Whiskey Tit Journal is pleased and proud to present a sneak peek of Love, Death & Photosynthesis, the forthcoming memoir by Bela Koe-Krompecher, to be released August 6, 2021 from Don Giovanni Records. Find out more and order your copy here.
Jerry was from Parma, just a stone’s throw from the exit ramp off of I-71 and a few miles from the Cleveland International Airport. His last name was created by dropping the last five letters from Wickowski. His father worked in a factory, and Jerry would spend his weekends in Cleveland or in his bedroom dreaming of becoming a rock star while listening to Kiss records and a mix of Cleveland greats such as My Dad is Dead, the Dead Boys, and Death of Samantha.
Jerry’s funeral was in Parma Heights. I had driven up with Brett Lewis, our friend Jim, and Merijn. I brought along a bottle of vodka and started getting friendly with a 12 pack on the way. We landed at the motel and I headed out to a small neighborhood dive bar that Jerry no doubt would have inhabited if he chose to stay in Parma. It sat catty-corner to the funeral home. Perfect civil planning. The bar still had Christmas decorations up and the bartender was sympathetic. “You here about that funeral across the street?” she asked as she put my Jim Beam shot and beer in front of me. I nodded as I downed the shot and motioned for another one. “A friend of yours? Was he that musician? That was in the paper up here.” “Yup.” I downed the second shot and ordered one more. In came Bettina Richards and Elliot Dix, a Columbus native who had become a fixture in the Chicago music scene. We laughed as we told ridiculous Jerry story after ridiculous story. When I walked into the funeral home the next day and saw Jerry lying in the casket I quickly turned heel and returned to the dive bar. I had two doubles of Maker’s Mark and returned. I needed to be emboldened by the alcohol before I could face my friend. I was becoming someone I swore I never would, a bitter shadow who ducked from participation in life.
We pushed the memories of broken childhoods away to be replaced by the swagger and commotion of searing guitars, cigarettes and laughter. Now these were being replaced by urns and pine boxes. The funeral was rigid. The pastor didn’t try to capture Jerry’s audacious sense of humor and was much more focused on the afterlife, offering little semblance of hope to this huddled mass of outcasts. Jerry’s shattered friends and bewildered family gazed on as the pastor said a final prayer over the muddy hole that would soon envelope his casket. The skyline of Cleveland heaved masses of smoke into the air, the smokestacks like upturned water faucets gushing into an already overflowing gray bathtub of sky. One could hear the hiss of car wheels spinning over the asphalt of I-71.
It was my first time meeting his father, mother, and younger brother. I tried to let them know the joy their son had brought to our world. How Jerry’s music touched people far and wide, and most importantly how he’d been able to grant those who knew and loved him so much inspiration for merriment and copious amounts of late-night laughter. I don’t know if I came close to succeeding.
Jerry said he wanted to be famous, but what I think he meant was that he wanted to be immortal, a part of something greater than himself: music. And this came true more than he could have ever imagined. The sheer force of his personality permeated through the four chords and rudimentary drums right into his music, sculpting his very being into this simple pop music, embroidered with brawny yet sophisticated guitar licks that amped up his songs just like all the laughter he created. The scars he left on the world were the records that spun his music into the vastness of the listener’s soul– this was his way of marking himself upon us all. His grin was fleeting, his laughter has fallen into the crackling husks of the past, but his songs are just a shelf away. He is immortal.
That year, the dinky little label that Jerry and I started just a few years prior would release four full-length records. The promise that Jerry had bellowed in my ear that we would be self-sustaining appeared to be happening, even if by utter accident.
Jerry wanted to matter, to be remembered like his heroes Peter Laughner, Townes van Zandt and Johnny Thunders are. One of the best songwriters we both knew up close and personal was Ron House. Jerry craved his acknowledgement as if he were the coach’s son. Since we all lived in a world built on not revealing too much of ourselves, our praise came in the form of backhanded compliments, or maybe a nod of appreciation. We dared not let someone know they moved us. Many of us didn’t get the opportunity to say how much Jerry mattered to us musically until after he died, and then suddenly in 2003, Rough Trade records in the U.K. assembled a compilation of their greatest rock and roll songs post 1977. Gaunt was included on the compilation, right up there with The Stooges, Mudhoney, Rocket from The Crypt, The Pixies, and Suicide. The Columbus Alive posthumously voted Gaunt’s “Kryptonite” the best Columbus record of the past 30 years.
Jerry’s family had no idea the impact he had on other’s lives or that his music was recognized nationally and internationally. It took his death and the unearthing of boxes of magazines, fanzines and video for his parents to understand. In appreciation for that part of him that they hadn’t really known, Jerry’s parents had a beautiful gravestone made, with a guitar carved into the granite surface.
There was a feeling of normalcy to my life; Merijn and I had just come through a tunnel of self-destruction that was so fraught with personal chaos it appeared for a moment that the world around us had collapsed like a shattered bottle on cracked pavement. There were moments in the preceding years where the skin on my body appeared to be a separate entity, slithering away from inner thoughts that bordered on frenzied imbalance. I had awoken from years of creating a world of the absurd. I found myself with no idea how to move from the strangulated sense of self I’d created in my early twenties across the threshold of my mid-thirties. For a while I was the walking embodiment of “what-the-fuck.” We had purchased a beautiful old house between the duplexes of north campus and the middle-class pleasantries of Clintonville. We were giving in to the passiveness of normalcy but not without an air of liberal steadfastness; it was as if we were challenging ourselves to stay rooted in the urban confines of Columbus even if we had to live next to a plasma center.
My wife had moved back to Ohio– we both chased a sober lifestyle built around a need to make up for lost time, not only in our relationship, but also just living as adults. I decided to return to college, an endeavor that had scared me shitless in my twenties. The last time I had been in college was 15 years prior, I had dropped out due to frustration, fear, and eventually finding a community that had a disregard for conventional living. Soon after buying and fixing up our house, she became pregnant with our first child. The fear of a domestic life was slowing ebbing away. Jenny soon arrived from Miami, she and Jim Williams had gotten into another fight and he sent her back to Ohio.
Jenny had a tough time that year in Florida; she had entered treatment for substance abuse and bipolar disorder numerous times. She was picked up by the Miami police multiple times on charges of public intoxication, disturbing the peace and for being a danger to herself. Jenny’s life at that time was as if she were a walking drain, with every step she took she was swallowed a little bit by her madness and alcoholism. Swirling around in her daily chaos, it was amazing she could even travel from Florida to Ohio. She was repeatedly taken to the psych ward of Jackson County Hospital where she would spend anywhere from two days to several weeks as the doctors tried in vain to subdue the demons that danced in her head. It was not uncommon for me to receive up to 20 calls a week from Jim about Jenny’s behavior. Finally, Jenny was arrested on charges of petty theft; she had stolen a mango shake as a joke and spent 90 days in jail. This was the longest period that she’d been sober since her early teenage years. She would phone me from jail and tell me horror stories of the abuse that went on in the Dade County women’s jail. Only her humor got her through. She was beat up several times and was once put in isolation for her own protection. In one completely lucid moment she confessed to me, “I’ve always drank because I’ve always been afraid. Even when we lived together, I put our bed in the closet because I was scared people would get me.” She elaborated on her ongoing battle with hallucinations. “Bela, you know when I told you about those men in the walls, the ones with the beards who were looking at me? I joked about it but I sometimes think they were real. It doesn’t make sense and who would believe me?” When she got out of jail, Jim picked her up and soon enough the jail detox unraveled and they were off to the maniacal races, filled with shouting, bruises and tears wrapped around epic bouts of laughter and lovemaking.
Jenny returned to her mother’s in South Vienna. This lasted roughly a week before her mother shipped her back to Columbus where her bridges had been torched by her unbalanced behavior. Her life savers were, by this time, burned to a cinder. She was too unpredictable now for many of the people who had reached out over the years to help. She found refuge in the kindness of Wil Foster who used to play in her band. Wil tried to help her the best he could but soon even a seemingly bottomless friendship finds its basement. Jenny was on the streets.
I awoke one morning to find her asleep in front of my car, a heap of booze-soaked personhood nestled underneath a few articles of clothing and twigs, with a large piece of Little Debbie Snack Cake plastic stuck to the side of her face. “Shit,” she said when I roused her. “I didn’t have any place to go.” She winced as she pulled the plastic and small thorny branches off her face. “What the fuck, I don’t even eat this shit.” That night, I let her sleep in our garage but told her she couldn’t drink in it and couldn’t tell Merijn. I found her gone the next morning, the garage door open and an empty bottle of vodka upstairs next to her makeshift bed. She walked in while I stood there, my head trying to shake the disappointment from my shoulders. “Oh, shit, sorry.” She tried to explain. I told her to leave and she started screaming at me. “Goddamnit, you’re so fucking uptight, I can’t believe anybody would live with your ass. You fucking control freak, what the fuck, you are such a son-of-a-bitch. Fine, I’ll fucking find my own place, I don’t need your fucking help if all you’re gonna do is try to control me!” Taking a breath as if it were water, I said, “Jenny, there is some expensive stuff in here. What did I say, this is Merijn’s studio.” “Fuck you, it’s not that, it’s that you want to tell me what to do, always!” She continued yelling as I went into the house and called the police. By the time they arrived she was gone.
She was soon residing with another former band mate, Sean Woosley. I went to Sean’s house one night to check on her. Jenny didn’t open the door and I wasn’t sure what to do. I turned the knob and the door opened directly into Sean’s bedroom. I could see straight into the living room. The stereo was playing “Bee Thousand” by Guided by Voices. Shouting out Jenny’s name, I proceeded with a sense of trepidation and doom. On the floor, surrounded by stacks of CDs was an empty bottle of vodka, going towards the kitchen there were several empty 40-ounce bottles of beer and another half empty bottle of vodka. I yelled her name again, fearing that there would be no answer. A painful groan came from the bathroom, and in the corner was the tattered woman I once knew. She smiled a smile that was broken and carved with twisted decisions and so much suffering. “Hey, baby,” she murmured. I called 911. Within a few minutes an ambulance arrived and all I could do was show them what she drank. In a voice slurred with tears, snot and vodka she protested about going to the hospital. “I ain’t that fucked up, I’ve been worse.” I nodded with raised eyebrows that this was probably true.
The ambulance had a small window that separated the cab from the rear. I tried to supply helpful information. She doesn’t live here, she lives in Miami, she is 34 years old, and she has no money or ID. She has bipolar disorder. She doesn’t work. Suddenly Jenny became lucid and started flirting with one of the EMTs. “That is a sexy mustache you have there, young man. You can call me mama.” Soon there was laughter from the rear of the ambulance. In another moment Jenny crossed to the other side. “Hey, don’t you try to fuck me!” she screamed. I looked back and she was trying to sit up, the mustached EMT looked at me baffled. “Get your fucking hands off my tits!” He instructed his partner to stop the ambulance. “I am warning you to settle down or I will put you in restraints” he said. “What so you can fuck me? Go ahead and try it!” This went on for the next two minutes before we arrived at the hospital.
In the emergency room she was talking, laughing again and then she went back into a slurred stupor. She had a BAC test and the doctor, a small Lebanese man with a gentle disposition shook his head. He said she had a BAC over .40, “I have never seen someone this intoxicated and I can’t believe she is even talking let alone alive.” She was dehydrated, and I spent the next 14 hours next to her in the emergency room, at times filled with disgust, horror and disbelief. The next day after hours of IVs she was discharged. I went home and she went back to Sean’s. She phoned me later that night offering me thanks. Her voice was a bit off.
“Are you drinking?”
She paused. “Um, just a little to tide me over.”
During the heyday of the late ’80s indie underground, high school sweethearts Bela Koe-Krompecher and Jenny Mae Leffel moved together from small-town Ohio to the big city of Columbus to pursue education and a dream of something more. When they arrived, the two met Jerry Wick, a prickly malcontent and lead singer of the punk rock band Gaunt, and the trio quickly forged a contentious friendship that would be challenged for the next 20 years by addiction, mental illness, homelessness, divergent whims and tragic paths. They bonded over their obsessive love of music, especially the scrappy, welcoming world of independent labels and bands, where heroes could be a neighbor, a bartender or even a know-it-all behind the counter of a record store. Through the label Koe-Krompecher and Wick launched, and the music Leffel made, these three friends gained fans nationwide and garnered unexpected critical acclaim from The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, SPIN and more while sharing the stage with bands like Superchunk, Mudhoney and Guided by Voices. At its heart, Love, Death & Photosynthesis is a story of the love between friends and the power of music to pull people together—often in spite of themselves—in the universal search for connection.
Visit his blog at: https://belakoekrompecher.wordpress.com/