of ours, since Jello used to shop at the late Ty Scammel's booth at the Vancouver flea market - Ty who unearthed the lost New Creation debut, Troubled, and paved way for its reissue and the revitalization of the band, all of which can be read about here. Jello doesn't know about the New Creation, it transpires - I'll be taking care of that. ("Do you like Christian outsider music?" I asked him, and he responded, with dark relish, "Oh yeah" - spawning a plan to bring Chris Towers to the films). Meantime, since we only had five minutes, we talked about the two movies.

Jello Biafra onstage in Europe with the Guantanamo School of Medicine. Photo by Marc Gärtner, not to be reused without permission.

Allan: Why were Terminal City Ricochet and The Widower so long out of print? Were there rights issues, or...

Jello: I'm not really sure with Terminal City Ricochet. (Widower director) Marcus Rogers just came to me with The Widower when he knew we were interested in trying to get Terminal City Ricochet out. When TCR came out, I think it showed in Vancouver, and probably in Toronto, Montreal, and in San Francisco, I think Los Angeles and London, and on the USA cable network, which is where Joey Keithley made a video copy of it that a lot of people used for reference for years. I think there was some kind of squabble over rights fairly soon after the movie came out, and it just kind of wound up on ice; and now the original producer certified to us that he does have the right to license it to us... so I figured, "Well, we're not really a movie or TV company, but these films should be seen!" And the kind of audience that likes Alternative Tentacles' various kinds of music that we put out certainly would dig these. Terminal City Ricochet was supposed to be a kind of worst-case scenario, dark, somewhat science-fictiony kind of future, and I had to tell John Conti, the producer, "Hey, wait a minute - a lot of this is going on in America right now!" And that was in 1989. And of course, what the film is about is a dictator who masquerades as a freely elected mayor of Terminal City, one of the last livable places on earth. He needs to get himself re-elected, and of course he manipulates the media, very much in a Fox News fashion, and knows that fear is the best way to get people to vote against their own interests. And so he invents a terrorist threat, and picks somebody almost at random, to label them a terrorist in order to stay in power. And every two years, we have national elections in America and every election cycle reminds me more and more of Terminal City Ricochet.

Allan: (laughs)

Jello: ...so a major motive in releasing it would be so that more Americans would view their own election cycle accurately and realistically. (Laughs).

Allan: Did the falling space junk thing in the movie come from the song, or did the song come from the falling space junk in the movie?

Jello: The falling space junk came from a spoken word track of mine called "Why I'm Glad the Space Shuttle Blew Up," and that inspired Bill Mullan or one of the other screenwriters to put it in the film, and then the film inspired the song.* I suppose in a way I was wearing too many hats at this period. I was trying to resurrect my method acting skills that I'd learned as a teenager, and wangle the soundtrack rights for Alternative Tentacles, and come up with music for the film all at the same time. And it might have been the acting that suffered a bit - let the viewer be the judge on that. But the cross-pollination also inspired two different versions of the song - the one I did on the album with Nomeansno (The Sky Is Falling and I Want My Mommy, just reissued by A/T on vinyl - check it out!) is almost a sequel to the one on the Terminal City Ricochet soundtrack (to be included with the DVD). Same music, but different vocal tracks, because I was having trouble getting the lyrics to work, and I finished one version and then this other version poured out of my head, when I realized - "oh my God, what would happen if people realized the world was going to end and they only had a short time to live, what would they do, what would happen to law and order?" That's kind of the premise of the second version...

Jello: And then another one on the Nomeansno album that resulted from the film is "Bruce's Diary." Bruce Coddle is my character in the film, kind of an Ollie North/ Karl Rove secret police figure all rolled into one, and to try to immerse myself in the man - I'd gotten the flu when I first arrived in Vancouver, and they'd put me up in this apartment hotel, where I could stare across streets and whatnot into a lot of other people's apartments, especially when the lights went on in the evening. And so I began to do this in character, and explore more and more what motivates somebody to pursue surveillance and control as a lifestyle, and eventually wound up masturbating as Bruce Coddle.

Allan: (begins laughing in the background, which persists for several minutes).

Jello: And while I was doing that, I thought, hey, wait a minute, I should flip on my tape recorder and record my thoughts, so I did, and then I transcribed that later and boiled them back down to the lyrics for "Bruce's Diary."

Allan: (still laughing): sorry - you transcribed - while you were masturbating -

Jello: I didn't transcribe, I recorded; you know, wank in one hand, and hold the recorder in the other.

Allan: That's great. I didn't know that story.

Jello: There you go.

Still from The Widower

Allan: Okay, let me ask about The Widower - I know almost nothing about this film! It's you in a starring role, right?

Jello: I think the Terminal City Ricochet role is the bigger role, but The Widower, it's a more demented role in part because it's an even more demented film. It's sort of like, if Eraserhead goes to Mortville - the town in John Waters' Desperate Living. And it's about a guy who accidentally causes his wife's death and he's so grief-stricken that he can't bear to part with her, not even her body. And that slowly causes trouble with the neighbourhood and the town and everything else. He originally does the right thing and approaches a mortuary, but guess who the funeral director is? ...So a few seconds with me, and he flees out the door. And I was also cast as Satan in the film, and a still from the Satan role is what Shepard Fairey used for the album cover of the Audacity of Hype.

Allan: Wonderful. It all connects. Perfect - thank you, Jello.

Jello: Right, I gotta run! Bye.


Having listened to a version of the "Why I'm Glad the Space Shuttle Blew Up" piece, I can't blame Jello for thinking that he inspired the screenwriters, but it appears one of them has just written me to say it ain't so. An email from Mr. Mullan - I'd misspelled it! - includes, in part, the following:

...as the original writer of Terminal City Ricochet (initial idea cobbled together with Al Thurgood, wrote first two drafts of the screenplay on my own, second with Phil Savath story-editing, ongoing involvement through pretty much all subsequent drafts) I've got to fact-check something Jello Biafra said in your recent discussion with him. Specifically, the falling space junk of the movie was NOT inspired by his
Why-I'm-Glad-The-Space-Shuttle-Blew-Up. It couldn't have been. The Space Shuttle blew up in January, 1986, so I doubt he recorded that piece until at least a few months later, whereas the first draft of Ricochet (as it was called a the time) was pretty much complete by the end of January, 86. Furthermore, the first time space junk fell in a screenplay of mine was 1979 (a short script, SFU film school, that was never produced). Basically, I loved the humour inherent in creating a situation so hopeless for a character that the only way out of it would be for random chunks of metal to come hurtling from the sky and kill all the bad guys.

...now mind you, I have no easy ability to fact-check THAT, either - I mean, it's just stuff from my inbox, and memories of the Great Chuck Biscuits Death Hoax of 2009 make me a little wary... but I didn't fact-check Jello either, so... How does one say "let the reader beware" in Latin? It's the internet, Jake.


Dharmendra said...

You made some excellent points in that post. I find this a really interesting subject.

Anonymous said...

Didn't Jello go to jail in the 90s for accounting fraud in California?