It’s A Legal Matter, Baby!
Does anyone remember the obscenity trial that was the result of the Dead Kennedy’s including a poster of the HR Giger painting entitled “Penis Landscape” in their LP “Frankenchrist”?
You don’t have to be a fan of early 80’s hardcore to appreciate the significance of the trail. It’s a fascinating read involving a young-ish Tipper Gore (and her hubbie, of course), Frank Zappa and members of Twisted Sister. One result was the creation of those little “Parental Advisory” stickers you see on certain unsavory cd’s out there. It was a landmark case that shook the entire country. Funnily enough, the case was eventually tossed out due to a “hung” jury. You can’t make this stuff up, folks!
Anyway, here’s a little more info on the trial…
By Gil Kaufman
Music News of the World, June 8, 1997
Former L.A. deputy city attorney Michael Guarino says his teenage son loves ex-Dead Kennedy leader Jello Biafra. Pictured: The H. R. Giger poster that got Biafra in trouble.
Addicted To Noise Senior Writer Gil Kaufman reports:
A lot of good it does him now, but former Dead Kennedys’ leader Jello Biafra said he’s “ecstatic” — well at least as ecstatic as the punk cynic is going to get –to hear that the man who made his life so miserable nearly 10 years ago has changed his tune.
The gentleman in question, former L.A. deputy city attorney Michael Guarino, has recently acknowledged that prosecuting Biafra, the Alternative Tentacles label and the Dead Kennedys was a mistake. The 1986 obscenity trial took Biafra and the Kennedys to task (and, ultimately, broke up the band and nearly drove his label Alternative Tentacles out of business) over a graphic H.R. Giger (Aliens) poster of penises included in their 1985 album, Frankenchrist.
In fact, Guarino, whose son is a big fan of Biafra, said he now appreciates a lot of what the punk poet has to say in his spoken-word rants.
“In retrospect,” Guarino, the Director of Clinical Programs at JFK University in Orinda, Calif., told ATN last week, “I think it’s more important for (District Attorneys) offices and US Attorneys offices to focus on the tremendous amount of conflict of interest at the top, the accountants, the lawyers, the politicians, and get out of the area of freedom of expression.”
The 1986 case, which resulted in a creepy scene that had Biafra’s San Francisco apartment raided by nine police officers on April 15, 1986, searching for a copy of the poster — an infinite-loop rendering of alien penises engaged in sexual activity — that had been included in every copy of the album, was the beginning of a long and ultimately failed attempt to prosecute Biafra, Alternative Tentacles and the Dead Kennedys on what Guarino now calls “junior varsity obscenity” charges, those dealing with distribution of hard-core material to children.
As the story goes, the poster fell into the hands of a concerned mother who complained to the attorney general of California, who, in turn, sent the complaint to the L.A. city attorney’s office. Smelling a juicy, headline-grabbing stand against an already-controversial (but marginal) group — a scenario in lock-step with Parent’s Music Resource Center’s (headed by Vice President Al Gore’s wife Tipper) attempt to censor rock in the ’80s — Guarino said a higher-up in the office designated the young attorney to follow the trial.
“Obscenity laws dictate that you can’t distribute material that meets the established definition of prurient, and that you can’t distribute hard-core material to children,” said Guarino, who now runs criminal prosecution clinics. “At that time I agreed that the Giger insert was inappropriate for distribution to kids, and I assumed the jury would be asked to decide that question. The judge saw fit to include the content of the album, the lyrics, in conjunction with the poster and whether those two things were inappropriate for children, which was inconsistent with existing federal and state case law.
“At that point,” Guarino said, “I knew the case wasn’t worth following.”
The case was ultimately tossed out due to a hung jury, but not before Biafra and his label were done irreparable damage.
“He (Guarino) told the L.A. Weekly at the time,” said Biafra of his tormentor, “that they had an entire file full of dossiers on musicians that they were intending to go after once they won this case, which of course they never did.”
Although not quite ready to fully extend the hand of peace, Biafra did gladly accept Guarino’s apology and said he’d love to “shove it in the face of every would-be Tipper Gore and Jesse Helms,” who are trying to prosecute and jail “innocent artists, poets and musicians for their work, especially rappers.”
“I think they assumed I was some Sid Vicious idiot who would plead guilty and pay a $50 fine and then they could use that precedent against major-label artists,” said Biafra, of what he sees as the legal system’s misunderstanding of his tenacity. “He called it a ‘cost-effective way of sending a message’ on TV at the time. In other words, let’s bash a small independent in hopes of getting rid of Ozzy, Judas Priest and Prince. History is never on the side of the censor, just ask Allen Ginsberg or Socrates.”
In one of life’s great ironies, Guarino said his teenage son “idolizes” Biafra and constantly listens to the punk poet’s CDs of spoken-word rants. “I keep trying to tell him that there’s much more to all of this than what Jello talks about, but he is definitely right about a lot of stuff,” Guarino said about Biafra’s conspiratorial rants. “He’s an interesting guy, but he only sees what he’s in a position to see and he can’t get beyond a quarter-inch or so of what’s going on. In some cases, it’s much worse than he could ever imagine.”
As if that wasn’t enough purgatorial torture, Guarino said that on his first day of teaching at JFK a student recognized his name from the trial, ran out to her car, and came back with a 40-minute Biafra spoken-word tape about the failed prosecution that he then played for his class.