Laughter, music and loneliness in Bela Koe-Krompecher's 'Love, Death & Photosynthesis'
The Anyway Records founder reflects on the two halves of his life, Jenny Mae, Jerry Wick and his new book out Friday on Don Giovanni Records
Back in the summer of 2009, Bela Koe-Krompecher started a blog and began posting huge chunks of unguarded prose about a bygone era of his life — before sobriety, before his best friends died, before this insatiable city swallowed up High Street haunts like Larry’s and Bernie’s and Stache’s.
There was plenty of ground to cover in the posts. In the '90s, Koe-Krompecher launched vaunted local label Anyway Records, putting out music by bands like Guided By Voices, Greenhorn and Monster Truck Five, along with releases by his high school sweetheart and drinking partner, Jenny Mae Leffel, and his best friend and label co-founder, Jerry Wick of Gaunt. He worked behind the campus counter of Used Kids Records alongside fellow scenester and know-it-all gatekeeper Ron House of Great Plains and Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments. He booked dozens of touring bands for rock shows at Little Brother’s and Stache’s.
More:Anyway Records celebrates 25 years
But Koe-Krompecher didn’t merely reminisce about the Columbus scene of the ’90s (although the blog is a fascinating historical document of that era). He dug deep into his childhood in rural Ohio, writing about abandonment issues and depression. For every laughter-filled night of drunken revelry with Leffel, he also recounted the damage it did to them as they struggled with an addiction that eventually loosened its grip on Koe-Krompecher but kept Leffel in a vise until her death in 2017. And he revealed the loneliness that ate away his insides even more than the alcohol.
In printed form, the blog would fill an unwieldy 800 pages. Instead, Koe-Krompecher condensed the material into a long-in-the-works, 250-page book, Love, Death & Photosynthesis, out Friday, Aug. 13, on Don Giovanni Records. Previously, Koe-Krompecher wrote only for himself, with no audience in mind. But now there are stakes attached. He has a publisher and a team of people who believe in the work. His friend Lisa Carver spent countless hours editing the book. Another friend, Henry Owings, did the layout. And for many readers, it will be their introduction to Jenny Mae and Jerry Wick, two friends of outsized importance whom Koe-Krompecher wants to represent in a full, authentic way.
“It’s less of a risk for me to write whatever and throw it out on the internet, warts and all, because there’s no expectation. … As the book release has come closer, I've been depressed because I don't want to have expectations of it, but I do. I want everyone to read my book,” Koe-Krompecher said, lounging on a loveseat in front of the fireplace at his Clintonville apartment earlier this week. An air conditioning unit in the living room window gently rustles the leaves of his houseplants, and his excitable little dog, Pearl, jumps back and forth between our laps as we speak, sometimes humping his arm, sometimes puking in the other room.
More:Jenny Mae: 1968-2017
I should say here that this was less of an interview and more of a conversation with a friend. I first met Bela at Andyman’s Treehouse (now the Treebar) around the time he started the blog, and I remember being nervous to say hello. Bela was (and still is) a legendary figure in the Columbus music scene. I’d see him at rock shows, gyrating at the front of the stage with club soda in hand. Bela, and the history he represented, seemed larger than life.
But within minutes of our first meeting, Bela had me cry-laughing at his utterly absurd jokes. We hung out at more shows after that and kept in touch. At first I thought he just wanted me to write about Anyway bands, but over time I realized he was pursuing friendship, not press. We still laugh at each other’s supremely stupid jokes. At some point "dummy" and “dumdum” replaced our actual names in conversation, texts and emails.
Several years ago Bela told me about his book project and asked if I’d edit it. I told him I’d give it a shot, but after starting on the manuscript, I realized I couldn’t carve out enough time to do it justice. And it’s a good thing, too. I probably would have ruined it by editing Bela’s book like a journalist. In its current form, Love, Death & Photosynthesis retains the poetic intimacy of Bela’s writing, and the way it all spills out in a rush. Every sentence is full of heart.
Instead of organizing the book’s events chronologically, he arranged it like a collage, each short chapter titled with a year ranging from the 1970s into the 2000s. “I sent it to [Lisa Carver], and she wrote me back the next day saying, ‘What is this? Bela, this is in no order. This is not going to work.’ And I wrote her back and said, ‘This is it,’” he said. “She wrote me back later that night and said, ‘I was wrong. This works perfectly. I can't imagine it being any other way.’”
Bela’s writing is as unfiltered as it gets. Nothing is too embarrassing or revealing. By the second chapter he’s attempting suicide with a bottle of aspirin. Later on, he pees his pants in the car and sees a doctor about an infected prostate. The book recounts booze-induced sobbing, sexual encounters, depressive episodes, infidelity, abuse. Nothing is off-limits.
Well, a few things were off-limits, but only because others could be hurt by them. In the years since getting sober in 2002, Bela has adopted a Buddhist worldview: Do no harm. “I accept that we're all here, we're all suffering, and in the midst of that, we have these bits of beautiful joy,” he said. “You can actually have the best day of your life, but there could be some really crappy parts of it.”
Sobriety provides a sharp dividing line in Bela’s life. A-side Bela is wild and unhinged, with a lot of pain and a lot of partying. (“The world that we lived in, our feeling was the only thing you should be doing was listening to music and having fun,” he said.) B-side Bela is still full of music, but he’s softer, wiser, more reflective. And yet that past still feels close.
In one chapter, he describes sifting through stacks of show flyers and memorabilia: “When I open a box and hold a flyer from 1993 — 'The Ex w/ Tom Cora, V-3, and Guided By Voices' painted by hand on newspapers, accompanied by a small drawing of my dog wearing a baseball cap, drinking and smoking a cigarette at the bar, I remember: These things were real. They happened.”
“I definitely will always be processing that stuff,” Bela said, though he resists taking a good-old-days approach to those times. “I don't want to look back with nostalgia. I never want to sound like, ‘Oh, you know, Pavement slept in my house.’ Who cares, right? I mean, it's cool. It's a fun memory. But as a 53-year-old father, who cares?”
Love, Death & Photosynthesis is as much about Jenny Mae and Jerry Wick, who died in 2001 after a car hit him while he was riding his bike, as it is about Bela, with even more emphasis on Jenny, who shared Bela’s sense of humor. "Everything was an opportunity to crack a joke or to make a skit,” he writes of Jenny in the book’s opening chapter. But she took everything, whether laughter or alcohol, to another level. She burned hotter than everyone around her, including Bela, whom she accuses of being "too serious” multiple times in the book. “When you're on fire, your expectation is that everyone else is on fire,” Bela said. “She had no boundaries.”
Jenny Mae's alcohol addiction was such that nothing could keep her away from the bottle, even when doctors told her later in life, “If you drink, you will die.” At various points in the book, when Bela tries to rein her in, she retaliates in mean, hard-to-read ways, destroying his favorite records or, after their romantic relationship ended, telling him he’d never be with another woman again. “Now I'm a social worker and a therapist, and it's like, oh, it was the inverse. She's really talking about herself,” Bela said. “She was saying, ‘I’m unlovable.’”
No one could stop Jenny Mae’s downward spiral, but Jerry’s life ended suddenly at a fork. “He was still living very carelessly,” Bela said, “but he could have ended up like me or he could have ended up like Jenny.”
Throughout Love, Death & Photosynthesis, which gets its name from a Jerry Wick song, Bela writes over and over again about the loneliness he felt, even as he was surrounded by friends in the music scene. He needed a warm body nearby at night, and without one, he’d make drunken 4 a.m. phone calls just to talk to someone as he fell asleep. All the drinking and the music couldn’t mask the terror of being alone.
I’ve only known B-side Bela. Until this book, I never realized Jerry used to dance right alongside him at the front of the stage at rock shows. But there are other things, too, big parts of his life I never knew about, like his first marriage and a harrowing period in Florida. There are things Bela writes about but doesn’t talk about. It’s easier to make stupid jokes.
When I ask him about that, he deflects, speaking instead to the way music makes him feel. “Some folks who have substance abuse issues actually process the physical environment emotionally. Like, I am literally more sensitive than other people. So when I feel joy, I really feel it. When I feel depression, it really hits me. And when I hear music, I really hear it. It physically moves me,” he said.
“But then is the temptation to be more emotionally available for music and art than you are for people?” I ask.
“Well, in the end, I trust those more,” he said. “There's this core of me that feels I can't trust because in the end, you're going to reject me, which is scary. … In my relationships, I have to tell my partner, and even in some of my friendships, ‘If I disappear — if I’m emotionally pulling away — you have to remind me because I don't even know I'm doing it.’”
Trust, then, is still a work in progress. But loneliness? That one doesn’t bother him anymore. On evenings he’s not with his partner and his two kids, Bela is content to take long, late-night walks with only Pearl as company. He posts moody photos of trees and deer and owls on social media, but he’s not communing with nature. Usually, he's listening to comedy podcasts. “People might think, man, he's in this meditative state while he's walking, taking these nice pictures of deer,” he said. “Yeah, I'm doing that, and I'm cackling in the ravine.”
At home, he’ll order pizza, watch TV and listen to records by himself. “I love being alone sometimes,” he said.
This week, Bela is attempting to manage the weight of book expectations and trying to keep the accompanying anxiety at bay, resisting the urge to check on things like Amazon book rankings. On good days, it’s a thrill just to be publishing a book about his life and his friends and the music he loves. It was never a given that Bela would even have a B side. But the record got flipped, he started blogging and now there’s a book.
“I guess I just want people, if they're going to read it... hopefully they laugh,” he said. “And they don't feel alone.”