SNAPSHOT: Jay Katz & Miss Death
Jay Katz & Miss Death: Thriving On The Fringes Of Normality
As I raised my fist to knock on the door of the home of Jay Katz and Miss Death (AKA Jaimie and Aspasia Leonarder), the door swung inward and I was confronted by a tall, looming frame. Before I had a chance to turn my fist into an open palm to invite a handshake, I was already being ushered into the building for a whirlwind tour as Jaimie searched for his cigarettes. I was then promptly led back out the front door and down the steel staircase toward the street.
“Sorry, we’ll have to do the first part of the interview on the run, I’ve got to pick up the wife from Reverse Garbage, she teaches crochet classes over there.”
I followed Leonarder’s lead and clambered into an old black van parked on his quiet inner-west street. As it spluttered into gear, my lungs filled with a cloud of toxic smoke.
Then with very little prompting, as if practicing a carefully rehearsed speech, Leonarder began discussing his friendship with Dan Aykroyd and their mutual passion for the paranormal, UFology, the likelihood of government conspiracies and theories of military cover ups.
“So Chris, have you had any (paranormal) experiences? Are you open to this subject matter? There is a genuine phenomenon there.”
I was to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening with the Leonarders. In that time we would discuss everything from music and film to sex and politics, although it quickly became obvious that the recurring theme of the importance of counter-culture, community and ‘outsider’ arts remained a constant inspiration in every aspect of this their lives.
Jaimie has been collecting and archiving rare, underground and forgotten films for over forty years and he shows no signs of slowing down.
The couple, now both in their fifties, have been screening obscure 16 mm films from their private cinema (which also doubles as their living room) in Sydney’s inner-west for almost 10 years.
Jaimie was also the subject of a 2002 documentary, ‘Love and Anarchy – The Wild Wild World of Jaimie Leonarder’ and had a stint as host of SBS’s The Movie Show for a couple of years. Until recently Jaimie also hosted a radio show, The Naked City, on Sydney’s FBi radio with Aspasia and friend, ‘Coffin Ed’.
The Leonarders met during their time working in psychiatric hospitals. This was a period in their life that had an undeniable influence on his fascination with mental illness. Leonarder fronted an ‘80s experimental noise band, the Mu-Mesons, in which most of the members (anywhere from 5 to 20) suffered from severe mental disorders. In the 2002 documentary about Leonarder’s life, the band was aptly described as a circus of the psychotic, of which he was the ring master.
Jaimie informs me the band was set up as a creative outlet for “those with nowhere else to go, people without all their mental faculties.”
Having seen some pretty chaotic footage of a live performance, I asked how long the band stayed together, considering the volatile nature of some of its members.
“Mike Patton got in touch with us around the turn of the millennium to do shows with ‘Fantomas’ and ‘Tomahawk’ and those sorts of things. So we did those and then a couple of members committed suicide. The band has gone on a hiatus since then.”
Despite taking a moment to reflect on this sad reality, Jaimie quickly perks up and with a glint in his eye recalls the early days with the Mu-Mesons, “It was the mid 80s and everyone was trying to be a freak. So I thought, lets get them out, give them instruments and show everyone who the real freaks are! If the band members got stuff thrown at them, they could just throw it right back. It really lifted their self-esteem in a big way”.
Finding a partner that was able to put up with his unconventional lifestyle was never going to be easy for Jaimie, “At that time in my life, I had a lot of mentally ill people sleeping at the foot of my bed that could set fire to the house at 3 in the morning. How am I going to find a partner that can cope with that? Well the only person that I ever met was Aspa, who had no problem with them.”
Right on queue, Aspasia looks up from her knitting, “We have a similar craziness. Although if we had met in our 20s we wouldn’t have got together…”
With a cheeky grin she peers towards her husband, “…because you were too hip for me!”
With a heavy smoker’s throaty chuckle, Leonarder remarks, “We came to a realisation eventually. What’s the point of being in a relationship if you can’t be who you are, if someone is trying to make you into something else?”
Jaimie’s life as a musician, archivist, social worker, film critic, radio announcer, DJ and general ‘outsider’ has been carefully tailored so that the unconventional becomes organic and the alternative becomes natural and usual.
The importance Jaimie places on community building is obvious when he mentions that their main source of income is from the ten dollar fee charged for entry to his almost nightly film screenings.
In fact, Aspasia still insists on serving homemade soup and fresh bread to all who attend the screenings, a treat I was to experience later in the evening.
I asked Jaimie if he ever felt like there was just too much competition to stay afloat.
“We don’t see this as a battle, we see every day of our lives as a privilege, to be able to live off what you’re passionate about. If all of us did that, threw away the word ‘hobby’ and all of that crap, if we all just did what we’re passionate about we could all thrive. That’s my belief.”
I found myself feeling almost jealous of Jaimie’s optimism and contentment.
Despite having made profound impacts on the lives of countless people in his years as a psychiatric nurse and as a social worker for Mission Beat, Jaimie derives just as much pleasure out of emotional connections with people.
“For us the most exciting thing is that 15 year old kid that comes through the door, desperate and insatiable, who knows just as much film as we do. They may have got on the train from Parramatta and have no money. That’s the thing that makes us go ‘right, this has meaning.’ That was me at 15, looking for something to connect with.”
When I suggested to Jaimie that he and Aspasia remind me of another mysterious, charismatic couple with a similarly alternative take on the world, the late Lux Interior and Poison Ivy of ‘The Cramps’, he admits it’s not the first time the comparison has been made. Yet he modestly insists that “We’re just a couple of individuals trying to pay our rent.”
With that, Aspasia excuses herself to begin preparing a large pot of home-made tomato and basil soup for the evening’s film screening, an opportunity to see Leonarder in front of a crowd that seemed too good to pass up.
That night I attended a screening of the early ‘90s paranormal-themed TV show ‘Sightings’. Not only an interesting look at series only sporadically broadcast in Australia, but a chance to observe another side of Jaimie – the performer (and paranormal evangelist). After the screening concluded, the 15 or so attendees were given a passionate speech by Leonarder about his firm belief in paranormal activity and his own investigations conducted in activity hot-spots around Australia.
As I watched Leonarder command the attention of the small crowd wrapped in blankets (supplied by Aspasia), my mind was cast back to a moment earlier that afternoon sitting opposite the man;
Amidst mismatched vintage furniture and piles of records, books and film reels, Leonarder blended into his surroundings behind a smoky haze.
Dressed in all black with slicked-back hair, black-rimmed glasses perched on the end of his nose, Marlboro red burning away in one hand, stroking his pet cat with the other, he pauses as if to ponder the articulation of an important thought. After what seems like minutes, he eventually breaks the silence;
“We collect things but we’re not collectors. Nothings good if it’s gathering dust. Nothing’s really precious to us. It needs to be seen. Nothing’s personal. That’s what I love about film, once you project it, it’s in the air, it’s everybody’s. It’s an intangible quality that’s everybody’s whilst they’re watching… Oh and also it’s really nice to cook your dinner, have your cup of tea, and then walk into the front room of your house and perform. I just love that idea. It reminds me of when I was ten performing on the back veranda. Nothing’s changed.”
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