Jerry Joseph: I’m F***ing Happy
Jerry Joseph can’t sit still. He’s perched at the bottom of a flight of stairs that lead gradually up to an ancient building that once housed a public library, bouncing from foot to foot, similar to the way he does onstage, with a cup of hot black coffee in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other.
In the small Northern California town of Petaluma, Joseph is discussing the past, which inevitably leads to talk of his junkie years (1980s and early ‘90s). But the Jerry Joseph story is no longer about recovering from addiction, that story is so 15 years ago.
“Everybody’s got that stupid fucking story,” says Joseph. “The interesting part about me—I think—is that there’s no ‘and then he got the gold record and we’re interviewing him in his new Ferrari.’ That’s not the story. The uncomfortable story is, why am I still doing it? Because I’m not making any money; I mean, I make a living, but it’s a pretty high toll at 50 years old. And when did not doing this for a living become non-negotiable?”
The simple answer is that this is all he’s ever known. Joseph started playing guitar at six, was in his first band by 11 and started getting paid for it at 15. Though he was a smart, maybe even gifted child, the only thing other than music that he showed any interest in was getting into trouble. Born in Los Angeles and raised in San Diego and his parents shipped him off to New Zealand to boarding school after he failed out of the ninth grade. There, he spent more time in a motorcycle gang than in school. He eventually earned the equivalent of a GED in a lockdown facility.
After what he calls his “juvenile incarceration days,” Joseph was deported from New Zealand and landed in the Northern California hippie enclave Humboldt County, where his family has deep fifth generation roots, and eventually in Logan, Utah where, in 1982, he started the reggae-meets-Grateful Dead-meets-New York Dolls band Little Women. By all accounts, the group should have been huge. They were on the brink but poor business decisions and an increasingly unsustainable drug habit snuffed out Joseph’s first brush with the big time.
The more accurate answer as to why Jerry Joseph still makes music is that he’s really good at it. Success has evaded him, both in the press and financially, and this may add to his poor self image and lack of confidence, but those who do “get” Joseph don’t just dig his music—they believe in it.
“I don’t have a shed full of people [at my shows],” he says. “I wish I did, but the people that do like my music tend to bury their dead to it, or get married to it—these quintessential moments of their lives.”
“He is unparalleled as a songwriter,” says Widespread Panic bassist and frequent Joseph collaborator Dave Schools. “I’m sure there are people who have written as many songs as he has, and maybe even have a litany of hits to their credit, but I’m not interested in them. I’m interested in Jerry because it’s pure. It’s as pure as it gets and there aren’t any filters.”
Schools and Joseph have been friends for more than 20 years, ever since Little Women brought Panic west of the Rockies for the first time as an opening act in 1990. The two have worked together in different capacities ever since, most notably in the jam-rock super group Stockholm Syndrome that they co-founded in 2004, which also features guitarist Eric McFadden, drummer Wally Ingram and Gov’t Mule keyboardist Danny Louis.
“I think what Jerry has in spades is this real honesty,” says Schools, who understands the complex, unpredictable nature of the singer better than most. “Sometimes it’s fucking brutal. It can get bloody onstage with Jerry, especially with The Jackmormons—it can just be an absolute emotional slaughterhouse up there. But people need that. It may turn some people off; they may go, ‘That was way too much to take.’ But it’s unadulterated and it’s not sanitized for your protection, and to me, that’s why I go see live performances of any kind.”
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