Al Jourgensen just deposited a few specks of red wine onto my cheek. I can’t be sure, but I suspect they flew off one of his two vampire fang–shaped dental implants.
Jourgensen’s mouth is less than an inch from my left ear, and he’s screaming “Hail to His Majesty!”—which is the anthemic chorus to the first track on his band Ministry’s new album, From Beer to Eternity. We’re listening to the record at airplane-runway volume in his El Paso recording studio, which, along with his home, sits on two acres a few miles from the Mexican border and the New Mexico state line. “I’ve got two escape routes,” he says. He’s probably joking. But then again, in 1995, the Thirty-third Judicial District Narcotics Enforcement Team raided his then home in Marble Falls and charged him with drug possession.
Jourgensen—who’s poised to forever raise the bar on tales of rock star excess with a new memoir, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen (Da Capo Press)—insists he’s a different man today than the junkie who was handcuffed and arrested eighteen years ago. He says he’s mostly clean, fairly happy, and very productive. Not to mention tattooed. In addition to a nose ring, a pair of sharp silver studs in his lower lip, one more stud on each side of his nose, and four barbell-shaped piercings in each eyebrow as well as one through the bridge of his nose, there are tattoos covering his neck, knuckles, forearms, and hands—virtually every visible inch of skin. His latest body decoration, an eye inside a pyramid adorned with wings that spans his entire forehead, is what’s known in tattoo culture as a “job stopper”—because no one would ever hire anyone sporting it. But for Jourgensen, that’s the whole point. He’s proud that three decades of Ministry means he’ll never have to work for anyone else.
“I got my first record contract in my early twenties. I’m almost fifty-five now. I haven’t had a day job in thirty-four years,” says Jourgensen, who was born in Cuba to a Cuban mother and Norwegian father and raised in the Chicago area. “I’m getting a bunch more face tattoos, because it doesn’t look like I’m ever going to have to apply to a Walmart or Best Buy. It took me till literally two years ago to realize what I do is what I do. It’s not a hobby. It’s sustainable. I’m not working at the Chevron, although I’d probably be the best person to work the night shift. Look at me. Nobody would try to steal a Snickers on my watch.”
For those who don’t pay much attention to the heavy-metal offshoot known as industrial music, Jourgensen’s memoir conveniently opens with a primer on Ministry’s legacy that features testimonials from people like Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor and punk legend Jello Biafra. Jourgensen started Ministry in Chicago in the early eighties, blending new wave and synth pop in a series of singles for the hometown label Wax Trax Records. Ministry released its major-label debut in 1983 on Arista Records, then jumped to Sire and began transforming its sound into something louder, heavier, and more aggressive—essentially creating the industrial genre.
The zenith of his career was the band’s platinum-selling Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs (1992). In his memoir, Jourgensen says he made the record while shooting heroin, smoking crack, and drinking Bushmills laced with acid. (One chapter is nothing but an album-by-album account of the mind-altering substances used while making his signature records.) Drugs have been part of his life since adolescence, but they’re just one component of the darker side of Ministry’s reputation. The book offers a laundry list of degenerate behavior (next-level groupie debauchery, drunken violence, tour bus destruction) and near-death experiences (Jourgensen endures a series of almost fatal drug overdoses, a battle with hepatitis C, an amputated toe, and a brown recluse spider bite that nearly cost him an arm). But where most rock and roll biographies and memoirs end in the subject’s demise or redemption, the arc of this one is a lot murkier. Today Jourgensen is more or less clean, but it’s a constant battle, and his stepfather, whom he is close to, still worries about receiving a heartbreaking phone call. Just two years ago he had another brush with death—a ruptured ulcer that drained him of 65 percent of his blood.
“There’s no cautionary tale here, no behavioral edict,” says Jourgensen, who wrote the book with music journalist Jon Wiederhorn. Jourgensen freely admits that he has no memory of entire album and tour cycles and that Wiederhorn had to piece those periods together by conducting dozens of outside interviews. “Did I read the book afterwards and hit myself on the forehead and say, ‘I should have done some things better’? Sure. But what happened, happened. You deal with it and move on, or you don’t. A lot of times I almost didn’t get to move on.”
A pivotal moment in the memoir finds a suicidal Jourgensen, in 2002, buying a gun from an Austin drug dealer. While he’s scrounging in his wallet to find enough money to buy one last crack rock, he comes across the phone number of a groupie he hasn’t seen in years. Angelina Lukacin—a CPA and financial adviser who had waged her own battle with substance abuse—not only talked Jourgensen down but helped him detox in her New York apartment. The pair soon married, and she has since become what she calls his “wife-ager,” managing his career, his studio, and his label, 13th Planet Records—not to mention his demons.
Jourgensen says that, thanks to Lukacin, he’s been free of hard drugs since 2002. These days, he spends his mornings watching ESPN and CNN and working out on a treadmill. His afternoons and evenings are spent in the studio, his art enhanced by only a moderate intake of beer, wine, and marijuana.
“That I’m not going to die tomorrow is exciting, if you find life exciting,” Jourgensen says. “But you have to work at it. It’s easier to be on the precipice of death every day. I have to ride my bike. I have to do sit-ups. That’s the only way Angie will allow me any alcohol. It’s doled out like I’m a prisoner.
“There were nothing but enablers around me till Angie,” continues Jourgensen, who spent two years in the nineties living with legendary LSD guru Timothy Leary, who Jourgensen says used him as a willing guinea pig for newly synthesized hallucinogenic drugs. “She’s the first one that put her foot down. I’d tell her stories when we first dated, and she’d say, ‘That doesn’t sound like human behavior.’ But that’s how I thought everybody got through life. The big mind bender was to have Angie convince me otherwise. I’m a late learner on a lot of stuff.”
Jourgensen and Lukacin credit three key factors with keeping him away from hard drugs: location, location, location. He seldom leaves their compound, and when he does, the people of El Paso rarely recognize him, so there are few opportunities for temptation. His life in this border town is, of course, a direct contrast to his first dance with Texas.
“In Chicago it was easier to be an addict, but that’s all you were ever gonna be: dead or in jail. I came to Texas in the nineties and was blown away by the possibilities of music. You could be an addict and still do creative stuff. I couldn’t strike that balance in Chicago.”
From 1993 to 1995, Jourgensen bounced between Austin and Horseshoe Bay, finally settling in Marble Falls, in a thirteen-bedroom home on a five-acre ranch. Although a group of eighties-era Austin bands like Scratch Acid, the Big Boys, and the Butt-hole Surfers drew his attention to Texas, he cites ZZ Top—particularly Billy Gibbons’s gutteral growl and the band’s innate sense of boogie—as his primary musical influence. “Ministry is just ZZ Top with technology,” he says. In 2006 Ministry named its Rio Grande Blood album in homage to ZZ Top’s 1972 classic Rio Grande Mud.
Even so, the closest Jourgensen has come to making a Texas-sounding record is Bikers Welcome, Ladies Drink Free, the 2011 debut of his country side project, Buck Satan and the 666 Shooters. The group, anchored by Jourgensen and longtime Ministry guitarist Mike Scaccia, grew out of a challenge from Neil Young, who saw Ministry in the early nineties and asked if the band could pull its music off unplugged. Jourgensen worked on the project intermittently for nearly two decades before putting together an album worthy of the idea.
“It’s my favorite record of my career,” Jourgensen says. “I hate half my records. A lot of the time I wake up and scribble down notes of what I’m dreaming. There are only maybe a couple of songs ever in which I’ve come close to what I’ve dreamed. It always sounds better in my head than what you get. With Buck Satan, we came the closest I’ve ever come.”
Lately, Jourgensen says, many of his dreams are about Scaccia. In December Scaccia was in Fort Worth playing a reunion show with his influential eighties metal band Rigor Mortis when he suffered a massive heart attack onstage and was declared dead shortly after. He was 47 years old.
“I’m still distraught,” says Jourgensen. “I’m still a mess.” The night before we spoke, he dreamed that he and Scaccia had abandoned the music business to open a food trailer in Austin. “I know I’m not doing another Ministry album without him. Period.”
Jourgensen has declared Ministry defunct before, but this time he seems to mean it. He admits he’ll probably tour in support of From Beer to Eternity, because he needs the money, but he says that the nearest thing to a new Ministry record we’re likely to see is a project tentatively called Dubistry, an attempt to meld the Ministry sound with the slow-rolling reggae stylings of a Lee Scratch Perry or King Tubby. And he seems ambivalent about being a rock star at all.
“I don’t like being onstage. I don’t like having a book out about me. I don’t like sitting here talking to you about me,” Jourgensen says. “I get it. People will read this book and freak. That’s their journey now, not mine. I’m done. When I’m done with something, I’m done. I don’t go back and listen to and pine for my old albums, or the Lollapalooza days, or Psalm 69 selling millions of records. MaybeI’m really just getting old and mellow. But I don’t pine for any of the things I did in the book. I pine for tomorrow.”