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POP MUSIC : The Face of Fame, The Face of Anger : Al Jourgensen, leader of the industrial-rock band Ministry, has a potent message that has touched a lot of kindred souls.

August 02, 1992|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

PALO ALTO — It's nearing 2 a.m. and Ministry's Al Jourgensen is sitting by the hotel pool, eyeing his last Jack Daniel's and Coke of the long, long day.

True to his reputation as one of underground rock's genuine renegades, Jourgensen--the godfather of the stark, aggressive style of danceable rock known as "industrial"--has already had enough liquor to stock the bar for a modest wedding reception.

He's trying to unwind in the calming moonlight after a grueling, three-hour sound check at nearby Shoreline Amphitheatre, the final preparation for the opening show of the two-month "Lollapalooza" tour, a showcase of alternative rock bands.

This is the tour that many pop insiders predict will push Ministry, long cult heroes, into stardom.

Anger and alienation are the governing emotions in college and alternative rock at this early point in the '90s, and no band dips into the well of discontent more powerfully than this Chicago-based group. In by far its largest concert trek ever, Ministry will be seen by more than 500,000 fans by the time the tour ends with three shows, starting Sept. 11, at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.

Sire Records is so excited about Ministry's prospects that its initial shipment of the group's acclaimed new "Psalm 69" album was 250,000 copies, almost 100,000 more than the sales of any of the four previous Ministry albums. First-week sales justified the optimism. The album entered the Billboard magazine pop chart at No. 27 and the CMJ chart, which measures sales in stores specializing in college or alternative music, at No. 1.

But Jourgensen, the band's leader, hasn't got celebration on his mind as he lifts the glass.

A private and intense man, Jourgensen is concerned about what's ahead--whether this tour was really a good idea and how he will adjust to fame, if it comes.

"This tour is a necessary evil, one of my compromises ," he says anxiously, exaggerating words for emphasis. "Eventually, when I sell enough units , as they say in the record business, I will stop touring. I'll concentrate on what I like to do . . . stay in the studio.

"Being on stage is not creating, it's re-creating . I've always wanted to be in the background. I'm a very reluctant frontman. I've seen reviews where they talk about my strong presence on stage, but it's nothing I do.

"It's like the person in a long grocery line who stands out because he's so agitated. He'll have presence too. He's probably late somewhere and has parked in the handicapped zone and knows he is probably getting a ticket at that very moment. Well, that's my aura on stage. I'm the pissed-off guy in the line who is parked in the handicapped zone."

Ministry isn't a one-man band. Paul Barker, a bassist and co-producer of the records, has been Jourgensen's partner in the group since it was formed in 1981, and there are six other musicians with them on this tour, including "Psalm 69" participants William Rieflin (drums) and Mike Scaccia (guitar).

As in most bands, however, there is one dominant force--some say dictator: Jourgensen, 33, whose family moved to the United States from Cuba after the Communist revolution in the '50s.

Jourgensen is a guitarist, writer and singer, but his main talent is as producer. He exhibits an independence and vision reminiscent of Phil Spector, arguably the most imaginative record producer of the modern pop era

Jourgensen weaves a wide range of musical influences--from punk to metal to a touch of disco and his pet passion, country music--into sonic excursions that are at once brutal and beautiful, music that combines the visceral punch of a jackhammer and the soulful grace of film composer Ennio Morricone. Besides Ministry, Jourgensen has worked with several allied underground projects, and he recently remixed a song for the Jesus and Mary Chain.

The references to Spector, however, go deeper than their shared excellence as pop conceptualists.

Like Spector, Jourgensen appears to be a complex blend of tough exterior and sensitive interior, total confidence and deeply rooted insecurities. He may be at ease in the studio, but he has sometimes been reclusive and uncertain out of it.

The goateed, dreadlocked Jourgensen has an uneasy relationship with his record company, both sides acknowledge, but Sire executive Howie Klein is a big fan who has made an effort to win Jourgensen's friendship.

"Personally, industrial is my favorite kind of music," Klein said in a separate interview. "So here is this guy on the label who is doing the most exciting thing with my favorite kind of music, and I have really tried to understand him a bit, but it's hard. I've been to his home, met his wife and his daughter. I've been out with him, and he is still an enigma to me."

Read rock magazine articles about Jourgensen's studio escapades in the '80s and early '90s, and you wonder how he ever got anything done.

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