Words by David C. Obenour
In his book, Love, Death & Photosynthesis, author Bela Koe-Krompecher patches together memories pulled from a haze of beer and sweat. The friends he made in Columbus, Ohio’s music scene – comprising bands like The New Bomb Turks, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, V3, Guided By Voices from Dayton, and two of his best friends, Jenny Mae and Jerry Wick of Gaunt – would support and envy each, get into fist fights and then spend the night together, would live as fully human and in the moment as they could – for better and then for worse.
Rock and roll has a habit of glorifying this type of disregard and destruction, and while some chapters feel euphoric, others are heartrendingly catastrophic. Played out in dive bars, record stores and dingy apartments, these type of stakes might seem small compared with tour buses and penthouses but for those who live it – and for those who understand it – it was life and death.
Off Shelf: First off, I wanted to acknowledge the passing of Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartment’s Bob Petric. Ron House was a large part of your book, and I know you wrote a nice piece on Bob for Columbus Alive, but I wanted to offer you a space in this interview to talk of him here – whether it’s a small story, remembrance or just a general reflection on his importance in the scene you cover in Love Death and Photosynthesis.
Bela Koe-Krompecher: Dave, thank your for thinking of Bob—he really was such an important part of our world in Columbus and, I think in the underground scene as well—the Slave Apartments were extremely well respected in the world I have inhibited for thirty years. Bob was funny, sensitive, and caring—he also had a temper and as a fellow Eastern European I related to this. I am grateful that I ran into him a few weeks before he passed at a coffee shop—we hadn’t seen each other in a year, since COVID shut us all away in our own worlds.
I think about that the most recently how we need each other—just to see each other on the street or a restaurant, etc. COVID has taken that from us, on top of all the other divisions in the world—in some ways, the lonely have gotten lonelier. I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here, I think about Bob—he lived alone—and other’s that I’m not sure know they are appreciated. Certainly, I feel for the guys in TJSA who talked to him weekly, Ron and Ted are some of my oldest friends in the world. I think I summed up my feelings for Bob in The Alive piece, I feel a string to our world has broken, and I’m at the age where that will continue to happen.
OS: There was a moment from a trip to the Netherlands that you said all of these memories first started to materialize into writing. Was there anything about that trip that jogged the start of this process?
BKK: My ex-wife is Dutch, my kids are dual citizens, and we took yearly visits to the Netherlands to see my in-laws. My kids have gone every summer since they were born. I loved the trips so much, they were really relaxing for me. One reason is I had very little responsibilities while I was there, I don’t speak Dutch and so I would usually eat, go for long runs and relax.
I had just finished my undergraduate degree in 2009 when I started writing about Jerry Wick and Jenny Mae. It had been almost ten years since Jerry died, and Jenny had finally gotten house after struggling with being homeless for a number of years. She was a client at the community mental health center I worked at, and while I worked with the homeless but I didn’t work with her. I think I was trying to work a lot of things out in my life, I was about eight years sober, and on this vacation, I needed to sort things out in my head emotionally – I just started writing about when I met Jerry the first time. The first chapter in the book was not the first thing I wrote, part of what I wrote in 2009 is in the book but not at the beginning.
As for writing, I had written some in the 90’s, I had a column in Shredding Paper from San Francisco and did some music writing for some magazines/zines-but I don’t know if that was real writing, if that makes sense. What I never shared with really anyone were short stories and a sort of failed novel I worked on about my drinking and my relationship with my now ex-wife. I quit writing because of my drinking, it slowly pushed everything out of my life and left me dry inside—like a black mold inside of me.
So, I think that space in the Netherlands, both the physical space and the space of time from Jerry dying, sobriety, and helping to get Jenny off the streets allowed me to start writing—processing. I started my blog on that trip, and I just kept writing.
OS: Knowing that you’ve spent a lifetime looking at album covers, I wanted to ask a few questions about the physical book itself. Can you tell me about the cover? How involved with that were you? What about it appeals to you for being the sleeve of your book?
BKK: My friend Henry Owings designed the book, some of the readers may know Henry from his zine Chunklet and others may know him for his design work—he did a lot of work for Light in the Attic and the Numero Group—and some years ago he offered to do the artwork for me if I ever turned the writing into the book. He offered to do it for free, such an incredible act of kindness but I was able to pay him a little bit in the end.
Anyway, I had some input into the design but really not that much, I told him I wanted a sort of 1970’s feel to the cover and he used the font he did. My old friend Jay Brown contributed all the photos in the book for free and Henry used a photo of me and Jerry from 92 or so when we started Anyway on the cover. He’s holding a beer out, I am sort of looking at him side-eyed, I am holding a Walkman because I think I had just gone for a run. The back is a photo of Jenny with all of the blurbs and stuff on it.
I love the layout, the book is larger than most paperbacks, there is a hard back copy which is beautiful, but it is sold out. I must say, it’s an incredible and humbling feeling to hold your own book. I think Joe at Don Giovanni and Henry did a fantastic job.
OS: I also noticed that you had a Gotobeds shirt on for your author picture. Did you deliberate on what you’d wear for that shot? Did you think about it after the picture had been selected? I’m not sure if you’re as big a dork as I am, where noticing details like this in the liner notes would spiral you off on a trip of discovery.
BKK: I had to get headshots taken for the cover and also for work because I sometimes speak at conferences—I’m a social worker and guest lecturer at The Ohio State University—and I only have these kinda shitty self-y pictures. So, my friend Kim Rottmayer came to my house last year, I had a button up shirt and looked sort of smart in a professor-y way and she said I needed some casual ones. I went upstairs and put on the Gotobeds shirt, it was black which I think makes me look thinner and there was some intentionality to let people know I love them.
So yeah, there was a purpose to that shirt. Weirdly, I didn’t want to put an Anyway band shirt because I didn’t want to appear to be a self-promoter than having a headshot had me be! I do hope some people go listen to the Gotobeds from me wearing the shirt.
OS: Lastly, and this transitions more into talking about the book itself, but I was fascinated by how you sequenced your chapters. The stories weren’t told chronologically but made for an amazing read as it jumped around, giving you glimpses of glory-filled youth and then its ruinous outcomes and all of the human moments in between. How did you approach laying out your story?
BKK: I wish I could say there was some deep thought around that, but there wasn’t. When I write, I usually don’t have anything planned, as you probably have noticed I am a very stream-of-conscious writer and most of the chapters were written as I remembered things—not in any linear fashion. Much of the book is culled from my blog, there were a lot of rewrites as well new writing but I did want to tell the stories on how I remembered them which isn’t linear—time is linear but our memories aren’t, feelings aren’t so I thought it was important to try to convey the feelings around the moments of their lives and myself. Lisa Carver, who edited the book, got it all at once and wrote me back and was basically, “What the fuck? None of this is in order!?” and I asked her to read through it and see what she thought, we could have organized it fairly easily—all the chapters are dated. She wrote back the next day and said it was perfect, that it flowed really well. The editing process took about a year, she has her projects and I work, run my record label and try to write so it took a while to come together. We cut the book in half basically from what I had written. In some ways, the format worked for me because I am really not one to work backwards, I just sort of do my thing and go forward. I have ADHD so it can be both a helpful and a hinderance.
OS: You tell a really complex story that romanticizes some of your past while giving blunt recounts of other moments. Whether it’s taking place at stadiums or dive bars, rock and roll has a complicated relationship with glorifying destruction. That’s not the narrative you tell, but the greater mythology still colors how your story is read. How do you reflect on that personally?
BKK: Well, that’s a good question because I don’t want to mythologize my past or what I lived through—I think it’s hard to straddle a line of looking back and try not to have it come out as nostalgic. Again, for me it is about the emotions I felt during different periods of my life.
Music is interesting because it marks emotional imprints in our brains, and like smells or flavor we can relive those emotions through music, and the one thing I think that has saved me from sinking into total darkness has been music and the people who I know who make music. I also think that when we are experiencing things in our younger selves, whether is love, sex or feeling guitars course through our bodies, we remember them—and maybe our brains want us, even drive us to recall them. It is actually why most people’s music tastes tend to still be rooted in what they listened to as teenagers and in their early twenties—I think for people like you and me, and many readers, we work to hear different sounds because of our love of music and feeling.
I think the lives of Jerry and Jenny were tragic, both had substance abuse issues and mental illnesses—Jerry suffered from depression and Jenny was schizoaffective. I have tried to tell their stories and my own issues with depression and alcoholism in fairly blunt terms. My daughter read the book and was crying when I got home one day and said it was really sad but also really funny. I told her that life is sort of like that, as much as it might be easy to say Jenny and Jerry had sad lives, when they experienced joy they experienced it harder and deeper than most people I know. In some ways that seems like a good trade off.
OS: You’ve also shared some of the stories of Jenny Mae, Jerry and Jim in the form of comics. How did you find that experience in comparison to Love Death and Photosynthesis? What were you able to explore here that you didn’t feel you could capture as well from before?
BKK: Nix comics published three different comics that were all based on my writing, and that came about in a funny way. I had written several blog entries about The Ramones, including one fairly farcical experience I had with them. Steve Turner from Mudhoney sent me a message and found it hilarious and that it read like a comic—I am assuming a HATE comic—and from there, Matt Reber from the New Bomb Turks got me in touch with Ken Eppstein from Nix and the comics were born from that. Ken and the artist, Andrew Bennett did the editing from my writing. I think, at the root of it I am a writer of stories or books, not comics so I owe Ken all the credit for the comics. Writing requires detail to the environment, feelings and dialogue, whereas comics are told mostly through the art—so I am blessed to have worked with some incredible people on those comics. I do think there is a collection of them coming out next year.
OS: You’ve been an active part of the Columbus scene for a number of years in a number of different ways. Still putting out music through Anyway, how do you see your role now? Are there things you miss? Are there things you appreciate more now?
BKK: The music industry has changed so much, running a label is different for sure than what it was even ten years ago. I think it is more difficult for bands than it was in the early 90’s when I started putting out records, back then there was an infrastructure that supported bands and small labels, zines, clubs, distributors that worked outside the mainstream and it really built camaraderie. And it was easier to break even, while it is much harder to get music heard now for bands, records have very little shelf life because of the way clicks operate or the way people sell stories and, hence music. Records used to have a pretty long life to push—you would work a record six months to a year. I don’t want to sound like it was better then, it was what we had and it’s what I grew up with so it was easier to navigate that world. I am not that savy with social media and what not—and that is important, but I am not that great with it, nor do I have that much of an interest in it. So, the label is more of a collective, and it has a platform through my distribution deal with Revolver to help bands get noticed. I’m 52 now, although I feel much younger and most of the bands I work with are much younger than me, so they do a lot of the leg work. I don’t know what I miss to be honest, I liked feeling really part of something—a community and while I still am a part of that community, I really love to spend time with my kids, my girlfriend and her kids. I just sort of do my thing—listen to records, work, go to the gym, be goofy—and I’m quite satisfied with that.
OS: Even with having to relocate to Summit, Used Kids has also remained an active institution in Columbus despite almost every other business mentioned in your book falling prey to urban development. What do you think keeps that store as such a special lynchpin? What does the store mean to you now personally?
BKK: I left the store in 2006/2007, so I have almost been away from it for as long as I worked there at this stage of my life. And everyone who worked there when I did have left, none of the original owners or staff works there any longer. I go in about three times a month and it is different, mainly because I am now buying records when I used to get them for free! I think bookstores and record stores offer a physical place to see and feel people and artifacts that touch and move us. These things are important, experiences should be varied and unique, this is what we lose by consolidation of one-stop shopping, Amazon may be convenient and cheap but it robs us of human interaction. I get some of this by going to my favorite bookstore—Two Dollar Radio HQ in Columbus, a few record stores and my favorite coffee shop.
Although, for a number of years after leaving the store it was too painful for me to go back or go to any record store for that matter. When I left it was an ugly situation between the main owner and myself—I was a minority owner, I haven’t written about this because it’s not that important to my overall story and life arc—the circumstances of me leaving, but I’d rather focus on the wonderful experiences the store allowed me to be a part of. For me, the current store is somewhere I buy records at, but the only things I have any emotional connection to are some of the posters and flyers on the walls.
OS: You recently hinted at some incoming Jenny Mae news coming soon, can you share at all what those plans are?
BKK: I got a divorce a few years ago and in moving I found some of her earliest recordings as well and some of the recordings she made on a third record that never got made—we have two songs from that. When I was talking with Joe from Don Giovanni over the past few years we decided to try to put a record of her singles—she recorded a lot of singles and songs for compilations in the 90’s— when the book comes out in August. So, we are working on it now.
There are no master recordings for any of her music, she lost almost all her belongings when she was homeless so some of these are direct from the vinyl pressings. A few of the songs were recorded when she was homeless, she would record with various people in Columbus and then go back to the homeless camp where she lived. Sean Woosley recorded her last song about six months before she died, and the record will have that on it as well.