Jerry Joseph came to San Francisco as a musician I respected, a man I was intrigued by, and somewhat of a star to me. He left more like a friend and someone I look forward to hanging out with in the future. Jerry and his band the Jackmormons, consisting of drummer Brad Rosen and bassist Junior Ruppel, kicked off their recent tour at The Sweetwater, in Marin County just North of San Francisco. Seeing as how Jerry was going to be in the Bay Area for a few evenings, playing at the Tongue & Groove the following night, I took the opportunity to set up an interview with him.
As I sit now and try to assemble what turned out to be one hell of a weekend, musically and otherwise, I find it increasingly difficult to find a starting point. How do you even really begin to talk about a musician who has been playing professionally since he was 15, and a man that has lived a life that movies are modeled after?
I've had my eye on Jerry for a while, learning of his gut-wrenching, impetuous performances through his good friends Widespread Panic. His songwriting ability is as strong as anyone's around, and he has penned a few Panic staples, namely "Climb To Safety" and "North." But for those who think that is all, or even the best, Jerry has to offer, they are grossly mistaken. Jerry was on the brink of stardom when Panic was just an opener for his band Little Women. After experiencing infamous personal problems and a painful professional fall out with Capricorn Records Jerry made a few solo albums with Everything Was Beautiful rising to the top. From there Jerry landed in Utah and the Jackmormons were born. Jerry was recently quoted in An Honest Tune magazine as saying, "We just have gotten further than I had ever gotten with Little Women. Not in the numbers as far as our crowds. But as far as the professional-ness and the quality of the people around us, who's working on stuff, has eclipsed anything that I have to base it on." And again Jerry Joseph finds himself sitting on that fragile line between star musician and struggling band.
Jerry's dance with stardom has always hinged on his rough, raw, and real essence. Everything about Jerry Joseph is real. He wears his heart openly on his sleeve and resists the natural tendencies to hide one's fears and insecurities. His music exists on a very emotional plane, coming from a past that has no doubt tainted him, but given him the gift of experience. His performance on stage proves to be quite similar to his demeanor off stage: open, animated, powerful, full of life and above all, real. When I met him Friday at The Sweetwater he was humble and seemed to be at least as nervous as I was. The hard edge he lays on stage was softened by his eyes up close, and his gentle voice complemented his kind nature. When I caught up with him before the Tongue & Groove gig it was as if we were old acquaintances; perhaps not tight, but comfortable. By the time we left the venue and walked up Polk Street to Cresta's 2211 Club, the quietest bar around, I had already learned of his childhood in San Diego and how his dad moved the family to New Zealand at age 15 in order to straighten Jerry out. After a month he was in a motorcycle gang and a rock band, not exactly what dad had in mind. He continued to tell me about his other travels that have taken him around the world. To be honest we talked very candidly and had a rapport that echoed of my closest friends, and as I watched him play that night I kept thinking, "he's one of us."
When Jerry and I sat down I had a list of almost 40 questions. I had done my homework, listened incessantly to his excellent Terminus release Conscious Contact, and was looking forward to picking Jerry's mind. I probably asked five of my sacred questions, and instead we just talked. Jerry bought me Jack and gingers while he had a Kettle One martini and eventually a Guinness. We hung out in the bar and talked in much the same manner I talk with my best friends, passionately and honestly.
At this point I would like to welcome you into the first part of my conversation with Jerry. As John Bell, front man for Widespread Panic likes to say:
"Ladies and gentleman, The Reverend Jerry Joseph!"
Kayceman: Last night before the show, you were saying that you were a bit nervous because you hadn't seen your band in quite some time, and that usually means the next show will either be real good or real bad. So what was your impression of last night's show?
Jerry Joseph: I was pissed.
Jerry Joseph: Yeah. I had a really hard time. It's funny because we came off and I have this thing about trying to curb my... well, my temper in the first place, but also what I say to people. I'm not so sure it's the smartest thing for me, because I came downstairs and I was just mad so I didn't talk to anybody. I think my band thought it was good, all my friends thought it was good.
Kayceman: How come you didn't feel it was so good?
Jerry Joseph: I don't know... I... I think when you're away from it for a little while [this was the first show of the tour, and he hadn't seen his band in over a month] you get this thing in your imagination of what it sounds like, you know, and it's fuckin' never that.
By Adam Smith
Kayceman: Right, well that's life...
Jerry Joseph: But you get on tour and after a couple days you get a real sense of what it is. But I walk away for a month from playing with the band and I'm like, "OK, we sound like this magical thing," we sound like what it is [shrugging his shoulders and looking down].
I was impressed. I hadn't seen you since Oak Mountain when you came out [with Widespread Panic]. And I hadn't seen the Jackmormons in more than a year. I was impressed.
[very humbly] Thank you.
Whatever that's worth...
Yeah, I appreciate it.
Last night there was one part that I really loved... I came to know you through Panic, so you know "North" of course is a no-brainer for me. That's one of my favorite songs that Panic does, and I loved hearing you do it last night. So I was curious because I lived in San Diego for a while, and when I was leaving San Diego that pretty much became my theme song. I would listen to either one of yours or Panic's versions every day, fuckin' shit cranked up to 11, I would just sit there and it was like my inspiration to get the fuck out of San Diego. So I'm just kinda wondering where your inspiration for that song came from?
By N. Evans
I think, and I'm a little bit murky about it, but a lot of that I wrote in Nicaragua.
Which makes sense.
But the same deal, you know. I think at that time I was probably going kinda back and forth from Southern California to Central America. I still had this kinda idealic vision of the Northwest.
Definitely. Me too.
[laughing] Burns out really quickly. As soon as you're there for three days in the rain you're like, "what the fuck was I thinking." But if I remember, and I can't really remember, I was writing some of those lines when I was in Nicaragua. I can't remember if I was actually writing the song there, or if I was writing the words there. If it gets too far away from it, especially that time in my life was sort of... murky... the early '90s.
What were you doing in Nicaragua?
Well, I had been there a lot. Originally, my father is in international fisheries, he's a conservationist and ascertains world tuna populations and then sets catch quotas. And he took me down there a couple of times during the Sandinista's being in power because I was a young, raging, leftist, reggae singer and my dad was like, "you don't know what the fuck you're talking about, here meet Daniel Ortega," and I fell in love with the place. I'm not so sure I was going to get "Sandino" tattooed on my ass at that point. And then I think when I wrote "North" I was with my friend, actor Woody Harrelson, and I bring that up only because I'm trying to remember if he was there... we hitchhiked around Nicaragua together...
Yeah, that's actually something I had written down. I wanted to ask you about that because I've read that you guys have been friends for quite some time. How did that come about?
We just became friends. I met him in New York, and we've just been kind of writing songs together for years. And I think it was like '94 or something and he wanted to go somewhere that nobody knew him, and I was like, "lets go to Nicaragua."
Until they wanted to beat the shit out of us because he sold his wife.
[laughing] Ya, I was just telling this story the other day. A bunch of guys in this bar were like, "hey man, how could you fuckin' sell your wife?" And he's like, "it's a movie man." It's that Indecent Proposal. He's like, "it was a movie," and they just didn't get it.
Oh my God, that’s hilarious.
Yeah, it was pretty weird, so...
So you guys were just kicking around down there?
Yeah, and kinda to write. I go down there a lot, or I have to write. And Costa Rica a lot just because I have a lot of friends there, my brother used to live there. I'm usually there once a year at least, but I haven't been there in about a year and a half.
So, Little Women was the first band that I knew of you having. Was there anything that kind of predated that? Anything of note?
Nothing of note. I started playing in bands when I was like 12 in La Jolla. We played keg parties on the beach and stuff. And when I moved to New Zealand that was the first time I started making money at it. I was there for like a year; I played in this kinda heavy metal band, late '70s, '77. And then I proceeded to get into a lot of trouble. And somewhere there I got back in a band and lived in Humboldt County and had this kind of super roots-reggae-grower band where everybody except me had a name like "Ocean" or "Forrest" or something. And I met Brad my drummer up there. I was chasing a girlfriend who left me and went to Utah. I was chasing after her, and pleading with her to come back to me, and Brad went with me and we started Little Women in Northern Utah.
By N. Evans
So it was you and Brad, and eventually Kimock was in that...
Oh, that was way later. This was like 1982.
Oh really, I didn’t know it was that old.
Yeah, we were a band for like 10 or 12 years. And over the course of that time there were a lot of different people that came in and out.
Who was sort of the core? You and Brad, right?
We were trying to figure it out the other day how many people were actually in that band, and it's something north of 20.
Wow, I had no idea.
But the longest line-up was me and Brad, a guy named Geoff George on keyboards, Louis Butts on bass, Greg Freeman on percussion, and Steve James on guitar. This guy Steve James we still see quite a bit, he lives up in Portland. That's how we all ended up in Portland. We'd been together 10 years, we were all living in different states and we were still doing like 250 nights a year, and we decided to all move to the same city. I forget why we picked Portland, it was the worst place for us in the West... and there was some other reason. Brad was living in Eugene and didn't want to move. And there were lots of really cheap drugs on the street, like everywhere. Outside of Manhattan nowhere else in the country had it like that. [in a fucked up, partying kind of voice] "Fuck, let's move here, this is great." Turned out to be my downfall, but... it sounded like a good idea at the time.
You know, I've read various things, and is that [drug use] what caused Little Women to fall apart, more or less?
I don't really like to trust what I read from outside sources, so I figure go to the source...
I was the youngest guy in Little Women, and half of us were really excessive. It was the '80s, we were in a cool reggae band, you know. We were also kinda Dead Heads. And I think we were much more into modeling our lives after the Stones or the New York Dolls or something than we were whatever kinda followed us quickly. I remember for us when we would first meet those younger bands like Phish, or Blues Traveler, or even Widespread Panic. Those bands were all relatively conservative, they weren't super decadent bands. We were kinda like wearing a ton of makeup and I think that couple of years was a pretty crucial difference. I think that ultimately there is a legitimate argument that our record deal with Capricorn was tainted by the rumors of my heroin use, but I wasn’t a heroin addict then, I didn't become a heroin addict until I was 30. I think maybe I was when I was like 18, but it wasn't until I was 30 and that record deal fell apart. I thought I was washed up I though it was over. If I could go back, there are a lot of things that I would change in my life. But one of my big regrets in my life is that nobody sat me down, people may have tried but, sat me down when I was 30 and told me how young I really was, and how much time I had ahead of me. Because when I turned 30 I was like, "fuck man it's over." So I just jumped in the deep end. "OK, well fuck you. I'll show you man..." But I don't think that was the main reason. The big reason that I think Little Women broke up was...one Capricorn didn't get it. They started to be more interested in my as a solo artists, which was really stupid on their part, I think that the record that we made. The live Little Woman record that we made full of new material that would have been the first record we did for Capricorn...god love all the other bands on Capricorn, but song for song it was a pretty great record, they probably would have had a hit record. They just didn't get it. They didn't get the reggae thing. I remember those guys going, (with a southern twang) "Not only do we not want you to play reggae on the record, we don't want you to play it live, we don't want you to play it in your living room, we don't want you to go down in the basement and put it on, we don't want you to play at all." The first fucking top 40 hit they had was 311. Five years later.
By M. Weintrob
Why did they take you on?
They didn't take us on; ultimately they passed after this brutal year. And it was a brutal year where I was definitely looking at my options as a solo artist, because that's where their interest was. I don't think the band ever recovered from it. And I think that the other thing that happened was we moved to Portland in 1990 and I had already been way over the reggae thing, but we were good at it, and I used to really like it. But I was way more into Bob Mould and the Meat Puppets or whatever. And then we moved up to Portland and that was 1990 in the mid-west, a whole nother ball game for us. You know we were watching Nirvana with like 10 people, and Alice in Chains opened for us. It was just like a, hippie, reggae, feel good, fucking anything really seemed trivial to me at the time. And certainly politically it was very trivialized by that. The hippie, jam music had quit being political at all. Nobody was saying anything short of, "Stop Apartheid," or "Skateboarding is not a crime," or something easily put on your t-shirt. And my politics were really fucking extreme. And we just...I remember the first band that really kicked our ass when we lived in Colorado was The Samples. I mean we thought we were like tough, badass and that we were cool. Fuck that The Samples came out singing songs about dolphins and smoking pot. And we had our asses handed to us, and I think I resisted that forever, I still probably do.
By N. Evans
Wow, that surprises me.
I was making music that's populist for the sake of...not as an inditement of a lot of bands because I don’t think they are really that conscious of it, but I just remember then the whole hippie thing that was around us, it wasn't called "Jam Bands" back then, but suddenly we get up to the north west and it's "Poison Idea" and "Nirvana" and "Mother Love Bone" and it fukin' mattered. It seemed like it to us. Especially for us being 30 looking at these kids 21, 22, and being like, "this is so on the money," and sooo viable artistically, and we'd kinda turn around and look back at our peers and we were like, "this is a lot of fat guys playing guitar solo's." But you know what I mean it was like this is supposed to matter. And I remember the first time we met those Phish guys. And it was like a military operation, "OK everybody's up at nine o'clock and we're all gonna have bagels and cream cheese, and daadeeda deedaaa, and what's the bottom line on the money," and we just saw our future kinda drive by in a car, "ahhh there it went." And it taught me a lot. And so that was ultimately the demise of Little Women, because I had a couple of guys in my band that really liked reggae, and we had worked really hard for people like Burning Spear and Mutabaruka and shit to tell us we were cool.
And all of a sudden, not Spear but, I decided the same thing with Jamaican music too, they're just smoking coke and fucking white women, they don't give a fuck. Ya know (laughing), fuckin' by the mid '80's it was just horseshit. And every single one of these reggae bands would be like, "Jah Love," and "Stop Apartheid," and it's just like, "Fuck you man." So I was disillusioned completely with music, and I had been pushing things to get heavier the whole time, and I think the ultimate end of Little Women was a combination, I was a heroin addict, my band started splintering off, really the end of that band was when Brad quite, and I should have quit when Brad quit, but the money was huge, and ya know we were like, "OK well the tour was booked for like eight months, ok we'll get a new drummer." Well once you do that then everything is replaceable and I remember finally one night I looked around, I went to introduce my band and I went, "I don't even know half these fuckin' guys." I was in Boulder and I walked off stage and went to the airport and flew to Maui. The stupidest place I could have gone as far as looking for reality, nonetheless it was a warm beach.
Yeah, that's true. So from Little Women you went into some solo stuff right. You did Love and Happiness?
Yeah, and the last part of Little Women was really kind of a four piece, it was actually pretty good. And we had recorded this Welcome Hunters record, and kind of broke up and that record was released as The Welcome Hunters it wasn't the name of the band it was just the title of the record, and that had like "Climb To Safety" and "North" and stuff on it. And then John Bell called and wanted me to make a record. And he's like, "you know what man I can't believe you. You need to make a record." And we had all these demos we'd already been working with Johnny Sandlin for this whole Capricorn thing that went awry and I had the relationship with Johnny and he had been producing Panic and so I went down to make that record for a new label that John was starting, and I made Love and Happiness and Bloodkin made...I forget that record...Out Of State Plates maybe. And then that was really kinda the darkest part of my adult life, right in through there with drugs and whatever. Then...I forget what happened. Somewhere ahh, well then that record came out. The night that record came out in Portland I said I was going to quit playing music, and I went to go get clean. I mean I've been trying to get clean for fuckin' years. It seems like I was away for ever, but really it was only like six months till I played a show again. But by the time that six months went by I pretty much had to start all over again. I ended up in Utah, met Junior, and started the Jackmormons kinda for fun. And it just turned into this whole other thing.
Sure, or kinda...or...something I always knew how to do was make a living playing music. And it always seemed like a better alternative then staying home. I'm not so sure that I think that's the best move though now. You know Portland Oregon is really full of people who have a real disdain for working musicians because they think that the working musicians are out there doing whatever it takes to be working, filling up clubs or filling up theatres. And there are guys with some pretty major signed bands in Portland who keep their day job because they have absolutely no fuckin' reliance on the record company. They don't have to do anything but make good art. And now at 41 it's a kind of a little late to start thinking that way for me, but I think about it.
By M. Weintrob
I don't know, yes and no...
I mean my life has been defined by what I do, and this must be my life. I've played a couple hundred nights a year since I was a child, but in retrospect now you know...I don't know. Might have been cooler to move to Berlin and do something else, and make music at night, or go to London.
I don’t know I also think that for most artists that touch me I think that that's important for them, to affect people. And I don't know if that's something that you feel or not but I mean by touring so much and playing all the time your also reaching more people. And having more of an affect on people.
(Hesitantly) Yeaaa but...
I mean if you're just playing at night in Berlin your not going to...
No I know. Or who knows...
Maybe if I hung out with my four-track and really focused on my art and forgot about, "can I fuckin' pack it in San Francisco tonight?" who fuckin' cares? Can I make a great record? Or learn all of the skills that it takes to make a great record? There's really a dichotomy there. It's come up for me because there's a bumper sticker now in Portland that says, "Real Musicians Have Day Jobs" and I almost like pulled the person over and dragged him out of the fucking car and beat him with a baseball bat.
(With laughter all around and expressions worthy of film) That’s interesting I haven't really thought about that.
Yeah, weird concept. But just for my life you know it was like from the get-go, no, no, no, I'm getting paid to do this, and we're not playing covers.
No this is OUR shit.
It's like why the fuck would I do anything else? And that was always my thinking. And obviously anybody who has any kind of desire to get up on stage in the first place usually needs the attention. So for me I was getting a lot of my needs met, people clapping, I got to wear girl's cloths, learned how to put on my own make-up. And the drugs were free.
By N. Evans
Yeah, it's got a lot to offer.
And I'm a little bald, fuckin' dopey, Yasser Arafat looking guy...
A lot of hot chicks and free dope, I feel ya dude, for sure.
(Laughing) Your quote man.
My quote. Believe me I understand that.
But ya know, not to trivialize it but a lot of my friends talk about that all the time. You know I got a million good musician friends who are like, "look man I'm a big fat guy, you think I got a date in high school until I played in this big band." I'm getting all kinds of levels of what I NEED taken care of by walking out on stage. And I remember when I was young I lived in La Jolla, in some ways I wish I'd stayed...I was ok at surfing...but it's like there's Chris O'Rourke and he fuckin' rules am I ever going to be that good? No. And do I even look like him? No way... but my guitar allowed me to be cool too. And if I wasn't cool at least I was louder than everybody else in the room. (More laughter) And I just think it's funny to grow up and you get older and all those insecurities are still there.
By B. Stevens
That's something, I don’t know I guess 27 isn't that old, but that's something I'm finding too that the things that I thought would stop bothering me, they don't stop bothering me, you know...
Hopefully, I've never really done the kinda self-help or whatever steps or whatever. But I do, I have the same issues all the time. And for me a lot of it with the music business any way was, you're allowed this extended adolescence that is almost encouraged. It's certainly encouraged if you've been successful. I think the mistake as far as my heroin addiction and as far as all that stuff, is you can't do that stuff first. You have to get the record deal first and you have to have the millions of dollars tied up in your ass first, then you go off the deep end. And then everybody writes about it and everybody follows you around and everybody tries to get you to stay alive. Do it first and the perspective record company or the perspective management people are like "fuck you, we're not gonna touch you." Portland is just full of these great musicians who move to Portland and go "alright I wanna be like Elliot Smith and I'm gonna shoot a bunch of dope and I'm gonna write these beautiful Simon and Garfunkel meets fuckin' Pulp songs" but they're already wasted junkies at 22 years old. And they're like, "I don't understand why I never made it." I mean that's exactly what happened to me. You're not bankable.
It's all about banks.
IT'S ALL ABOUT BANKS.
"4:20 dude." Just put that on your forehead and get a hula-hoop it's bankable. Singing songs about Jesus and heroin and suicide it gets a little more shaky...(laughing)
This has been Part I of "Passion and Pain With Jerry Joseph." Make sure to keep an eye out for Part II as we drink a bit more, and delve a bit deeper. In Part II we stare at faith and religion while learning of Mexican drug lords. As we converse and continue to peel back the layers of life Jerry talks about producer and bass player extraordinaire Dave Schools, Door Harp and eventually Jerry opens up and speaks openly about his good friend, the late Michael Houser.
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