The Overdue Demise of Ministry
Roughly halfway into the first song of the night, I suspected I was wasting my time.
The occasion seemed auspicious enough: Ministry was closing out its farewell "CU LaTouR" with a sold-out four-night stand in its hometown of Chicago, the city that was Ground Zero for the Industrial Revolution Ministry and Wax Trax! Records signified nearly 20 years ago. That scene may have died out, but Ministry was its critical component: It was both a member of it and encompassed it–during its heyday, Ministry was a sprawling collective that included all of that scene's personalities at one point or another. So the band's final show–"band" meaning founder Al Jourgensen and a bunch rocker dudes– (ostensibly) closed the door on Ministry and laid to rest a scene that appeared, peaked, and disappeared in the space of a few years.
So yeah, auspicious. But as Ministry opened with "Let's Go" (from 2007's The Last Sucker), a pummeling beat and raging guitars obliterated the pomp and circumstance. When I glanced at the setlist full of newer songs whose names I didn't recognize, I realized Ministry would barely acknowledge its past–and that I was in for an hour of labored, samey electro-metal.
The writing was on the wall before Ministry even took the stage. After the house lights dimmed, the logo for the Chicago Blackhawks appeared on the onstage screen as the speakers blared "Keys To The City," the nü-metal song Jourgensen wrote for the Chicago hockey team. It was followed by a trailer for a grindhouse film called Wicked Lake, which Jourgensen scored. Then came a video for "I'm Not Gay" by Jourgensen side project Revolting Cocks, which entailed three minutes of a skull covered in mirrors and rotating like a disco ball. More confusing than anything else, it was a strange prologue.
The setlist also showed two encores that weren't encouraging. The first featured two songs I really wanted to hear ("So What" and "Thieves" from 1989's The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste) and two I'd take over the crap Ministry played for its main set ("N.W.O." and "Just One Fix," from 1992's Psalm 69). The second encore consisted of three songs from Ministry's new covers album, Cover Up.
It was a sadly fitting way for Ministry to go. Cover albums embody the word "inessential" (not to mention "self-indulgent"), and closing one of four final performances with cover songs not only spoke to the creative bankruptcy that was on display all night, but also served as a middle finger to fans old and new. Because everyone who came to these four "final" shows at the House Of Blues in Chicago really wanted to hear Ministry's take on The Doors' "Roadhouse Blues." No, please don't play anything from 1988's seminal The Land Of Rape And Honey (which they didn't); I'd really like to hear ZZ Top's "Just Got Paid." And really, there's no better way to send everyone home than with The Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb." That's the Ministry I loved as an adolescent! (They played this set during the entire farewell tour, though they supposedly brought more old hits at the other Chicago shows.)
I mostly stopped paying attention to the band sometime after Psalm 69. I'm not too sure why, other than it just wasn't doing it for me anymore. After Psalm, Ministry seemed to veer deeply into the electro-metal territory and more or less stayed there for the albums that followed. I gave those records cursory listens, but they struck me as increasingly reductive.
I'm not the only one. Although the crowd was certainly receptive to the music, "Thieves" and "So What" got by far the biggest response. Chris Connelly, who played an active role in Ministry and Revolting Cocks, originally sang the vocals for "So What" on Mind. (He memorably performed the song atop a chainlink fence on the 1990 live video/record In Case You Didn't Feel Like Showing Up.) He still lives in Chicago, where he manages a record store and performs a significantly different kind of music–think Tortoise-esque post-rock–as a solo artist. Like virtually everyone who played a part in the rise of Ministry, he wasn't at this show. For Connelly, it's understandable; he hasn't been a member of Ministry in 15 years. But there was no mention of bassist Paul Barker, the only other constant in Ministry from the mid-'80s until his departure in 2003. The band may have always been the Al Jourgensen show, but Barker played a key role.
Jourgensen apparently sued Barker last year, so maybe it's not surprising. And considering the unflattering portrait of Jourgensen Connelly paints in his recent book, Concrete, Bulletproof, Invisible And Fried: My Life As A Revolting Cock, it's not surprising that Connelly wasn't invited to the party, either.
When I interviewed Connelly last year before the release of his solo album (long before the book came out), I was surprised by his disenchantment with his experiences in the band. The book would later spell it out in detail, but Connelly caught me a bit off guard. "I take a very dim view of my past," he said.
"When I worked with [Jourgensen], he was a very forward-thinking experimentalist. I mean he had a goal in mind, and he made, essentially, pop songs out of what he was doing. But now he's not doing that. He's no longer experimenting with the format. He's sticking pretty rigidly to a formula that served him well in 1993, you know what I mean? Bludgeoned to the back of the head, really, really, really fast, as fast as you can go–and I've never liked that kind of music anyway. I was never a fan. And I was never particularly a fan of the music I was doing. There were certain aspects of it I liked, and there's certain things that they did within that framework. But I fell out of love with it really quite quickly."
I think a lot of people did. Watching Jourgensen go through the motions on stage, it was easy to see why.