This should have been the biggest week for Ministry in years—at least since the pioneering industrial band played four nights at Chicago’s House of Blues in May 2008 to end their final stateside tour. But thanks in part to a bout of bitter legal wrangling, Ministry front man and sole constant member Al Jourgensen is sitting the whole thing out.
On Thursday, April 14, at the Music Box, Fix: The Ministry Movie, a graphic autopsy of the band’s fall from stardom, kicks off the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival—a world premiere that arrives 15 tumultuous years after production began (for more on CIMMFest, see Kevin Warwick’s write up). And Chicago label Wax Trax!, Ministry’s first home, celebrates its 33-1/3rd anniversary with a three-day Retrospectacle this Friday through Sunday at Metro.
Ministry was by far the most famous band in the Wax Trax! family, so Jourgensen’s absence from the Retrospectacle (which isn’t affiliated with CIMMfest) is conspicuous. Three of his bandmates in side project the Revolting Cocks—Paul Barker, Luc Van Acker, and Chris Connelly—will perform that group’s old material without him. Retrospectacle co-organizer Julia Nash, daughter of late Wax Trax! co-owner Jim Nash, says she sent Jourgensen’s wife Angie an e-mail in July inviting him to play but didn’t get a reply from anyone. Angie denies hearing from her.
A statement on Jourgensen’s website says that he “was NEVER asked to participate” in the Retrospectacle. In a postscript, it hints at some of the reasons he won’t be at the premiere of Fix either: “The announcement that the film Fix: The Ministry Movie will be screened at the Chicago Music & Film Festival [sic] during the same time period as Retrospectacle is pre-mature and potentially false. Neither the proposed film nor the deals surrounding it have been finalized.”
“Why isn’t Al there?” Angie Jourgensen asks of the screening. “They never invited him. Isn’t that a little shady? . . . Don’t you think people would want to listen to Al talk about it?” The filmmakers admit that they didn’t invite Jourgensen, but insist that they couldn’t—they claim that Angie is trying to control access to him, and that it’s been months since they’ve gotten through. When they call him directly, they say, he doesn’t answer or call back.
Angie Jourgensen claims that the screening of Fix is illegal because the partnership that produced it—of which her husband was a member—has broken its contract. It was the partnership that struck the distribution deal, and the deal also included clearances for the music in the film. If the partnership is in fact in breach of contract, the deal is null and void, according to Jourgensen’s lawyer—and the filmmakers no longer have the rights to the music or the movie.
A March 28 letter signed by Jourgensen’s attorney Stephen F. Moeller to CIMMfest codirector Ilko Davidov claims that “exhibition of [Fix] has not been authorized by Mr. Jourgensen or by Ministry and that your unauthorized screening of the Picture may subject you to legal proceedings. . . . Demand is hereby made that you and CIMM immediately cease and desist from any further promotion or use of the Picture, and that you cancel the proposed showings of the Picture. . . . Your failure to comply with our demands . . . will very quickly result in our clients’ initiating legal action against CIMM in order to protect their legal rights.” An April 6 letter from Moeller adds the claim that the paperwork for the distribution deal is forged, and that Jourgensen did not sign it—a charge the filmmakers deny.
Davidov says, “It’s going to go forward. We have the contract Al signed. We had our lawyers look at it, and he doesn’t have a case.”
“That film is illegal,” Angie Jourgensen claims. Speaking on Jourgensen’s behalf, she turned down an interview request. “Al has absolutely no comment on it,” she says. “It has nothing to do with him. It’s not that Al doesn’t want anyone to see what a drug addict he was. Everyone knows that. . . . Al shows [Fix] to everyone. He’s got no shame.”
Born in Cuba in 1958 and raised in Chicago, Jourgensen is notorious for his addiction to heroin, for his explosive temper, and for his litigiousness: he’s even sued former collaborators, including Ministry bassist and producing partner Paul Barker, though the suit was dismissed in 2008.
He started Ministry as a synth-pop act in 1980, and the band’s first few 12-inches came out on Wax Trax! But beginning with their first full-length album, 1983’s With Sympathy, Ministry jumped to the majors, first to Arista and then (with 1986’s Twitch) to Sire. They’d stay with one division of Warner Brothers or another for almost 15 years, though Wax Trax! continued to release early recordings and side projects.
On 1987’s The Land of Rape and Honey, Ministry embraced the guitar and developed a grinding, jackhammering sound that combined hard-rock instrumentation with programmed beats, processed vocals, and extensive sampling—the sound that would in large part define the Wax Trax! flavor of industrial music. Barker, his guitarist brother Roland, and drummer William Rieflin all joined the lineup; Rieflin and both Barkers had played in a punk band called the Blackouts, whom Jourgensen had produced.
Ministry brought industrial rock to mainstream attention with 1989’s The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste, and its 1992 follow-up, Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs, went platinum. The band landed second billing on that year’s Lollapalooza tour, behind the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
But by the SphincTour in 1996, says Fix director Doug Freel, Ministry was “already getting a little long in the tooth.” That year’s album, the slower, doomier Filth Pig, didn’t sell as well, and the band was playing to crowds in the thousands rather than the tens of thousands. When Warner invited Freel to shoot a promotional video of the SphincTour, he’d already directed videos for the likes of the Chili Peppers, Metallica, Cheap Trick, and the Replacements and was six months clean—he’d had a heroin habit of his own for ten years. He and Jourgensen were both 37.
Freel says friends warned him that if he got drawn into Jourgensen’s orbit, he’d wind up using again, or dead. “I thought it was aversion therapy, in the Clockwork Orange sense,” he says. “Do you want to hang out and look at the last ten years of your life and take stock and get grateful? The more I liked the guy, the more sad it made me.”
After several days of taping, Freel says Jourgensen invited him to “stay on the bus” for the rest of the tour. The idea was that Freel would make an independent film that would “demythologize the rock star,” he says. “There was something brave about that. . . . It’s kind of heroic, in the most twisted sense, to allow himself to be seen like that.” In 1996 Paul Barker, Jourgensen, Freel, and producer Jeffrey Kinart established a formal four-way partnership to produce the film.
In Fix, it seems like Jourgensen is always either cooking heroin, tying off, gesturing with needles, or talking about his habit, alternating rationalization with black humor. He viciously insults audiences and bandmates; he kisses naked Jesus Lizard front man David Yow onstage. In his dressing room he tries on bulletproof vests, fearing a crazed fan will take a shot at him. He sticks his penis into a roast chicken, then calls for Warner executives to be invited in to “take a bite.”
“The film is really a character study about a person at a pivotal point in his life,” Freel says. “This record isn’t selling. The fans wish you’d play like you used to play. This is the beginning of the fall. You’re not going to be able to get to do what you did ever again.”
Freel says he ran out of money for Fix more than once in the ensuing decade and a half, during which times he’d fund the project out-of-pocket. And he says Jourgensen was often unreachable, further delaying progress. Freel hasn’t heard from him since late 2009. “Al doesn’t take my calls or return my letters,” he says.
In 2008 Jourgensen appeared on Spread TV, an online talk show hosted by Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro. When Navarro brought up Fix, Jourgensen said the film “was supposed to come out like six years ago, and I was like, I looked at it once and went, ‘No. No, there’s no way.'” That was just a preamble, though, to an explanation of how he’d made his peace with seeing it released. “It’s perfect timing,” he said. “I’ve been clean for six years. Ministry is now over. My touring days are over. . . . I could watch it and not cringe to the point of, like, curling into the fetal position and sucking your thumb and getting naked and yelling for mommy.”
The contract signed by the four partners in 1996 stipulates that Freel must consult with Jourgensen on the final cut of Fix. The last time they spoke, around Christmas 2009, Freel visited Jourgensen’s El Paso home to review the cut. “He thanked me for making the film,” Freel says. He recalls Jourgensen telling him, “Don’t make it about me; make it about the predicament of being me.”
During the editing session, Freel says Jourgensen objected to a shot where he identifies the person he thinks gave River Phoenix the drugs that killed him at the Viper Room in 1993—Jourgensen was playing that night with the band P, which also included Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers and Johnny Depp. “You can’t make me say who I think gave the guy the drugs,” Freel says Jourgensen told him. Freel removed the lines.
Six months ago Freel sent a new cut about six minutes shorter than the version Jourgensen had approved in late 2009. It contained a six-second closeup at the end of a needle entering Jourgensen’s arm and blood flowing into the syringe—a shot Jourgensen had asked to have removed and that Freel had asked to reinstate. Freel says their contract gives Jourgensen 12 days to request changes to a cut of the film or it’s presumed to be approved. Jourgensen still hasn’t responded, but Freel dropped the shot in question anyway, just in case. What he hasn’t done, in the absence of any reply, is send a new version of the film to Jourgensen. Consequently Jourgensen hasn’t seen the screening cut, but Freel says all the scenes in it have passed muster with Jourgensen in the past and align with his most recent stated preferences.
“Al has final-cut approval,” Angie Jourgensen says. “They haven’t given him that. There’s one particular scene Al doesn’t want in the film.”
Fix‘s long road to the theater hit its final stretch in 2009, when Freel finally raised the last of the film’s $220,000 budget from investors in Calgary. That year, Ed Bates of LA-based Gigantic Pictures, who’d helped produce the Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious, joined the Fix team as a postproduction and financing consultant. In early 2010 he signed a seven-year deal with the four partners—Barker, Freel, and Kinart, and allegedly Jourgensen—that gave Gigantic the right to distribute the film worldwide. “I thought because I had an agreement with them, and it’s a straightforward distribution agreement, that I was going to be able to go about my business,” Bates says.
Before the partners signed with Bates, Jourgensen insisted on revising their agreement. In the new contract, which christened the partnership Fix LLC, the other partners agreed to pay Jourgensen $100,000 for “life story rights.” Bates gave the LLC a $30,000 advance on potential profits, which the other three members passed along to Jourgensen. Freel says the Jourgensens have told him, “You’re in breach of contract; you never paid the other $70,000.”
Freel says that the partners intend to transfer the first $70,000 from their share of the profits to Jourgensen once the film is released and starts making money. But he also says that, according to the terms of the new contract, the LLC dissolved when it missed a March 1 deadline to pay Jourgensen the rest of what he’s owed. Until a new contract is negotiated, Bates will still get his 30 percent cut of the proceeds, but the LLC’s 70 percent will be locked up in escrow—including, Freel says, the rest of Jourgensen’s money.
Angie Jourgensen claims that Bates and Gigantic don’t have the legal right to proceed, though. She says they “breached [their contract] on five or six counts. Ed Bates does not have a contract with Al. He has a contract with an entity, and that entity is in breach of contract.”
Freel maintains that the Fix partners’ contract with Gigantic remains in effect, regardless of the LLC’s legal status. “To reason that, since the LLC no longer exists, then Al is magically absolved of responsibility for what he agreed to and took . . . delusional.”
Music Box general manager Dave Jennings confirms that he’s heard from Angie Jourgensen, but he says, “The screening is definitely happening.” In March he was copied on a letter to Bates from Warner Brothers publishing arm Warner/Chappell, which claimed that Fix was missing its music clearances. But last week, after extensive talks with Gigantic and with Paul Barker (who owns Ministry’s publishing with Jourgensen, and who’s in favor of the film), Warner/Chappell retracted the letter, says Jennings. The theater promptly added a second screening at 10:30 PM, on top of the one scheduled for 7:30—which is hosted by Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis of Sound Opinions and features a Q&A with Freel, Bates, and Barker. (The late show won’t have the bells and whistles.)
Bates, who plans to shop Fix for international distribution at the Cannes Film Market in May, finds the Jourgensens’ resistance to the film’s release baffling. “The Jourgensens are the ones that are really going to benefit the most from this,” he says. “It adds more value to their library. It does a lot for Al. He’s charming and very smart in the movie. That’s the insanity of it.”
Jourgensen could probably also use the publicity. In October he leaked two tracks from his “country-core” project, Buck Satan & the 666 Shooters, to shock jock Mancow Mueller, and the Jourgensens are looking for a label to release the group’s album. Angie Jourgensen says Ministry turned down an offer from touring European metal festival Sonisphere to perform this year, but that the band may play the fest in 2012; a Sonisphere spokesman wouldn’t confirm or deny her story.
Jourgensen has said in interviews that he quit heroin in 2002, but by his own admission he simply replaced one habit with another, drinking prodigious amounts of red wine every day. In March 2010 he was hospitalized with abdominal bleeding; his wife says he came out of rehab in January. “Al is taking a sabbatical,” she says. “He’s focusing on his sobriety right now and his health and getting in shape. He’s got a personal trainer. He’s gone back to being a vegetarian.”