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Ministry and Al Jourgensen: What a Riot

4 Min Read

Beer bottles thrown from close range splash off a 10-foot-high chain-link fence that cages off what looks like an agitated militia squad. A sea of seething, swirling bodies spits out shadowy figures that desperately try to crawl up and over the fence, only to tumble back into the carnage. Strobes and lasers cut through air thick with smoke, vaporizing sweat and billowing fog. Images of violent death dance on a screen to a soundtrack that suggests an artillery barrage.

This is not a riot. It’s a Ministry concert from the late ‘80s.

Such was the world of Al Jourgensen, the founding member of Ministry and in many ways the most notorious artist on the roster of Chicago-based Wax Trax Records. Jourgensen, a Cuban-born multi-instrumentalist, wound up in Chicago to attend college and formed Ministry in 1981 as a relatively straight-forward synth-pop act, complete with fake British accent. The success of early singles “Cold Life” and “(Every Day Is) Halloween” established Wax Trax Records as a viable commercial venture. One of the Ministry tracks from this era, “All Day,” even soundtracked a slick beer commercial.

On the way to the bank, Jourgensen got bored. He jumped to a bigger label and his music somehow turned darker and angrier. Inspired by the aggression of rock bands such as the Jesus and Mary Chain and Big Black, he began collaborating with a likeminded studio rat and musical maverick, Paul Barker, on a Molotov cocktail of in-the-red production, rivet-gun percussion, metal guitars and punishing keyboard textures. Ministry albums such as “The Land of Rape and Honey” (1988) and “The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste” (1989) didn’t just slam, they seethed. Albums for a mainstream label have rarely sounded this abrasive.

‘He sold out at the start of his career and now he’s doing only what he wants.’

“From what I can tell, Al did it in reverse: He sold out at the start of his career and now he’s doing only what he wants,” Dwayne Goettel of Skinny Puppy, a band with whom Jourgensen worked as a producer, once said.

Though Ministry had left Wax Trax for the major-label budgets afforded by Arista and then Sire, Jourgensen and Barker continued to work on spinoff projects for their home label.

“Al and I go way back, before he was dancing around doing his cane and top-hat thing,” Wax Trax co-founder Jim Nash once said of Jourgensen, who worked at his store as a cashier between major-label stints. “But whatever he wanted to do, we did. If he wanted to spend $15,000 in the studio making a single for one of his side projects, I was his ‘yes guy.’”

The side projects included the Revolting Cocks (with Finitribe’s Chris Connelly on vocals), Lard (with the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra), Pailhead (Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye) and 1000 Homo DJ’s (Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor). Jourgensen and Barker (billing themselves as Hypo Luxa and Hermes Pan, respectively) and a rotating cast functioned as a kind of Wax Trax house rhythm section, in the manner of labels such as Chess Records, Motown or Stax, but with a decidedly more punitive mindset.

As Barker once said, the attitude was “to take the rebellious punk rock aspect and use machines to make anti-social music.”

The Barker-Jourgensen production approach, a combination of meticulous craft and gonzo aggression, reached its apex on the year-plus-in-the-making “Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs,” which went on to sell more than a million copies and coincided with a prime slot on the 1992 Lollapalooza tour.

“I was stupid when I started, the epitome of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” Jourgensen once said of the way he upended formula and somehow became more commercially successful. “It was like, ‘I get to live in L.A. and drive around in limos? Really?’ I didn’t realize I was owned. The more money gets pumped into you, the more you become a marionette. It made me a true redneck in attitude: I never wanted to wake up ever again feeling owned. Without that experience, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.”

The wheels started falling off a few years later. Jourgensen’s extreme lifestyle as the biker Caligula of rock outlaws started catching up with him. A series of personal upheavals took a toll: the drug-overdose deaths of friends such as local poet Lorri Jackson and actor River Phoenix, the breakup of his marriage and two nearly fatal car accidents. While living in Texas, he was convicted of drug possession (he was sentenced to probation and a fine), and in 2002 he nearly died from a poisonous spider bite.

Through it all, Jourgensen remained unrepentant, and has continued to release albums and tour, as unkillable as Keith Richards. “I don’t promote debauchery, alcoholism, drug use or whatever, but I’m not preaching against them either,” he once said. “In Ministry, we’ve only had one message: Think for yourself. People want to hear sound bites toeing the party line, they want role models. And I’m asking, Why would anyone want to be like me? I’m 38 with the liver of a 70-year-old.”

Greg Kot is the editorial director of The Coda Collection. He is also the cohost of the nationally syndicated public-radio show and podcast “Sound Opinions” with Jim DeRogatis, and previously the music critic at the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. His books include acclaimed biographies of Mavis Staples (“I’ll Take You There”) and Wilco (“Learning How to Die”) and a history of the digital music revolution (“Ripped”). He also coauthored “The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Rivalry” and has written extensively for Rolling Stone, BBC Culture and Encyclopedia Britannica. When he takes off the headphones, Kot coaches in his Chicago-based youth travel basketball program (OTEhoops.com). In addition, he has coauthored two best-selling editions of the book “Survival Guide to Coaching Youth Basketball.”

Greg Kot is the editorial director of The Coda Collection. He is also the cohost of the nationally syndicated public-radio show and podcast “Sound Opinions” with Jim DeRogatis, and previously the music critic at the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. His books include acclaimed biographies of Mavis Staples (“I’ll Take You There”) and Wilco (“Learning How to Die”) and a history of the digital music revolution (“Ripped”). He also coauthored “The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Rivalry” and has written extensively for Rolling Stone, BBC Culture and Encyclopedia Britannica. When he takes off the headphones, Kot coaches in his Chicago-based youth travel basketball program (OTEhoops.com). In addition, he has coauthored two best-selling editions of the book “Survival Guide to Coaching Youth Basketball.”

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