Live Review: Ministry & Jesus Lizardby Mitch Goldman
Mercer Arena, Seattle, WA, 5/22/96
Sitting in a smoky, decrepit arena waiting for proto- metal industrial thrashers Ministry to go onstage is not the usual setting for revelations about traditional American music. But that's I had at Seattle's dumpy, tiny Mercer arena last Wednesday. After a taut, sweaty set from Chicago's premier post- Big Black guitar band The Jesus Lizard, I sat back in a torn, uncomfortable seat safely away from the floor full of black-clad leather youths to digest the 45 minutes of Jesus Lizard mayhem. Lead singer David Yow actually stayed on stage for the first two tunes before taking his trademark dive into the mosh pit, while his trio of clean-cut cohorts pumped out their special brand of blues-grunge. Guitarist Duane Dennison shined on newer songs like "Now Then" and "Mailman," but it was classic JL material like "Puss" and "Glamorous" that turned the front ranks into a churning mosh pit. Yow's vocals were typically incoherent yet dynamic (has he ever sung "Puss" the same way twice?) and even the songs from their new CD Shot took on extra dimensions. Shirtless and grinning, Yow represents the perfect post-punk fusion of total song commitment and total lack of concern for personal safety. As always, the Lizard delivered the goods, despite apathy from at least a third of the Ministry-focused crowd.
So it was with some surprise that I finally noticed the classic American country tunes playing on the PA during the break. Ministry's de facto leader Al Jourgensen has always had a soft spot in his heart for the songs of Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, et al., and you can usually find yourself humming along to "Hey Good Lookin'" while waiting for Ministry to hit the stage. But it was the original version of Robbins' "El Paso" that made me think of the connection between country, Ministry and other post-punk music, and the Grateful Dead.
The Dead always included country standards in their repertoire, and "El Paso" was a part of their live show for a quarter of a century. Many Dead fans burned out on the tune, and hearing Garcia and Weir harmonize (or attempt to harmonize!) on the tragic, high vocal parts seemed to desensitize me to the essential tragedy of Robbins' song. It became just another Bob Weir cowboy tune. Hearing Robbins' original the other night reminded me of the depth of melancholy that's inherent in this kind of American classic. It isn't even the tale of love gone bad that makes the tune so tragic; it's the underlying feeling in Marty's vocals, the backup harmonies, and the lovely, borderline-flamenco acoustic guitar lead (not unlike Garcia's) floating throughout the recording. And it seemed to me, sitting their watching the largely clueless Ministry crowd, that that tragic, near-mythic element of Robbins' work is the kernel of musical truth to which the Dead aspired. It didn't matter that frequently the band couldn't technically execute the sweet-yet-sad harmonies that so charged Robbins' recording; it's the very search for cultural tragedy that defined this side of the Dead's aesthetic. The struggle to describe the center of musical melancholy was a noble journey for the Dead, a trip on which they took most of us for years. They took this heartfelt little pop setpiece and telescoped cultural time by showing us this tragedy inside of them, and ourselves. None of us will ever have a literal adventure in the terms described in these kinds of country tunes, but all of us understand the struggle to come to grips with the dark heart inside of America and inside of us all. If only on a subverbal level, the Dead understood and related this darkness, while simultaneously trying to transcend it, with every song.
That this relationship between modern music and mythic American classics was lost on most of the Ministry crowd is beside the point; clearly Jourgensen understands the relationship and is trying to illustrate it with the use of country music as a prelude to Ministry's set. Jourgensen and company telescope American cultural myth in a different way, to a different audience than the Dead, but the results are no less cathartic and ultimately positive; though transcendence (at least superficially) isn't a feature, or really even an issue, with Ministry. Starting with 1988's Land of Rape and Honey, Chicago scenesters Jourgensen and Paul Barker redefined both the Ministry name and the term "industrial." Relying on a heavy use of sampled voices, frenetic and multi- layered dance rhythms, and demonically distorted guitars and vocals, Al and Paul (and their rotating cast of Chicago industrial heavyweights) raised the stakes with a frightening, all-too-believable vision of violence and death in post-Reagan America. Using the cultural sound bites of a country out of control as audio mosaic background to their nightmarish music, their aesthetic built to a fevered pitch over the next two releases (The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste, 1989; Psalm 69, 1992), with more and more guitars, keyboards, drums, and vocal growls piled on Al's increasingly dim vision. Refreshingly, 1996's Filth Pig is a stripped-down version of Ministry's peak into darkness . . . sparse, pulsing tunes like the title track (with Al on harmonica) and "The Fall" ooze both doom and peace; the cover of Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" is powerfully touching in an odd, alien way. Filth Pig finds Jourgensen in as irascible a mood as ever, yet the arrangements' space belies Al's dark stance; somewhere in Filth Pig is the triumph of the music, and the struggle to convey the tragedy of modern America is as transcendent as Marty Robbins' love-and-death cowboy harmonies.
Though it's safe to say that if ol' Marty could get a look at Ministry's stage show, he'd be quite confused and at least a little taken aback by the visual assault of strobing white light and thick smoke; certainly even Ministry's most stripped-down live unit ever (Al, Paul, one drummer!, one keyboardist, two guitarists) is an awesomely heavy machine, pummeling through religious targets ("Psalm 69"), government ("NOW," a set highlight) and Al's personal life ("Stigmata," "The Fall") with equal intensity. Al stalked the stage in a full length, white-trash leather raincoat, swilling beer, playing guitar and mandolin, and screaming with all the demons of hell in his throat. The new tunes throbbed appropriately, the old songs sounded revived with clarity, and the entire set brilliantly showcased the music that, for better and worse, ushered in the '90s age of "industrial" rock.
It's unlikely that Ministry and Jourgensen will ever be viewed as great tragic American figures like Hank Williams (and yes, Garcia) with deep connections to traditional music, but Al taps into the same tragic American malaise that makes such artists tick, and in many ways the lifestyles of these men all contribute to both their art and their downfall. Al is still with us; hopefully "The Fall" is a metaphor and not a prediction.
The Jesus Lizard (8:22-9:04)
Destroy Before Reading