Jerry Joseph is the real deal

Veteran US singer/songwriter takes on the Middle East in his quest to make rock & roll for adults.

Jerry Joseph 370 (photo credit: courtesy/PR)
Jerry Joseph 370
(photo credit: courtesy/PR)
Not every visiting musician from abroad stays at the Tel Aviv Hilton, gets chauffeured around in an SUV with tinted windows, and walks away with pockets stuffed with shekels. Some are not even very well known, and stitch together modest tours of clubs and pubs in the country in order to experience new sights and experiences, without expectations of drawing huge audiences or paychecks.
Ironically, it’s often these under-the-radar artists, performing for 50 or 80 people in alternative clubs like Levontin 7 in Tel Aviv or Uganda in Jerusalem, that provide the most potent and inspirational sets, unfettered by the need to perform letter-perfect renditions of their greatest hits.
“I don’t really have any greatest hits,” laughed Jerry Joseph into the phone last week from Santa Cruz, California, a few hours before he was due to go onstage at a local club. But over the course of a 30-year career in which he’s been compared to everyone from Joe Strummer to Patti Smith to Warren Zevon, the 52-year-old guitarist/ singer/songwriter has written a few dozen songs that deserve to be hits, at least in that alter-universe where fashion and trendiness is replaced by uncompromising passion and rock & roll grit.
Weathered by years of hard living, including a troubled youth and a debilitating heroin addiction in the 1980s, Joseph emerged as a sort of warts-and-all rock & roll prophet, creating spiritually and politically charged rock music for adults with his band of 17 years, The Jackmormons.
Joseph’s the first to admit that it’s been a struggle, but he retains a wry perspective on his career and its limitations.
“People say to me all the time ‘we love you because you never sold out’ and my response is always, ‘nobody ever offered it to me!” Joseph laughed again, as he explained how he’s sauntered on making music through the decades despite never selling many records or becoming a household name.
Joseph first came to prominence in the mid-1980s with the West Coast reggae-jam band Little Women, whom he described as a mash-up of Burning Spear and The Grateful Dead, dressed up like The New York Dolls. They become a fixture on the touring circuit and Joseph aided the career of jam band giants Widespread Panic by writing many of their most well-known songs.
“The hippies liked us, since at that time reggae music and jam band music went hand in hand,” said Joseph. “But as I got older, I got more aggressive. I remember seeing Husker Du in 1986 and it redefined the way I began writing songs. I lost most of my fans pretty quickly.”
“It’s funny, that whole genre-naming thing never worked out in my favor. I was always too intense for what constituted jam bands, but because of my association with the scene, I couldn’t go out on tour with someone like Dinosaur Jr. who I identified with musically. So, in the 1990s, I found myself stuck in the middle.”
The Jackmormons helped Joseph find his chosen musical path, but despite years of relentless touring and a series of consistently riveting albums, success of the financial kind has remained at arm’s length.
“I’m sure people close to me say that I spend a lot of time saying that I’m not bitter.
Like anyone, I wish that I was a fabulous success, but I think I’m in a position now that’s interesting, sort of a ‘last-man-standing’ thing. I have a large repertoire I get to play, I make somewhat of a living only making music and I get to go to cool places.”
Like Israel and Lebanon, where Joseph, a Maronite Catholic, will be heading to next month, joined by his band and a film crew who are in the middle of making a documentary about his life called Ramble Left.
“One of the things about making a film is that you can get some funding, not a ton, but enough for plane tickets,” said Joseph, who lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and their three-year-old son.
“We were already playing in some remote places when we started, like Nicaragua and Mexico, so we came up with the idea that the interview part of the film should be done in some interesting place. So in January and February, we spent a few weeks in Cambodia, Viet Nam, Malaysia and Thailand.
There were some places we played where there wasn’t even a stage.”
The Israel trip was expedited by Joseph’s former manager Jonathan Schwartz ,who made aliya from New York last year and hooked him up with some local promoters.
Initially, he planned to perform in Lebanon and Jordan as well, but due to logistical and political considerations (like Lebanese promoters canceling his shows because he was also going to Israel) the project has been scaled down to a sightseeing trip to Lebanon and five shows in Israel beginning on November 10 at Uganda. November 11 finds him at Mike?s Place in Eilat, Kibbutz Ketura on the 12th, November 14 at the Barbie Club where he?ll perform with Lunicidal Tendencies,November 15th at The Old Station in Zichron Yaakov and the tour wraps up on November 17 at Levontin 7.
“We go to Lebanon first and just hang out for a few days, maybe play on the street or in a coffee shop,” said Joseph. “I hope to visit my grandmother’s village in the Bekaa Valley, but I know it’s a little tense there.
Then we go to Jordan and cross over to Israel by bus. I’ve really wanted to visit Israel my entire adult life, and I didn’t want to endanger our ability to go there, so I gave up on the Lebanon shows.”
Although he has spent his entire career making unorthodox moves, the Middle East tour had many followers, and even his family scratching their heads. But Joseph, who follows world events closely, said he wasn’t dissuaded by the apprehension of others.
“Americans have a very limited grasp of anything geopolitical,” he said. “As far as they know, the whole Middle East is burning.
I just tell them, "Ok, man, going to play in Tijuana is more dangerous." In addition to traversing turbulent political waters, Joseph is also contending with showcasing his music for a largely unaware audience. So, instead of performing his hard-edged rock in the power trio format of The Jackmormons, Joseph is traveling with an acoustic band, featuring Jackmormon's drummer Steve Drizos, will-be guitarist Michael Lewis and pianist Craig Greenberg.
“There’s two schools of thought. The Jackmormons are pretty loud and raucous. But I think when traveling to a new country, it’s the right thing to focus on the singer/songwriter stuff, it translates better,” said Joseph.Both strains of music are found on Joseph and the Jackmormon's latest album, the two-CD Happy Book, which features appearances by members of The Dandy Warhols and The Decemberists (drummer Dirzos is married to The Decemberists' Jenny Conlee). It was called a deeply spiritual album by one reviewer who described it as "strangely and beautifully illuminated by an inner light."
A colleague of Joseph’s described him to me recently as a true rock & roll original – “the real deal” – a moniker that Joseph seems simultaneously embarrassed by and proud of when he was told about it.
“I try to be honest. I don’t know about integrity, maybe I’m honest about my lack of integrity,” said Joseph. “People talk about the spirituality in my songs, but I don’t think when I sit down and start writing that I’m going to make a spiritual song, it’s just comes out like that. Whether I’m any good at it is up to the audience to decide.”