John Pierson leads four lives. In one he's Jughead, guitarist and founding member of the band Screeching Weasel. In another he's Ian Pierce, a witty, Pirandellian writer with a predilection for plays about plays about plays. During the day he's plain John, working in a small north-side office of the independent record label he helped to start. And every weekend he's a Neo-Futurist, performing in the long-running late-night hit Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.
In his early 30s, Pierson's achieved things his father had only dreamed of. George Pierson had also felt the lure of show business, and in the late 50s, before he met and married Pierson's mother--his second wife--he'd been an emcee in nightclubs in and around Montreal.
"He was a very funny man," Pierson recalls. But he gave up his nightclub act when he moved to Chicago and started a family. By the time John was born, his father was an aluminum-siding salesman who spent his free time in bars, swapping stories and being the center of attention. "I remember being a little kid, sitting next to him at the bar, just watching him work the crowd," Pierson says.
Pierson was only seven when his father moved out and left his mother alone to raise five kids. But he always kept in touch with his father--through his adolescence and his dad's third failed marriage and plans for a fourth. "In high school I usually saw him on weekends," says Pierson, who'd sometimes baby-sit the children of his dad's girlfriend. The years of drinking eventually caught up with his father--he got sick, his girlfriend left, and Pierson's mom let him move back into a spare bedroom.
"I would sit with him and suddenly you could see his eyes would go," says Pierson. "He would suddenly lose the ability to do really simple things. I would come home and he'd be trying to put the lid on the garbage can and he'd be like a little kid. He'd be putting it on sideways. Or he'd have his pants on over his head."
At the same time, Pierson believed he too was gravely ill. "I didn't tell anyone," he says. "I didn't go to a doctor." Since junior high he had been suffering from increasingly strong episodes in which his head would go numb. When he graduated from high school in 1986, Pierson was "utterly lost, with no idea what to do next. I didn't go to college because I thought I was dying of a brain tumor."
He stayed home in Mount Prospect, taking care of his dad and working as an usher in a movie thater at the nearby Randhurst mall. Yet he felt increasingly out of place in the suburbs. "Most of the kids I know hang out at the mall and drive around. I hated the mall and I didn't drive."
Finally he got up the courage to see a doctor and found he didn't have a tumor. He had shingles--chronic, annoying, but not fatal.
Pierson's father died of liver failure. "Atrophy, they called it. It wasn't until long after he'd died that I figured out it had to do with alcoholism."
One day at work, Pierson struck up a conversation with Ben Foster, a guy he'd known from his junior high's wrestling team. They began to talk about forming a punk band. "In the city there was an underground punk scene going on," Pierson recalls. "Naked Raygun, Articles of Faith. They were more about the working man." But there was almost nothing going on in the burbs.
Pierson and Foster, who had adopted the name Ben Weasel, put together the core of what later became Screeching Weasel and began performing Tuesday nights at Durty Nellie's, a bar in Palatine. "All of a sudden we were attracting lots of punk kids from the western suburbs--200, 300 a night."
Pierson and Foster didn't think this was competing with the punk scene in Chicago, but others saw it that way. "We were getting real threats--angry threats and criticism that we didn't hang out on Belmont. So we weren't real punkers. People would say to us at shows, 'We never see you at the "Punkin' Donuts," you're not punk.'" Undeterred, the band released a steady stream of LPs, EPs, CDs, and singles, signing with Berkeley-based Lookout records in 1991. In the mid-90s, the members of Screeching Weasel started their own label, Panic Button.
While Screeching Weasel was taking off, Pierson enrolled at Columbia College, where he studied with improv guru Martin de Maat and theater department chair Sheldon Patinkin. That's where Pierson began writing plays under the name Ian Pierce. He'd been fascinated with the pseudonym since grade school, when he'd imagine that Ian Pierce was some glamorous ancestor, a suave, jazz-age swell.
At de Maat's suggestion, Pierson assembled Ian Pierce's poetry into a revue, and Patinkin invited him to come back after he graduated to do another show. Since then, Pierson has written and produced four shows as Pierce. The most recent--Simulticity, a metatheatrical romp in which a playwright finds himself unable to distinguish between his fictive life and reality--was produced at the Neo-Futurarium in August 1998.
In his newest play, The Unfinished Works of Sir Linear Scribble, which opens this Monday at the Neo-Futurarium, Ian Pierce himself adopts a pseudonym, Sir Linear Scribble, a ne'er-do-well with an unfortunate habit of never finishing anything he starts. In creating yet one more persona, Pierson may be parodying his own fear of failure.
"I felt like Ian Pierce was my way of removing myself from my heritage," he says. "All writers I know have father conflicts."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.