Hard rock has long been known for its diabolical associations, from Jimmy Page’s devout following of “The Great Beast” Aleister Crowley to Keith Richard’s obsession with the occult. But only one man can lay claim to being the inspiration for ultra-violent serial killer Mickey Knox in “Natural Born Killers,” Oliver Stone’s frenzied study of the relationship between the mass media and mass murderers.
Enter Jerry Joseph, a close friend of Hollywood icon Woody Harrelson who played the shaven-headed sadist in Stone’s 1994 blockbuster. His biography reads like a how-to of hard living. Born in Oregon in 1961 “with a knack for getting into trouble”, he was banished to New Zealand by his father as a troubled schoolboy in the hope it would straighten him out.
Far from triggering the desired epiphany, what ultimately followed was guitars, motorcycle gangs, deportation and, eventually, addiction to heroin: “It’s funny how these things never quite work out the way you want them to, isn’t it?”
Founding member and front man of power rock group The Jackmormons (the bassist is a Utah survivor), and billed as “a rocker with an emotional scalpel that cuts deep every time,” Joseph has since turned the darkness of his past into gritty, soul-stirring poetry. Cathartic lyrics, wrestling with everything from drug addiction to suicide, are delivered via fierce chainsaw vocals in a testament to the existential trials of living life on the road.
“Sounding occasionally like John Mellencamp’s older, wiser and psychologically mixed-up sibling, Joseph writes complex, image-laden songs and infuses them with plenty of attitude, soulfulness and swagger,” the Washington Post has written of his work — the result, he acknowledges, of what at times “has been a rough ride.”
“That’s why I was the character study for Woody’s role in Natural Born Killers — that and the fact I had a shaved head at the time,” Joseph says. “Woody’s one of my best friends; has been since way before he made the big time.” The two came together over a shared love of psychedelic rock gurus The Grateful Dead, playing side by side briefly in Urban Messiah. Woody also pushed for Joseph’s involvement in the “Natural Born Killers” soundtrack, “but the producers didn’t like my stuff; they thought my sound was too dark for a film about serial killers — can you imagine that?”
It is a darkness rivalled perhaps only by that of Joseph’s sense of humour. Of his success in overcoming heroin addiction (he recently married and is now the proud father of a young son), he is surprisingly reticent. “You hit yourself in the head with a hammer for ten years, then you stop doing it and everybody cheers and gives you a cake, congratulating you on your survival instinct,” he says. “I’m not sure how much of an achievement that really is.”
Currently working on a new album and the subject of a film-in-the-making, Joseph — who has played alongside the likes of Neil Young and The Flaming Lips — says fans should brace themselves for “a big rock assault.” He will be joined during the Cambodian leg of his Southeast Asia solo tour by Frank Ruffolo of uber-lively polka band El Dealbreakers. The initiated should listen out for tracks from recent album “Into The Lovely,” as well as his more intimate 2004 solo release, “Cherry.”