Jerome (Jerry the Priest) Dunn seems to laugh a lot for one who claims to preside over the "Church of Extreme Despair."
His good humor, however, is evident only when he's off stage. On stage, the singer-poet-performing artist is anything but saintly. Nevertheless, the lanky City of Orange resident has become something of an underground hero through his wildly theatrical performances at local clubs over the last eight months.
"A lot of my act is crass because it's hard to shock people any more. People are pretty jaded. But I try to force people to confront their humanity," Dunn, 24, said in an interview this week, sprawled on a couch in the living room of a friend's house in Tustin.
How does his practice of pelting an audience with invectives and, occasionally, feminine hygiene products force people to confront their humanity?
Often projecting the nervous tension of a caged panther, Dunn explained, "That part of the act is about the way people are disgusted at things that aren't really disgusting--they're just human. But if I do it on stage, they think it's OK; it's entertainment. It's done for shock value, but at the bottom is the motivation. I hope it makes people think."
A verse from "Dark Water," one of his better pieces, offers a clue to his underlying concept of performing: . . . The most unnerving thing of all about Dark Water is how terrifyingly calm and still everything is . . . very soothing, very peaceful, very relaxing, very like being dead.
"It's about serenity being deadly," he said. "I can't stand anything if it's too much the same, or too stable. I need to struggle, to fight. I can't be comfortable."
Jerry the Priest first surfaced before Orange County audiences reading poetry last fall at Spangler's Cafe in Anaheim. After only four shows in 1984, his performance schedule has been increasingly busy. (Just this week, he was at Safari Sam's in Huntington Beach on Tuesday, the Lhasa Club in Los Angeles on Wednesday and he will appear tonight at the Anticlub in Los Angeles and Saturday at Occidental College.)
Although he had been writing music and poetry for years, Dunn said he never previously had the courage to share it in public.
"I thought it was neat when people liked it. I was doing more serious poetry then, but since most serious poets tend to bore me, I started doing something different. Now the act is more entertainment," he said.
"What surprises me is that people like what I'm doing now," he added with laugh. "It's pretty crass and stupid in some ways, but I guess it's fun for people to participate. I always try to get people involved, instead of just watching. People can't ignore me. I even tried to be boring once. I just got up and started reading my resume, preaching and philosophizing, but everybody loved it."
Dunn said that his rebellious, combative outlook on life grew out of a traditional middle-class suburban upbringing in a strongly religious atmosphere. In fact, religion plays a major role in his act, obvious both in the moniker he uses on and off stage as well as in his description of the "Church of Extreme Despair" that he invented: "I glorify skid row. All people who are accidents of society are holy in my church," he said.
Dunn even played trombone in a Hacienda Heights high school marching band, an instrument he still incorporates into his performances, and for the last five years has worked a series of day jobs involving art and graphic design. But despite some music and art training, Jerry the Priest refuses to play by anyone's rules but his own.
"I have no formal background. I thought I invented 'Dada' (the early 20th-Century school of nihilist/absurd art) until someone told me what it was. (Artists) tell you that you have to understand color theory before you can do a painting, but I don't think that's so. I have an innate sense of how things should go together, whether it's words or music or objects."
Even though Dunn has just begun to be noticed in the Los Angeles-Orange County area, he plans to move to San Francisco this summer to expand his following into new areas. But he said that he will return to Southern California for performances at least once a month.
"I can never do the same thing for four months straight. If things start going too well--if I get a good job, start making good money--I do something to make it hard for me, to challenge myself."
Ultimately, though, he admitted that his whole act is geared for the entertainment of only one person.
"My whole point is that I'd rather that people entertain themselves than coming to see me entertain them," he said. "I feel no great responsibility to the audience for what I'm doing. I can't ensure that other people have a good time, I can only make sure that I have a good time, and that's what I'm doing."