The Missionary Position: Jersey Boy Ted Leo Joins the Good Fight

WRITTEN BY
Jon Dolan


Jersey City sits across the Hudson River from Manhattan, both suburb and step-sister. Its nondescript expanse of industrial riverfront is significantly less dazzling than the island Oz next door-acres of parking lots and warehouses line the water's edge. Ted Leo loves New Jersey. He lives in nearby Bloomfield, plays Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" live, and has a patch bearing the name of his hometown stitched on the arm of his jean jacket. Even this desolate Jersey City spot has significance for him. In a way, Ted Leo was reborn here.

"On 9/11, I came down to exactly where we are right now," he recalls as we approach the pier where ferries leave for Lower Manhattan. "For days, we loaded up boats to go over-medical supplies, dog food for rescue dogs. People brought whatever they could." Leo, whose birthday is September 11, wrote a song about the day's resonance called "The High Party," which appeared on Ted Leo and the Pharmacists' 2003 album, Hearts of Oak. This year, he was married on his 34th birthday, the third anniversary of the terrorist attacks. "What I realized that day was that it was time for me to get more focused on what I wanted to say as an artist."

And he has. In three years, Leo has gone from obscure indie rocker (despite major-label interest, he has stuck with Bay Area punk stalwart Lookout!) to righteous mini-cause célèbre, handpicked by comedian David Cross to perform at Concerts for Kerry. As terrible times have forced cool kids to examine the ideas beneath their trucker hats, Leo's political-is-personal themes have seemed increasingly necessary. His soul-boy crooning, over a mix of early-'80s punk, bygone Irish ballads, and Thin Lizzy riffage, is the sugar that helps the medicine go down. And he has a fired-up yet easygoing stage presence that suggests a guy who'd rather buy you a Jameson than badger you about the WTO. While Leo's lyrics are as left-leaning as they come-Hearts of Oak's "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone," briefly an MTV2 favorite, is an ode to 2 Tone radicals the Specials-they rarely blur into pamphleteering broadsides.

When Leo is at his best, as on his new album, Shake the Sheets, you can't help but root for him. That goes double if you root for the things he roots for. He's been involved with numerous liberal causes going back to the first Gulf War. He's turned down an offer to feature his music in a luxury-car ad, and speaks passionately about the "missionary aspect" of making records and playing shows. "You come to drink a few e a good time," says Leo. "I want it to be a party, but also a conscious party, as Ziggy Marley might say." When I tell Leo that it takes a man of stout heart to drop an unironic Ziggy Marley allusion in 2004, he is undaunted: "I'll do it! I'm not afraid!"

Leo's younger brother Chris, who has also been playing in bands (the Van Pelt, the Lapse) since he was a teenager, vouches for his brother's deep convictions. "Ted is really into being Irish," he says. "But I really think it's that he's Catholic. He went to Catholic school in the time of nuns. When I was a kid, he used to come into my room and throw a hardcore seven-inch at me and be like, 'Hey, listen to this.' I could never complain because he was always right." Leo has mellowed, and his affable demeanor is part of his appeal. "There are people who would do anything for Ted," says Fugazi drummer and close friend Brendan Canty. But obviously Leo takes his music's subtext very seriously. "What drew me to the Clash and those bands," he says, "was that even if you weren't talking about something specifically political, there was always some existential crisis. I don't see that anymore. It's really just marketing. What do kids like? Well, they like girls. I guess I sound like a crotchety old man, but it's important to raise the bar."

Shake the Sheets-written last spring "during a really fucking dark time for our country"-is an old-fashioned punk bar-raiser. Produced by Chris Shaw (Wilco, Weezer, Bob Dylan), it features Leo's radiant jangle up front and his most concise songwriting yet. Leaving the sometimes diffuse sound and sentiments of previous records behind, and with guitars ringing like Sunday morning at the Blessed Cathedral of Saint Joe Strummer, the album has an almost euphoric mood. "So long to you 'moderates,'" Leo sings at one point. "It's time for getting down!" Like political-minded bands the Coup or Le Tigre, who attack activism's no-fun rep with P-Funk blasts and electro roller-skate jams, the Pharmacists (drummer Chris Wilson and bassist Dave Lerner) hammer out the tough issues with authoritative barroom blitz. But you're not likely to hear Boots from the Coup stop a song about hating Bush to sing, "I respect the process, I respect the rules." The good-natured Catholic boy is open to all moral considerations.

That ability to appreciate a variety of perspectives was bred in the Sesame Street-like culture of Leo's hometown, Bloomfield. "It was so diverse, it was almost a joke," he says. The oldest of four kids in a close Irish-Italian family, Leo was fixated on hip-hop radio from an early age. He saw Run-D.M.C. on their first tour and at age 12 joined a break-dance crew called the Breaks (his handle: Captain Freeze). Punk came later, and Leo started attending local hardcore shows where ethical dilemmas constantly cropped up. Consider this dustup at an early Fugazi show in Connecticut.

"The band had some friends who'd come up from D.C. who I saw physically grabbing people and stopping them from slamming, from dancing," Leo recalls. "I flipped out. I was like, 'That's even more fascist than what goes on in the pit!' So I wrote [Fugazi frontman] Ian [MacKaye] this multi-page letter, and he wrote back. Years later, we became friends, and I obviously wasn't going to bring it up. But whenever I get uppity, his response is, 'Ya know, I got this letter, and I can bust it out and show everybody.'"

Leo started the well-regarded mod-punk band Chisel while he was attending Notre Dame and won a following later in the D.C. area. But as other local bands like the Make-Up became indie stars, Chisel split up in 1997 over what Leo calls "ideological differences." He formed the Pharmacists and released a self-titled debut in 1999, but 2001's The Tyranny of Distance was the album that opened up his sound. "He likes Irish music, but it's not like he has an accordion player," says Canty, who produced Tyranny. "He has the Thin Lizzy thing, but it's not like he's got a rolled-up sock stuffed down his pants. He's able to depart from that [influence] and run with it."

As things in the country got shittier with each passing news item on the CNN crawl, the space for a left-wing, Springsteen-loving punk-rocker started making sense. Weeks before the Iraq invasion, Hearts' "The Ballad of the Sin Eater"-about a globalist Huck Finn trotting from Belfast to Ibiza to Rwanda and reaping a bounty of anti-American disdain-galvanized fans united by their powerlessness.Leo sang with fist-pumping abandon, "You didn't think they could hate you, now did you?" Each verse was a bead on a liberal-guilt Rosary. The Clash greeted the dawn of the Thatcher era with "London Calling"; the Minutemen christened Reagan's second term with "This Ain't No Picnic." Here was Ted Leo's song of the hour.

"Bad times mean good music," says Alex Coletti, MTV2 production executive and Leo fan. "Good times give you boy bands. We don't go looking for something with meaning, but when something like Ted comes along, you realize, 'Hey, this has been missing.'" Ted Leo doesn't imagine he'll change history-unlike Woody Guthrie's avenging guitar, his machine will not likely incapacitate any fascists. "I'm not the kind of person who likes getting in political arguments," he says. "That last album was a lot of questioning. I'm not sure there are any answers on the new one, but I did realize-and I don't want to sound dire-that I'm not interested in wasting any critical time."

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