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Published: 2006/05/18
by Andy Tennille

Used with Jerry Joseph

A walk through the used record bins of some of the country’s finest music stores with musicians, both famous and infamous.

“I keep thinking that if I could do my life over again and still make the mistake of being a musician, I’d want to be a bass player in a reggae band. I just love that sound.”

Jerry Joseph points to the speaker in the corner of Amoeba Music that’s piping in Black Uhuru’s 1980 album Sinsemilla, Robbie Shakspeare’s unctuous bass playing slithering between Sly Dunbar’s heavy drum beats.

“I was in a reggae band in the 80s called Little Women,” Joseph recalls rubbing his bald head. “We toured a lot with Burning Spear and Steel Pulse. In the mid-80s, I got into world music and by the end of the decade, I was so full of fuckin’ Jah love and didn’t want to hear anymore free Mandela’ raps for the rest of my life. I just found the whole reggae thing was full of so many poseurs, all these white guys in dashikis with little knit skullcaps. I couldn’t deal with it anymore.

Over the last few years, I’ve started to go back to reggae and world music and now I’m remembering why I love it so much. You know, there was I Roy and U RoyI want to be Wee Roy, but with two Es, cause I’m little. (_Laughs_) Wee Roythat’d be pretty fuckin’ cool.”

Despite his relative physical stature, there’s nothing diminutive about Jerry Joseph. The Portland, Oregon-based singer-songwriter and frontman for rock trio The Jackmormons has earned a reputation as a maverick throughout his 20-year-plus career, writing candidly about his struggles with heroin addiction and depression as well as his sometimes-controversial religious and political views. Joseph does not mince words or beat around the bush. If Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards can be likened to TNT in this very same space only a few months back, then Joseph is straight-up nuclear.

“I don’t get why this guy’s famous,” Joseph says referring to infamous Brit bad boy Pete Doherty as he grabs a copy of Babyshambles’ Down in Albion. “I mean, I was a fuckin’ crack-smoking heroin addict and no one put me on all the magazine covers. I guess he’s better looking than I am, but his music is terrible. I think I’m pretty much over this whole new British Invasion thing. I buy these records and I end up feeling the same way about all of them. There are always a couple of songs on each of them that are pretty cool and the rest of the thing just suckslike the Kaiser Chiefs have a tune on their new album that’s pretty cool and then the rest is just shit.”

What’s most surprising about Joseph is his voracious appetite for current music. While most musicians his age bemoan the state of today’s popular music and would rather listen to Blood on the Tracks for the umpteenth time, Joseph is constantly out checking out live music and wandering record stores in search of a cult favorite from Latin America he’s heard about.

“You hip to Manu Chao? He’s like this folk pop star from Mexico City. Kind of like the Beck of Mexico. He’s huge in Mexico and Central America. It’s really cool music with loops and guitars and all kinds of stuff. You can’t go wrong with Manu Chao,” Joseph explains handing me Chao’s Esperanza album. “Os Mutantes were this big, 60s psychedelic band from Brazil. They’re an acquired taste – people either like it a lot or they hate it. It’s not groovy, fun Latin music. It’s like pre-_Dark Side of the Moon_ Pink Floyd, but it’s Brazilian, so it’s got a lot of percussion. It always seems to pop up on rock critic’s top records of all time lists.”

Flipping through the Mexican music section, Joseph runs across a compilation of songs written in honor of the drug runners of northern Mexico. The album’s cover art depicts a grinning, mustached Mexican hombre holding two large semi-automatic weapons with ammo belts strapped across his chest. Examining the back of the album, Joseph starts rubbing his head, a sure sign that something’s afoot.

“There’s this whole genre of music now in Mexico that’s all about the heroic tales of northern Mexican drug runners,” he explains. “WellI met a couple of those guys and they’re a bunch of fascist murderers. There’s nothing cool about them. They’re not taking the money to the people. We’re not talking about Robin Hood here.

“I’ve got a song called Ten Killer Fairies’ that I wrote that’s about some guys like that wiping out my neighbors. Twenty-three people, man. There’s not a redeeming thing about them, but just like how hip-hop glorifies the gangster lifestyle, these guys in Mexico are doing the same thing. You’re not a badass down there until you have a song about you, so these drug runners are paying musicians to write songs about them. They drop all these names of famous drug runners in their songs as a tribute.”

As a songwriter, Joseph takes his cues from folks like Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Graham Parsons and Townes Van Zandt, but his bravado is clearly influenced by the outlaw country music he got turned on to in his early twenties.

“I loved the balls of all that outlaw country music like Waylon and Hank and Cash. I don’t know any of the definitive records by those guys, but all that music influenced me quite a bit,” Joseph says. “Probably one of the coolest concert experiences I’ve ever had was seeing Johnny Cash follow Rage Against the Machine at the Glastonbury Festival by himself in the early 90s. It was when Rage was just huge all over England and the U.S. and they’d just finished this just incendiary set with all the members of L7 onstage with them. Johnny Cash walks out there all by himself in front of 180,000 people with only an acoustic guitar in his hand and says, Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.’ The place went nuts and he wiped Rage off the fuckin’ stage. Everyone had forgotten that they’d played after Cash was done.”

Suddenly, Joseph starts rubbing his head again. Ten seconds pass in silence as Joseph’s eyes slowly widen.

“You know how people have dreams that they’re naked and standing in front of their entire school or office at work?” he says smacking his forehead. “Well, I have this dream where it’s like a bunch of songwriters in the round. It’s Elvis Costello, Cash, Aimee Mann and Bob Dylan and Steve Earle and whoever and I have to play something. I have this list in my head of the songs that I’d play, but I can’t remember any of them. It always freaks me out and I just remembered that I had it again last night.”

“Which singer in the group intimidates you the most?” I ask inquisitively.

“I’m a huge Steve Earle fan – he’s one of my heroes. One time, he came to one of my gigs in Montana, but I didn’t know he was there. It was a Jackmormons gig and the only people there were like eighty hippie kids, so we were playing this extra jammy set. So he leaves me a note and invites me down to his bus the next day to hang out. So I go down to see him the next day and he’s like, Man, awesome songs, great fuckin’ singer, killer bandwhy the fuck would you guys want to sound like Phish?’ It was the most devastating thing anyone has ever said to me. It crucified me, especially coming from him. So he’s probably the one that would freak me out the most.”

As we head for the checkout counter, Joseph pulls up at the New Releases display for a last-minute scan.

“Would you call these guys wacky?” Joseph asks holding a copy of At War With The Mystics, the newest studio album from Oklahoma City’s favorite psychedelic sons, The Flaming Lips. “Cause normally I don’t like humor in music, especially wacky. When someone says something’s wacky, I usually run the other way. But I don’t find these guys wacky. I find it very sad and I love that. I find their performances to be really natural and beautiful and not some bullshit shtick.

“The first time I saw them was when they opened for Little Women in the mid-80s. They were so pissed to be on a bill with a hippie reggae band that they came out and played “Everybody’s Talking About Me” for 45 minutes and then just walked off. Just one big fuck you to us and I loved it. I thought they were awesome.”

Jerry’s Picks – Manu Chao, Esperanza – Os Mutantes, Everything Is Possible! – Malcolm Middleton, Into The Woods – The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin – George Harrison, Concert for Bangladesh

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