Al Jourgensen’s no pretty boy. He’s not naturally ugly either, but the acres of tattoos, multiple facial piercings and fake teeth, not to mention the effects of decades of hardcore substance abuse has ensured that he’ll never get mistaken for a member of One Direction. Still, the close-up shot of his leering visage on the cover of 'Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen' is downright glamorous compared to the ugliness contained within its pages. Reading his autobiography (co-written by Jon Wiederhorn, one of the authors of 'Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal' (read my review of that book here)) is like take a modern-day descent into Dante’s Inferno. The journey into Hell is just as terrifying and the demons’ torments just as sinister.
Following a litany of accolades by many of the biggest names in industrial, metal and alternative music, 'Ministry' starts off like many of the more recent rock and roll autobiographies: with a near-death experience. The godfather of industrial, in the death grip of drug addiction, suddenly becomes a human sprinkling can, gushing blood from multiple places as his digestive system literally explodes. It’s a stomach-churning passage, both figuratively and literally.
After that harrowing tale concludes, Jourgensen’s story goes back to the beginning. His fans will likely learn a lot of fascinating minutiae here, such as his Cuban heritage (his birth name is Alejandro Ramirez Casas and he spoke Spanish for years before learning English) and his athletic prowess (he actually tried out to be a professional rodeo rider!). He also grew up in a broken home, entered into a life of petty crime during his teens and started using cocaine at the tender age of thirteen. You might say he was predestined to be a rock star.
Once he decided on that career path, success came relatively quickly, albeit not on Jourgensen’s terms. Sheer talent, of course, was a huge factor in his rise to prominence, but so was the fact that the music he was creating was utterly unlike anything anyone else was doing at the time. Still, while Ministry’s 1983 debut album, 'With Sympathy,' is considered a true classic, Jourgensen claims his artistic vision was shackled by Arista Records, his record label at the time.
Subsequent Ministry albums had much less label interference, but they weren’t much easier to record. “Uncle Al” had to contend with shady lawyers, greedy record label executives and even – in Jourgensen’s view anyway – talentless, parasitic band members. Paul Barker, widely regarded as the second-most important member of Ministry, surprisingly takes the brunt of Jourgensen’s vitriol. Even though he was in the band for 17 years, Jourgensen compares their relationship to “an arranged marriage and it was always acrimonious… Barker was a shi**y bassist and a pseudo-intellectual from the start.” Jourgensen further claims that most of the ideas and music Barker came up with were crap very little of his input was ever used on any Ministry recordings. These revelations are sure to raise eyebrows.
Not even the finished products are immune from Jourgensen’s harsh criticisms. He actually hates a lot of his albums, especially the earlier ones, as well as pretty much every tour the band embarked on. It’s no wonder he dove headfirst into the bottomless abyss of drug addiction. Despite being a full-blown junkie for decades, Jourgensen still managed to record legions of albums with multiple lineups. Many of the Ministry records are widely regarded as seminal landmarks of industrial music, a genre he almost single-handedly pioneered. He was able to work in the studio over eight hours straight just getting the snare drum sound he wanted, even while coked to the gills and drunk. Ozzy has nothing on this guy. Still, after years and years of abuse, it seemed like Jourgensen was going to ultimately become just another rock and roll casualty. His autobiography goes to some really, really dark and scary places during this time period.
It’s not all doom and gloom though; an errant ray of sunshine pokes through the clouds from time to time. Jourgensen relates several interesting stories involving everyone from Madonna to Steven Spielberg to Metallica to Johnny Depp. Not too many details about the recording of Ministry’s albums are revealed, however, probably because Jourgensen was too messed up to remember those days. One item of note though: not even Jourgensen has any idea what Gibby Haynes is talking about during the spoken word intro to “Jesus Built My Hotrod.”
There are a few minor factual errors in the book (the Alrosa Villa in Columbus is not a block down the street from the Newport Music Hall, and Led Zeppelin broke up in 1980 and so did not go on tour in 1983) and some suspect claims (Jourgensen deems Slayer “unlistenable” yet he ripped off the riff to “South of Heaven” for “Just One Fix”), but overall they do not distract from the shock and awe of this dark and disturbing tale of rock and roll depravity. You’ll want to wash your hands after picking up this book!