From Jello Biafra’s 1989 spoken word album “High Priest of Harmful Matter” comes this monologue about the “Frankenchrist” trial from 1987. “Frankenchrist” was a 1985 album released by the legendary punk rock group The Dead Kennedys (Biafra’s band at the time) and the album infamously included a poster that featured the H.R. Giger painting “Penis Landscape.”
Never mind that a sticker on the album cover contained a warning label about the poster, Biafra (and others) were brought up on criminal charges for “distributing harmful matter to minors.” What the prosecution hoped to do was for Biafra (an artist on an independent record label) to plead guilty so a legal precedent would be set. The prosecution actually admitted that going after Biafra was a “cost-effective” way to send a message. Had that precedent been set, then prosecutors could have gone after bigger game, such as Prince or Madonna. But Biafra … seeing the big picture and the REAL reason he was targeted … chose to fight the charges instead. Sadly, his fight was without the help of any major record label (who seriously should have seen the bigger picture as well and helped Biafra … but did not). Fighting the charges was expensive and nearly bankrupted Biafra and his record label, but he won … sort of. The trial resulted in a hung jury and the judge chose to dismiss the case after the jury couldn’t come to a unanimous decision.
The entire arrest and subsequent trial are brilliantly (and very entertainingly) explained in this 43-minute monologue. Some bad language here and there, but to quote the label on the “Frankenchrist” album, “life can sometimes be that way.”
Some bizarre footnotes of this trial:
1) Gene Simmons of KISS wanted to the buy Biafra’s life rights to make a dramatic film about the trial with Billy Crystal playing Biafra (?!?)
2) The prosecutor, Michael Guarino, later admitted it was a mistake to have gone after Biafra and later came together with him on Ira Glass’s “This American Life” to discuss the trial and for Guarino to apologize. Guarino also admitted that his son became a huge Dead Kennedys fan in later years and would blast their music to the annoyance of everyone on their street.
“Frankenchrist” was the Dead Kennedy’s 1985 long-awaited follow-up to their 1982 album “Plastic Surgery Disasters.” Nearly 30 years later, I can’t say it’s a better album, but it’s a lot better than I remember it. Of course, much of this reassessment has to do with all of the trouble that “Frankenchrist” whipped up back in the day.
A big part of the problem was the inclusion of a poster, a reproduction of Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger’s “Penis Landscape,” that was included with the album. If you want to see this painting, you can type in “H.R. Giger” and “Penis Landscape” into a Google image search and see what all the fuss was about. Please note that the artwork is not safe for work or little ones. Anyway, it caused the DK’s lead singer Jello Biafra to be arrested, along with other folks, and charged with “distributing harmful matter to minors” because the warning label on the album allegedly wasn’t big enough … or something like that. The reason why they were targeted (as opposed to a more high profile artist like Prince) was because the DKs were a smaller band on an independent label. As such, they were more financially vulnerable, more likely to plead guilty, which would then set a legal precedent so then, prosecutors could go after bigger artists. To Biafra’s enormous credit and foresight, he saw the big picture, decided to fight the suit and much to his financial detriment (and his band’s ultimate demise), wound up getting the case dismissed after a long and costly trial.
Biafra’s tale is most brilliantly told in his “High Priest of Harmful Matter” spoken word album, the track labelled “Tales from the Trial” that really needs to be heard by any person who appreciates free speech. Biafra’s speech on this album briefly inspired me to want to become a First Amendment lawyer back in college, a notion that was eventually disabused by my lack of public speaking skills. However, I do cherish the memory of dropping this career plan on my ultra-conservative attorney uncle back in the day and seeing him first turn white … then red … in fear and anger. His reaction was so extreme that even my conservative Dad chuckled and gave me a thumbs up for getting under my uncle’s skin so effectively. I gotta hand it to my Dad … he always went for the cheap (and funny) joke over principles. To paraphrase Ray Bolger in “The Wizard of Oz,” “If I’d only had a pair …”
The most bizarre footnote of this case was that Gene Simmons of KISS wanted to buy Biafra’s life rights to this story so he could produce a movie about the trial with Billy Crystal playing Biafra. As Ace Ventura would say, “Alllllrighty then!”