Hometown Boy Makes Bad
In some respects, Ministry's Al Jourgensen has mellowed. For instance, he says he's no longer helping his friendly neighborhood heroin dealer keep up with his Hummer payments. "It's been over eleven months now since I've had anything," he says. "I'm very proud and very clean."
From a creative standpoint, however, Jourgensen certainly won't be mistaken for Olivia Newton-John anytime soon. Animositisomina, the name of Ministry's new CD on the Sanctuary imprint, features most of the word "animosity" spelled forward and backward -- and as the term implies, the disc contains at least double the daily government requirement of rancor and ill will. "The only world I know is drowning in rage," Jourgensen bellows on the title cut, which kicks off the proceedings, and little that follows contradicts this declaration. The album is among the loudest and most aggressive Ministry has ever issued, and it makes the offerings of many far younger hard-rock acts seem timid by comparison.
Jourgensen, of course, is a nü-metal hero, as evidenced by an incident that took place last October 9, Big Al's birthday. According to an account in Kerrang!, Korn, one of the more popular outfits to demonstrate the Ministry influence, provided Jourgensen with a limousine ride to its concert that night at New Jersey's Meadowlands. Upon disembarking, Jourgensen came upon Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst, who, he promptly assaulted -- something Britney Spears probably should have considered. Not that Durst took offense. Before the evening was out, he had recruited Jourgensen to contribute to the next Limp Bizkit opus along with members of Korn, Helmet and Weezer, whose assistance is no doubt intended to add credibility to a project desperately in need of same.
His participation in such a dubious enterprise aside, Jourgensen is no apologist for the latest generation of metal groups. He acknowledges the generally low quality of the current crop -- but he also pins much of the blame for this situation on the system intended to promote the music. "Mediocrity is rewarded, because to take a chance at anything goes against a bean counter's thinking. Why should bands take a chance just to be rebuked and turned down and told that you'll never work in this town again? Do you know how many times we've heard that?"
Plenty: Ministry has been written off more frequently than operating losses at Enron. Nonetheless, this year marks the twentieth since the collective made its first full-lengths for Arista Records, launching an unexpectedly enduring career that continues today with a lineup anchored by Jourgensen and longtime collaborator Paul Barker. They're assisted by guitarist Louis Svitek, drummer Ray Warsham and keyboardist Angelina Lukacin, whom Jourgensen married last September at Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion.
Asked if he thought Ministry would still be around two decades down the line, Jourgensen laughs. "The only surprise is that we were able to do it while we were completely inebriated. We had our own label, we had ten bands, we were producing other bands, we were touring, we had videos. And now I'm like, 'I vaguely remember some of that...'"
Fortunately, Jourgensen's recall of his formative years is considerably better. He was born in Havana, Cuba, and raised in Chicago by a family affluent enough to afford a second home in Breckenridge. When he was nine years old or so, he began accompanying the clan on skiing vacations, and several years later, he says, "My parents got tired of the rat race in Chicago and moved to Frisco."
This transition was a rocky one for Jourgensen. "It was a freaky thing going from a concrete jungle to, you know, nature. But it was a real big part of my growing up. If I'd stayed in Chicago, I probably would have wound up in jail or something."
Instead, he spent the hours after school piloting a truck for his father, who owned a Montgomery Ward department store. The job wound up supplementing his musical education in unanticipated ways. "At the time, I was listening to a lot of Brit rock and Kraut rock -- Hawkwind and Pink Floyd and Can," he says. "Then I started getting a lot more into the country aspect. I'd be driving over Hoosier Pass to Alma, delivering washers and dryers, and the only radio stations I could get were ones that played country. And I'm not talking about achy-breaky, licky-dicky shit. I mean old country -- stuff I don't think I would have been exposed to in Chicago.
"It wasn't my choice to listen to that," he goes on, "but I finally started getting used to it. I'd be like, 'Well, I guess this ain't so hick. It's pretty cool.' I understood the subtleties of it, and it kinda stuck with me."
Beyond Jourgensen's trademark cowboy hat, the tangible impact of these C&W sessions on Ministry's sound is tough to quantify. Simpler to peg is the impact upon him of a 1977 gig by the Ramones at Ebbets Field, a long-defunct Denver venue. "It was definitely a life-changing moment," he notes. "It was the difference between listening to music and feeling the music. I felt like I'd been punched in the fucking ribs after that show. I'd never seen anyone plow through a set like that, and to this day, that's the one thing we borrow from the Ramones. Ministry doesn't fuck around and talk to the audience and do the rock babble-dribble. We just go about our business and nail these songs: one, two, three, bam, bam, bam!"
Ebbets Field wasn't exactly packed on that evening. "There were, like, 25 or 30 people there, and half of them were hecklers -- cowboys who were like, 'Hey, punk!'" Jourgensen remembers. Even so, the gathering included several people who'd become important to him in life and music - chiefly, Jello Biafra, the Boulder resident destined to front the Dead Kennedys, and the late Jim Nash, who founded Wax Trax, a record store that remains one of Denver's true pleasures. Biafra and Jourgensen subsequently worked together in bands like Lard. For his part, Nash later sold the Denver branch of Wax Trax in order to open a similarly monikered outlet in Chicago that eventually spawned the groundbreaking label of the same name. Wax Trax Records put out Ministry's debut single, "Cold Life," its 1984 album Everyday Is Halloween, and loads of music by Jourgensen side projects such as the Revolting Cocks and 1000 Homo DJs, also featuring Biafra.
"That show was insane," Jourgensen continues. "We never talked; we didn't even know each other. But these were people I wound up working with for the rest of my life."
By then, Jourgensen's Colorado tenure was beginning to wind down. After graduating from high school, he briefly attended the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley and the University of Colorado at Boulder before heading back to Chicago on the trail of a girlfriend he met at CU. Back then, Chicago wasn't much more of a punk mecca than Denver was; La Mere Vipere, the only club devoted to the style, burned to the ground in 1978 on the very day Jourgensen hit town. Shortly thereafter, other venues rose from La Mere Vipere's ashes, with Wax Trax's development providing further momentum for both the nascent scene and Jourgensen's work within it.
When Ministry was christened in 1981, it was poles apart from what it became. With Sympathy, from 1983, is fairly typical synth pop, like Soft Cell with a lousier attitude, and things continued in a similar vein up through 1986's Twitch, the combo's first for the Sire imprint. Hence, few were expecting the grinding belligerence of 1988's The Land of Rape and Honey. With lethal guitars, distorted vocals and a rhythm track that seems to have been fired from an AK-47, "Stigmata," Rape's introductory cut, provided a blueprint that Trent Reznor and many others would refer to time and time again.
If anything, 1989's A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste was even wilder -- so much so that Warner Bros., Sire's parent company, had no idea what to do with it. To make matters worse, the band ran over budget recording a followup. As Jourgensen tells it, "Jesus Built My Hotrod," put out as a single in 1991, was released in an attempt to recoup part of what was thought to be a doomed investment. Instead, it became Ministry's breakthrough number, pushing the album on which it appeared, Psalm 69, past the platinum mark and landing the group a coveted slot on the Lollapalooza Festival.
"We were all negative about the idea of doing Lollapalooza, because we're not a picnic band," Jourgensen says. "It worked out because we paid a $3,500 fine every single night to go over the decibel limitations and because we were the first band to come on at night with lights. A lot of the other bands freaked out in the middle of the day, and we might have been in that category. Jesus and Mary Chain, the poor bastards, were looking at the sun like they'd never seen that yellow thing in the sky."
Pop stardom lasted until 1995's Filth Pig, which de-emphasized synthesizers in favor of unadulterated metal. Sales suffered, and so did Jourgensen, whose heroin habit was out of control. In 1995, Ministry's Texas headquarters were raided, and he was busted for drug possession. "Piss," a bitter song on Animositisomina, recounts the five-year probationary sentence he received for the transgression.
"It got to the point where literally I forgot what a toilet looked like, because I was just peeing into jars for probation officers," Jourgensen says. "The way things are set up is corrupt, dysfunctional and non-helpful. It has nothing to do with rehabilitation or making someone a functioning member of society. It has everything to do with lining pockets."
In the end, the law didn't force Jourgensen to divorce heroin; he did so for his own reasons. "I don't regret a day in my life, but I do have reservations about how long it took me to recognize that I was getting diminishing returns. Pretty soon, it's just like being a diabetic. You're not getting any benefits; you're just taking insulin to avoid getting sick. So you either have to stop or keep going and die or get arrested -- because that's the future."
Hypodermic lust inspired 1999's Dark Side of the Spoon, whose cover photo of a morbidly obese naked woman wearing a dunce cap got it banned from Kmarts nationwide -- one of Jourgensen's proudest achievements. "Bad Blood," from Spoon, earned a 2000 Grammy nomination in the heavy-metal category, but that didn't stop Warner Bros. from cutting the group loose about ten minutes after it lost to Black Sabbath. Jourgensen, who'd known the end was near when he called Warner Bros. and was put on hold for 45 minutes while the Looney Tunes theme played ("That's all, folks!"), says he was relieved to be free. "God works in mysterious ways," he concludes.
So did director Stanley Kubrick, who chose Ministry to contribute to A.I., a film he intended to make following Eyes Wide Shut. After Kubrick died, Steven Spielberg volunteered to complete the project -- an offer that resulted in a severely flawed movie that was infinitely goopier, no doubt, than it would have been under Kubrick's guidance. On the other hand, Spielberg deserves credit for keeping the commitment to Ministry, which performs a scorching version of "What About Us?" against the backdrop of a "flesh fair" at which crazed humans gather to watch robots being destroyed. Youthful actor Haley Joel Osment, as an overtly Pinocchio-like boy-bot, is at the center of the action, as is an animatronic teddy bear that tested Jourgensen's patience. "We had to keep waiting for that fuckin' bear," he groans. "It was like, 'The bear's down! The bear malfunctioned! Cut!' And then they would talk to it and coddle it like it was a person. I was so fuckin' sick of that bear."
He isn't a fan of the movie, either, but he characterizes the filming as a positive experience. "We learned a lot, and by the end, Spielberg even kind of warmed up to us. We had him up there on stage with my cowboy hat on. We had a riot."
On the surface, touring behind Animositisomina would seem sure to be a lot less fun. After all, Ministry no longer has major-label support, and the odds that corporate radio will take a chance on songs like the cold-turkey anthem "Shove" are slimmer than Calista Flockhart. Still, Jourgenson is excited by the band's new material and looking forward to unleashing it live.
"The music business is cyclical, and sometimes within the cycle it's easy -- and sometimes you really have to push a piano uphill," he says. "But we're pretty determined folk, and we're going to keep going on until it doesn't satisfy us anymore. And right now, nothing satisfies me more."
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