Living with Explosions; An interview with Jenny Mae ‘N Jerry Wick’s Bela Koe-Krompecher

Looking at the lasting impact that a music scene can have on fans and musicians decades afterward, it’s easy to forget that many of these movements are catalyzed by just a handful of passionate individuals. The right combination of musicians, bartenders, record store clerks, bookers and a number of other players have to align for their collective efforts to arise and survive for further recognition.

Columbus, Ohio in the 90s was one of the more fruitful alignments, producing such great bands as New Bomb Turks, V3, Gaunt, Moviola, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, Jenny Mae, Scrawl and Great Plains. One of the catalysts at the center of these scene was Anyway Records label head and Used Kids record clerk, Bela Koe-Krompecher.

Chronicling his time spent with friends, that the rest of us would relive mainly through well-worn CDs and vinyl, he began a blog that would later be turned into a trilogy of comics, the last of which, Jenny Mae ‘N Jerry Wick – out now from NIX Comics.

Ghettoblaster: You’ve done three comics so far with NIX, what first prompted you to want to tell your stories as comics?

Bela Koe-Krompecher: The story behind the comics is that the stories in the comics were never intended to be comics, and it happened by happenstance. I started writing a blog in 2009 about Jenny Mae (Leffel) and Jerry Wick who was in Gaunt, I was on vacation in the Netherlands and getting ready to start graduate school. And I wrote this story about how Jenny and I met Jerry in Larry’s bar in Columbus, probably around 1989 or 90. I didn’t know what to do with it, I probably wrote 25 pages while on vacation and I decided to start the blog, mainly writing it on weekends when I was in Cleveland for grad school or when I needed to get a break from studying. Bits and parts of stories here and there – it was akin to making a jig-saw puzzle but without an idea of what the final puzzle would look like. The blog kind of blew up and accumulated a lot of readers over the next few years—it has close to 100,000 reads so far and I am awful at self-promotion.

So, I wrote about this funny—sort of unbelievable story about the Ramones who used to hang out at Used Kids Records (where I worked for a bazillion years — “bazillion” is kinda a comic book word, by-the-way). It’s funny and shows how endearing Johnny and Joey were. I got a message from Steve Turner from Mudhoney saying how much he liked The Ramones entries and said it seemed like a comic book or cartoon story. I told my friend Matt Reber [from the New Bomb Turks] what Steve had written and he suggested Ken Eppstein who I knew from shows and record stuff, Ken runs Nix and he read parts of the blog and really brought the story to life and, eventually, to ink.

The comics have done well, the first two went into multiple printings so we did this last one which will be the final one.

GB: How did you start working with illustrator, Andy Bennett?

BKK: Ken provided me a list of artists, and I really liked Andy’s work, he really captures the grit and passion of that time in our lives. He’s pretty amazing and he does a lot of research into the people in the stories as well as the locations. I’m very happy that Ken introduced us because it’s his art that pushes the stories along. Ken also has the thankless task of taking my very stream-of-conscious writing style and editing it down in story-board form.

GB: For people who don’t know Jenny Mae, Jerry Wick or Jim Shepherd from your earlier comic, why do you think it’s important to share their stories? I know it’s a generic question, but I’m interested in how you’d answer it.

BKK: I don’t assume that people would know who they are, it’d really only be if the reader is into 90’s underground music. They were all people who touched my life and the others around them in a very tender manner but they also could be very harsh people to know. They were difficult people but beautiful in the way they lived, they were like living with explosions — they could light up a room or they could burn you. All are dead, all suffered from addiction or alcoholism and all had some sort of mental illness. Most importantly they were all amazing musicians who never got the recognition they rightly deserved, and in the case of Jenny and Jerry they literally saved my life. I find that most of the people who impact me have no idea they have affected me, but in their own struggles and accomplishments they have and continue to help me in many ways.

Jenny was homeless for a while, her life was tragic and she was an immensely talented woman who flirted with major labels and other success but in the end, chose a different life with heartbreaking results. She passed away over a year ago from complications of alcoholism and mental illness. Jerry was killed on his bike in the dead of night, he was drunk and carrying a pizza on his handle bars. Kinda a perfect death for him. Jim committed suicide in the late 90’s. His bands Vertical Slit and V-3 were some of the most important bands to come out of Columbus. All were funny as hell. In the end I feel that through their stories I can tell my own but as a bystander, they were amazing people who I would like to share with the world. They all lived and somehow I survived.

GB: What made you want to combine Jenny Mae and Jerry Wick into a single comic? 

BKK: The main reason was the writing started and ended with them, they were the ones who really were a force in my life. Jerry was my best friend for a while, Jenny was my high school sweetheart and we dated for about 3 years until the drinking and madness got too much, we broke up when I was 21 or so. When she died, it made sense to do one that covered their lives but in a much shorter comic-booky manner. It was Andy and Ken’s idea to split it up. It makes sense and I think it works quite well. It is my favorite one.

GB: Gaunt is one of those bands that I play pretty regularly and for everyone who will listen. Besides having known them personally, having gone to shows and been in the scene when they were around, do you have any thoughts on how your experience is different from someone who’s only heard the records?

BKK: I suppose like any intimate relationship, it is different from other people who may have only heard his music—and in some ways it may be the biblical saying about a prophet not being appreciated in his hometown. Now, nearly two decades later, Jerry and Gaunt are accepted and even embraced by Columbus — “Kryptonite” was named the best record to come out of Columbus by a panel in Columbus Alive a few years ago. I am always surprised when people note them or others from Columbus, for me it is akin to driving with my face against the windshield, I didn’t notice the rest of the world and it’s the same with Jerry.

In retrospect, I see how he changed my life and as a perspective, I have always been attracted to the misfits, the outsiders and more to the point, people who feel life so intensely that we all get burned, by them and by life. Jerry’s was like a torch, he was so fucking intense that he was difficult to love – it was his way of living, I suppose. Many of us feel we are unlovable, so we protect ourselves, sometimes by being an asshole! As Jerry was prone to be. That is the stuff you can’t always capture on a record, although he got that across a lot on vinyl, especially Yeah, Me Too and Kryptonite.

GB: I’m not as familiar with Jenny Mae’s music, but I’d like to pose that question for her too. What are we missing out on by only having the music and the liner notes?

BKK: I was closer to Jenny than I was Jerry, we literally lost our virginity to each other—so the relationship was deeper. In the 90’s some people in Columbus would claim that I only put her records out because of that relationship which always angered me and I always found sexist — nobody ever accused me of putting records out by the Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments because I worked with Ron House, or Gaunt because Jerry was my best friend, those types of things still bug me because it diminishes Jenny’s immense talent.

She would go through incredibly intense manic episodes, where she would write a billion songs over a few days, have all the parts laid out in her head and write in the lyrics what she wanted the musicians to play, or paint for week only to throw out the paintings when the mania ended. Maybe she was more DIY than anyone I’ve known, because she literally didn’t give a fuck what anybody thought, which was frustrating from the point of view of someone who put her music out as she was the absolute worst at marketing her music.

There was one instance when she was in NYC doing press and playing some shows when “Don’t Wait Up for Me” came out, I think she played with Neko Case that time and had interviews lined up. She was getting a lot of publicity, at least on our level, and there was an interview and photoshoot lined up with Interview magazine and she missed it because she was so fucked up on cocaine and alcohol and she didn’t seem to mind.

Jenny had a deep darkness to her, a sadness that glowed around her but most people never felt it because she was so wickedly funny and outrageous. She could be a lazy songwriter, she would write the song and come up with her lyrics but not go too deep, sometimes she just did enough. She was somewhat like Pollard like that, with a sense of melody that was fucking genius but then a bit slack on the outcome, but that was her mind and how she worked. There are a few songs that I feel are indicative of her and capture her well, “Ho Bitch” and “Runaway” are places where I tell people to start.

GB: Two of your comics so far have centered around three musicians who are friends of your’s that have passed. Is there an emotional toll for you in bringing back up these memories?

BKK: This is interesting, I just turned 50 this year which is very bizarre to me, I got sober when I was 33 — almost a year after Jerry died. I became a Buddhist after that and did a lot of personal work, went back to college to be a social worker, lots of therapy, 12-Step work, and meditation, and I got to a point where not very much bothered me. I work with the homeless and keep a fair emotional distance from my job — I learned a lot trying to help Jenny over the years, when she was homeless or was in incredibly abusive relationships with men who beat her, I realized a lot about detachment.

What touched me with this last comic was Andy’s art, I found myself crying when I first read it—a lot of emotions came back because of his artwork. The editing of my book has brought some emotional ties as well, I realize that in the past 20 years I have lost a lot of my best friends and things are slowly falling away.

GB: I have a mixed view on Columbus. The art the city has produced has been incredible and Used Kids is probably the greatest record store in the country, but from the outside it seems like much of Columbus in 2018 seems more concerned with new developments and high cost condos. Do you think the spirit that lead to all of that incredible music from the 90s lives on?

BKK: I could go on and on about the development issues and how from a systems standpoint the city (and the government at large) are not doing enough for the poor, the homeless and disenfranchised. That is my job basically, to work within this system and I actually teach a social work policy course at Ohio State so you could say that in its race to become bigger and a hub of white collar jobs the city is leaving a lot of people out of the mix, not necessarily the fault of the city leaders, but of the growth of the city. There is a dearth of low-income housing, when these neighborhoods are displaced, we lose the culture of each singular neighborhood.

We definitely had that sense of community in the 80’s-90’s around the Ohio State campus area, plus this was pre-internet and streaming so the center of many scenes where the bars and record stores—if music provides the meaning to your life, that is where you tend to spend most of your time, the record store, college radio station and clubs. I missed out on a lot of great bands when I went back to college (I was in college for 7 years and worked full time starting in my mid-thirties), Times New Viking, Pink Reason, Psychedelic Horseshit, but there have been a number of amazing bands the past five years (more likely there has always been this great music but the college thing removed me from it). Bands like Connections, All Dogs, Counterfeit Madison, Sidekicks, Winston Hytwr and the IPPS are every bit as good as what I experienced then, the sounds are a bit different, maybe more akin to the hodgepodge of differing music and influences people can access off the internet.

I still go out to shows quite regularly and love seeing new music, a new band I really like is called Nothin’ and is lead by a female singer. I think WV White is the one band that maybe comes closest to representing the sounds and feel of the 90’s, and are kinda the quintessential Columbus band, noisy but catchy and a band nobody seems to appreciate, sadly.

GB: I see that you’re also at work on a book, can you tell us a little about what that’s covering?

The book is culled from the blog, and I’m in the process of editing it down with Lisa Carver (Suckdog & Rollerderby) working as my main editor. If it were printed as is, it would be over 800 printed pages which is completely absurd so we have made it more concise. Lisa has been incredible to work with, she is very special and encouraging. It covers both Jerry and Jenny and the times we lived in, one aspect is that the blog was not written as a book, it was more just ideas and memories I would have. I am hopeful that it is out in 2019, I’m finding a book is much more difficult than putting out a record. It will be published by Don Giovanni sometime in the coming year I suppose. While music is the thread of the book it is not the cloth of the book, the people are. I hope that makes sense.

GB: Having done comics, up kept a blog and now writing a book, how differently do you approach each medium? Are you finding there are certain aspects that one captures better than the other for you?

BKK: The writing for me is the most important thing I do, whether it is the blog or working on stories. I have not updated the blog too much since Jenny has died but I am writing as much as I can. Time is difficult for me, I’ve got kids, I have a professional 40-hour a week job, I also teach at Ohio State, try to run a record label and the writing tends to come in last although if I had my druthers it would be the main thing I would do. Not for pay but because I enjoy it so much. I am currently writing a series of short stories about the history of a furnished apartment and the characters who live in it as well as two different stories for my children. I’m kind of tired of writing about real life stuff but I find the fiction I’m writing is fueled by my experiences.

Bela’s Blog | Anyway Records Website | NIX Comic’s Website