Jerry Joseph – The Unassuming American

The Unassuming American
On meeting Jerry Joseph you are immediately greeted with an expectation of a good time, a boyish smile that is only overcome by the trail of tattoos leading down both arms and a totally affable character that is willing to put everything into life for the things he gets out. Joseph is a product from the best part of his country’s culture, arising from the southern Californian Hippy genre of the late 60s / early 70s. He seems to have never taken his successes for granted and seems to have always aimed for the road closer to the off-beat, the alternative – the road that is more difficult but far more real. He is an unassuming American.

We met outside the Led Zeppelin, a venue chosen by his friend and colleague Frank Ruffolo, due (most likely) to then venue’s proximity to Joseph’s true character – cultist and rock & roll. We then moved to the Shanghai Bar across the road, and over drinks – me a beer and Jerry a coffee – we spoke, in between the clack of pool balls and enquiries for drinks from young hostesses, of his career over the past 30 years. The full interview can be listened to here (14MB).
Jerry Joseph was raised in San Diego nearly 50 years ago. By the time he was 9 years old he was already playing guitar and smoking pot and surrounded by the heart of the American Hippy era. By 12 he had already formed his first band and was be-smooched by the amazing access to wild and alternative music afforded by the Columbia Record Club. He would send away to the club using different names for packages of 10 to 20 records at a time. Although this was much to the annoyance of his parents, it furnished him with a huge array of listening pleasure that would carry him through much of his formative years and beyond. Albums such as Bitches Brew and bands such as Black Sabbath, Santana and the Grateful Dead were some he recalled with reflective fondness. Being raised in such an auspicious culture, he also got to see live many of the bands of which people reminisce – in his words “there were not many I didn’t see”. This included, in 1976, Bob Marley and the Wailers.
Seeing The Wailers in 1976 was epiphanic for Joseph. In fact the whole year was a life-changing experience because, not only was he flown to New Zealand, but also because it was the year that another genre emerged that had great influence on his musical senses – the genre of Punk. At the age 15, as Joseph listened to The Clash and played in a variety of bands, he got into trouble – so much trouble, in fact, that he ended up in prison and was subsequently deported. This was not before he played in bands which met with measured success. His bands once opened for the original AC/DC (with fabled Bon Scott) and also played in festivals that featured the likes of Split Enz (with Niel Finn of Crowded House) and the legendary Australian band Skyhooks.
On his return to the United States he formed a new band called Little Women. He describes this band as an American, reggae, hippy band and they toured with just about all of the big reggae bands that were around at that time (i.e.: the 1980s) – including Steel Pulse and Aswad. The success of this band continued to grow and, as they toured, they started playing with many of the bands that turned into the “Jam Bands” era of the late 80s. This included bands such as Widespread Panic – for which he received much notoriety for writing many songs – and cult-band Phish. These were hugely popular live bands – filling out some huge stadiums – but they were never big on the album charts. This is testimony to his disfavour with the mainstream. He also got to know the Grateful Dead personally and, in some ways, tried to emulate what it was they were doing – but with more of a reggae siding. [He has never played along side, nor even met, Neil Young as reported in some local publications recently]
When the 1990s hit Joseph hit 30 and also the Pacific north-west of the United States. It was the time when a lot of the Punk bars were just starting to grow – such as Nirvana who were playing to an audience of 20 he recalls. He got right into this and, as he puts it, “Live music got more aggressive as did my predilection for substance abuse”. He says that he released some of his better albums during this time but he emerged “from the fog” in the mid-90s. In 1995 he formed the 3-piece rock band the Jackmormons. His reputation grew, both as a wild man of punk and rock but also as a songwriter – leading many media commentators to suggest that he is one of America’s best unknown songwriters – a tag with which he clearly is not comfortable.

The Jackmormons are still Joseph’s band of choice today, however he still does a significant amount of touring with his solo-acoustic show as well as writing for others. The band does around 100 shows a year and will release a double album in March – an action almost unheard of in today’s American music scene. He hopes to bring the whole band to Cambodia at some time in the future, possibly 2013. This fits in well with the band’s fan base – as their usual approach for shows is to play in totally exotic locations – such as Nicaragua and Kathmandu – and the fans will flock to pack-out whichever off-the-map venue the band nominates. Kampot fits these requirements very well – so look for the band here next year. 

Jerry Joseph, along with Frank Ruffolo, will play an acoustic set from his 300+ song list in Phnom Penh this coming weekend and should NOT be missed. 

  • They will play
    • Equinox on Friday the 10th of February, 2012 
    • FCC Phnom Penh on Saturday the 11th of February, 2012.