He was standing against the wall, beer in hand, talking to a much younger blonde woman. But it was getting late, and I was tired – if I wanted that autograph, I had to make my move.
Jello Biafra (former front man for the Dead Kennedys, political prankster and activist, founder of Alternative Tentacles Records, and all around punk rock royalty) was DJ-ing at my little dive bar, The Ruby Room, and I had vowed I would get the man to sign a couple of records. I felt okay about this: after all, I had restrained myself from bringing ALL six of the LP’s I own, not to mention the handful of 45’s.
Jello’s work mattered to me. Still does.
I had seen the Dead Kennedys play at the Olympic Auditorium in LA when I was in high school.
I had seen Jello show up at a GWAR show as a special guest when I was in college.
I had this poster up in my dorm room.
I had bumped into him at a Foxboro Hot Tubs show five or six years ago and said a brief hello.
The Dead Kennedys were one of the few “political” punk bands that didn’t come across as too preachy – credit Biafra’s acid wit, the band’s musicianship, and the songs’ infectious hooks. No wonder Levi’s wanted to use “Holiday In Cambodia” to sell jeans.
Biafra told them no.
Okay, it was time, now or never: I put the black Sharpie in my pocket, grabbed my plastic bag with the two records in it, and walked up to Jello and the young lady.
“Sorry, if I could just borrow you for a second, do you mind a few quick autographs?”
“I hope you have a pen,” he said.
Ha! I handed him the Sharpie.
Earlier in the night I had thanked him for coming, had bought him a Guinness, and we had talked briefly about the GWAR show at the now defunct Omni Club in Oakland, where that guest appearance consisted of him climbing into a giant sausage grinder on stage – vanishing – and then long coils of fake ground meat coming out the other end.
Now THAT was a show.
I figured with that little bit of connection, I had paved my way for this fanboy interruption. After taking the pen and noticing the bag, he asked,
“Ooh, what do you have in there?” in that inimitable “is-he-mocking-me?/isn’t-he?” voice of his.
I handed him my copy of “No More Cocoons,” one of his spoken-word records, and then followed it up with “In God We Trust, Inc.” by the Dead Kennedys.
As he signed the records, the blonde left to go back to the bar.
“Let me give you some advice,” he said as he finished signing the DK record.
“Oh shit,” I thought. Here it comes: a lecture on how no fanboy, or anyone else, for that matter, should ever cock block a rock star by asking for autographs when he is busy talking one-on-one to a fan much prettier than myself.
“Always leave the record at home.”
“Huh?” I asked.
“Just bring the sleeve in for the autograph. If you bring the vinyl, too, you risk trashing it.”
What?!? This was his advice? Take good care of your records?!
“It could just slip out onto the floor or someone might steal it.”
He was not a punk rock legend annoyed at some pesky fan interrupting his game, he was just a fellow record geek sharing some wisdom on protecting one’s records.
I should’ve known. He played exclusively vinyl that night, and all his 45’s were carefully kept in clear plastic sleeves.
“Right, I didn’t think about that,” I said. And then I added, “And hey, thanks again for coming out tonight. It meant a lot to me, and we all loved your music.”
“Well, stick around, I should be getting back on the turntables sometime soon.”
I mumbled something about how I would come back to hear him play, but I really was tired, and I had heard his first set – obscure 60’s garage rock and some northern soul – but all very poppy and accessible for the uninitiated as well as the legion of die hard punks, young and old, who had turned out to see the living legend. The music was good, genuinely so – we’re a rock ‘n’ roll dive bar – and Jello and his 45’s fit right in.
And I got those autographs.
The whole thing would never have happened had my regular Sunday DJ, Jesse Luscious, not put it all together. Jesse was one of the singers with Green Day-era Berkeley punk band “Blatz” (they did an excellent and playful cover of Fear’s “I Don’t Care About You,” and a song I particularly like called “Lullaby,” with great, sinister, hypnotic guitar work). Jesse manages Biafra’s label, Alternative Tentacles.
Oh: and Jesse arrived before Jello did, so I got his autograph, too. He’s a really sweet, easygoing guy, with terrific penmanship.
Meeting your idols is dicey business: you’re never close enough to see their warts and blemishes, and the pedestals we build for them are ridiculously tall and narrow. When you do finally get up close and personal, they can so easily disappoint.
But Jello did not.